Battle of Camden, 16 August 1780

British victory during the American War of Independence. In the aftermath of the capture of Charleston (South Carolina) by the British on 12th May, Major-General Horatio Gates was appointed by Congress as commander of the Southern Department. On 25 July he joined his troops. The army he now commanded was a mix - some had escaped capture when Charleston fell, while others were from the force sent to break the siege. Of his force of 3,100 men, 1,400 were veterans from the Continental Army, while the remainder were made up of Virginia and North Carolina militias.

Rather than spend time building this force into an effective army, Gates decided to march directly to Camden, across a relatively barren area, populated largely by loyalists. The march began on 27 July, only two days after he joined the army. His troops were soon hungry and many of the militia deserted on the march.

Engraving of General Charles Cornwallis, 1738-1805
Engraving of
Charles Cornwallis,

Meanwhile, Cornwallis had decided to reinforce the position at Camden, arriving there on 13 August. Despite this reinforcement, Cornwallis was still outnumbered, with 817 British regulars supported by 1,226 loyalists giving him a total of 2,043 against Gates' 3,100. Learning about the American advance, Cornwallis decided to launch his own attack, on after dark on the 15th of August led his troops towards the American force. The two forces met in the dark and prepared for battle.

Gates now made a serious mistake. His Continental Regulars, commanded by Johann De Kalb, were all placed on the right wing, with the militia unsupported on the left against the British regulars. This was soon to be his undoing. While the Continentals more than held their own, even threatening to defeat the British left wing, the militia did not. Thinking that the British facing them were changing formation, the Virginia militia were ordered to attack. However, the British were advancing, not deploying, and exposed to British fire the Virginia militia fired a ragged volley before fleeing. Seeing this, the North Carolina militia fled without even firing.

The commander of the British right wing, Colonel James Webster, now managed an impressive manoeuvre, turning his men left to attack the exposed American regulars from their flank rather than letting them pursue the already defeated militia. De Kalb's position was now hopeless, and by noon the battle was over. De Kalb was mortally wounded, and the army was in flight, led by Gates, who fled 70 miles before resting.

The defeat was made more total as the remnants of the American force were forced to retreat through hostile territory. The Americans lost 800 dead and wounded, while Cornwallis suffered 300 casualties. He also took 1,000 prisoners and captured the American supplies. Only half of the 1,400 Continentals escaped the defeat. In the aftermath, South Carolina was temporarily secured for the British, and North Carolina left vulnerable.

Camden 1780 - The annihilation of Gates' Grand Army, David Smith. An account of the last successful British campaign of the American of Independence, which saw them capture Charleston and then destroy Gates' Grand Army at the battle of Camden, but which failed to have any long term success, as the Americans were soon able to regain control of everywhere outside the reach of a large British garrison, marking the failure of the 'Southern Strategy', and the beginning of the end for the British (Read Full Review)
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War for America Black, Jeremy, War For America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783. Provides a clear narrative of the war, taken year by year, with good chapters on some of the later years that are often skipped over. Also contains a good selection of quotes from participents in the conflict.
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The Glorious Cause Middlekauff, Robert, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789. A very well researched book that is especially strong on the events that led up to the Revolution, which take up the first third of the book. Unlike many similar books it also covers the years immediately after the war and up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
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See Also
Books on the American War of Independence
Subject Index: American War of Independence

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (21 May 2003), Camden, battle of, 16 August 1780,

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