Camden, South Carolina may not be a place that’s familiar to you, and that’s ok, because I’ve never been there, either. But, like nearly every other town in existance, the World Wide Web provides us with an instant connection. Displaying typical southern charm and called home by roughly 7,000 people, Camden is one of South Carolina’s oldest cities and appears to have a rich history.
Of course, not all the history is so great, at least for Americans. Take this little nugget as an example…
In Revolutionary history, Camden (well, actually a battlefield just to the north of the city) is home to the Battle of Camden. Fought on August 16, 1780, it was the worst Continental Army defeat in the entire war. Think on that for just a minute…
In a series of conflicts spanning 7 or 8 years (depending on where you put the starting and ending points of the Revolution), the Continental Army suffered numerous defeats…we’ve talked about several. Fort Washington and New York in the north, Richmond and Savannah in the south. And there were smaller places in between. Savannah fell with barely a shot fired.
So what makes Camden so embarrassingly special? That’s a multi-part answer. First, General Horatio Gates’ Continental forces significantly outnumbered (by nearly two-to-one) their Redcoat counterparts (led by the famous Cornwallis) in both men and cannon. In addition, Gates was a former British officer, well-versed in British tactics and battlefield strategy.
But advantages like this mean little when the General made mistakes that nullified them. Though he knew British formations well, he lined up some of his most inexperienced men opposite the most experienced British troops. He was fighting in an area that was heavily loyal to the British, which meant getting fresh food and supplies from locals was, in the best case, problematic. And that lack of good food and water led to sickness and disease, which compromised the power of his fighting force. These were not the kinds of mistakes a leader of Gates’ caliber should be making…or were they?
Maybe Gates wasn’t nearly the General he thought he was. Sure, there was the miracle of Saratoga a couple of years back, but unlike commanders who learn by placing their experience within a proper context, Gates learned that American troops were simply better than the British. This was just clearly wrong, as copious amounts of battlefield testimony would have verified.
He may have been the big loser at Yorktown, but Charles Cornwallis was a brilliant tactician, and Gates was overmatched. And that became apparent after the first volley at Camden. The right flank simply disintegrated and men turned and fled the field. The one militia to hold its ground (800 men from North Carolina) offered up stiff resistance, but with most other men heading for cover, they were badly outnumbered.
In one hour, the Continental Army (again, with a two-to-one advantage in men) had been trounced. Killed and wounded totaled 900, with another 1,000 captured…half the original force…in one hour. In addition, the Continental Army lost all 7 cannon and most of their supplies. The British?…less than 70 killed and less than 250 wounded.
The disaster that was the Battle of Camden was the end of the line for General Horatio Gates. He was stripped of his command, and just narrowly avoided a court-martial.