August 16, 1780

The British capture of Charleston on May 12, 1780 was a disaster to the American cause.  The Virginia Continental Line was captured, and South Carolina was virtually defensely against British occupation.  To alleviate the situation, Congress appointed the 'Hero of Saratoga', Horatio Gates, as commander in the South.  On July 25th, Gates took over command from 'Baron' de Kalb at Coxe's Mill, NC.  The army - starving in the middle of summer - was made up of around 1,200 Maryland and Delaware Continentals, some artillery, and 120 men of Armand's Legion.  Expecting militia reinforcements, Gates called his force the Grand Army.

Cornwallis, commanding British forces in the South, had around 8,000 men to occupy South Carolina, but they were scattered around the whole colony.  When Gates received a report that only 700 British occupied Camden, he resolved to attack the place and capture the supplies stored there.  A longer route through Charlotte was suggested that would provide more food and supplies, but Gates rejected that option.  Instead, he would take the direct route through pine forests and swamps, but he would be joined by militia that brought his force up to 4,100 men.  The British commander in Camden, Lord Rawdon, recieved reports that a rebel army of 7,000 men was advancing on him.  Since militia had joined him, Gates himself believed that he commanded 7,000 men until Otho Holland Williams showed him the true figure - only 3,052 men.  Rawdon summoned Cornwallis for help, and when Cornwallis arrived on August 13th, he had a combined force of 2,100 men with which he planned to attack an enemy he thought outnumbered his own by over three to one.   The alternative, in his mind, was to abandon the interior of South Carolina and withdraw to Charleston.

On the night of August 15th, at 10PM, Gates marched his army south toward Saunder's Creek, several miles north of Camden, with the intention of attacking Camden the next morning.  Gates had his starving men feed molasses and poorly cooked meat, bread, and corn meal, resulting in severe digestion problems that would keep a number of men out of the coming fight.  It was an omen of what was to come.

Cornwallis marched north out of Camden at the same time, 10PM, and the armies collided at 2:30AM in the morning just north of Saunder's Creek.  Gates called a council of war.  It seemed that retreat was the best option, but no one would dare suggest it.  There would be a fight in the morning.   

Cornwallis's deployment was somewhat constricted with Saunder's Creek behind him.  Gates was on relatively high ground and had his flanks covered by swamps.  His artillery was placed in the center near the road.  He made a serious error however, in his deployments.  One of his two reliable Maryland/Delaware brigades, the 2nd, was placed on the front line, but his other brigade of regulars was placed in reserve, not on the front line.  The left wing of the American army was made up almost entirely of Virginia and North Carolina militia.

This is the view from the British side of Saunder's Creek, or Gum Swamp.  After crossing the creek, the British deployed and advanced uphill.  Their relatively less reliable units, mainlt Tories but still good troops, under Lord Rawdon, were deployed on the left.  They would face the Maryland/Delaware brigade.  The British right wing under Webster were the best men available, the 23rd and 33rd Regiments, the Light Infantry, with a battalion of the 71st Highlanders in reserve.  These troops were advancing in a line of battalion columns toward the Virginia and North Carolina militia.  When they got to within 200 yards of the enemy line, the American artillery opened fire, and the open woods became blanketed with smoke..

The British line was advancing on both sides of the road, from the curve in the road on the left of the panorama toward the American line along the high ground on the right of the panorama where the road disappears.  Seeing that the columns on the near side of the road were not yet deployed, Otho Holland William suggested that Stevens' Virginia militia advance and attack the columns before they deployed.  Gates agreed, and the militia moved forward.  The British, however, weren't about to be caught by surprise and deployed into line in time to meet the attack.  The British fired, cheered, and charged, putting the militia to flight, most of whom ran off without firing a shot.  The panic spread to the North Carolina militia, and soon the entire left wing of the American army was streaming off the field and through the 1st Maryland Brigade.  Its commander, Smallwood, got caught up in the rout, and brigade command devolved to Williams.

This is the 180 degree view above is looking east from the rear of the American line, which was perpindicular to the road near the monuments you can see on the right.  The British were advancing along the axis of the road, from right to left.  The first line Maryland and Delaware troops were holding in the woods on the right side of the panorama.  The militia on the far side of the road, however, had been routed, and they passed through the reserve brigade and briefly put it into disorder somewhere in the center or left of the panorama.  The Marylanders reformed, however, and moved to counterattack.  Still, a gap of 300 yards remained between them and the men on the front line.  The reserve brigade made two stands but was forced from the field.  The remaining men in the front line were now being attacked in flank.  de Kalb was in the thick of it, was wounded several times and lead a counterattack.  In the end, though, he was mortally wounded.  A monument now stands at the site.  The British Legion cavalry attacked the flank of the American regular, and they were joined by a portion under Tarleton that returned from their pursuit of the fleeing enemy.  That ended the organized resistance for the day.  

Gates had set up his headquarters in the area near the curve in the road on the left of the panorama.  His battle line had been near the curve on the far right.  Gates's only plan for the battle seems to have been simply to stay on the defensive.  Early on Gates had been caught up in the rout.  He tried to rally his men but ended up accomplishing little.  He reached Charlotte, 60 miles away, in the same day, and in three and a half days he was 200 miles away in Salisbury, NC.  In the battle, and the pursuit afterward, Gates's army lost severely, with some sources stating losses of 800 to 900 killed and 1,000 captured.  Only seven hundred men assembled at Hillsboro afterwards.  Effectively, the army was shattered.  When Cornwallis invaded North Carolina in the fall, opposition was slight.  The only serious obstacle were some backwoods settlers who would clash with the western thrust at Kings Mountain.

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