On the morning of August 15, 1780, Thomas Sumter’s brigade of militia was joined by the reinforcement sent to him by Major-General Horatio Gates, bringing his total to around 700 men , the largest force he had commanded to date. Sumter then advanced on the Wateree river crossings south and west of Camden. As the Americans approached, they found that the British had evacuated all of their posts except for a redoubt held by Colonel James Cary of the South Carolina Loyalist militia. These men held their ground to keep open the flow of men and supplies into Camden. The Americans quickly attacked and after a brief fight in which seven Loyalists were killed, the Americans "took about thirty prisoners, among which was colonel Cary, their commander, together with thirty odd wagons loaded with corn, rum, etc., also a number of horses" .
The British on the other side of the river began to open fire on his men, and Sumter noted with apprehension that "the ground upon this side [is] very bad," and that "the boats are all upon the opposite side of the river" . The Americans withdrew out of gunfire range, leaving a small guard to keep an eye on the British. Among these men was George Weir, a soldier in Edward Lacey’s regiment. He recalled in later years being "left alone" "as a sentinel near the ferry" "and nearly to have been captured by the enemy" .
Sumter also had men watching the southern and western approaches to the Wateree. Some of his men saw a party of around 60 British regulars from the 33rd and 71st regiments approaching the Wateree. These regulars had been recalled from the western post at Ninety-Six to aid in the defense of Camden. Oblivious to danger, they marched with their weapons loaded up in a wagon . The Americans "secreted themselves until the British came up, when suddenly rushing upon them [they] took the whole party… without firing a gun" .
Meanwhile, Sumter was growing concerned about his safety. Perhaps hoping to spur Gates into action, he wrote to him saying that the British had only 1,200 regulars in Camden, and fewer than 1,000 militia, the latter of whom "are generally sickly and much dispirited." He also claimed that 500 men were en route from Charleston and were expected to arrive on the 17th. He then withdrew his force 10 miles up the river to a more easily defended position .
Gates received Sumter’s letter on the 15th and determined to apply further pressure to the British force in Camden. He would make a nighttime march to a strong position behind Saunders Creek, just 5 miles from Camden. From this position he could further restrict the flow of supplies into Camden and deter the British from attacking Sumter. The position was also strong enough that he could likely repel there any attack by British regulars. Gates’ army marched at 10pm .
Meanwhile, Charles Cornwallis had taken control of the British forces in Camden, after arriving there from Charleston the day before (August 14th). Cornwallis could see that Camden was not a strong position and that the Americans’ were likely to ultimately force them from this post. Cornwallis therefore determined to take the fight directly to Gates, reasoning that a victory would wipe out the Americans’ gains, while a defeat would be no worse than avoiding a fight altogether (in either case he would be forced to retreat). In order to maximize the probability of victory, he determined to try and catch the Americans by surprise. During the night of August 15-16, his army marched out of Camden hoping to surprise the Americans at dawn .
The two American armies marched along the same road, each expecting to surprise the other. Instead, both armies were surprised when their vanguards collided in the night, a little more than a mile north of Saunders Creek. After a confused flurry of fighting, the armies separated and in the morning (August 16), properly deployed for battle. Cornwallis anchored the left end of his line with the battered veterans of Hanging Rock (the British Legion Infantry, Bryan’s Volunteers, and the Royal North Carolina Regiment). He attacked primarily with several units of British regulars placed on his right. Gates adopted a similar strategy: he placed his weakest troops (North Carolina and Virginia militia) on his left and his strongest troops (Maryland and Delaware Continentals) on his right. The British regulars quickly sent the American militia into flight. The Continentals then found themselves attacked in front, flank, and rear. By the end of the day, the American army was destroyed with the loss of hundreds of men killed or captured. The American baggage train was also captured, and most of the broken militia headed home. This battle, known as Camden, was one of the greatest British victories of the war .
Note that in some places the capitalization, spelling, and punctuation of the source material has been altered to bring it into line with modern standards.
1. Letter from Josiah Martin to George Germain, August 18-20, 1780. Both higher and lower totals can be found in later sources.
2. Letter from Thomas Sumter to Horatio Gates, August 15, 1780. [The date was incorrectly transcribed as the 10th in this edition].
3. Sumter to Gates, ibid.
4. The pension application of George Weir, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris.
5. Journal of Johann Christian Senf [extract]. The pension application of Hicks Chappell, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris. The pension application of Nathan Jaggars, transcribed by Will Graves. The pension application of Samuel Dunlap, transcribed by Will Graves. The pension application of Edward Doyle, transcribed by Will Graves. The pension application of Samuel Eakin , transcribed by Will Graves.
The day before a "corps of light infantry" passed safely the same way into Camden. See Martin to Germain, ibid.
6. The pension application of Hicks Chappell, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris. In Hicks' account the convoy was captured by just him and two other men. Other veterans remembered this event differently.
7. Sumter to Gates, ibid. This is not to say that Sumter didn’t believe these things. Without a doubt he and his men questioned both the prisoners they took and civilians living in the area and this is likely the best intelligence he possessed. Rather, Sumter’s letter seems designed as an implicit reminder that the British might cross the river and attack him unless Gates provided a credible threat from the north.
The "500 men" was possibly misinformation given out by British officers to convince the locals and their own Loyalist militia that the Americans’ fortunes would soon be reversed. The only approaching reinforcement from that direction mentioned by Cornwallis was a mounted detachment of the 63rd Foot. See letter from Charles Cornwallis to George Germain, August 21, 1780.
8. General Gates' orders for August 15, 1780. Journal of Johann Christian Senf [extract]. The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie [extract]. Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, July 27, 1822.
9. Martin to Germain, ibid. Charles Cornwallis to George Germain, August 21, 1780.
10. Horatio Gates to President of Congress, August 30, 1780. Otho Holland Williams. A Narrative of the Campaign of 1780. Journal of Johann Christian Senf [extract]. Martin to Germain, ibid. Cornwallis to Germain, ibid. Letter from Francis Rawdon to Colonel McMahon, January 19, 1801.