On this day in 1780, Americans suffer a demoralizing defeat at the Battle of Camden. One brave officer died a heroic death! Another fled in disgrace and never held command again.
General George Washington had given Major General Johann de Kalb command of several regiments in the South in April 1780. By all accounts, de Kalb was a strong leader, but he still had a tough time of it. Loyalist sympathy in the area was strong following the defeats at Savannah and Charleston, and it was hard to recruit new members. Making matters worse, the army was plagued by ticks and chiggers and was generally not in the healthiest state.
In July, the Continental Congress appointed the hero of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, to assume command. Washington preferred Nathaniel Greene for this role.
Gates apparently had a bit of a blind spot by this point. He seemed to think that he was a bit more invincible than he really was. He unfortunately proceeded to make a series of foolish decisions.
He rejected de Kalb’s planned route to its next destination, Camden. De Kalb wanted to take a circuitous route that would take him through pro-Patriot country. There, the army would have easier access to food and it could get healthier. Gates instead opted for a straight route to Camden, through sparse and pro-British areas. There was little food to be found. Maybe worse, Gates seemed oblivious to the fact that his army was not really at full fighting strength.
When he ran into British General Charles Cornwallis’s army somewhat unexpectedly outside Camden, Gates seemed unable to deal with the situation: Should he fight or retreat? He hurriedly held a battle council before ordering officers to their posts.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the battle did not go well. Americans, including Gates, began to flee. Guess who remained? De Kalb was still fighting, leading his men into the battle, facing one bayonet charge after the other. Finally, de Kalb went down. He’d been hit 11 times, including one strike to the head. He later died, a hero.
In the meantime, Gates fled. He did not stop until he reached Charlotte, 60 miles away. He had, of course, made one last mistake. He hadn’t given his men a rendezvous point—or even led them in some sort of orderly retreat! The southern army was unable to regroup and was completely destroyed after these events. Gates never held a command again.
Ironically, it was later left to Nathanael Greene, Washington’s first choice, to rebuild the army in the South.
Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (1851) (volume II)
Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (1981)
Letter from Earl Cornwallis to Lord George Germain (August 21, 1780)
Scott Aiken, The Swamp Fox: Lessons in Leadership from the Partisan Campaigns of Francis Marion (2012)