19 July 2008

The worst defeat

Ok, this is the site of the battle of Camden, just north of the town. Following the British capture of Camden in January of 1780, the Americans realized it was a key outpost for control of the backcountry. Accordingly, they sent a large body of troops south from New York under general Horatio Gates, the hero of the battle of Saratoga. On August 16, the two armies met just after dawn. Gates fielded around 3,700 troops, over half of which were militia, mostly from North Carolina. Cornwallis had around 2,100 troops to oppose Gates. Unfortunately for the Americans, Gates either didn't know or didn't understand a key concept of European warfare: most European armies placed their strongest units on their right flank. Cornwallis did this, placing the 23rd royal Welch Fusiliers and the 33rd Regiment of Foot on his right flank. Facing them on the American left, Gates had placed his least reliable troops, the North Carolina militia under Col Richard Caswell. The outcome was predictable. When the British attacked, they fired a volley, then charged with bayonets. The militia, with no bayonets and no battle experience, quickly turned and fled, most without even firing a shot. Seeing his left flank collapse, Gates rallied the right flank, a regiment of Maryland and Delaware Continentals commanded by Baron Johan de Kalb. For a time, group of about 800 men held the British at bay, but Cornwallis ordered his cavalry under the feared Banastre Tarleton to charge the American rear. Now under attack from all sides, the remaining Americans finally broke and fled. Gates himself fled so fast he rode 170 miles in three days. Following this great humiliation, he was replaced as commander in the south by Washington's most trusted general, Nathaniel Greene. The Americans lost nearly 2,000 men, 1,000 of those being taken prisoner. Some historians have stated that considering all the circumstances, it was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Army. It also paved the way for Cornwallis to conduct his invasion of North Carolina, leading to the British defeats at Kings Mountain and Cowpens.
The battlefield today has long been neglected, but was recently given to the National park Service, who now maintains it, and plans to eventually make it historic site.
The spot where Baron De Kalb fell from his horse and was wounded. He died three days later as a prisoner in Camden.
At this location, in the northern end of modern Camden, but nearly two miles north of Camden during the British occupation, was the battle of Hobkirk's Hill, or the Second Battle of Camden. Following the disastrous campaign into North Carolina, Cornwallis took his army to Virginia, and General Nathaniel Greene turned to taking South Carolina back from the British. One of the largest obstacles was the British garrison at Camden, scene of the American disaster just a year earlier. On April 20, 1781, Greene arrived with his army and spent the next few days trying to find the most advantageous position. This ended on April 25, when the British commander at Camden, Lord Francis Rawdon, was informed of Greene's positions by a deserter, and took the initiative. Rawdon's 800 men attacked the left flank of Greene's army of 1200 men, before Greene withdrew his men to reveal three top of the line artillery pieces. As the canon tore through the British ranks with grapeshot, Greene sent his cavalry to attack the British rear. Rawdon, rather than give in to what seemed an easy defeat, allowed the Americans to advance, just before ordering his reserves forward to outflank them, turning the trap back on the Americans. At one point Rawdon himself was surrounded and an American officer demanded his sword. Rawdon, seeing his own troops approaching, appeared to fumble with his sword until his troops drove the Americans away. By now, Greene's army had lost many men including several officers, and fell back. Desperate to save the new canon, Greene began pulling on one himself, Col Washington and his cavalry saw him and rescued the pieces. In spite of the overwhelming British victory, Rawdon soon had to leave Camden, having lost 270 men of his own, he could not hold the town.

Site of a nearby skirmish on July 21, 1780 where American forces under Major William Davie were transporting captured British troops and were ambushed.

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