Not long after the American surrender of Charleston, SC in May 1780, British infantry and cavalry detachments began moving inland, deploying across South Carolina. Hoping to create a defensive perimeter, they occupied various towns such as Camden and Ninety-Six. After Charleston fell, Patriot hopes in South Carolina rested almost solely on a few partisan fighters.
Prior to the surrender, however, General George Washington yet had hopes of lifting the British siege and raising the spirits of the southern people. From his post in the North, he dispatched a force of Maryland and Delaware Continental brigades to South Carolina. Under the overall command of Major General Johann von Robais, Baron de Kalb, the regiments making up these brigades contained some of the toughest combat troops to ever see action in the Continental Army. And their commander, the German-born, 59-year-old de Kalb, was himself a seasoned veteran of many European battlefields.
By mid-July, and after a difficult march through Virginia, de Kalb’s regulars reached Buffalo Ford in North Carolina where they halted to await orders and much needed supplies. Joining them in camp a few days later was the newly appointed commander of the Southern American Army, Major General Horatio Gates. Sent by Congress, the “Hero of Saratoga” brought news that a large force of Virginia militia was on its way to join them.
Major General Horatio Gates
At Buffalo Ford, Gates took stock of what he would term his “Grand Army”. The 1st Maryland Brigade was commanded by General William Smallwood. The 2nd Maryland, which included Colonel David Vaughn’s venerable Delaware Regiment, was under the command of General Mordecai Gist. There were three companies of Continental Artillery, with Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie’s Legion of approximately 120 infantry and cavalry troops on its way. Expecting militia troops from Virginia and North Carolina, Gates made the decision to focus his energies on Camden. To the dismay of his officers, he ordered his tired and hungry troops to prepare to march.
On August 13, 1780, by what some officers considered to have been an unnecessarily circuitous route, the Patriot army, which now included around 100 Virginia State troops under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Porterfield and the North Carolina militia commanded by General Richard Caswell, straggled into Rugeley’s Mills. Located around thirteen miles from Camden, the site was owned by loyalist, Colonel Henry Rugeley, and consisted of his home, barn, and mills. The next day, August 14, saw the arrival of the long-awaited Virginia militia, 700 strong, under General Edward Stevens.
At about this time, Horatio Gates made the dubious decision to detach around 300 regulars from the 5th Maryland Regiment, along with two field pieces, to join the partisan forces of General Thomas Sumter. Known as the Gamecock, Sumter was operating on the west side of the Wateree River and hoped to capture a British supply train heading to Camden from the post at Ninety-Six.
Almost immediately upon his arrival, General Gates made the determination that Rugeley’s Mills was not a secure and defensible position and sought information regarding sites closer to the British garrison which was now consolidated within the defenses at Camden. On August 15, he sent his capable engineering officer, the European Colonel John Christian Senf, along with Lieutenant Colonel Charles Porterfield, south along the Great Wagon Road towards Camden to reconnoiter. Returning from the scout, Senf recommended a defensible spot about halfway between Rugeley’s Mills and the town. In his later report to Congress regarding the affair, Gates indicated that, upon receiving the engineer’s report, he resolved to “…take post in an Advantageous Situation, with a deep creek in front, about seven miles from Camden.”
It was believed by some at the time that Gates’ intention, in moving the army closer to the British, was to use what he believed to be his numerical superiority to attack and overwhelm a smaller enemy force. In a communication to his acting deputy adjutant general, the Marylander, Colonel Otho Holland Williams, General Gates relayed to him “a rough estimate of the forces under his command, making them upwards of 7,000.” British strength was, at the time, estimated to be around 2,500, with several hundred ill and unfit for duty. Based on these troop figures, or what he believed them to be, an argument could reasonably be made that, at least initially, Gates was indeed contemplating a surprise attack on the British on the night of August 15, 1780. According to his Aide-de-Camp, Major Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, a staunch supporter of the General, it was actually not Gates’ desire with this move to attack the enemy, however, “but for the purpose of occupying a strong position so near him as to confine his operations, to cut off his supplies of provisions, and to harass him.” Such a move, therefore, to confine and harass the British is more logical, as it would be reminiscent of the strategy that had worked so well for Gates against British General John Burgoyne, at Bemis Heights, during the fighting at Saratoga in 1777.
On the afternoon of the 15th, Gates called “all the general officers in the army, to a council, to be held in Rugeley’s Barn.” Gates presented his plan to march south, with no objections voiced by the officers in attendance. According to the engineer, Colonel. Senf, “It was unanimously agreed upon to march that night the army to that creek, by which means they could get a more secure encampment, come nearer Genl Sumter, occupy the road on the east side of Wateree River, and would be able to get nearer intelligence of the enemy.” Otho Holland Williams would later write that, while there were no dissenting votes by the officers present, there were a few who harbored misgivings on the possible success of an American army comprised of so many green, untested militiamen. Still, the orders were issued; the army would “march at 10 PM at Night.”
Upon learning of General Gates’ questionable estimate of his army’s troop strength, Colonel Williams had gone about the business of ascertaining a more reliable return from the field officers. In a lengthy description by Williams, he “busied himself in collecting these returns and forming an abstract for the general’s better information. This abstract was presented to the general just as the council broke up…He (Gates) cast his eyes upon the numbers of rank and file present fit for duty, which was exactly three thousand and fifty-two.” When learning that he commanded an army, not of 7,000 troops but, rather, an army of just over 3,000, placing them more on even terms with the British, the General seemed not to be deterred. He stated to Williams that “these are enough for our purposes.” But what exactly were those “purposes”?
Setting up a defensive position on the opposite bank above “a deep creek” made good sense. Based on Senf’s recommendation then, it was Gates’ apparent intension to march his army south along the Great Wagon Road to the ford at Sanders Creek where he would prepare a defensive line in hopes of luring the British into an attack. The location was well chosen as it was the only fordable spot along the creek for several miles.
The American Army began to prepare for the night’s march. According to General Gates, he ordered all heavy and excess baggage north, along with all remaining camp followers, to the safety of the Waxhaws. Ammunition wagons and other necessary baggage would make the march to Camden. The army, tired, hungry, and constantly without adequate supplies, needed to be fed. Before the march, Gates made another dubious decision: he would feed his hungry and depleted troops a full meal out of the hospital stores. This would include a gill (4 ounces) of molasses in place of rum, of which the Army had none. Otho Holland Williams would write: “As there were no spirits yet arrived in camp; and as, until lately, it was unusual for troops to make a forced march, or prepare to meet an enemy without some extraordinary allowance, it was unluckily conceived that molasses, would, for once, be an acceptable substitute.” The effect on the men’s digestive systems was almost immediate. According to Williams: “The troops of General Gates’ army, had frequently felt the bad consequences of eating bad provisions; but, at this time, a hasty meal of quick baked bread and fresh beef, with a desert of molasses, mixed with mush, or dumplings, operated so cathartically, as to disorder very many of the men, who were breaking the ranks all night, and were certainly much debilitated before the action commenced in the morning.” Sergeant William Seymour of the Delaware Regiment would likewise write: “You must observe that instead of rum we had a gill of molasses per man served out to us, which instead of enlivening our spirits, served to purge us as well as if we had taken jallap.”
Thus, Horatio Gates, after a series of questionable decisions, put his weak, exhausted, and ill army on the road to Camden around 10 PM on August 15, 1780. The stage, as it would turn out, was set for disaster; 242 years ago today.
Mark Wilcox is the co-author (along with Rob Orrison) of a forthcoming book on the Battle of Camden titled “All That Can Be Expected” The Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780; published by Savas Beatie Publishing. The book is due out summer 2023.