“In the deepest distress and anxiety of mind…” Gen. Gates letter to Congress on the Battle of Camden


Gen. Horatio Gates by Charles Willson Peale

238 years ago today the United States military suffered one of its worst defeats. The Battle of Camden, fought on August 16, 1780 just a few miles north of Camden, SC was a total defeat for the American “Grand Army” under popular General Horatio Gates. The British under Lord Cornwallis inflicted nearly 1,900 casualties (out of 4,000) at a loss of only 300. One of the biggest losses was the death of  General Baron Johann de Kalb, a popular foreign general in the American army. Though a strategic defeat for Gates, it was the retreat that would lead to Gates’ demise. As the militia broke and ran, Gates was caught up in the panic and fled the field as half of his army was still fighting.

Writing several days later from Hillsborough, NC Gates submitted his account of the battle to Congress. Already, reports of cowardice were starting to spread about Gates’ conduct during the battle. Gates decision to fight and his decision to leave the field during the battle have been debated ever since that August day in 1780. Below is a portion of Gates’ letter.   

“In the deepest distress and anxiety of mind, I am obliged to acquaint your excellency with the defeat of the troops under my command. I arrived with the Maryland line, the artillery, and the North-Carolina militia, on the 13th instant at Rugeley’s, thirteen miles from Camden; and took post there, and was the next day joined by General Stevens, with seven hundred militia from Virginia…. Having communicated my plan to the general officers in the afternoon of the 15th, it was resolved to march at ten at night, to take post in a very advantageous situation, with a deep creek in front, seven miles from Camden; the heavy baggage, &c. being ordered to march immediately by the Waxhaw road. At ten the army began to march in the following order: Colonel Armand’s legion in front, supported on both flanks by Colonel Porterfield’s regiment, and the light infantry of the militia; the advanced guard of infantry, the Maryland line, with their artillery, in front of the brigades, the North-Carolina militia, the Virginia militia, the artillery, &c. and the rear guard. Having marched about five miles, the legion was charged by the enemy’s cavalry, and well supported on the flanks, as they were ordered, by Colonel Porterfield, who beat back the enemy’s horse, and was himself unfortunately wounded; but the enemy’s infantry advancing with a heavy fire, the troops in front gave way to the first Maryland brigade, and a confusion ensued, which took some time to regulate. At length the army was ranged in line of battle, in the following order: General Gist’s brigade upon the right, with his right close to a swamp, the North-Carolina militia in the center, and the Virginia militia, with the light infantry and Porterfield’s corps, on the left; the artillery divided to the brigades; and the first Maryland brigade as a corps de reserve, and to cover the can non in the road, at a proper distance in the rear. Colonel Armand’s corps were ordered to the left, to support the left flank, and oppose the enemy’s cavalry. At daylight the enemy attacked and drove in our light party in front, when I ordered the left to advance and attack the enemy; but to my astonishment, the left wing and North -Carolina militia gave way. General Caswall and myself, assisted by a number of officers, did all in our power to rally the broken troops, but to no purpose, for the enemy coming round the left flank of the Maryland division, completed the rout of the whole militia, who left the continentals to oppose the enemy’s whole force. I endeavoured, with General Caswall, to rally the militia at some distance, on an advantageous piece of ground, but the enemy’s cavalry continuing to harass their rear, they ran like a torrent, and bore all before them. Hoping yet, that a few miles in the rear they might recover from their panic, and again be brought into order, I continued my endeavour, but this likewise proved in vain. The militia having taken the woods in all directions, I concluded, with General Caswall [sic], to retire toward Charlotte.”


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Another American in Paris

IMG_0931So, vacation time rolls around again and this year my family and I had an opportunity to travel to Paris, France for a few days.  Riding into the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport, our taxi driver, by chance, took us past an old, green-corroded bronze statue, set in the middle of a little flowered square.  From my vantage, I could only see the bottom portion of the statue; what appeared to be the lower portion of a man in buckled shoes, seated in a wooden chair, atop a marble pedestal.  My wife happened to be in the right spot in the vehicle as we quickly drove by.  “Looks like Benjamin Franklin, I think.” she said, and with those words, she sent me on a journey to find that statue again and, hopefully, other sites in Paris associated with Mr. Franklin.

Unlike his colleague from New England, John Adams, who was from good, plain Puritan stock, the pulse of a city like Paris, with its decadence, opulence and social intrigue, fit Benjamin Franklin like a glove.  As ambassador to France after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was instrumental in helping to obtain for our fledging nation the financial and military support necessary for bringing our war for independence to a happy conclusion.  To the people of Paris, he was somewhat of a celebrity, due to his experiments with electricity. He spoke French and endeared himself to the people by displaying, in his dress and speech, what they considered his “rustic” demeanor.  In a word, they were charmed by Benjamin Franklin.  The fur cap he was fond of wearing only added to his disguise of “homespun rusticity”.  So, finding a monument to him in this city was not much of a surprise.  Continue reading

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Uncovering the Continental Army in Morristown

Part of an ongoing series about the Continental Army in Morristown, New Jersey. To read previous posts, click here.


Plaque on wall of the Presbyterian Church

During the winter encampment, in 1777, at Morristown, George Washington ordered the inoculation for smallpox of the Continental Army. Although knowing the probability that some of his men would succumb to the disease when infected with even a small dosage of the puss, the commander-in-chief knew that the necessity of the process. By the end of the American Revolutionary War, more American soldiers would die of smallpox than British shot and shell.


With a population of 700 people and less than 70 dwellings, any public space of size was utilized to treat and quarantine the soldiers undergoing the smallpox inoculation. One of the religious establishments that was used was the Presbyterian Church across the street from Morristown Green, the center of town.

The Presbyterian Church already had a long history in Morristown, being the first congregation founded in the town, dating back to 1733 (the one you see today is actually the third to grace the same site).


Behind the church is a graveyard referred to as “The Burying Ground” which holds the remains of over 1,700 individuals. Included in that number are the remains of numerous soldiers that succumbed to the smallpox inoculation during the winter encampment of 1777. From the burials that are known, 138 remains are those of soldiers from the American Revolution.IMG_3383

During the annual commemoration of Independence Day, the town of Morristown will offer guided programs of “The Burying Ground.” At other times throughout the year, the church itself will offer tours. You can find information about the church programs of the  cemetery here.

Whether you visit on a guided tour or independently stroll the ground, the though to keep in mind is; the men who died whether on the field of battle, succumbed to smallpox, or lived a long life as a veteran, the all helped make Morristown the placed where “America Survived.”

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A new park and museum for Great Bridge

Most of us who study the Revolution know of the battle of Great Bridge, fought December 9, 1775. While short and small, it was extremely significant, resulting in British evacuation of Virginia and allowing the colony to move forward with independence and unhindered support of the war effort.

Until recently, the site of this important local landmark, and significant battle, were unpreserved. Nearby, thousands of vehicles drive on the Chesapeake Expressway, largely unaware that they are whizzing past the site of a significant Revolutionary War site. Area preservationists intend to change that.

Local citizens began the effort in 1999. Realizing that the site was unmarked, residents of Chesapeake began working with the city and the Army Corps of Engineers. The result was the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Foundation.

Thus far they have created a public park with an interpretive trail, historic markers, monuments, and are building a museum/visitor center on the site. Future plans include another monument and interpretive signage and public access at the rest of the battlefield.

The area south of Norfolk, the Great Dismal Swamp, was largely inaccessible in the Eighteenth Century. A solitary road ran south from Norfolk, crossing the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River at Great Bridge. Here local citizens were responsible for maintaining the bridge for public use. The road continued on into North Carolina.

Great_Bridge_view_LossingSketch by artist Benson Lossing, 1850s. Continue reading

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Burning Colonel Crawford

Last year I came across Dr. John Knight’s account of the torture and execution of Colonel William Crawford by members of the Delaware Indian tribe in 1782.  It was a vicious execution, but not unheard of in the wars on the American frontier, where violence and brutality from both sides were common.

Wiliam Crawford at 40 (Wikimedia Commons)

Crawford at about 40, twenty years before his execution (Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1722, Crawford was a long-time business partner of George Washington, particularly in the acquisition of land in the Ohio River valley.  A veteran of frontier conflicts, during the Revolution he had served as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Virginia Regiment, commanded the 7th Virginia in the east, and then returned to the Pittsburgh area to raise the 13th Virginia.  Sidelined during the war’s last years, he commanded local Pennsylvania militia and was largely retired by 1782.  For years, settlers in the Ohio Valley had agitated for punitive raid against the Ohio Tribes along the Sandusky River in today’s northwestern Ohio.  Their goal was to retaliate for Indian raids across the Ohio and spoil future raids.  By the spring of 1782, they could not be restrained.  After the militia massacred defenseless Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten in March, Brigadier General William Irvine, the Continental Commander at Pittsburgh, arranged for Colonel Crawford to lead the inevitable militia expedition, likely in hopes that Crawford could prevent a repeat.  (Crawford had taken no part in the Gnadenhutten Massacre).

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Review: Rethinking America From Empire to Republic by John M. Murrin


In the introduction, Andrew Shankman narrows down the one word that has driven the history career of Dr. John M. Murrin; “Anglicization.” (page 1).  This process happened in a period of approximately 60 years, as the colonists along the eastern seaboard of North America became “in virtually every measurable way…more not less British in their attitudes, outlooks, and actions…” (page 1).

With that thought in mind, the collection of essays from the pen of Dr. Murrin comprise this single volume, Rethinking America, From Empire to Republic published by Oxford University Press. Understanding the history and historiography of these decades and the military, political, social, and economic sub-themes of the time period define the work. Yet, this is not history from just the top down; from the perspective of the elites nor from the bottom-up, but a melding of the various tiers of society.  Continue reading

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Visiting a Tragedy: Gnadenhutten, OH

Few places in the American Revolution evoke sorrow like Gnadenhutten, Ohio.  There, in March 1782, militia from Western Pennsylvania bludgeoned, scalped, and burned to death some ninety-six bound Indians who had adopted the Christian faith preached by missionaries from the church of the United Brethren.  Thirty-four of the victims were children.  Benjamin Franklin called the killings “abominable murders.”[1]


The Chapel at Gnadenhutten with the 1872 memorial.  The Cooper’s Hut is to the right.  (ES Photo)

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