“Gentlemen, what is best to be done?” Gates Moves Towards Camden and Makes a Fateful Decision

Picking up the story of Camden from Thursday morning, we continue with Col. Otho

Gen. Gates believed his night march on August 15th would put his army in a great defensive position above Saunder’s Creek.

Holland Williams comments on the events on the evening of August 15th. As Gates’ army moved southward at night, a dangerous undertaking even with a professional army, notwithstanding an army mostly comprised of militia that had never fought as a cohesive unit. Williams documents the meals that the Americans ate that night before their march. When reading American accounts of Camden, most mention the impact on the evening August 15th meal had on the men and the army as a whole. Williams also mentions there is much criticisms of Gates’ plan, but no official opposition was brought to Gates. Reading Williams’ account gives us insight today into the events leading up to the disaster at Camden. When reading Williams’ narrative, it is not hard to believe that the Americans were marching to a defeat.

“Although there had been no dissenting voice in the council, the orders were no sooner promulgated than they became the subject of animadversion. Even those who had been dumb in council, said that there had been no consultation –that the orders were read to them, and all opinion seemed suppressed by the very positive and decisive terms in which they were expressed. Others could not imagine how it could be conceived, that an army, consisting of more than two -thirds militia, and which had never been once exercised in arms together, could form columns, and perform other manoeuvres in the night, and in the face of an enemy. But, of all the officers, Colonel Armand took the greatest exception. He seemed to think the positive orders respecting himself, implied a doubt of his courage –declared that cavalry had never before been put in the front of a line of battle in the dark–and that the disposition, as it respected his corps, proceeded from resentment in the general, on account of a previous altercation between them about horses, which the general had ordered to be taken from the officers of the army, to expedite the movement of the artillery though the wilderness. A great deal was said upon the occasion; but, the time was short, and the officers and soldiers, generally, not knowing, or believing any more than the general, that any considerable body of the enemy were to be met with out of Camden, acquiesced with their usual cheerfulness, and were ready to march at the hour appointed. As there were no spirits yet arrived in camp; and as, until lately, it was unusual for the 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; accordingly the hospital stores were broached, and one gill of molasses per man, and a full ration of corn meal and meat, were issued to the army previous to their march, which commenced, according to orders, at about ten o’clock at night of the 15th. …. 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. …. “

Lord Cornwallis arrived in Camden with reinforcements and an aggressive plan.


On the morning of August 16th, the lead elements of the American army ran into the British army marching northward from Camden. To Gates’ surprise, Cornwallis was now in command of the British at Camden (coming from Charleston) assisting Lord Rawdon. Cornwallis was not inclined to wait for the Americans at Camden and move northward near the same time Gates moved south from Rugeley’s Mill. Williams mentions Gates’ surprise of these developments and the lack of leadership that morning by Gates or his experienced officers such as DeKalb and Williams himself. DeKalb commented to Williams that he expected the Americans to make a retreat, but in the war council DeKalb never made a comment. Faced with a decision, Gates decided to stay put and fight the British, a fateful decision that led to the end of Gates’ military career.

In this general vicinity at the southern end of the current battlefield park, the American and British vanguards ran into each other early on August 16th.

“Both armies, ignorant of each other’s intentions, moved about the same hour of the same night, and approaching each other, met about half way between their respective encampments, at midnight. The first revelation of this new and unexpected scene, was occasioned by a smart, mutual salutation of small arms between the advanced guards. Some of the cavalry of Armand’s legion were wounded, retreated, and threw the whole corps into disorder; which, recoiling suddenly on the front of the column of infantry, disordered the first Maryland brigade, and occasioned a general consternation through the whole line of the army. The light infantry under Porterfield, however, executed their orders gallantly; and the enemy, no less astonished than ourselves, seemed to acquiesce in a sudden suspension of hostilities. Some prisoners were taken on both sides; from one of these, the deputy adjutant general of the American army, extorted information respecting the situation and numbers of the enemy. He informed, that Lord Cornwallis commanded in person about three thousand regular British troops, which were, in line of march, about five or six hundred yards in front. Order was soon restored in the corps of infantry in the American army, and the officers were employed in forming a front line of battle, when the deputy adjutant general communicated to General Gates the information which he had from the prisoner. The general’s astonishment could not be concealed. He ordered the deputy adjutant general to call another council of war. All the general officers immediately assembled in the rear of the line: the unwelcome news was communicated to them. General Gates said, “Gentlemen, what is best to be done?” All were mute for a few moments–when

Baron de Kalb

the gallant Stevens exclaimed, “Gentlemen, is it not too late now to do any thing but fight?” No other advice was offered, and the general desired the gentlemen would repair to their respective commands. The Baron De Kalb’s opinion may be inferred from the following fact: When the deputy adjutant general went to call him to council, he first told him what had been discovered. “Well,” said the baron, “and has the general given you orders to retreat the army?” The baron, however, did not oppose the suggestion of General Stevens; and every measure that ensued, was preparatory for action.”

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