Today 240 years ago in the back country of South Carolina, General Horatio Gates and his “Grand Army” were encamped around Rugeleys Mills South Carolina. He had come a long way in a short amount of time with his army from Deep Creek, NC. The men were ill fed, mostly poorly trained militia but he needed to strike a win for the American cause in the South. What he planned that evening is still debated today.
Gates had only been in command of the re comprised Southern Continental Army for a few weeks. He was tasked with turning around a disastrous year for the Americans in South Carolina. Most of the Southern army was captured at Charleston in May 1780 and then a bloody defeat of Virginia forces on May 29th at Waxhaws. American partisans such as Moultrie and Sumter had found some success, but the Continental Congress worried that they were about to lose the southern colonies. Something had to be done and many believed (though Washington and his supporters wanted Nathaniel Greene) the hero of Saratoga was the man for the job.
Now that Gates had brought his army so close to the British post at Camden, SC he needed intelligence on his next move. There could be no misstep, he was only 12 miles from the British at Camden. At that time, Gates believed he outnumbered the British under Lord Rawdon, but what he was soon to find out is he over inflated his own numbers and now Lord Cornwallis was in command. Gates’ force was still slightly larger, but it was mostly made up for militia. The British army comprised of some of the best units in North American. A very different situation indeed.
Gates ordered his engineer Lt. Col. Johann Christian Senf and Virginian Lt. Col. Charles Porterfield southward towards Camden. Senf was to find a suitable location for the American army to march and set up a defensive position. Gates had no illusions to attacking the British at Camden, and most likely he hoped they would abandon Camden all together. Senf wrote “reconnoitering a deep creek 7 miles in front was found impassable 7 miles to the right and about the same distance to the left, only at the place of the Ford interjects the great road”. (1) This creek was Saunder’s Creek and it is where Gates decided to move his “Grand Army” and await developments from Thomas Sumter who he had sent on a mission along the Wateree River in the flank and rear of Camden.
Senf provides one of the greatest insights into the events leading up to the Battle of Camden. His journal provides us with clues to Gates’ thinking on August 14-15, and what he wanted to accomplish by moving his men south on the evening of August 15th. Below is a portion of his journal with his map of the Battle of Camden, including the night battle of August 15th. His journal today can be found at the Library of Congress.
The 15th Genl. Gates & the 700 Virginia Militia under Brig. Genl. Stevens made junction, consulted with General Officers on taking another position for the Army as the ground where they were on was by no means tenable. On reconnoitering a deep creek 7 miles in front was found impassable 7 miles to the right and about the same distance to the left, only at the place the Ford interjects the great road. It was unanimously agreed upon to march that night the Army to that creek by which means to get a more secure encampment, come nearer Genl. Sumpter, occupy the road east side of Wateree River, and be able to get nearer intelligence of the enemy. As for to march back on that road and take an equal strong or stronger position for the Army was not certain,would have given the enemy a weak opinion of our strength, more encouragement to attack, the communication with Genl. Sumpter, which then had been effected, yet further at too great a distance would have been given up again, difficulty of getting intelligence of the enemy, and our horses in want of forage. To march to the right to fall into the road on the east side of the Wateree River, if by west the road would have admitted of it but it would not without a great deal of work and pioneer tools were wanting, the Baggage of the Army would have been exposed, the road where the supplies came from open to the enemy and impossible to turn those wagons directly into another road before the enemy’s horse might have cut them off from the Army.
Certain intelligence came the 15th to Genl. Gates that Lord Cornwallis had arrived the evening before at Camden, and a reinforcement had arrived that day, but no certainty of their strength could be obtained. The 15th the evening at 10 o’clock the Army marched from Col. Rugeley’s to take post in front of the mentioned creek in the following order, Armand’s Legion (a) made the van supported by(…?) light infantry on each flank under Col. Porterfield (b) as the vanguard of the Army (c), The First and Second Maryland Brigade (d) under Major General Baron DeKalbe, each brigade two field pieces, the three Brigades of the North Carolina Militia (e) under Genl. Caswell, The Virginia Militia under Brigadier Genl. Stevens, the Artillery & Stores, and the Rear Guard. During the march reconnoitering parties have been sent out from the advanced corps, came back and nothing seen in the road. Soon after, about half an hour after two in the morning of the 16th of August, Col. Armand’s Van Party got hails by an advanced party of the enemy, no answer made directly on our side, on which the Enemy Horse immediately charged furiously with a great deal of Huzzas & Col. Armand stood the charge, and Col. Porterfield’s light infantry gave a (…?) fire upon the Enemy Horse which made them retreat, immediately upon which the enemy’s Light Infantry advanced forward, after a fire of about five minutes drove our advanced guard back onto the main body and then likewise retreated. This affair caused a little confusion in the line, but was soon (…?), the Army drew up an Order of Battle and having taken a prisoner of the enemy, who confessed that Lord Cornwallis commanded the Army himself consisting of not above 3000 men and that he had come out with an intention to attack Genl. Gates in his camp at Rugeley’s. Upon which General Gates called all his General officers together to hear their opinions on that occasion and it was their unanimous opinion that it was too late to retreat, a battle ought to be fought and some of them were glad to have an opportunity of such, as they had no idea of the Enemy’s strength or the following behavior of the militia.