“Colonel Armand’s dragoons and militia displayed a good countenance, but were soon borne down by the rapid charge of the legion. The chase again commenced…” So wrote British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in his work, “A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America” regarding his pursuit of retreating American militiamen from the disastrous battlefield at Camden, SC in August 1780, and the gallant effort of one Patriot cavalry commander, a foreign officer, who sought desperately to reform the panicked militia and make a stand. He was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armand
French by birth, Armand was one of many European soldiers to come to America in the 1770’s with hopes of obtaining high ranking commissions in the fledgling Continental Army during the Revolution. Arriving in 1776, Armand’s service in the war would generally become overshadowed by that of his more famous countryman, the younger Marquis de Lafayette, who would arrive a year later.
Born into the French nobility in 1751, Armand, like many privileged young men, seemed destined for a career in the military. While yet a boy, he entered the service as part of the Garde de Corps, the Royal household troops of the King of France. Impetuous and certainly not immune to intrigue, the young officer would be spurned in his romantic quest to win the hand of a French actress and fell out of grace with the King when he wounded the Comte de Bouron-Besset, the King’s kinsman, in a duel. As a result, Armand’s service in the Guardes would end abruptly. Hoping to revive his military career, therefore, he made the decision to sail for America.
Commissioned by Congress, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armand was given authority by George Washington to raise a legion of volunteers, consisting of cavalry and infantry troops, which he paid for out of his own pocket. Armand’s Legion served well in the North with Washington, seeing action at Short Hills, Brandywine, Whitemarsh, and Monmouth. Over time, due to expired enlistments, illness and desertion, the ranks of Armand’s Legion began to thin considerably. To bolster his numbers, the Marquis was authorized to recruit from among the Hessian (German) prisoners of war currently being held. In 1780, the Legion was ordered south where, in addition, it would receive what was left of the cavalry forces formerly commanded by Count Casimir Pulaski, who had been killed in the fighting at Savannah in 1779. By August 1780, Armand’s Legion had joined the Southern American Army under the command of Major General Horatio Gates, on its march into South Carolina. It would basically act as Gates’ sole cavalry force.
On the night of August 15, General Gates put what he called his “Grand Army”, consisting of green Virginia and North Carolina militia, along with seasoned veterans of the Maryland and Delaware Continental lines, into motion towards the village of Camden where British forces were then concentrated. With the apparent intention of occupying a strong defensive position just outside Camden and luring the British Army into a fight, Gates set out from his camp at Rugeley’s Mills at about 10 PM along the Great Wagon Road, with Lieutenant Colonel Armand’s cavalry in the van. Unbeknownst to Horatio Gates, however, the enemy forces in and around Camden were now under the personal command of Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, commander of all British forces in the South, who had only recently arrived from Charleston. In what was arguably the biggest coincidence of the war, Lord Cornwallis had, likewise, put his army on the same road, traveling north towards Rugeley’s Mills, on the night of August 15 with the intention of attacking the Americans in their encampment. Like Gates, Cornwallis had also begun his march at around 10PM.
About 2:30 in the early morning of August 16, after marching for hours along the sandy road in the humid night air, Colonel Armand’s vedette, or mounted scout, who was roughly 300 yards ahead of the American column, heard a voice call out in the darkness ahead, a challenge. It went unanswered; and then all hell broke loose. The vedette fired his big dragoon pistol, its crack echoing throughout the tall, Longleaf pines that towered overhead. Men began shouting and more shots were fired. Incredibly, the American and British Armies had blindly bumped into one another in the darkness, on the Great Wagon Road!
Leading the British column that night was around 20 dragoons of Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, known as the Green Horse. After the initial contact, Tarleton’s dragoons immediately charged, meeting Armand’s surprised troopers head on in the road with sabers slashing and pistols blazing. After initially absorbing the shock, Armand’s Legion fell back, into the advancing American column. American Light Infantry on the right flank, however, was able to quickly sweep in and open a brisk fire, stemming the enemy advance as British regulars and loyalist troops began spreading out across the road. Things then began to settle down; the brief fight had lasted perhaps 15 minutes. Nerves were tense, however, and there was scattered gunfire throughout the night as both sides hunkered down to await daylight. British and American cavalry stayed active, patrolling the woods. Both were able to secure prisoners. Now both commanders would learn just who it was in front of them in the darkness.
As dawn approached, Horatio Gates established his battle line which would, likewise, spread left and right across the Great Wagon Road. Anchoring the American right would be some of the toughest combat troops that would ever see action in the Continental Army. The regiments of the 2nd Maryland Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Mordecai Gist, would hold the extreme right flank. On their left stood Colonel David Vaughn’s Delaware Regiment. Major General Baron de Kalb would be in overall command on this side of the road. Facing the American Regulars on the right, under the command of Lord Francis Rawdon, were the well-trained Loyalist troops of the Volunteers of Ireland, Tarleton’s British Legion infantry, and North Carolina Loyalists.
Left of the road, Gates posted his inexperienced militia force; North Carolinians under General Richard Caswell and Virginia militia commanded by General Edward Stevens. In reserve in the center would be the men of the 1st Maryland Brigade, commanded by Major General William Smallwood. Also in reserve, behind the Virginians and Continental Light Infantry on the extreme left flank, would be around 100 troopers of Armand’s Legion. These troops would be facing the hard-bitten Regulars of the British 23rd Regiment of Foot, known as the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and Cornwallis’ own 33rd Foot. Two battalions of the 71st Highlanders and Tarleton’s cavalry would make up the British reserve. Both sides were armed with artillery. The fighting would soon commence.
The Battle of Camden, on August 16, 1780, would be a nightmare for the Southern American Army. Within minutes of the opening shots, most of the militia troops on the left flank would throw away their muskets, many of which were loaded, and flee the field, leaving the Regulars from Maryland and Delaware to stand on their own. After nearly an hour of heated combat, the American Continentals were virtually surrounded and those not shot down worked frantically to make their own escape from the field. Baron Johann de Kalb, a seasoned veteran of many European battlefields, would fall while leading his troops in the engagement, dying days later from a total of 11 wounds. Horatio Gates, who later claimed he had been swept up in the early panic of the militia, would ultimately find himself at the rallying point of Hillsborough, 180 miles away; a feat he would accomplish in just three days of hard riding. His reputation as a combat commander would be forever ruined.
Also swept up in the mad rush of the panicked Virginia and North Carolina militia, in what would be considered a less than stellar performance, would be the men of Armand’s Legion who fell back almost immediately before they could come into play as the only appreciable American cavalry unit on the field. Once the Continental line had collapsed on the right of the road, Tarleton’s dragoons swept through and into the rear, virtually bringing an end to the Patriot resistance. Tarleton was then ordered north, towards Rugeley’s Mills, in pursuit of the retreating foe. It was here that Colonel Armand attempted to rally the militiamen near him for a stand, with his cavalry, against Tarleton’s pursuing Green Horse; but to no avail. Although, according to Banastre Tarleton, Armand’s dragoons and the militia here “displayed a good countenance”, they were quickly overwhelmed by the juggernaut of the British attack, bloodied and forced to fall back once again. Tarleton would continue his pursuit for another 22 miles, capturing wagons, equipment, and men.
Not long after the fight at Camden, Charles Armand would temporarily leave his command and return to France to procure additional money and supplies for his decimated Legion. He was successful and rejoined his troops, now in Virginia, in the late summer of 1781. Present at the Allied Siege of Yorktown that fall, Armand and several of his troops would take part in the successful storming of British Redoubt 10, while under the command of his countryman, the Marquis de Lafayette. Charles Armand would be promoted to Brigadier General before the war’s end. He died in France in 1793.