An Advantageous Situation

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.

“Rev War Revelry” The Winter that Won the War, Valley Forge

In June 1778, the Continental army marched out of their winter encampment in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and headed toward New Jersey in pursuit of the retreating British army. The past six months, from December 1777 to June 1778, ushered in a period of suffering, renewal, and change.

Valley Forge is imprinted into the psyche of Americans as the the toughest winter of the entire American Revolution. In fairness, it was one of many tough winters that the Continental army survived. However, the reasons why this winter stands out will be part of the discussion of this Sunday evening’s “Rev War Revelry” which can be found on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page at 7 pm. EDT.

This week’s historian happy hour includes a discussion with Philip S. Greenwalt author of the recently released Emerging Revolutionary War Series title, The Winter that Won the War. This is the fourth volume in the series, with previous ones covering Lexington and Concord, Trenton and Princeton, and Monmouth.

Greenwalt will discuss how the Valley Forge winter was the intersection of various issues and how the decisions made and the determination of survival by the army made this the winter that won the war.

Tune in as well to hear how you can purchase a copy of this book to take with you as you plan that summer trip to Valley Forge and the Philadelphia area!

ERW Annual Fall Trip Takes on Yorktown, Great Bridge and Williamsburg

Every year the historians of Emerging Revolutionary War take a fall trip to research, visit Revolutionary War sites/battlefields and to promote our museum partners and preservation. The trip usually is a follow up to our Annual Symposium, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, that has been moved to May 22nd (you can get more information on speakers, topics and registration on our Symposium link from our main page).

The ERW Crew recreates the surrender scene at Saratoga last fall.

After much discussion, we have decided to keep our annual fall trip tradition, but a more scaled back version. Don’t worry there will still be revelry and Facebook lives! Our original plan was to head to North and South Carolina, as a follow up to our visit there in 2018. In lieu of COVID-19, we have decided to keep it more “local” by focusing on sites in and around Yorktown, VA (many of our contributors are based in Virginia and Maryland). We will visit sites such as Gloucester, Yorktown, Spencer’s Ordinary, Green Spring, Great Bridge and Williamsburg.

Memorial at Green Spring Battlefield

We will be posting FB Live videos the entire trip, bringing you some behind the scenes opportunities with our museum partners, some exclusive talks with historians and we will wrap up the trip with a special Sunday Night Rev War Revelry. Stay tuned to our blog and social media pages starting on November 6th and continuing on to our Sunday Night Rev War Revelry on November 8th.

Our goal is not just to share with you great information and encourage support for historic sites/museums but also to share with you the fun and passion we have for interpreting the events around the American Revolution. As a public history focused effort, we feel making history fun and accessible leads to a great appreciation for our shared history. We hope you join us virtually on our trip this November.

“Rev War Roundtable with ERW” Author Interview: William “Billy” Griffith

This Sunday, at 7 p.m. join Emerging Revolutionary War on our Facebook page as we interview William “Billy” Griffith, author of the latest volume in the Emerging Revolutionary War Series.

His book, A Handsome Flogging, The Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778 was just released by Savas Beatie, LLC this month. The book is so new that Amazon still has it listed for pre-sale, but don’t worry, you can purchase the book directly from Savas Beatie by clicking here.

Billy Griffith is a full-time contributor to ERW and is also the author of The Battle of Lake George: England’s First Triumph in the French and Indian War, which was released in 2016 by HistoryPress. A native of Branchburg, New Jersey, he has a family connection to the the Monmouth area; he graduated with a degree in history from Shepherd University and holds a graduate degree in military history from Norwich University. He currently works as a full-time Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide. We would be remiss if we did not include his other passion, besides American military history, the New York Yankees. Feel free to join the Facebook Live to disparage his love of the Evil Empire!

ERW looks forward to seeing you, hearing your questions, comments, and what personalized message you want inscribed on your copy of Billy’s latest publication. Although this happy hour historian discussion centers on an author interview, it is still a “happy hour” so bring your favorite brew; we can guarantee the two historians on the program will be imbibing theirs!

Emerging Revolutionary War Series 2019 Releases

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In 2018, the inaugural two volumes, of the Emerging Revolutionary War Series published by Savas Beatie, LLC. Those first two volumes were; A Single Blow, The Battles of Lexington and Concord and The Beginning of the American Revolution and Victory or Death, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton.

In 2019, the series is set to release the next two volumes. The Winter that Won the War, The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778 and A Handsome Flogging, The Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778. This past week, the covers of both were released by Savas Beatie so get a sneak peak below.

Both titles are scheduled for a release later this year. Stay tuned for updates!

Inheriting the Preservation Efforts of the Past

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of accompanying our group of student interns from Richmond National Battlefield Park on a short field trip to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument (GWBNM), in Westmoreland County on Virginia’s famed Northern Neck.  First established near Pope’s Creek by John Washington, great-grandfather of our future first president, it was, as the name implies, the site of George Washington’s birth on February 22, 1732.  This much we know.

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument

The grounds were designated a United States National Landmark in 1930 and deeded to the Federal government.  In honor of George Washington, the current Memorial House was constructed at the site in 1931.  Along with the house, visitors can find a colonial-style kitchen building and blacksmith’s shop.  Costumed interpreters also manage the Colonial Living Farm with barn, pastures and livestock.  The site depicts life on a middling-sized Virginia tobacco plantation during the mid-18th Century. Continue reading “Inheriting the Preservation Efforts of the Past”

ERW Weekender: The American Revolutionary War Museum at Yorktown

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American Revolutionary War Museum at Yorktown

Over the years, it has been my pleasure to stop in at the old Yorktown Victory Center. The primary focus of the museum, as one might expect, was on the October 1781 siege, which not only brought about the surrender of British forces under General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, but also hastened the eventual end of hostilities between Britain and her former colonies. More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of working at the museum for special occasions as a volunteer for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation (JYF).

The Foundation has since expanded its view of Revolutionary America with a new museum, built upon the bones of the original, which looks beyond the confines of the Yorktown siege and takes a broader view of the conflict as a whole. In the fall of 2016, JYF opened its new American Revolutionary War Museum at Yorktown.siege1

The building itself is large and impressive, with over 22,000 square feet (I’m told) of exhibition space. There is a natural flow between the various galleries, which chronicle our nation’s journey from subjugated colonies to Republic. Visitors, especially those who are not well versed in the history of the Revolutionary War, can more easily follow “the road” that led to our independence.

I started my visit by viewing the new introductory film, “Victory Forever”. The story of the Revolution is told by a 19th century showman who has visited many of the sites associated with the war and the events preceding its outbreak.  As I began my own trip “down the road”, I was happy to see that the Foundation’s impressive collection of 18th century weapons and other artifacts are part of this new vision. There are new acquisitions on display as well, such as an original broadside of the Declaration of Independence which dates back to 1776.

There are new interactive films and exhibition galleries that tell the story first of the changing relationship between America and Britain after the end of the Seven Year’s War or, as it was known in America, the French and Indian War. This, of course, includes the rifts that arose beginning in the 1760’s over taxation.

war-in-southThe “Revolution” exhibition chronicles the weapons and tactics used in the conflict itself, from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown. And I was pleased to see an exhibition that focuses on the war in the south and the major players who led those events such as Daniel Morgan, the “Gamecock” Thomas Sumter, and the notorious Banastre Tarleton.

 

In prior years, the site also featured a Continental Army encampment and a 1780’s-era Virginia farmstead. The encampment has been expanded to include a small amphitheater for use in artillery and small arms demonstrations. batteryThis farm area is also undergoing considerable change as it will now represent a Virginia farmstead during the Revolutionary War era. Not yet completed, a conversation with friend and farm site manager Jay Templin gave me an idea as to some of the changes that are coming. “We’re now presenting life during the Revolution so we’ll need to scale back; there will be changes to what we’re growing.” Said Templin. “We’ll certainly still be growing some tobacco but not the large field as in years past.”

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Although the American Revolutionary War Museum at Yorktown opened to the public in October, it is generally considered a “soft opening” as the entire site is not yet in its completed state. I’m told by staff there that the grand opening is slated for March 2017. I have to say that I was pleased with the new facilities and the fact that the focus of the museum is now on the broader era of the war. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit. rotunda