“But was there ever an instance of a General running away as Gates has done from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life.”
Colonel Alexander Hamilton’s comment after the battle of Camden
The battle of Camden, August 16, 1780, was a humiliating defeat for the Americans. Led by General Horatio Gates, a former British officer, 3700 Americans, more than half of them militia, were defeated by 1500 British regulars and 600 Loyalist militia. 900 Americans were killed and wounded, and a thousand Americans captured, compared to a British loss of 68 killed and 250 wounded. Most of the American militia ran at the opening of the battle and Gates fled with them, riding his horse 60 miles to Charlotte, North Carolina. Gates, thankfully, was never given a field command again. His blundering had thrown away the only major American regular military force remaining in the South. It was a disaster for the Americans and a humiliating one.
The one bright spot in this fiasco was the heroism of General Johann de Kalb and the Maryland and Delaware Continentals he led. Born in 1721 into a family of peasants, de Kalb managed the incredible feat in Eighteenth Century Old Regime France of rising due to sheer ability to the rank of Brigadier General and entered the ranks of the nobility as a baron. He first became familiar with America in 1768: serving as a French spy he traveled throughout the colonies to determine the level of dissatisfaction of the colonists with British rule. He grew to sympathize with the Americans. He came back to America with Lafayette in 1777, becoming a Continental Major General.
After Gates and the militia fled, de Kalb and his 800 Continentals fought ferociously against the entire British Army, making charge after charge, with de Kalb at the head shouting, “To me, my Continentals!” His Continentals were defeated only after de Kalb fell with 11 wounds. General Cornwallis, commander of the British forces at Camden, had his personal surgeon treat his brave adversary. De Kalb died three days later. To a British officer who offered his sympathy, de Kalb gave a ringing reply that should be remembered by every American: “I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.” The towns and counties named DeKalb throughout the United States are a tribute to a very brave man and able soldier who died for his adopted country.
Here is the report of Cornwallis on his victory:
Cornwallis, Charles, the Earl
1780 Letter from Charles, the Earl, Cornwallis to Lord George
Germain, dated 21 August 1780.
It is with great pleasure that I communicate to Your Lordship an Account of a Compleat Victory obtained on the 16th Inst., by His Majesty’s Troops under my command, over the Rebel
Southern Army, Commanded by General Gates.
In my Dispatch, No. 1, I had the honour to inform Your Lordship that while at Charlestown I was regularly acquainted by Lord Rawdon with every Material incident or Movement made by the
Enemy, or by the Troops under His Lordship’s command. On the 9th Inst. two Expresses arrived with an account that Genl. Gates was advancing towards Lynche’s Creek with his whole Army, supposed to amount to 6,000 men, exclusive of a Detachment of 1,000 Men under Genl. Sumpter, who, after having in vain attempted to force the Posts at Rocky Mount & Hanging Rock, was believed to be at that time trying to get round the left of our position, to cut off our communications with the Congarees & Charleston; That the disaffected Country between Pedee & Black River had actually revolted, and that Lord Rawdon was contracting his Posts and preparing to assemble his force at Camden.