“Gate’s Defeat”: The Battle of Camden

1779 was a relatively uneventful year for the Revolutionary War.  The British became tired of the stalemate, so in an attempt to finish the war, they refocused their attention to the south.  The southern Continental Army was shattered after the Siege of Charleston and soon after, the militia was forced out.  The Continental Army then sent men, including ones from Maryland, to defend those colonies.  The Battle of Camden, the first battle of the campaign, was a bloody loss for the Americans, and almost resulted in an end to the war. Some of the men who fought at Camden were from the Maryland 400. Just as at the battles of Brooklyn and Staten Island, the Marylanders at the Battle of Camden found themselves alone on the battlefield after the rest of the army fled.

On July 18, 1780, American General Horatio Gates arrived in Hillsborough, North Carolina.  What he discovered was not a strong army prepared to enter battle with confidence, but one in immense need of arms, ammunition, food, and reinforcements.  Gates wrote to governors and congress requesting immediate help.  Shortly after the arrival of Gates, Major General Johann de Kalb entered camp. [1]

camden SC

Map of the South Carolina colony.

Gates understood the abominable shape of his troops and utilized psychological tactics to increase morale.  For example, he continuously reassured the troops that adequate supplies and food were on the way, even though he knew this was not the case, and his promises were never fulfilled. Within three days of his arrival, he had the men marching towards Camden, North Carolina. The travel route chosen by Gates did not provide any possibilities for provisions, and although the other officers suggested going a different way where civilian supporters would help feed and clothe them, Gates would not change his mind.  In addition to starving, the men were also suffering due to a rough terrain, and oppressive heat and bugs.  They threatened a mutiny, but after a small bit of corn and meat arrived, they were convinced to back down. [2]


General Horatio Gates

Gates and his men were soon joined by other forces, including the North Carolina militia, the Virginia militia, and twenty “men and boys” from South Carolina, “some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped,” They prepared to face the British. [3]

The British knew that a battle was imminent, and positioned themselves in Camden.  The South Carolina militia followed to collect intelligence for Gates, who continued to make battle preparations.  He sent the heavy baggage and sick men elsewhere and then had his officers complete field returns which showed how many troops were available for combat.  Gates thought he had 7,000 men available, but learned he only had 3,052.  [4]

Before beginning their march to the British, Gates gave his men a full ration of food and a bit of molasses, which was a substitute for rum.  This was intended to give them extra energy but instead made many of the men very sick, as the bread and meat had not been thoroughly cooked.  Needless to say, the march was difficult and painful for many. [5]

The British received intelligence about the size and strength of the American army.  These numbers were exaggerated, and although the British thought they were outnumbered, General Lord Charles Cornwallis decided to attack anyways.  Thus as the American army began moving towards the British army, the British began moving towards the Americans.  At 2:30 in the morning on August 16, 1780, advance guards from the two sides clashed.  They exchanged fire and the British were pushed back.  Both sides then took their stances for the battle that they knew would follow the next morning.  [6]

While forming his troops, Gates placed on the right side men from Maryland and Delaware under General Mordecai Gist and de Kalb.  The North Carolina and Virginia militia were positioned on the left.  Major General William Smallwood and more Maryland troops were placed  behind the main line as reserve.  [7]

Neither side had a particularly beneficial setting. The American army was on higher ground, but had a bad retreat route. The British were backed by a 200 foot wide stream so they could not escape. [8]

camden map

Map of the Battle of Camden on 16th August 1780 in the American Revolutionary War: map by John Fawkes

The British began the attack at the first light of day on August 16, just a few hours after their unexpected encounter during the night.  The Virginia militia was given permission to move out and attack the British, but their maneuver came too late.  Maryland Colonel Otho Holland Williams then gathered fifty volunteers to position themselves behind trees and open fire in an attempt to slow down the British and lessen the initial blow to the Virginians. This failed and the British line charged forward with their bayonets, causing extreme bloodshed in the first line of Americans. [9]

American General Stevens ordered his militia troops to attach their bayonets and be ready to attack when the British reached them. As the British approached, the inexperienced militiamen, with the exception of those from North Carolina, panicked and fled, causing the whole left side of the American line to collapse.  Because the American troops had no good escape route, the militia’s path took them through the group of Maryland troops in reserve.  During this chaos and confusion, Smallwood was separated from his men and Gates fled and abandoned his army. American General Nathanael Greene later explained “he who has never seen the effect of a panic upon a multitude can have but an imperfect idea of such a thing. The best disciplined troops have been enervated and made cowards by it…Like electricity, it operates instantly — like sympathy, it is irresistible where it touches.” [10]


Colonel Otho Holland Williams

Colonel Otho Holland Williams assumed command of the Marylanders in reserve and began to reorganize the line while the British were closing in. The reserve troops proceeded into motion, attempting to reach the other  Americans, but the British were now positioned in between the two American lines.  The reserve troops under Williams were forced to retreat after intense fighting.  [11]

The British were now able to focus their attention on the American line led by Gist and de Kalb, the only troops remaining on the field.  The armies engaged in hand-to-hand combat which involved the use of bayonets and sabers. De Kalb was badly wounded eleven times, likely through a mix of gunshots and bayonet wounds, and was taken prisoner.  However, he survived for three more days.  While on his deathbed, he had a letter written “expressing his affection to those officers [Smallwood and Gist] and men who had stood by him in the battle.” [12]

camden de kalb

At this point, it became clear to Gist that he and his men needed to retreat if they did not want to be slaughtered.  They fled, resulting in a victory for the British.  [13]

Casualties from the Battle of Camden were extreme.  About 1,200 Americans were killed or wounded and another 1,000 were taken prisoner, although some sources disagree with these numbers and conclude the casualties were less. The Maryland line alone lost approximately 50 percent of its men. [14]

While retreating, the units became disorganized and men were separated.  Some of the Marylanders retreated with Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Woolford, General Sumter and other troops.  They were resting, preparing food, and bathing, with their arms stacked up.  They made the mistake of assuming they were safe where they were. The British launched a surprise attack, led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and within only a few minutes, 150 Americans were killed and 300 were captured.  Colonel Williams lamented that “a just representation [of the retreat] would exhibit an image of compound wretchedness, care, anxiety, pain, poverty, hurry, confusion, humiliation, and dejection.” [15]

It was difficult for the southern Continental Army to regroup after this defeat, as no meeting point had been established before entering battle.  Some soldiers never rejoined the army, such as Marylander Thomas Wiseman, a veteran of the Battle of Brooklyn. Wiseman, who described the Battle of Camden as “Gate’s Defeat” was “taken sick and did not again join the Army.” He lived the rest of his life in South Carolina, about 100 miles from the Camden battle site.

Although the Battle of Camden was an extremely low point for the Continental Army, soon afterwards, the war began to take a turn in favor of the American side.

-Natalie Miller, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2017


[1] Richard John Batt, “The Maryland Continentals, 1780-1781,” (PhD diss., Tulane University, 1974), 19-43.

[2] Batt, 19-43; Nathanael Greene quoted in William Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene (Charleston, South Carolina: 1822), vol. 1 p. 488.

[3] Batt, 19-43.

[4] Batt, 19-43.

[5] Batt, 19-43.

[6] Batt, 19-43.

[7] “The Battle of Camden,” The American Revolution, 11 August 2017.

[8] Batt, 19-43.

[9] Batt, 19-43; “The Battle of Camden”

[10] Batt, 19-43; “The Battle of Camden”; Ross M. Kimmel, “In Perspective: William Smallwood,” 2000; Greene quoted in Johnson, 496.

[11] Kimmel; Batt, 19-43.

[12] Johan de Kalb from Esther Mohr Dole, Maryland During the American Revolution (n.pl.:1941), p. 155; Kimmel.

[13] Batt, 19-43.

[14] “The Battle of Camden,” The American Revolution; “Battle of Camden,” History, 11 August 2017 history.com; Dole, 156; “The Battle of Camden,” Revolutionary War 101, 11 August 2017; Batt, 19-43.

[15] Williams quoted in Dole, 156.

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