CAMDEN CAMPAIGN. July-August 1780. On 12 May 1780, a force of about 1,400 Continentals under General Johann De Kalb was moving toward Charleston when that place surrendered. On 13 June Congress commissioned General Horatio Gates to command the Southern Department. With the collapse of American military resistance in the South, and with little prospect of assistance from the French Alliance, Congress hoped that Gates, the victor of Saratoga, would rally militia to stop the British in the South, as he was credited with having rallied them to defeat British General John Burgoyne. The commander in chief of the Continental army, General George Washington, did not approve of Gates's appointment. He considered Nathanael Greene better qualified, but Congress did not consult him on the matter. Charles Lee warned his friend Gates to "take care lest your Northern laurels turn to Southern willows."
THE FORCES ASSEMBLE
When Gates reached De Kalb's headquarters at Coxe's Mill, North Carolina, to take command on 25 July, he found a half-starved force of about 1,200 regulars. These were the remnants of the Delaware and Maryland Continentals and three small artillery companies who had survived the march southward, along with 120 survivors of Casimir Pulaski's Legion, now commanded by Charles Armand, who had recently joined De Kalb. Leaving the infantry under De Kalb's command and designating the entire body of troops "the grand army," Gates ordered that they prepare to march on a moment's notice. According to one participant, Colonel Otho Williams, whose contemporaneous narrative appears as an appendix in William Johnson's Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene: "the latter order was a matter of great astonishment to those who knew the real situation of the troops. But all difficulties were removed by the general's assurances, that plentiful supplies of rum and rations were on the route."
A number of other American units were in the field, but two notable contingents did not appear. These were the cavalry units that Colonels William Washington and Anthony White were trying to build around the survivors of the engagements at Lenud's Ferry (May 5), and Monck's Corner (April 14), both in South Carolina. They had asked Gates's support in recruiting horsemen and offered to join him, but Gates refused to help and let it be known that he did not consider the Southern Theater good cavalry country.
Although British forces controlled Georgia and South Carolina, the situation of General Charles Cornwallis was far from rosy. Many of his 8,300 troops were sick, and he had twelve scattered posts to maintain in an area of about 10,000 square miles. He believed that an offensive into North Carolina was the only alternative to abandoning all this territory and concentrating at Charleston. To undertake this offensive, he had established a forward base at Camden with outposts at Hanging Rock, Rocky Mount, and Cheraw. However, he had not yet secured the necessary provisions, and when Gates advanced there were 800 hospital cases in Camden—men who would have to be abandoned if the place were not defended.
Partisan General Thomas Sumter, who had been operating in the region for only a short time, sent Kalb a report of Cornwallis's scattered dispositions shortly before Gates arrived. According to historians George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Ranking, it was "[p]robably on the strength of this letter, which set at seven hundred the total enemy strength in 'Camden and vicinity,' and encouraged by dreams of manna for his men and 'shoals of militia' gathering in North Carolina, Gates resolved to attack Camden" (p. 405).
Subordinates who knew the country recommended that "the grand army" circle westward through Salisbury, Charlotte, and the Catawba region, a route that would take them through fertile country where the natives were sympathetic. Gates insisted on taking a more direct route, fifty miles shorter but through an impoverished and Toryinfested region of pine barrens, sand hills, and swamps. The march started on 27 July, only two days after Gates took command. The sick and underfed troops took two weeks to cover 120 miles, although some days they marched eighteen miles. When the promised rum and rations did not appear, Gates assured them they would find abundant corn on the Peedee River. He was right, but the corn was still green, and soldiers who had been getting sick on green peaches now got sick on green corn instead. They were so desperate that some tried using hair powder to thicken the stew they concocted from lean woods cattle and green corn. Ironically, their route took them through the area where the modern health resorts of Pinehurst and Southern Pines are located. Historian Sydney George Fisher comments that "the air … is dry and invigorating, but the troops of Gates needed more than air to sustain them" (vol. 2, p. 296).
After crossing the Peedee River at Mask's Ferry on 3 August, the Continentals were joined by 100 Virginia state troops, whom Lieutenant Colonel Charles Porterfield had managed to keep in the field after the surrender of Charleston, two and a half months earlier. Francis Marion, who had joined De Kalb earlier and had been detached to Cole's Bridge, rejoined the army with about twenty miserable-looking followers. As for these "men and boys, some white, some black," Colonel Otho Williams says "their appearance was in fact so burlesque, that it was with much difficulty the diversion of the regular soldiery was restrained by the officers."
One reason why Gates may have chosen his much criticized line of operations was to increase his opportunities for drawing militia reinforcements to him. The designation of his force as "the grand army" tends to support this supposition. In any event, former Governor Richard Caswell was known to be hunting Tories with a body of 1,200 well-provisioned North Carolina militia, whom he commanded as a major general. De Kalb had called on Caswell to join him—with the ulterior motive of alleviating his own problems of subsistence—but the militia leader "offered excuses and held aloof" (Ward, p. 715).
On 5 August, however, Gates received a message from Caswell that he was about to attack a British outpost on Lynches Creek, and on the next day, Caswell's urgent appeal for help arrived. Gates was already headed for Caswell's camp when the second message arrived, but the episode brought the North Carolina militia into "the grand army." Although strength of the militia had been estimated originally at 1,200, it had now been reinforced to 2,100. The combined forces moved to Lynches Creek.
According to historian Christopher Ward:
What to do next might have puzzled an abler general than Horatio Gates. He could not stay where he was; there was no food there. If he turned to the left, Camden would be to his rear, cutting off any help from the north. If he turned to the right, to the flourishing settlements of the Waxhaws, a two or three days' march, he would seem to be retreating and the North Carolina militia would desert him. So, without any plan or purpose, he went blindly straight ahead. (p. 720-721)
He ordered his heavy baggage and camp followers back to Charlotte, but he lacked transportation to move the former, and the women and children refused to leave their "sponsors." Meanwhile, some edible corn and beef had been found to provide temporary relief of the famine of his troops.
Young Lord Francis Rawdon, who co-commanded at Camden, had sent a series of messages to Cornwallis in Charleston warning him that 7,000 Americans were approaching his advance base. Although Rawdon saw the necessity for concentrating at Camden, "he dared not remove the garrisons from Hanging Rock and Rocky Mountain, lest Sumter should slip past him and either cut his communications with Charleston, or move rapidly westward and overwhelm his posts on the Broad River" (Fortescue, p. 316). Sumter attacked Rocky Mount on 1 August and Hanging Rock on 6 August with precisely this strategy in mind, and the British held the two outposts only after serious fighting.
About the time Gates's Continentals crossed the Peedee River, at a point some twenty-five miles north of the post held by the Seventy-first Highlanders at Cheraw, Rawdon moved forward to delay the American advance. When Caswell's North Carolina militia started acting as if they were going to attack his outpost on Lynches Creek, Rawdon threw them into disorder by feigning an attack, and then withdrew.
On 10 August Gates found Rawdon barring his advance across the bridge at Little Lynches Creek, 15 miles northeast of Camden. Although the British were badly outnumbered, they had a strong position overlooking a broad marsh through which the enemy would have to attack. British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton commented that "by a forced march up the creek, [Gates] could have passed Lord Rawdon's flank and reached Camden which would have been an easy conquest and a fatal blow to the British" (Ward, p. 913n). De Kalb is said to have suggested this maneuver. According to Robert Duncan Bass, "Gates wheeled his army to the right, forded the creek, and began a flanking movement" (p. 97). Gates may, therefore, have had a decisive action in mind, but he spoiled his chance by starting it in broad daylight and eliminating the essential element of surprise. Covered by Tarleton's dragoons, Rawdon withdrew to Camden.
The last British troops had now been pulled back from Hanging Rock and Rocky Mount. Sumter followed and seized all crossings across the Wateree River as far down as Whitaker's Ferry, five miles below Camden. Bass describes Sumter's intentions as follows:
Trying to coordinate his movements with those of the main army, on August 12 he wrote General Gates. He suggested that a powerful corps be thrown behind Camden. For the second time he urged that a strong detachment be sent to the High Hills of Santee or to Nelson's Ferry to cut the British supply route and to prevent their expected retreat toward Charleston. (p. 97)
Although Gates consistently exhibited a complete immunity to good advice during this campaign, this time he acted on Sumter's suggestion. On 14 August, therefore, when his army had reached Rugeley's Mill (Clermont, about twelve miles from Camden), Gates detached Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Woolford with 100 Maryland Continentals, a company of artillery with two guns, and 300 North Carolina militia to reinforce Sumter. The latter scored a bright little success at Wateree Ferry on 15 August, but contributed nothing to the campaign. Also about this time, Francis Marion was detached to take command of the Williamsburg militia at Witherspoon's Ferry.
FROM BAD STRATEGY TO WORSE TACTICS
The American army at Rugeley's Mill was reinforced on 14 August by 700 Virginia militia who had come south under General Edward Stevens. With 900 rank and file of De Kalb's Delaware and Maryland Continentals, 120 mounted and foot troops of Armand's Legion, Porterfield's 100 Virginia light infantry, about 100 men and six guns in Colonel Charles Harrison's Virginia artillery, the 1,800 North Carolina militia, and about 70 volunteer horsemen, Gates now had about 4,100 rank and file troops. Cornwallis thought he had 7,000, an understandable error inasmuch as Gates himself was under the same misapprehension. When Deputy Adjutant General Otho Williams showed Gates figures to prove that only 3,052 were present and fit for duty, Gates waved this information aside with the comment that "there are enough for our purpose." De Kalb's strength takes into account the detachment of 100 Maryland Continental troops. Six guns remained with Gates after two were sent to Sumter. De Kalb had started south with ninteen guns, but nine had been abandoned before he reached Coxe's Mill, on Deep River in North Carolina, and two more had been left behind at Coxe's Mill for want of horses to pull them.
Cornwallis reached Camden on the night of 13 August. By this time Rawdon had been reinforced by four light infantry companies from Ninety Six. According to Nathanael Greene, the morning report showed 122 officers and 2,117 men fit for duty. Many of his troops were well-seasoned regulars: three companies of the Twenty-third Regiment (282 rank and file), the Thirty-third (283 men), five companies of the Seventy-first (237 men). Others were high-quality Tory units brought from New York with Sir Henry Clinton: the Volunteers of Ireland (287) and Tarleton's British Legion (289). There was a 17-man detachment of the Royal Artillery, a 26-man pioneer unit, and two North Carolina Tory regiments with a total strength of over 550. Although Cornwallis still believed himself outnumbered more than three to one, he decided to fight. Retreat would have meant the abandonment of 800 sick or injured men, a quantity of stores, and the surrender of all of South Carolina and Georgia except for Charleston and Savannah. The decision to remain reveals the element of greatness in Cornwallis.
In a meeting on 15 August Gates announced that the army would make a night march to Saunders Creek, only five and one half miles from Camden, where a strong position could be prepared. This, he hoped, would pressure the British to abandon Camden or to attack Gates's position behind the creek on a high hill. His officers, who included eight generals, were too stunned by the prospect of maneuvering their columns of famished troops through the woods at night to voice their objections at this meeting; but the positive terms in which Gates read his orders to them clearly implied that he was not interested in their views. Colonel Williams did point out later that Gates was more than 100 percent wrong in his strength calculations, but Gates treated this observation dismissively, as a minor detail. When Armand learned that his mounted troops were to lead the column, he pointed out that cavalry was the wrong type of force for such a mission. But perhaps Gates was finally learning the value of cavalry, for Otho Williams noted that his orders were for Armand's horse to "not only … support the shock of the enemy's charge, but finally to rout them." Indeed, Cornwallis would likewise place Tarleton's cavalry out front of the British.
The true history of this battle has a touch that would be unacceptable in fiction. Some rations had been gathered to feed the troops a full meal before the attack, but there was still no rum. There was a supply of molasses, however, and Gates conceived the happy idea of issuing each man a gill of this delicacy as a substitute. The half-cooked meat and half-baked bread, followed by a mixture of molasses and cornmeal mush, had a gastrointestinal effect on the half-starved troops that would be funny if the tactical results had not been so serious. Again according to Otho Williams, the men were "breaking the ranks all night and were certainly much debilitated before the action commenced in the morning."
The Americans started down the road from Rugeley's Mill toward Camden at 10 p.m., with Armand in the lead. The night was sultry, the moon full, and the road showed up well in the dark. Flanking Armand at a distance of 200 yards, Porterfield's Virginia and John Armstrong's North Carolina militia advanced through the dark woods and swamps in single file on each side of the cavalry "point." Further back down the road came an infantry advance guard, followed by the Continentals, Caswell's North Carolina militia, Stevens's Virginia militia, and the baggage train under the escort of the volunteer horsemen.
By an uncanny coincidence, Cornwallis had left Camden at 10 p.m., and was marching along the same road toward Gates with a view to attacking him at Rugeley's Mill at daybreak. At about 2:30 on the morning of 16 August the two forces met at a place called Parker's Old Field in Gum Swamp. The "point" of the British column, twenty mounted and twenty dismounted dragoons of the British Legion, charged and drove Armand's troops back in confusion, but the flank patrols closed in and drove back the British point. After a quarter of an hour the firing stopped on both sides.
THE BATTLE OF CAMDEN, 16 AUGUST 1780
Gates called his officers together for a council of war. This time he appeared anxious to have their recommendations, for Otho Williams reports that he asked: "Gentlemen, what is best to be done?" There was a painful silence, from which historians have assumed that most of the officers favored a retreat but were unwilling to suggest it. It is also reasonable to assume that Gates hoped the council would recommend this course of action.
Williams notes that it was General Stevens who finally broke the silence, asking "Gentlemen, is it not too late now to do any thing but fight?" There are other versions that put Stevens' comment in more positive terms, but all agree generally that he was the only subordinate to say anything at the meeting. As a result, the officers got their men ready to fight.
The "meeting engagement" took place in a sandy area of widely spaced tall pines. Dense swamps narrowed the battlefield to 1,200 yards at the point where the columns collided, but this defile widened toward the north. Gates was favored by slightly higher ground, but his flanks would be "in the air" if he had to withdraw from the narrowest part of the defile. Cornwallis had the disadvantage of being less than a mile forward of Gum Swamp Creek. Despite the narrow front (which gave him no real opportunity for maneuver initially) and lack of depth to his position (which limited deployment of his reserves), believing himself to be outnumbered three to one, and knowing that the obstacle to his rear would make tactical defeat tantamount to annihilation, Cornwallis nonetheless calmly prepared to attack at dawn.
The British deployed in a line perpendicular to the road. On the extreme right, against the swamp, four companies of light infantry went into position. The Twenty-third (Royal Welch) and Lieutenant Colonel James Webster's Thirty-third Regiment extended this wing to the road. Webster commanded the entire wing. The Volunteers of Ireland were west of the road, then came the infantry of the British Legion, and the Royal North Carolina Tories extended to the swamp. Colonel Morgan Bryan's North Carolina Tory volunteers were in echelon to the left rear of this flank. Lord Rawdon commanded the left wing. The two small battalions (totaling five companies) of the Seventy-first Highlanders were to the rear, one battalion on each side of the road. Tarleton's cavalry was posted to the right of the road behind the Highlanders. The woods were so thick in this area that this cavalry reserve had to remain in column.
The American line was parallel to the enemy's. Unfortunately, Gates put his militia on his left, opposite the British regulars, and kept half his regulars in reserve. From east to west the American units were as follows: Stevens's Virginia militia was on the flank, with Armand's Legion to their rear; Caswell's North Carolina militia was toward the center of the line; and General Mordecai Gist's Second Maryland Brigade was west of the road, constituting the right wing. Gist's Brigade comprised the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Maryland Regiments, as well as the Delaware Regtiment. The latter was closest to the road, and the militia unit to its east was Colonel Henry Dixon's North Carolina troops. De Kalb commanded the American right wing. The American line was so narrow that William Smallwood's First Maryland Brigade was placed astride the road to the rear as the reserve. The regiments of this brigade present were the First, Third, and Seventh Maryland Regiments. Thomas Woolford's Fifth Maryland Regiment was the Continental unit sent to reinforce Sumter. Accoring to Otho Williams, the six guns of the First Virginia Artillery were posted in front of the American center, near the road. Other accounts and maps indicate they were not massed in the center, but rather that four were dispersed along the front and two on the road, with the First Maryland Brigade in the second line.
Although some skirmishing took place during the two hours between the time of contact and dawn, all this time must have been needed to form the opposing lines. Gates established his command post behind the First Maryland Brigade, and apparently had no plan other than to wait for Cornwallis to make the opening move. Colonel Williams had apparently come from Stevens's Brigade toward the artillery in front of the center when the British were reported advancing in line of columns. Artillery Captain Anthony Singleton told Williams he could see the British 200 yards away. Ordering Singleton to open fire, the adjutant general rode back behind the reserve brigade to inform Gates. Cannon were now firing on both sides, and smoke settled over the battlefield in a heavy fog. Williams suggested to Gates that Stevens move forward and attempt to hit the enemy while they were deploying from column into line of battle. Since the Virginians were already formed, Williams pointed out that "the effect might be fortunate, and first impressions were important." Gates agreed and ordered it done. Then he ordered the First Maryland Brigade forward in support of the militia. The American right also was ordered to advance.
Meanwhile, the enterprising adjutant general hurried to the left flank and Stevens led his brigade forward, but it was too late to hit the enemy right wing before they deployed. Williams then went ahead with forty or fifty volunteers to disrupt the enemy's advance and weaken their impact on the V militia. The desired effect of this expedient, according to Williams, was not gained:
General Stevens, observing the enemy to rush on, put his men in mind of their bayonets; but the impetuosity with which they advanced, firing and huzzaing, threw the whole body of the militia into such a panic that they generally threw down their loaded arms and fled in the utmost consternation. The unworthy example of the Virginians was almost instantly followed by the North Carolinians; only a small part of the brigade commanded by Brigadier General Gregory made a short pause. A part of Dixon's regiment of that brigade, next in the line of the Second Maryland Brigade, fired two or three rounds of cartridge. But a great majority of the militia (at least two thirds of the army) fled without firing a shot. The writer avers it of his own knowledge, having seen and observed every part of the army, from left to right, during the action.
In his narrative of these events, Williams went on to describe the chaotic scene in greater detail:
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. Armies have been routed by it, even where no enemy appeared to furnish an excuse. Like electricity, it operates instantaneously—like sympathy, it is irresistible where it touches. But, in the present instance, its action was not universal. The regular troops, who had the keen edge of sensibility rubbed off by strict discipline and hard service, saw the confusion with but little emotion. They engaged seriously in the affair; and, notwithstanding some irregularity, which was created by the militia breaking pell mell through the second line, order was restored there—time enough to give the enemy a severe check, which abated the fury of their assault and obliged them to assume a more deliberate manner of acting.
The attack of the British right wing had been commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster who, instead of pursuing the militia, had wheeled to roll up the exposed flank of the American right. Lord Rawdon had led the British left and forward when Webster's wing advanced, but the Continentals held their ground against repeated attacks, and even succeeded in pushing back the British right. Fog, dust, and smoke hung over the battlefield from the start of this action. The reduced visibility undoubtedly contributed to the panic of the militia, and it isolated the American right from the knowledge that they were now standing alone against the entire enemy army.
De Kalb was sufficiently hard pressed, however, to call for the reserve when his flank came under attack. Although the First Maryland Brigade had re-formed after the militia passed through them, General Smallwood had been swept away with the fugitives, so the (apparently omnipresent) Otho Williams assisted the regimental commanders to lead the First Brigade forward. They tried to bring the brigade up on the exposed flank of the Second Brigade, but the enemy held open a 200-yard gap between them. Cornwallis then turned Webster's regulars against the front of the reserve brigade.
Attempting to refuse their exposed left flank, the First Brigade ended up at a right angle to the Second Brigade. After being driven back twice and rallying twice, the Marylanders were driven from the field. Williams had meanwhile returned to the Second Brigade, where the British were closing in for hand-to-hand combat. Kalb had been unhorsed and was bleeding from several wounds, including a saber cut on the head, but the old Bavarian refused to quit or to retreat without orders from Gates. After leading a counterattack, which achieved a momentary success, the 58-year-old warrior fell mortally wounded, dying a prisoner in Camden three days later. Major George Hanger had led part of the Legion cavalry against the exposed flank of the American right, and Tarleton returned from his pursuit of the left wing to hit from the rear. The Battle of Camden was over and the pursuit began.
PURSUIT AND ITS PROBLEMS
Major Archibald Anderson, Colonel John Gunby, Lieutenant Colonel John Howard, and Captain Henry Dobson, all of Maryland, and Captain Robert Kirkwood of Delaware rallied about sixty men, who retreated as a unit. Other survivors, whether individually or in small groups, scattered in all directions. Tarleton's cavalry met some resistance at Rugeley's Mill from Armand and a few other officers who were trying to save the baggage train from American looters and send it north to safety. The British pushed on to Hanging Rock before the horses and men succumbed to exhaustion. Tarleton returned to Rugeley's late in the afternoon, and left the next morning to destroy Sumter's command at Fishing Creek on 18 August.
Gates, Caswell, and Smallwood were swept from the field with the first wave of fugitives. After abandoning hope of rallying at Rugeley's, Gates covered the remaining sixty miles to Charlotte, North Carolina, on the day of his defeat. A few troops assembled at Charlotte—the remains of Armand's Legion (whose unit had done no fighting at Camden but had momentarily stalled Tarleton at Rugeley's Mill), Smallwood with a handful of men, and Gist with two or three. Believing Charlotte untenable, the wretched remnant of the army, accompanied by patriot refugees, 300 friendly Catawba Indians, and survivors of the battle at Waxhaws started the arduous trek through Salisbury to Hillsboro. Gates arrived there on 19 August, having covered 200 miles in three and a half days.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
Casualty estimates for the American army vary tremendously. Christopher Ward states that of the 4,000 that had constituted "the grand army," only 700 reached Hillsboro. General Cornwallis, writing at the time, claimed that 800 to 900 Americans were killed and that 1,000 were captured. But Lieutenant Colonel H. L. Landers noted that these "numbers are so far from correct that they are valueless as a guide. The militia broke early in the day and scattered in so many directions upon their retreat that very few were made prisoners" (Landers, p. 62). According to Ward, the answer lies somewhere in between. He says:
It has been estimated that 650 of the Continentals were killed or captured, [all of ?] the wounded falling into the hands of the enemy. About 100 of the North Carolina militia were killed or wounded, and [an additional?] 300 were captured. Only 3 of the Virginians were wounded [and none captured?]. (p. 732)
Ward's numbers are valuable primarily in showing which units did the fighting. Only 1,000 Continental troops were on the field, and one battalion, Mordecai Gist's Second Maryland, was far more heavily engaged than the other. In addition, the Delawares on the east flank were under the heaviest pressure. Of the North Carolina militia, Dixon's regiment, which was deployed adjacent to the Delawares, was the only unit to put up any real resistance. Most of the North Carolina casualties must therefore have been in this unit.
Although the British had won a resounding victory, they paid dearly for it. The British lost 324 men: two officers and 66 men killed, eighteen officers and 238 men wounded, according to Fortescue. Most American writers accept the figures of Tarleton, which differ from Fortescue only in that he shows eleven fewer wounded—he puts these eleven in the category of "missing." While these figures sound low, they must be put into perspective. The Volunteers of Ireland suffered a 28 percent casualty rate, and the crack Thirty-third suffered an amazing 42 percent. Replacing these men would prove difficult.
Writing at the time, Captain John Marshall noted that "[n]ever was a victory more complete, or a defeat more total," and, as late as 1900, it was called "the most disastrous defeat ever inflicted on an American army." In England the victory appeared even greater, because Cornwallis repeated his mistaken assessment of American troop strength, putting the ratio of American to British forces at 5,000 to 2,000. (At times he portrayed the ratio as being even more skewed, claiming that his 2,000 troops were confronted by 7,000 American foes. Since Gates himself on the eve of battle thought he had 7,000, Cornwallis's errors are excusable; they detract little from the magnitude of the triumph. In concept and execution the strategy and tactics of Cornwallis were first class. The performance of his troops and subordinate commanders, particularly Rawdon (before the battle), Webster (during the battle), and Tarleton (in the pursuit), was outstanding.
Gates, on the other hand, has been accused with considerable justice of making nearly every error possible. Scheer and Rankin summarize his defense neatly:
Civilians were quick to censure Gates, but few soldiers did; the harshest criticism leveled at him was not that he lost a battle but that he fought at all. Not many generals would have placed reliance on militia in the circumstances. (p. 411)
Nathanael Greene, successor to Gates in the Southern Department, wrote him that, after seeing the battlefield and reviewing Gates's dispositions, attributed the Camden debacle to misfortune, rather than to blameable actions. However, Greene did consider the abandonment of Charlotte to have been entirely unnecessary and, in his opinion, the thing that alienated the Patriot public more than the defeat at Camden. A committee of Congress fully exonerated Gates of misconduct.
Following so closely after the American reverses at Savannah, Charleston, and Waxhaws, the engagements at Camden and Fishing Creek left the Patriots in what historian George Otto Trevelyan calls "a morass of trouble which seemed to have neither shore nor bottom" (vol. 5, p. 298). Cornwallis prepared for an invasion of North Carolina that promised to meet no resistance. Now that its own choices for leadership in the Southern Department (Benjamin Lincoln and Gates) had been eliminated, Congress let Washington pick the general who would be charged with salvaging what was left of the situation. Washington selected Nathanael Greene, but even before Greene's southern campaign got under way, the tide was turned in favor of the American cause at Kings Mountain.
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revised by Steven D. Smith