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Gates's Flight from Camden

Gates's Flight from Camden

GATES'S FLIGHT FROM CAMDEN. 16-19 August 1780. After retreating to Rugeley's Mill with the routed militia of his left wing from Camden, and after failing to rally them to stand, General Horatio Gates covered 60 miles on a horse famous for its speed and reached Charlotte the evening of the battle (16 August). During the next two days, mounted on a relay of horses, he covered 120 miles to reach Hillsboro, North Carolina, on 19 August. Alexander Hamilton, whom one scholar (Lynn Montross) has called Gates's "leading character assassin," commented:

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. But it disgraces the general and the soldier.

Gates explained in a letter of 22 August to Governor Richard Caswell his reasons for going so precipitously to Hillsboro:

I therefore resolved to proceed directly thither, to give orders for assembling the Continental Troops on the March from Virginia, to direct the Three Corps of Horse at C[ross] Creek to cover the stores … and to urge the Resources of Virginia to be drawn forth for our support.

Henry Lee praised Gates for seeing that Hillsboro was the best place to rebuild his army and for going immediately there despite "the calumny with which he was sure to be assailed."

Although Congress replaced Gates with Nathanael Greene, a congressional committee would exonerate Gates's conduct at Camden. Overall, historians would be harder on Gates than most of his contemporaries. Perhaps, Nathanael Greene, his successor, should have the last word on Gates's performance. In January 1781 Greene wrote Alexander Hamilton:

The battle of Camden is represented widely different from what is to the Northward. Col[onel] Williams thinks that none of the General Officers were entitled to any extraordinary merit…. The Col also says that General Gates would have shared little more disgrace than is common lot of the unfortunate notwithstanding he was early off, if he had only halted at the Waxhaws or Charlotte.

Later, in October 1781, Greene would personally write to Gates:

I had the opportunity of viewing the ground where you fought, as well as the disposition and Order of Battle, from all which I was more fully confirmed in my former sentiments, that you were unfortunate, but not blameable; and I am confident, from all the inquiries I have since made, you will acquit yourself with honor.

SEE ALSO Camden Campaign; Gates, Horatio; Greene, Nathanael; Lee, Henry ("Light-Horse Harry").


Conrad, Dennis M., Roger N. Parks, and Martha J. King, eds. "General Nathanael Greene to General Horatio Gates, October 4th, 1781." In The Papers of Nathanael Greene. Volume IX: 11 July 1781–2 December 1781. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Landers, Howard L. Battle of Camden, South Carolina, August 16 1780. Washington, D.C.: General Printing Office, 1989.

Montross, Lynn. Rag, Tag, And Bobtail: The Story of the Continental Army, 1775–1783. New York: Harper, 1952.

Nelwon, Paul D. General Horatio Gates. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Showman, Richard K., Dennis M. Conrad, Roger N. Parks, and Elizabeth C. Stevens, eds. "General Nathanael Greene to Alexander Hamilton, January 10h, 1781." In The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Volume VII: 26 December 1780–29 March 1781. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

                            revised by Steven D. Smith

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