Hobkirk's Hill (Camden), South Carolina
Hobkirk's Hill (Camden), South Carolina
HOBKIRK'S HILL (CAMDEN), SOUTH CAROLINA. 25 April 1781. When Charles Cornwallis advanced into North Carolina after the Battle of Cowpens, military operations in South Carolina were placed in the hands of Francis, the Lord Rawdon. The principal British post outside Charleston was Camden, the keystone of a defensive arch extending from Georgetown through Camden to Ninety Six and on to Augusta, Georgia.
Major General Nathanael Greene returned to South Carolina after General Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington, North Carolina. Greene commenced operations at long range by detaching Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee's Partisan Legion to cooperate with Colonel Francis Marion, in part because Rawdon had sent Colonel John Watson with some 500 men to destroy Marion's partisans in the Peedee swamps. Greene expected Lee to help block Watson's return to Camden. After covering 140 miles in 14 days, including three days spent crossing the Peedee, Greene reached the Camden area. Greene wanted Sumter to join the main army for an attack on Camden, but Sumter did not do so. (See the map "Camden and Vicinity" for Greene's approaches to Hobkirk's Hill and the subsequent battle.)
Greene's arrival failed to surprise Rawdon because Tory agents had continually sent news of his progress to Camden. After Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's dragoons probed British positions on 20 April, Greene learned Camden's fortifications were too strong to be frontally attacked. The Americans then camped on Hobkirk Hill, over a mile outside Camden, and began harassing the British. (The ridge on which the battle was fought is known as Hobkirk Hill, but the battle has, through common usage, become known as Hobkirk's Hill, and that use is continued here.)
On 21 April, Greene learned that Watson was moving toward Camden. To intercept Watson, Greene left Hobkirk Hill and moved east of Camden. The road system would not permit artillery movement so the guns were sent toward Lynches Creek for safety. When Lee and Marion successfully blocked Watson, Greene returned to Hobkirk Hill on 24 April.
Rawdon was thoroughly familiar with Camden's defenses since he had been posted there since the summer of 1780.With his forces garrisoning scattered outlying posts, and short on supplies and provisions, Rawdon met Greene's threat with skill and audacity. Rawdon was already well-informed of Greene's situation when, on the night of 24-25 April, an American deserter—probably a drummer named James Jones from the Maryland Line—reported that Greene's artillery had been sent away, that Sumter had not arrived, and that Greene's men lacked supplies. The deserter also related Greene's troop dispositions. Rawdon assembled every available man, including convalescents and musicians, and prepared an attack for 25 April.
SETTING AND DISPOSITION
Hobkirk Hill is a sandy ridge north of Camden. The long axis of the hill runs east-west and the Great Road (now Broad Street) from Camden to Waxhaws crosses over about its midpoint. During 1780 the road had been widened to ninety feet. The hill's western slope was somewhat protected by the Wateree; the eastern by swampy bottom lands surrounding Pine Tree Creek and a mill pond. Along the main road, the steep hill sloped southward about one hundred yards onto a densely covered plain that surrounded Logtown, a few hundred yards north of Camden. South of Logtown, the land had been clear-cut, in part by the British to provide clear fields of fire.
Greene disposed his troops skillfully to conform to the terrain. To the southeast, the probable main avenue of approach, he posted Captain Robert Kirkwood's Delaware company with two strong outposts commanded by Captains Perry Benson and Simon Morgan still further south, but less than three hundred yards from the American camp. Patrols covered the southern and western approaches. The main body was camped across Hobkirk Hill in line of battle along the crest with the Great Road dividing the Virginia and Maryland brigades. It was not a straight line because over one hundred yards separated the First and Second Maryland Regiments. The Second Maryland also extended southeastward, following an extension from the main ridge. Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's dragoons and North Carolina militia were in reserve. Perhaps a third of Washington's men were dismounted due to the shortage of cavalry horses. Greene's men received welcome provisions brought forward by Colonel Edward Carrington, who had marched all night and arrived shortly after sunrise. The artillery returned with Carrington but was not initially posted in the line. Colonel Charles Harrison's forty artillerymen, with their three six-pounders, shortly took up concealed positions, two on the road and one between the First and Second Maryland Regiments.
With about eight hundred combatants assembled from his nine-hundred-man garrison, Rawdon moved out of Camden about 9 a.m. on 25 April. The British moved along a terrace west of Pine Tree Creek, planning to exit the lower ground where a little stream, fed by springs behind the Maryland Brigade, flowed into the creek. Instead, they turned west too soon and emerged almost in front of Benson's picket post on the relatively gradual southeastern slopes of Hobkirk Hill.
The Americans were somewhat surprised by the attack because no one reported the British departure from Camden. Since the enemy approached from the expected direction, Benson, Morgan, and then Kirkwood were well placed to slow the attack. The fiercest fighting seems to have occurred in this delaying action as the outposts gave the regiments time to form. The men had already finished cooking and eating the rations brought up by Carrington, and some were washing at the springs. Greene was taking breakfast with officers in the same area when the first shots were fired.
When Rawdon made contact, at about 11 a.m., he deployed in the following manner as shown in table 2. Rawdon also placed Tory marksmen on the left flank. They had instructions to shoot at the American officers.
The British came up the slope and moved west, advancing across the front of the Maryland Brigade toward the main road, where they displayed their column. The three regiments presented a relatively narrow front centered on the road, leading Greene to attack Rawdon rather than wait for the British to reach the main battle line. With Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ford's Second Maryland left flank already extended well to the front, Greene might be seen as trying a double envelopment, because Lieutenant Colonel Richard Campbell's First Virginia already outflanked the British left. Greene ordered his two flanking regiments to swing forward and enfilade the British line while the two center regiments attacked frontally. He also ordered Washington to make a wide sweep beyond the British left and hit the enemy rear.
The Americans started auspiciously. The outlying pickets had slowed the British advance and forced them to deploy in front of the American center. Once the British advanced, they were surprised and momentarily checked when two American guns were unmasked and opened fire with grape shot at short range, catching the British exposed on the road. As soon as Greene's infantry started forward, however, Rawdon extended his battle line so the British overlapped the American right. Things continued to go well for a few minutes. General Benjamin Huger's Virginia Brigade was still gaining ground against the British left.
For reasons that are still not clear, the veteran First Maryland faltered. Gunby compounded the problem by ordering a short, sixty-yard withdrawal to the foot of the hill to reorganize, but the enemy quickly exploited this error by advancing rapidly. Gunby claimed, and Greene supported him, that he halted the regiment to let the right wing catch up. The Second Maryland went through a crisis and then withdrew after Ford was mortally wounded. Campbell's First Virginia, exposed to fire from front and flank, also began withdrawing. Hawes's Second Virginia, the only Continental regiment remaining in position, probably saved Greene's army. It checked the enemy pursuit and withdrew only on orders from Greene to avoid encirclement. As the other three regiments began to rally in the rear, Greene ordered a general retreat, just as he had at Guilford Courthouse.
There was a gallant fight to save the three guns. One was run down into a brush-covered hollow and recovered later that day. When the matrosses started abandoning the other two guns, Greene sent Captain John Smith with a company of forty-five young Irishmen of the Maryland line to their rescue. The regulars dropped their tow ropes twice to repulse attacks by Captain John Coffin's sixty New York Provincial dragoons. After enemy infantry fire shot down Smith and all but fourteen of his men, Coffin came back to kill or capture the survivors. Greene returned with some matrosses and personally assisted in towing the guns.
The American dragoons, meanwhile, having been forced to take a very wide route to the west due to the brush, rode into the enemy rear once they reached the clear space around Logtown. Falling upon some two hundred noncombatant support troops and men who had fled from the first artillery fire, Washington stopped to take prisoners instead of moving on to attack the British rear. There is a tale that Rawdon was surrounded and almost captured by the dragoons but saved by a relief force. While it is possible that Rawdon was attempting to rally men broken by the American artillery fire, it is far more likely that he was toward the front, directing his infantry.
When Washington learned of the retreat, he hastily paroled those enemy officers he could not evacuate and rode back encumbered with fifty prisoners. He arrived just in time to save the guns by hitching them to his horses. Some idea of how fast the battle developed can be seen here because all accounts indicate that Washington was still dealing with the prisoners when he learned of the American withdrawal and moved to save the artillery.
Greene retreated two or three miles in good order while an effective rear guard checked pursuit. About 4 p.m., he sent Washington and Kirkwood back to collect wounded, retrieve the last cannon, and round up stragglers. By then, the British, except Coffin's dragoons, had retired to Camden. When Coffin saw the American cavalry advancing, he charged them. Washington set up an ambush that drove the enemy horse off the field in disorder. The Americans camped near the old Camden battlefield at Saunders Creek and moved back to Rugeley's Mill the next day.
The withdrawals were not panic-stricken rushes to the rear because the men were quickly rallied and fought back. Most accounts agree that it started in Gunby's First Maryland and spread to the Second Maryland and First Virginia. They also agree that Gunby made a mistake in attempting to withdraw and re-form. It is also evident that the loss of American officers figured prominently in the panic. There are conflicting versions of what caused the veteran First Maryland to break.
Greene had ordered the two center regiments to advance without firing. Captain George Armstrong moved out ahead of the First Maryland with two sections (four companies). As the advance got underway, Captain William Beatty Jr., with an additional two-company section moving up the road, was shot, probably at long range by South Carolina royalist riflemen. His company faltered and fell back when he was killed, taking the adjacent company with it. At this point Gunby ordered the regiment's leading elements back to reorganize instead of using Armstrong as a base on which to bring forward the two companies. Even though the regiment rallied, re-formed, and commenced firing on the British, a retrograde movement had begun.
A court of inquiry, called at Gunby's request, found that his "improper and unmilitary" order for the First Maryland Regiment to retire was "in all probability, the only cause why we did not obtain a complete victory." Although the court found no criticism with his personal "spirit and activity," Gunby became the official scapegoat for the loss. This is somewhat unfair as there were many things going on at the time and the main units never came to a close-range engagement.
Greene took about 1,550—including 1,174 Continentals—onto the battlefield. Rawdon's force, reduced by sickness and outlying garrisons, was 800. Losses were about equal on both sides, as Greene reported 266 casualties, of whom 18 were killed, while Rawdon reported a total of 258 lost, 38 of them killed. Greene successfully evacuated his artillery and supply train.
Maryland's Colonel Otho Holland Williams reported there was little heavy fighting, pointing out that few men were wounded with bayonets or buckshot except the advance parties. The heavy fighting seems to have passed rather quickly and was replaced with skirmishing as the Americans attempted to save their artillery and the British conducted a lukewarm pursuit.
Not having destroyed the American army, Rawdon gained nothing from his tactical victory. Faced with growing American numbers, plagued by sickness and an inability to obtain adequate supplies, he abandoned Camden after destroying much of the town. Greene, with reinforcements coming in, including newly raised North Carolina Continentals, occupied Camden. He then sidestepped the British and headed for Ninety Six. The collapse of the entire outer British defense line was underway once Camden fell to Greene.
Greene, Nathanael. Letter "to Samuel Huntington, President of the Continental Congress, 27 April 1781." In The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Edited by Dennis M. Conrad. Vol. 8. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Howard, John Eager. "Letter" [to John Marshall, 1804] Bayard Collection, MS 109, box 4, file 2. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.
Mathis, Samuel. Letter to William R. Davie, 26 June 1819. Manuscript on File, Historic Camden, South Carolina.
Williams, Otho H. Letter "to Elie Williams, 27 April 1781." American Monthly 4, no. 48 (February 1875): 99-104.