Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Thomas Sumter
Cecil B. Hartley

CHAPTER III.

Movements of Gates and Rawdon—Gates informed by Sumter of a convoy of stores from Ninety-Six—Sends a reinforcement to him Sumter captures the convoy—Errors of Gates—Cornwallis determines to fight him—His dispositions for battle—Night encounter—Gates prepares for battle—Battle of Camden—Flight of the militia —Brave resistance of the continentals under Baron De Kalb, and of the North Carolinians—Death of De Kalb.

ABOUT this period Gates was advancing near to the scene of action. The American general, soon after he entered South Carolina, directed his march towards Lynch's creek, the southern branch of the Pedee, keeping on his right the friendly and fertile country about Charlotte, the principal town of Mecklenburgh county. Lord Rawdon, unwilling that Gates should find him in Camden, where were deposited his stores, ammunitions, and sick, advanced to a strong position, fifteen miles in front, on the southern banks of Lynch's creek.

This being ascertained by General Gates, he moved to Lynch's opposite to Lord Rawdon; and the two armies remained for four days, separated only by the creek. Gates broke up from this ground inclining to his right, which putting in danger the British advanced force at Rugely's mill, Lord Rawdon directed its evacuation, and fell back to Logstown, in the vicinity of Camden. Here he became acquainted with the insurrection of the inhabitants on Black river, headed by Brigadier Marion, which, although suspected, it was presumed would have been delayed until the American army should obtain some decisive advantage. Gates, desirous of opening his communication with Sumter, continued to advance upon the North side of Lynch's creek, and took post at Rugely's mill, where he was joined by Brigadier Stevens with seven hundred of the Virginia militia. At the same time he received information from General Sumter that a detachment of the enemy from Ninety-Six, with stores for the main body at Camden, was on its march, which he could conveniently intercept as it passed the ferry on the Wateree, one mile below Camden, if supplied with artillery to batter down a redoubt which covered the ferry. Gates weakened his army, though in striking distance of his foe, by detaching to Sumter four hundred men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Woolford, of the Maryland line, with two light pieces. As soon as this detachment was put in motion, preparations were made to advance still nearer to Camden.

Meantime Sumter, the moment he received his reinforcement, set off in pursuit of the convoy. Putting his command in motion for Camden ferry, he pushed forward with equal caution and celerity.

Near break of day on the 16th of August, he had approached, undiscovered, to within a few miles of Carey's Ford. The British were taken by surprise. A sudden and impetuous onslaught in Sumter's usual style succeeded, and victory soon declared in his favor. The fort, the stores, troops—all, were surrendered, and in possession of forty-four wagons crammed with valuable stores, together with numerous prisoners, Sumter instantly commenced his retreat with the view of placing his valuable capture beyond the reach of the enemy.

The evacuation of Rugely's mill, and the falling back of Lord Rawdon from Lynch's creek, seem to have inspired General Gates with the presumption that his approach would drive the enemy from Camden. No conclusion more erroneous could have been drawn from a fair view of the objects and situation of the respective armies.

The British general was under the necessity of maintaining his position; for retreat yielded up that country which he was bound to retain, and encouraged that spirit of revolt which he was bound to repress. All the disposable force under his orders had been concentrated at Camden; delay would not thicken his ranks while it was sure to add to those of his adversary. Every consideration urged the British general to battle; and no commander was ever more disposed than Lord Cornwallis to cut out relief from embarrassment by the sword. The foundation of the policy pursued by General Gates, was laid in error; and we ought not to be surprised at its disastrous termination. Had Gates not confidently presumed that a retrogade movement on the part of the enemy would have been the effect of his advance, he certainly would have detained Woolford's detachment, and ordered Sumter to join him; it being unquestionable that victory in the plains of Camden would give to him the British army, and with it all the posts in South Carolina except Charleston. To this end his means ought to have been solely directed; or if he preferred the wiser course, to spin out the campaign condensing his main body, and beating the enemy in detail, he should have continued in his strong position behind Lynch's creek, ready upon Cornwallis's advance to have fallen back upon its head waters, in the powerful and doubtful counties of Cabarrus, Rowand, and Mecklenburgh.[note 1]

No doubt General Gates was unfortunately persuaded that he had nothing to do but to advance upon his enemy, never supposing that, so far from retiring, the British general would seize the proffered opportunity of battle.

Unhappily for America, unhappily for himself, he acted under this influence, nor did he awake from his reverie until the proximity of the enemy was announced by his fire in the night, preceding the fatal morning.

Lord Cornwallis having been regularly informed of the passing occurrences, hastened to Camden, which he reached on the 13th; spending the subsequent day in review and examination, he found his army very much enfeebled; eight hundred being sick, his effective strength was reduced to somewhat less than two thousand and three hundred men, including militia, and Bryan's corps, which together amounted to seven hundred and fifty men. Judging from the exertions of Congress and the States of Virginia and North Carolina, by their publications, he rated his enemy at six thousand; in which estimation his lordship was much mistaken, as from official returns on the evening preceding the battle, it appears that the American force did not exceed four thousand, including the corps detached under Lieutenant Colonel Woolford; yet there was a great disparity of numbers in our favor; but we fell short in quality, our continental horse, foot, and artillery, being under one thousand, whereas the British regulars amounted to nearly one thousand and six hundred.

Notwithstanding his diminished force, notwithstanding the vast expected superiority of his enemy, the discriminating mind of the British general paused not an instant in deciding upon his course.

No idea of a retrogade movement was entertained by him. Victory only could extricate him from the surrounding dangers; and the quicker the decision the better his chance of success. He therefore gave orders to prepare for battle, and in the evening of the 15th, put his army in motion to attack his enemy next morning in his position at Rugeley's mill.

Having placed Camden in the care of Major M'Arthur, with the convalescents, some of the militia, and a detachment of regulars expected in the course of the day, he moved, at the hour of ten at night, in two divisions. The front division, composed of four companies of light infantry, with the twenty-third and thirty-third regiments, was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Webster.

The rear division, consisting of the legion infantry, Hamilton's regiment of North Carolinians, the volunteers of Ireland, and Bryan's corps of loyalists, was under the orders of Lord Rawdon. Two battalions of the seventy-first, with the legion cavalry, formed the reserve.

After Gates had detached Woolford to Sumter, and prepared his army to move, it was resolved in a council of war to march on the night of the 15th, and to sit down behind Saunders's creek, within seven miles of Camden. Thus it happened that both the generals were in motion at the same hour, and for the same purpose: with this material distinction, that the American general grounded his conduct in his mistaken confidence of his adversary's disposition to retreat; whereas, the British commander sought for battle with anxiety, regarding the evasion of it by his antagonist as the highest misfortune.

Our baggage, stores, and sick, having been sent off to the friendly settlement of the Waxhaws, the army marched at ten o'clock at night. Armand's[note 2] legion, in horse and foot not exceeding one hundred, moved as a van guard, flanked by Lieutenant Colonel Porterfield's corps on the right, and by Major Armstrong's light infantry, of the North Carolina militia, on the left. The Maryland and Delaware lines composed the front division, under Baron de Kalb; the Militia of North Carolina, General Caswell, the centre; and the Virginia militia under Brigadier Stevens, the rear. Some volunteer cavalry were placed to guard the baggage. Midway between Camden and Rugeley's mill, the two armies met, about one in the morning. They instantly felt each other; when the corps of Armand shamefully turned its back, carrying confusion and dismay into our ranks. The leading regiment of Maryland was disordered by this ignominious flight; but the gallant Porterfield, taking his part with decision on the right, seconded by Armstrong on the left, soon brought the enemy's van to a pause. Prisoners being taken on both sides, the adverse generals became informed of their unexpected proximity.[note 3]

The two armies halted, each throbbing with the emotions which the van rencontre had excited. The British army displayed in one line, which completely occupied the ground, each flank resting on impervious swamps. The infantry of the reserve took post in a second line, one half opposite the centre of each wing; and the cavalry held the road, where the left of the right wing united with the volunteers of Ireland, which corps formed the right of the left wing. Lieutenant Colonel Webster commanded on the right, and Colonel Lord Rawdon on the left. With the front line were two six and two three pounders, under Lieutenant M'Leod of the artillery; with the reserve were two six pounders. Thus arranged, confiding in discipline and experience, the British general waited anxiously for light.

The Maryland leading regiment was soon recovered from the confusion produced by the panic of Armand's cavalry. Battle, although unexpected, was now inevitable; and General Gates arrayed his army with promptitude. The second brigade of Maryland, with the regiment of Delaware, under General Gist, took the right; the brigade of North Carolina militia, led by Brigadier Caswell, the centre; and that of Virginia, under Brigadier Stevens, the left. The first brigade of Maryland was formed in reserve, under the command of General Smallwood, who had on York Island, in the beginning of the war, when colonel of the first regiment of Maryland, deeply planted in the hearts of his country the remembrance of his zeal and valor, conspicuously displayed in that the first of his fields. To each brigade a due proportion of artillery was allotted; but we had no cavalry, as those who led in the right were still flying. Major General Baron de Kalb, charged with the line of battle, took post on the right; while the general in chief, superintending the whole, placed himself on the road between the line and the reserve. The light of day dawned,—the signal for battle. Instantly our centre opened its artillery, and the left of our line, under Stevens, was ordered to advance. The veterans of the enemy, composing its right, were of course opposed to the Virginia militia; whereas they ought to have been faced by the continental brigade.[note 4] Stevens, however, exhorting his soldiers to rely on the bayonet, advanced with his accustomed intrepidity. Lieutenant Colonel Otho Williams, Adjutant General, preceded him with a band of volunteers, in order to invite the fire of the enemy before they were in reach of the militia, that experience of its inefficacy might encourage the latter to do their duty. The British general, closely watching our motions, discovered this movement on the left, and gave orders to Webster to lead into battle with the right. The command was executed with the characteristic courage and intelligence of that officer. Our left was instantly overpowered by the assault; and the brave Stevens had to endure the mortifying spectacle, exhibited by his flying brigade. Without exchanging more than one fire with the enemy, they threw away their arms; and sought that safety in flight, which generally can be obtained only by courageous resistance. The North Carolina brigade, imitating that on the right, followed the shameful example. Stevens, Caswell, and Gates himself, struggled to stop the fugitives, and rally them for battle; but every noble feeling of the heart was sunk in base solicitude to preserve life; and having no cavalry to assist their exertions, the attempted reclamation failed entirely. The continental troops, with Dixon's regiment of North Carolinians, were left to oppose the enemy; every corps of whose army was acting with the most determined resolution. De Kalb and Gist yet held the battle on our right in suspense. Lieutenant Colonel Howard, at the head of Williams's regiment, drove the corps in front out of line. Rawdon could not bring the brigade of Gist to recede:—bold was the pressure of the foe; firm as a rock the resistance of Gist. Now the Marylanders were gaining ground; but the deplorable desertion of the militia having left Webster unemployed, that discerning soldier detached some light troops with Tarleton's cavalry in pursuit, and opposed himself to the reserve brought up by Smallwood to replace the fugitives. Here the battle was renewed with fierceness and obstinacy. The gallant Marylanders, with Dixon's regiment, although greatly outnumbered, firmly maintained the desperate conflict; and De Kalb, now finding his once exposed flank completely shielded, resorted to the bayonet. Dreadful was the charge! In one point of the line the enemy were driven before us with the loss of many prisoners. But while Smallwood covered the flank of the second brigade, his left became exposed; and Webster, never omitting to seize every advantage, turned the light infantry and twenty-third regiment on his open flank. Smallwood, however, sustained himself with undiminished vigor; but borne down at last by superiority of force, the first brigade receded. Soon it returned to the line of battle;—again it gave ground, and again rallied. Meanwhile De Kalb, with our right, preserved a conspicuous superiority. Lord Cornwallis, sensible of the advantages gained, and aware of the difficulty to which we were subjected by the shameful flight of our left, concentrated his force and made a decisive charge. Our brave troops were broken; and his lordship, following up the blow, compelled the intrepid Marylanders to abandon the unequal contest. To the woods and swamps, after performing their duty valiantly, these gallant soldiers were compelled to fly. The pursuit was continued with keenness, and none were saved but those who penetrated the swamps which had been deemed impassable. The road was heaped with the dead and wounded. Arms, artillery, horses, and baggage, were strewed in every direction; and the whole adjacent country presented evidences of the signal defeat.

Our loss was very heavy. More than a third of the continental troops were killed and wounded; and of the wounded one hundred and seventy were made prisoners. The regiment of Delaware was nearly annihilated; and Lieutenant Colonel Vaughn and Major Patton being taken, its remnant, less than two companies, was afterwards placed under the orders of Kirkwood, senior Captain. The North Carolina militia also suffered greatly; more than three hundred were taken, and nearly one hundred killed and wounded. Contrary to the usual course of events and the general wish, the Virginia militia, who set the infamous example which produced the destruction of our army, escaped entirely.

De Kalb, sustaining by his splendid example the courageous efforts of our inferior force, in his last resolute attempt to seize victory, received eleven wounds, and was made prisoner. His yet lingering life was rescued from immediate death by the brave interposition of Lieutenant Colonel Du Buysson, one of his aids-de-camp; who, embracing the prostrate general, received into his own body the bayonets pointed at his friend. The heroic veteran, though treated with every attention, survived but a few days. Never were the last moments of a soldier better employed. He dictated a letter to General Smallwood, who succeeded to the command of his division, breathing in every word his sincere and ardent affection for his officers and soldiers; expressing his admiration of their late noble though unsuccessful stand; reciting the eulogy which their bravery had extorted from the enemy; together with the lively delight such testimony of their valor had excited in his own mind, then hovering on the shadowy confines of life. In this endearing adieu he comprehended Lieutenant Colonel Vaughn, with the Delaware regiment and the artillery attached to his division; both of which corps had shared in the glory of that disastrous day. Feeling the pressure of death, he stretched out his quivering hand to his friend Du Buysson, proud of his generous wounds; and breathed his last in benedictions on his faithful, brave division. We lost, besides Major General Baron de Kalb, many excellent officers; and among them Lieutenant Colonel Porterfield, whose promise of future greatness had endeared him to the whole army. Wounded in his brave stand in the morning, when our dragoons basely fled, he was taken off the field, never more to draw his sword! Brigadier Rutherford, of the North Carolina militia, and Major Thomas Pinkney, of the South Carolina Line, aid-de-camp to General Gates, were both wounded and taken.

The British loss is stated to have amounted to eighty killed, and two hundred and forty-five wounded.[note 5]