Donington, 19 Jany. 1801
[A salutation would almost certainly have been found here in the original. -JR]
Your wish for a detail of the circumstances which preceded the defeat of Gates at Camden shall be gratified as far as my recollection will serve. You tell me that it is not by yourself the information is sought. I must therefore, express my hope that there is no intention of impeaching the just credit which has always been given to Lord Cornwallis for that battle, altho' I am not disguise that, when I saw his public letter, I did not think myself equitably treated in his recital of the event. I was simply classed with Colonel Webster as having done my duty in the action with proper exertion at the head of the wing which I commanded: whereas I think it will appear to you that I stood upon very different ground, both as to particulars of earlier date which led to that battle & as to special services in the very decision. I have not Stedman's History, but I take it for granted that his dates must be correct. Tarleton's narrative is here. He has so strangely disjoined facts which bore important relation to each other, & has so singularly miscomprehended points with which he ought naturally to have been acquainted, that his exposition of the chain of events is as incorrect as his specific accounts of many of the actions. I could, therefore, little aid my memory by recurrence to that book.
Having been left in the command of the back country when Ld. Cornwallis went to Charlestown, I had (by my spies) kept a vigilant eye over the force which was collecting in North Carolina for the invasion of our newly acquired territory. Tho' Ld. Cornwallis had not thought it probable that the attack would be made upon south Carolina till the violent heat of the summer should be passed, I had suspected that Gates might count on our inability to stand the climate (especially as it was known that we were very sickly) & might then make a speedier effort. I had on that account minutely examined the country & formed my eventual plans. Camden had from the first day appeared to me an objectionable station for the army. It was a false position relative to the country, & in itself indefensible beyond any ground that I ever saw. On learning that a body of the enemy's militia had advanced to the Pedee, I considered it a sure indication that Gates would move immediately. I therefore detached Webster, a good & gallant officer, to the east branch of Lynche's Creek & I reinforced a post which I had at Hanging Rock. As soon as I had made the necessary arrangements at Camden, I followed Webster. Of distances, I must speak loosely. I suppose the point whre the road crosses the east branch of Lynche's Creek to be thirty miles from Camden; the post at Hanging Rock, thirty-five. There was a ready communication between the two by a road of about twelve miles. My object in taking this forward position was to retard the progress of Gates' till Ld. Cornwallis should collect force from other parts of the Province, or to reduce the enemy to hazard an action where my peculiar advantages of situation would compensate for my disparity in numbers. I had 1100 men with me, all regulars or provincials; the detachment at Hanging Rock consisted of 400 provincials & 800 militia. The latter was a requisite post, because Sumpter menaced that road to Camden with a corps of militia. Gates came opposite to me. Aware of the danger of attempting to force the pass & of the difficulties that would be entailed by seeking another route, he apparently waited the issue of an enterprize that was mediated against Hanging Rock. One evening, news was brought to me that Sumpter had surprised & carried that post; & the account of the defeat of that detachment was soon confirmed by a number of fugitives from every corps composing it, except the Legion infantry. It appeared a clear consequence that Sumpter, whose men were all mounted, would lose no time in pushing for Camden, by which, in addition to the loss of our magazines, I should have had him on my rear whilst Gates pressed my front. I addressed the Officers around me, who seemed struck with the obvious magnitude of the evil. I told them, in the hearing of the soldiers, that we were in a scrape from which nothing but courage could extricate us, & that we must march instantly to crush Sumpter before he could further co-operate with Gates. We marched in less than half an hour; and crossed the west branch of Lynche's Creek, directing our course to Granny's Quarter. In the morning, I received the information that the fate of the day had been most unexpectedly turned at Hanging Rock: Sumpter, after beating everything else out of the field, had assaulted the Legion infantry in a peculiarly steep part of that strong position, and his militia had not merely been repulsed but were so broken & dismayed by a vigorous charge with the bayonet that they had abandoned the whole ridge. That position was, therefore, still ours. I immediately hastened to occupy the bridge across the western branch of Lynche's Creek. Having sent my cavalry across it, they speedily saw the enemy's dragoons, by which I found that Gates had followed me. In the afternoon, I learned that he was encamped on the other side of the Creek. The communication from my new position to Hanging Rock was much longer than it had been from my former one; & the detachment, weakened & (except the Legion infantry) depressed, was a doubtful barrier against the future attempts of Sumpter. I therefore ordered those troops to fall back & take post behind Granny's Quarter Creek; because, altho' there was no strength of ground there as there was at Hanging Rock, I could in that situation give them ready support. You will see in this the same principle of protracting the advance of Gates untill our cavalry from Charlestown & our Light Infantry from Ninety-six should arrive. Had I repassed the western branch of Lynche's Creek to encounter Gates, I must have met him in a pine-barren even more advantageous for his superiority of numbers than a plain could have been. He had nearly four times as many men as I had with me. Had I concentrated my force at Camden, I must have stood an action before the arrival of the reinforcements, in a position that would give every imaginable advantage to the assailant, with the certainty that the mischief of a check was irretrievable, as there would be no space for rallying & the first success of the enemy put them in possession of our stores. Tarleton, with a childish pretension to Generalship, censures me for not having thus collected my troops at Camden, & arraigns Gates for incapacity in not comprehending that the getting round me & destroying my magazines must be fatal. Tarleton, commanding for so long a period our only corps of light troops in that country, ought to have known that which is evident by his procedure Gates did know, namely, that there was no turning my right flank without going fifty miles down Lynche's Creek, there was no turning my left by a shorter process than heading the Creek & getting into the other road above Hanging Rock. Lynches Creek runs thro' swamps of perhaps a mile in breadth on each side; impenetrable, except where a causeway has been made at the passing-places on the great road. The Thick woods of those swamps prevented us from seeing each other's encampments across the Creek. In my second position, Gates had a post at the outlet of this causeway on his side, but he appeared never to have discovered a pass which came out about two miles from his camp, communicating with a ford on the Creek, from which there was a path into the causeway in my front. By this track I used to send out & receive my spies. The circumstance afforded a great temptation for an attempt to surprise the enemy's camp, and when you recollect that I was then young, not backward in enterprize, & confident in my troops, you may be of opinion there was some honesty in the forebearance. I could have assigned reasons such as everyone must have been obliged to take upon trust from me to prove the expediency of the hazard; but it would, in truth, have been an unfit stake of the public interest. I might have been discovered so as that Gates might have had time to form his army, & in that case I should have to fight under signal disadvantage. On the other hand, I was well apprized that Gate's army was suffering from severe distress from being detained in that desart. But there was one consideration which would alone have been decisive with me: I mean that Ld. Cornwallis was then on his way to join us; and had I atchieved a victory it must have been tarnished by the consciousness that I had availed myself of my temporary command to snatch a palm which ought to have been reserved for my General. To seduce Gates, however, into ruinous error was licit. I retired a mile from the outlet of my causeway in order to tempt him to pass the Creek; when I might have attacked him where brancehs of the swamp would have hindered him from profiting by his numbers: but he was too wise to make the attempt. At length, he could no longer delay a decision. If, by a march of fifty miles he crossed Lynche's Creek below me, he would still have to make his way towards Camden thro' a succession of defiles in the swamps where the Black River has its source, with almost a certainty that I should meet him there. He therefore determined to march to Hanging Rock; at which point he would thirty-five miles from Camden, whereas in his present position he was but fifteen. My view of gaining time, of course, had succeeded. As soon as I had assured myself that this was not a feint, I broke up the bridge & causeways: and I retired to Camden, whither I summoned the troops from Granny's Quarter Creek. The motive for this was a conviction that matters must now be decided between that Creek & Camden. The banks of the Creek were not defensible; and the pine barren between it & Hanging Rock was the sort of extensive waste we were always to shun. Ld. Cornwallis arrived, as did the reinforcements. Having informed himself from me of the preceding movements, he asked me what had been my further purpose. I told him that, as nothing appeared to me so ineligible as receiving the enemy at Camden, I had intended to wait till my spies should apprize me of Gates's being approached within an easy march, when I meant to move forward & attack him. Ld. Cornwallis entered at once into the reasoning, adopted my plan, & reposed himself for its prosecution on the measures I had taken to secure information. In the meantime, he made all the arrangements which he judged expedient. It was I who brought to him the intelligence that Gates had arrived at Kingsley's Plantation. With a pencil I sketched for him the ground, with which I was well acquainted, indicating the position of the enemy, as I understood it by the relation of the spies, & pointing out a path from the main road by which we might possibly get undiscovered on the enemy's flank. On these data the attempt against the enemy was determined. We marched at night. At two in the morning the leading battalion, in the rear of which I was, was charged by cavalry. Their pieces being loaded, our infantry shrunk to the right & left into the bushes, thrusting at the cavalry with their bayonets. The cavalry retreated precipitately & we thought it had been only a strong patrole. When the confusion was over we resumed our march: but we soon had a heavy fire poured upon us, apparently from two battalions. A Brigade of ours immediately formed, advanced in line, & soon exchanged fire with the enemy. The latter were broken & fell back. When we came to where their dead lay, I got off my horse to feel by the uniforms if they were the Continental Infantry which I suspected them to be by the nature of their fire. I was immediately satisfied on the point. I told Ld. Cornwallis of it, saying that it certainly was the enemy's army which we had met, and I then told his Lordship that he could not have better ground to fight upon, as it was a sort of neck between two swamps which would prevent the enemy from getting round his flanks. On this assurance, it being quite dark, he determined to rest till morning & then to attack the enemy. In the battle which ensued, I behaved neither better or worse than my neighbors: therefore Lord Cornwallis's mention of me in common with Webster was the fair compliment paid as a matter of course to officers of rank after a successful action; and, as far as referred to the hour of battle alone, was all that any justice could require towards me. But the preliminary events had not been unimportant, nor had the management been such, I venture to affirm, as had no claim upon Lord Cornwallis's special acknowledgement either as as officer or as man. Lord Cornwallis had the real merit of cool decision, judicious arrangement, & steady firmness in the conduct of the action. Tho' the thickness of the fog in the morning left him to rely as much upon my representation of the nature of the ground as he had been obliged to do during the night, his claim to all the credit of the victory cannot thence be weakened: for it is a part of the skill of the General to avail himself of the
lights he may gather from any inferior officer; & the latter cannot have a pretension to share in the fame from having merely possessed an accidental piece of knowledge which might have remained unprofitable but for the judgement of the Commander. This is clearly the principle on which such a case should be determined by others. With regard to the impression left upon my mind by that chain of events, I should be disengenuous did I not avow that the final result furnished as much of that confidence which one draws from one's own successful experience as if the conclusion had been solely mine. The plan pursued without wavering, tho' with infinite anxiety, for so many days, had completely answered the end proposed & had brought the matter to an issue on more favorable terms than any lesser degree of perseverance could have fashioned; an issue which, as it had been the distinct object of my preceding movements & was prosecuted exactly according to the line I had laid down, I have ventured to believe would not have had any different termination had the function of ordering the attack fallen to my share.
Now my dear Colonel, in return for having given me the labor of travelling over an obsolete tale which can no longer be interesting to anyone upon ordinary grounds, let me claim from you that you shall not suffer a copy to be taken of the account. Remember that I have had the mortification of seeing one letter in print which had been intended only for a sort of confidential communication. I have entered into this detail to satisfy your request: take care that I be not subjected to the disgrace of seeming to call attention to services so long gone bye & which the great scale of action in later years would make appear of miserable exiguity.
[A complimentary closing would almost
[The name and rank of the addressee would almost certainly have been found here -JR]
certainly have been here in the original,
followed by the signature -JR]