Roderick Mackenzie's criticism of Tarleton's account of the Battle of Camden.

From Roderick Mackenzie Strictures On Lt. Col. Tarleton's History "Of The Campaigns Of 1780 And 1781, In The Southern Provinces Of North America

Transcribed by Marg Baskin.



IN support of the maxim contained in the close of my last letter, I proceed to shew, that, through this performance, the author, in general, either appears as his own panegyrist and hero of his tale, or as the detractor and censor of the conduct of others; his mole-hills are raised into mountains, while the most splendid actions of those who came nearest to the summit of perfection, are either depreciated by avowed censure, oblique insinuation, or entirely


passed over in silence. Even a Lord Rawdon escapes not the acrimony of his pen! Accordingly, in his relation of circumstances which occurred during this nobleman's encampment at Lynch's Creek, he observes, page 99, "The hospital, the baggage, the provisions, the ammunition, and the stores, remained under a weak guard at Camden. General Gates advanced to the Creek opposite to the British camp, and skirmishes ensued between the advanced parties of the two armies. The American commander discovered that Lord Rawdon's position was strong, and he declined an attack; but he had not sufficient penetration to conceive, that by a forced march up the Creek he could have passed Lord Rawdon's flank, and reached Camden, which would have been an easy conquest, and a fatal blow to the British." and page 109, "The first misconception imputable to General Gates, was the not breaking in upon the British communications as


soon as he arrived near Lynch's Creek. The move up the Creek, and from thence to Camden, was practicable and easy before the King's troops were concentered at that place; or he might, without the smallest difficulty, have occupied a strong position on Saunders's Creek, five miles from Camden, before Earl Cornwallis joined the Royal forces."

The most strongly marked features in the military character of Lord Rawdon, are, a singular talent for enterpize, and acute discernment, and unremitting vigilance. The army under his command lay for several days within one mile of General Gates's encampment, and directly between him and Camden, the protection of which place, was the great and immediate object of his Lordship's attention, and to accomplish which, he shewed no disinclination to come to an action. Thus situated, and so determined, it is ridiculous to suppose that he would have


suffered the American army to pass on either flank, or by any means to possess themselves of Camden, which was then the only depot of the British army in that part of the country. The inconsistency of these insinuations have been exposed, even by gentlemen, who, though unacquainted with local situations, justly conclude, "That it must suppose a supineness in Lord Rawdon, by no means consistent with his abilities and military talents 8." But to put the matter beyond a doubt, here, as usual, our author furnishes a decided argument in contradiction to his own assertions. Page 101, he tells us, "A patrole, sent by General Gates to Rugely's Mills on the 12th, occasioned a report that the American commander was moving to his right. The situation of the British hospital and magazine, and the present distance of the army, pointed out to Lord Rawdon the propriety of falling back from


Lynch's Creek, and of concentrating his force near Camden. The move was accordingly made." If then, as the author himself acknowledges, even a patrole of the enemy failed not to excite the attention of Lord Rawdon, was it to be supposed that the movement of a whole army would escape his vigilance and circumspection?

Our author, in arraigning the penetration of General Gates, is rather unfortunate; his animadversions unluckily falling upon an officer who had, before that, proved to all mankind, that he neither wanted inclination nor ability to be a principal instrument of the ruin of the British interest in America 9. From his known character there is not left a shadow of doubt, that if the measures


suggested by this author had been the most proper, they would not have been neglected.

While one slender thread runs through the whole labyrinth of this incoherent performance, influencing its author in every assertion, and while he never quits the idea of raising himself, and sinking the other officers of the British army in the estimation of his readers; to render this scheme more complete, he extends his animadversions to the commanders of the enemy, attributing to their misconduct the most brilliant achievements of the best British officers, and imputing to want of ability in the latter, every misfortune which befel them. But the whole execution is accompanied with such a wavering inconsistency, and displays such a feebleness of judgment throughout, as to justify the application to his case of the words of a celebrated poet:


"He now to sense, now nonsense leaning,
Means not, but blunders round about a meaning."

And he has left us to lament, with Ganganelli, that there are some authors, who in their attempts to rise into the uncommon, have fallen into the absurd.

The following passages are selected to shew the self-importance which pervades this work. Page 7, "Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton requested the use of some of the Quarter Master General's boats." Page 27, "Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, on this occasion, was desired to collect all the dragoons he could find in Charlestown." Page 103, "Upon application from Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, he (Earl Cornwallis) ordered all the horses of the army, belonging both to regiments and departments, to be assembled: the best were selected for


the service of the cavalry, and, upon the proprietors receiving payment, they were delivered up to the British legion. These active preparations diffused animation and vigour throughout the army. On the 15th, the principal part of the King's troops had orders to be in readiness to march: in the afternoon Earl Cornwallis desired Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, &c."

Such effusions of vanity as these have a very disgusting effect. To other officers, from a General of such high birth and length of service, it was sufficient to be commanded, but this gentleman must be desired and requested to do what was merely his duty.

It is well known that the publick service required Earl Cornwallis to mount dragoons by the expedient just mentioned; and, that the British government is too just to deprive its subjects of private property without an equivalent, I readily


admit, but that the proprietors have received payment for these horses, is denied. A number of officers, now in this kingdom, are in possession of receipts passed on this occasion by Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, which remain to this hour undischarged; many of these gentlemen are reduced to the scanty pittance of half-pay, and it would afford them must satisfaction to know through what channel they are to make application for payment.

I am, &c.


  1. Critical Review, May, 1787.

  2. General Gates had attained the rank of Major in the British service. Upon the commencement of the American war, he took an active part in the affairs of that country, and was the officer who captured an army at Saratoga.