From: Charles Stedman, The History of the Origins, Progress and Termination of the American War (London: J. Murray, Printer, 1794)..Vol.II pp.204-215.
Earl Cornwallis sets out from Charlestown to Camden — Action between the Americans under General Gates, and the British under Earl Cornwallis, near Camden — The American Force under Colonel Sumter surprised by Colonel Tarleton — Perfidy of the Americans — Restrained by Examples of Severity — Lord Cornwallis marches into North Carolina — Defeat and Fall of Major Ferguson.
IN the mean time the different corps of continental troops and militia, command by the baron de Kalbe, Caswell, Rutherford, and Porterfield, having formed a junction, entered the province of South Carolina. General Gates joined them on the twenty-seventh of July; and the whole, under his command, advanced by the main road towards Camden. In order to stop their progress, lord Rawdon moved forward, with the force under his command at Camden, and took a strong position about fourteen miles in front of it, upon the west branch of Lynche's Creek. General Gates advanced on the opposite side; and the two armies continued for several days opposed to each other, with the creek only intervening between their advanced parties. While the opposite armies lay in this situation, orders were sent to lieutenant-colonel Cruger to forward with all haste to Camden the four companies of light-infantry stationed at Ninety-six; and intelligence being received of a movement made by the Americans towards their right, orders were sent to the British officer commanding at Rugeley's Mills, to evacuate his
post, which was exposed on account of its advanced situation, and , after sending part of his detachment to join the army, to retire with the rest of Camden. By the evacuation of the post at Rugeley's Mills the road leading from Waxhaws to Camden was left unguarded; and lord Rawdon, fearing that general Gates might attempt to pass him by this road, and get into his rear, found it necessary to fall back from Lynche's Creek, nearer to Camden, and took a new position at Logtown. By this time almost all the inhabitants between Black River and Pedee had openly revolted and joined the Americans; and, in other quarters, they seemed disposed to follow the example, whenever it could be done with security. Sumpter, with his force increased by a detachment of continental soldiers, was sent across the Wateree to favour the revolt of the inhabitants on the fourth-west side of that river, and to intercept the supplies and reinforcements on the road to Camden; and general Gates, in order to preserve a communication with Sumpter, moved to his right up the north side of Lynche's Creek, and took post at Rugeley's Mills, intending to advance from thence, by the Waxhaw road, to Camden. Information of these movements on the part of the enemy being regularly transmitted by lord Rawdon to Charlestown, Earl Cornwallis thought it necessary to postpone the completion of the civil arrangements in which he had for some time past been engaged, and to proceed to Camden, where the threatening aspect of affairs required all his immediate attention. He set out from Charlestown in the evening of the tenth, and arrived at Camden in the evening of the thirteenth, of August. The following day he spent in examining the condition of his own force, and in obtaining information of that of the enemy: Nearly eight hundred British troops were sick at Camden. The number of those who were really effective, amounted to something more than two thousand, including officers, of whom about fifteen hundred were regulars,
or belonged to established provincial corps, and the rest, militia and refugees from North Carolina. The force under general Gates was represented to amount to fix thousand men, exclusive of Sumpter's corps, which was estimated at one thousand: The American accounts, since published, say that general Gates army, even including Sumpter's corps, did not much exceed five thousand men; but we have ground for believing that general Gates force was little less than six thousand strong. But almost the whole country seemed upon the eve of a revolt. The communication between Camden and Charlestown appeared in danger of being cut off by the enterprising movements of Sumpter, whole numbers were daily increasing by the junction of disaffected inhabitants. The safety of the army depended upon preserving a communication with the seacoast; and something was necessary to be done immediately for extricating it from its perilous situation. At this juncture a retreat to Charlestown might have been effected without much difficulty; but the sick must have been left behind, the magazines of stores either.
abandoned or destroyed, and the loss of the whole country would have necessarily followed, except indeed Charlestown, in which there was already a sufficient garrison for its consequences than such a retreat: And where the motives for action so strongly preponderated, there was not much room for deliberation in the breast of an officer of so much enterprise as lord Cornwallis, Confiding in the valour and discipline of his troops, however inferior in number, he resolved to move forward and attack the enemy, whose present situation at Rugeley's Mills inclined him to execute his intention without delay. Meaning to attack them early in the morning of the sixteenth of August, and to point his attack principally against the continental regiments, whole position, from the information he had received, he knew to be a bad one, earl Cornwallis began his march towards Rugeley's Mills, at ten in the evening of the fifteenth of August, committing the defence of Camden to major McArthur, with some provincials, militia, convalescents of the army, and a detachment of the sixty-third regiment, which was expected to arrive during the night. The army marched in the following order: The front division, commanded by lieutenant-colonel Webster, consisted of four companies of light-infantry, and the twenty-third and thirty-third regiments, preceded by twenty cavalry, and as many mounted infantry of the legion, as an advanced guard. The center division consisted of the volunteers of Ireland, the legion infantry, Hamilton's North Carolina regiment, and colonel Bryan's refugees, under the command of lord Rawdon. And the two battalions of the seventy first regiment followed as a reserve; the dragoons of the legion forming the rear-guard. It is not a little singular that the same night, nearly about the same time, and with a similar intention, general Gates should have left his encampment at Rugeley's Mills, and moved forward towards Camden. Both armies marching on the same
road, in opposite directions, their advanced guards met and fired upon each other about two in the morning. Some prisoners were made on both sides; and from these the respective commanders became acquainted with the movements of the other: Both armies halted and were formed; and the firing soon afterwards ceased as if by mutual consent. The ground on which the two armies had accidentally met was as favourable for lord Cornwallis as he could have wished: A swamp on each side secured his flanks, and narrowed the ground in front, so as to render the superiority of the enemy in numbers of less consequence: He therefore waited with impatience for the approach of day; and as soon as it appeared made his last disposition for the attack. The front line was made up of the two divisions of the army already mentioned under lord Rawdon and lieutenant-colonel Webster, Webster's division being to the right, and lord Rawdon's to the left. These division's were disposed in such a manner, that the thirty-third regiment, on the left of Webster's, communicating with the volunteers of Ireland, on the right of lord Rawdon's, formed the center of the line; and to the front line were attaché two six-pounders, and two three-pounders, under the direction of lieutenant Macleod of the royal artillery. The seventy-first regiment, with two six-pounders, formed a second line, or reserve, one battalion being posted behind each wing; and in the rear of the whole, the cavalry were ready either to charge or pursue, as circumstances might require.
The American army was also formed in two lines, general Gist's brigade of continental troops being on the right, the North Carolina militia in the center, and the Virginia militia, which had joined the army only the day before, with the light-infantry, and Porterfield's corps, being on the left. The first Maryland brigade formed a second line or corps de reserve: And the artillery was divided between the two brigades.
The opposite armies being thus ranged in order of battle, and some movement being observed on the left of the provincial line, as if a change of disposition had been intended, lord Cornwallis deemed this the critical moment for beginning the action, and gave orders to lieutenant-colonel Webster to advance and charge the enemy. The order was immediately executed with such alacrity, and the charge made with so much promptitude and success, that the Virginia militia, quickly giving way, threw down their arms and fled, and were soon afterwards followed by the greatest part of the militia of North Carolina. The American reserve was now brought into action; and general Gates, in conjunction with general Caswell, retiring with the militia, endeavoured to rally them at different advantageous passes in the rear of the field of action, but in vain; They ran at first like a torrent, and afterwards spread through the woods in every direction. Lord Rawdon began the action on the left with no less vigour and spirit than Webster had done on the right; but here, and in the center, against part of Webster's division, the contest was more obstinately maintained by the Americans, whole artillery did considerable execution. Their left flank was, however, exposed by the flight of the militia; and the light-infantry and twenty-third regiment, who had been opposed to the fugitives, instead of pursuing them, wheeled to the left and came upon the flank of the continentals, who, after a brave resistance for near three quarters of an hour, were thrown into total confusion, and forced to give way in all quarters. Their rout was completed by the cavalry, who continued the pursuit to Hanging Rock, twenty-two miles from the field of action. Between eight and nine hundred of the enemy were killed in the action, and in the pursuit, and about one thousand made prisoners, many of whom were wounded. Of this number, were major-general baron de Kalbe, and brigadier-general Rutherford. The former of these officers, at the head of
a continental regiment of infantry, made a vigorous charge on the left wing of the British army, and when wounded and taken prisoner would fearcely believe that the provincial army had been defeated. He died of his wounds a few days after the action, much regretted by the Americans. One hundred and fifty waggons, a considerable quantity of military stores, and all the baggage and camp equipage of the provincial army, a number of colours, and seven pieces of cannon, were taken. General Gates, who retired with the militia to endeavour to rally them, finding all his efforts vain, gave up every thing as lost, and fled first to Charlotte, ninety miles from the place of action; and from thence to Hillsborough, in North Carolina, one hundred and eighty miles from Camden. General Gist alone, of all the American commanders, was able to keep together about one hundred men, who flying across a swamp on their right, through which they could not be pursued by the British dragoons, made good their retreat in a body. The loss of the British troops n this battle amounted to three hundred and twenty-five, of whom sixty-nine were killed, two hundred and forty-five wounded, and eleven missing. The weight of the action fell upon the thirty-third regiment on the left of Webster's division, and the volunteers of Ireland in the right of lord Rawdon's; and of course, by them the greatest loss was sustained, which amounted to two thirds of the whole. The road for some miles was strewed with the wounded and killed, who had been overtaken by the legion in their pursuit. The number of dead horses, broken wagons, and baggage, scattered soon the road, formed a perfect scene of horror and confusion; such was the terror and dismay of the Americans. The number of killed, wounded, and taken, exceeded the number of British regular troops in the action by at least three hundred. Lord Cornwallis's judgment in planning, his promptitude in executing, and his fortitude
and colonels during the time of action, justly attracted universal applause and admiration. The lord Rawdon, who was only twenty-five years of age, bore a very conspicuous part in this day's action. Colonel Webster's conduct was confident with his general character: Cool, determined, vigilant, and active in action, he added to a reputation established by long service, the universal esteem and respect of the whole army, as an officer of great experience and observation as well as bravery and rigid discipline. In a word, every British officer and soldier evinced in this day's action the most perfect intrepidity and valour. The American wounded were treated with the utmost humanity.
General Gates's conduct has been much censured. We are told no place was appointed for rendezvous in case of a defeat: His baggage should have been much farther in the rear: By delay Gates must have added to his strength every hour, but he was confident of success.
General Gates's army being thus completely ruined and dispersed, the only provincial force in South Carolina which remained entire was that under Sumpter on the other side of the Wateree. Had he been permitted to retire in North Carolina unmolested, his force, small as it was, would have been sufficient to occupy a convenient station for collecting the scattered remains of the American army: It was therefore of importance to strike at his corps, and endeavour to cut it off. An object of so much consequence did not escape the attention of the commander in chief; and in the evening of the day of the engagement orders were sent to lieutenant -colonel Turnbull, who, with the New York volunteers, upon evacuating the post at Rocky Mount, had joined major Ferguson's corps on Little river, to endeavour to intercept Sumpter in his retreat. The light-infantry and the legion, who were destined to proceed on the same service, being exhausted with the fatigues of the day, were suffered to repose themselves during the night, but received orders to be
in readiness to march early the next morning, under the command of lieutenant-colonel Tarleton. On the following morning this active and enterprising officer, in pursuance of his orders, set out with his detachment, amounting to three hundred and fifty men, and receiving intelligence, during his march, of the retreat of Sumpter along the western banks of the Wateree, pursued so closely, that, after passing the river at Rocky Mount Ford, he overtook him at two in the afternoon of the eighteenth of August, near the Catawba Ford, when he was within a few hours march of reaching a friendly settlement. Sumpter, upon hearing of general Gates's defeat at Camden, immediately began his retreat, and moves with so much dispatch, that, thinking himself already out of all danger, he had encamped at this early hour to give his men some repose during the heat of the day. The surprise was so complete, that the British soldiers, both cavalry and infantry, entered the American camp, and cut off the provincials from their arms and artillery before they had time to assemble. Some opposition was however made from behind the wagons in front of the militia, but the universal consternation which prevailed rendered it ineffectual. In one hundred and fifty of the provincials were either killed or wounded, and upwards of three hundred made prisoners. Sumpter's force consisted of one hundred continental soldiers, seven hundred militia, and two pieces of cannon: And he had in his train about two hundred and fifty prisoners, part of them British soldiers, and the rest loyal militia, and a number of waggons laden with rum and other stores for the British, which he had taken on the neighborhood of Camden, on the opposite side of the river. The prisoners were all released, and the wagons retaken: And the whole of the provincial stores, ammunition, and baggage, with their artillery, and one thousand stand of arms, fell into the hands of the conquerors. Sumpter, by riding off without waiting to put on his coat, which he had laid aside on account of the
heat of the weather, made his escape; but the rest of his detachment were all either killed, taken, or dispersed. The rapidity of Tarleton's march had been so great, that when he arrived at Fishing Creek, more than one half of his detachment, overpowered with fatigue, could proceed no farther. With only one hundred dragons, and sixty of the light-infantry, he continued the pursuit; and with this small number the victory was achieved. The loss of the British detachment was inconsiderable: It amounted to only nine killed, and six wounded; but unfortunately, amongst the former, was captain Charles Campbell, who commanded the light-infantry, a young officer of the most promising abilities, whole death was greatly lamented.
By the victory gained over general Gates at Camden, and the rout and total dispersion of his army, followed so soon after by the defeat and ruin of the corps under Sumpter, the provincial force to the southward seemed for a time entirely annihilated; and nothing prevented earl Cornwallis from proceeding immediately on his long-projected expedition into North Carolina, but the want of some supplies for the army, which were on their way from Charlestown. In the mean time emissaries were again sent into North Carolina, with instructions to the friends of government to take arms, and seize the most violent of their persecutors, with all the magazines and stores for the use of the American government, under and assurance that the British army would march without loss of time to their support.
The delay occasioned by waiting for the stores, gave time to the commander in chief again to employ his thoughts upon the internal affairs of the province, and to form some new regulations which recent events and circumstances had rendered more immediately necessary. It was now apparent, by the revolts that had taken place upon the approach of general Gates, and by the number of militia
who had joined him after exchanging their paroles for protections, and swearing allegiance to the British government, that those persons were not to be depended upon, that the lenity which had been shewn to them had been abused, and that it was become necessary to restrain their perfidy by examples of severity, and the terrors of punishment. With this view, the estates of all those who has left the province to join the enemies of Great Britain, or who were employed in the service, or held commissions under the authority of congress, and also of all those who continued to oppose the re-establishment of his majesty's government within the province, were ordered to be sequestered: A commissioner was appointed to seize upon them; and after a sufficient allowance was made for the support of the wives and families of such delinquents, the residue of the annual produce of their estates was to be accounted for the paymaster-general of the forces, and to be applied to the public service. Instant death was again denounced against those who, having taken protections from the British government, should afterwards join the enemy; and , to impress them with an idea that this punishment would be hereafter rigorously inflicted, some few of the most hardened of the militia, who had been taken in general Gates's army with arms in their hands, and protections in their pockets, were actually executed. But perfidy, it seems, was not confined to the lower ranks of men: By letters found upon some of the officers of general Gates's army, it was discovered that even persons of superior rank, prisoners upon parole in Charlestown, had held an improper correspondence with their friends in the country. In consequence of this discovery, those persons, and some others, against whom there were strong circumstances of suspicion, were at first put on board the prison-ships, and afterwards sent to St. Augustine, in East Florida, where paroles were again allowed to them but under such restrictions as their recent conduct rendered necessary.
As soon as the necessary supplies arrived, lord Cornwallis on the eight of September began his march from Camden, proceeding through the hostile settlement of Waxhaws to Charlotte-town, in the back parts of North Carolina. This march was no doubt projected with a view of bearing down all opposition: His lordship was to pass through the most hostile parts of either province with the main army, whilst major Ferguson, with this corps of loyal militia, was to advance still nearer to the frontiers; and lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, with the cavalry, and the light and legion infantry, to pursue an intermediate course, and move up the western banks of the Wateree. On the right of his lordship's march, but at a considerable distance, was the friendly settlement of highlanders, at Cross Creek, and on his left another friendly settlement in Tryon County. If he was able to reduce to obedience the inveterate inhabitants of the tract of country through which the main army marched, a communication might be opened between the friendly settlements of the right and left, a powerful assistance derived from their co-operation, and the speedy reduction of the whole province reasonably expected. The previous measures appeared well adapted to the end: And the reduction of the province of North Carolina was undoubtedly at this time confidently looked for. But to confound human wisdom, and set at thought the arrogance and presumption of man, unexpected incidents daily arise in the affairs of human life, which, conducted by an invisible hand, derange the best-concerted schemes, as will be exemplified in the event of the present expedition.
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Footnote in the original.
- The militia of South Carolina were in general faithless, and altogether dissatisfied in the British Service. One great cause of complaint with them was, that their horses were frequently pressed for the cavalry and quarter-master-general's department; and that those who could obtain certificates for them at a fair price, were nevertheless great losers by disposing which very much injured the public credit in that colony. It is to be observed that a distinction was made between a receipt and a certificate. Where the word Receipt was made use of, it was intended that the proprietor should be paid upon his resenting the receipt at Charlestown, and many of those receipts were afterwards actually paid by orders on the paymaster-general. Where the word Certificate was made use of, it was intended as an evidence in the hands of the holder, of such and such property being taken, its payment to depend on contingencies. This regulation governed the conduct of the commissary until lord Cornwalis moved from Wynnesborough in January 1781; then, when receipts were given, they not only specified the property, but the value of that property, which gave them a negotiable authority. When certificates were given, the property was specified, but no value affixed. Its payment, as before, was to depend on the merit or demcrit of the party at the end of the war. Receipts were frequently refused; but certificates never, unless the person whole property had been taken was known to be a decided enemy, and his character marked by acts of inhumanity towards the loyalists.