Help Save Hallowed Ground at Camden
A message from Jim Lighthizer, Civil War Trust president
February 15, 2018
Dear Fellow American Patriot,
Today, I ask for your immediate help in saving hallowed ground at what has been called, “the most disastrous defeat ever inflicted on an American army.”
Why in the world would I ask you to help save American Revolutionary War battlefield land where American troops suffered one of their worst defeats in our nation’s history?
Well, my friend I have lived long enough to know that you often learn as much – or more – from your defeats as you learn from your victories, and the patriots who fought and served at Camden, South Carolina, certainly learned much from their defeat that is worthy of being remembered by us today.
Before I get into the history of this very important event, let me tell you that today you and I can save an enormous 278 acres of this important Southern Campaign battle site – nearly doubling the size of the existing preserved battlefield – at a terrific $5.00-to$1 match of your generosity.
But we must move quickly . . . not only is this property under significant threat from destructive large-scale commercial timbering which has been going on for several years in the area . . .
. . . it is also under pressure from encroaching residential development. The Camden, South Carolina area is fast becoming a bedroom community for Columbia, the state capital, just 30 miles away.
And if you think it’s crazy for people to drive 30 miles from Camden to Columbia just go to work, let me remind you that Fredericksburg, Virginia, is 55 miles away from Washington DC, and thousands of people make that commute every day!
This property is priced at $1 million. We are applying for 50 percent of that amount from the American Battlefield Protection Program, the federal matching grant program we work so closely with each year.
Another $250,000 is expected to come from a local South Carolina grant fund, and another generous $50,000 gift has already been given by the Mills B. Lane Memorial Foundation (Mr. Hugh Lane, chairman) in South Carolina. The final $200,000 would come from us, the supporters of Campaign 1776 (now known as the Revolutionary War Trust, a division of the American Battlefield Trust).
If you’ve ever read any accounts of the Battle of Camden, fought on August 16, 1780, you know that American General Horatio Gates, despite earlier success at Saratoga, was the wrong leader in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Today, in this fight to save the Camden battlefield, the situation is very different; I believe you are the right leader in the right place at exactly the right time, and our victory today in saving these 278 acres will lead to even greater victories down the line.
Now, let me tell you why it is so important for us to move quickly to save this land:
In May 1780, the Americans were forced to surrender Charleston, South Carolina to a powerful British invasion force led by Sir Henry Clinton. Placing General Charles Lord Cornwallis in command, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to maintain a grasp on Charleston while subjugating the rest of the Carolinas.
Cornwallis’s most important supply depot was established at Camden. When he learned that Gates was threatening Camden in August 1780, he left Charleston to confront Gates in the field.
The British vanguard was surprised when, marching out of Camden, they struck the head of Gates’s approaching force. To reach Camden, however, Gates had just led his army on a harrowing cross-country forced march in which his men suffered terribly from starvation-level rations, crippling heat, rancid water, impassable swamps, and hostile Tories.
As the historian Christopher Ward wrote in his book The War of the Revolution, “Half starved, half sick, fatigued almost to exhaustion, still the men had to go on; and they did, seventeen or eighteen miles a day.”
Sergeant Major William Seymour wrote in his journal, “At this time we were so much distressed for want of provisions, that we were fourteen days and drew but one-half pound of flour. Sometimes we drew half a pound of beef per man and that so miserably poor that scarce any mortal could make use of it.”
Ward continues, “So the already tired, worn-down men, now more than half sick, started at ten o’clock on the night of August 15 on a dreary, bewildering march . . . for more than four weary hours they trudged through the deep sand and the frequent swamps to nobody knew what. Then, suddenly, the silence of the night was shattered by the rattle of musketry ahead. Without the least warning they had met the enemy.”
To the astonishment of both armies they met on the same road at the same time, in an open forest of pines flanked on both sides by wide swamps. As daylight dawned, the two sides formed battle lines. With a loud hurrah, the British troops fired one volley then charged with the bayonet.
The left of the American battle line was comprised of Virginia and North Carolina militia who had never before so much as seen the enemy; now the redcoats were charging at them with bayonets! A few of the militia managed a harmless volley before they all fell back in disorder. That portion of the battle line crumbled in minutes with the center soon to follow.
Soon all that remained was the right wing of the American line of Maryland and Delaware troops under General Mordecai Gist and the dauntless General Johann De Kalb. Charging and counter-charging again and again, this little force of maybe 600 men held off – for a time – 1,000 British troops.
Again, Ward writes, “De Kalb’s horse was shot under him. Long after the battle was lost in every other quarter, the gigantic form of De Kalb, unhorsed and fighting on foot, was seen directing the movements of his brave Maryland and Delaware troops. His head had been laid open by a saber stroke. But no orders [to retire] had come from Gates now miles away in flight.
“De Kalb still thought victory was in sight. The fighting was hand-to-hand, terrific in its fierceness. Overwhelmed by numbers that almost entirely surrounded him, De Kalb called for the bayonet again. All together his men answered. De Kalb at their head, crashed through the enemy’s ranks, wheeled, and smote them from the rear.
“But ball after ball had struck their heroic leader. Blood was pouring from him; yet the old lion had it in him to cut down a British soldier, whose bayonet was at his breast. That was his last stroke. Bleeding from eleven wounds, he fell.” De Kalb would die three days later.
But where was General Gates? From the moment he gave the first order to advance, not a word of any sort had come from him to his men. It turns out he had been swept away in the initial wave of fleeing militia in the opening minutes of the battle and, hopping on his prized horse, did not stop riding until he arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina – 60 miles away from the battlefield – that night.
The defeat at Camden was the worst suffered by the American army during the entire Revolutionary War. In their Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution, authors Ted Savas and David Dameron say, “Morale dropped like a stone and the Southern Army was reduced to a few hundred men. South Carolina and Georgia were firmly, if temporarily, under the Crown’s control. The most important consequence of the battle was the exposure of the hapless Gates as incompetent field commander, and the appointment of Nathanael Greene to replace him.”
Even after this crushing defeat and lowest point of the war, the seeds of ultimate victory were sown, and just fourteen short months later Cornwallis would surrender at Yorktown.
My friend, a battlefield like Camden – if it is preserved – can help teach us all different lessons. To me, it teaches about heroism: like De Kalb, sometimes, even when you are wounded and bloodied, you simply must keep fighting.
It teaches about preparation and leadership: Gates lost the battle before he ever got to Camden, because he did not prepare properly, adequately provision his people, or lead them when the battle was joined.
It teaches about determination: the citizen soldiers who were driven from the field at Camden did not give up. They regrouped and, in a very short time, won their independence.
My friend, in the fight to save America’s hallowed ground, we don’t win them all, either.
Sometimes, we lose a crucial piece of battlefield land, an irreplaceable part of our country’s history, to a developer. But even when that happens, we fall back, bind our wounds, regroup, and look for the next place to make our stand.
Today, the Camden battlefield is where Campaign 1776 is making our stand, and I ask you to be one of the heroes who steps up today to help save it forever.
With the $5.00-to-$1 match in place, you can save an acre of this important battlefield for $720, a half-acre for $360, or a quarter-acre for $180. But know this, whatever you can send to help save the Camden battlefield today, your generosity will ensure that this key part of our history is preserved for future generations.
And I believe that with every acre you and I save, we are not only making these tremendous outdoor classrooms better places to learn from, we are making better citizens of the people who go there, and this will help secure our nation’s future.
I know that I ask much of you, and often. But that’s because there are relatively few people who care as passionately about saving America’s unique history, as it was written on its battlefields, as you do. That’s why I depend on you so much.
But I only ask you to do as much as you think you can right now to help save this large and pristine part of the Camden battlefield. No one could reasonably ask for more.
Please be as generous as you can today, and I look forward to reporting back to you in a few months that we have saved these 278 acres of hallowed ground at Camden! Thank you.
Sincerely yours, 'til the work is done, and the battle is won,
P.S. For even more detail on the Battle of Camden and the effort to save this hallowed ground, please go to our website at www.campaign1776/camden. You may also make your gift securely there, putting your preservation dollar immediately to work, and making sure that we raise our portion of the $5.00-to-$1 match. I thank you once again