After his pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Guilford Court House, British General Charles Lord Cornwallis began withdrawing towards Wilmington, North Carolina. After initially pursuing Cornwallis’s army, American General Nathaniel Greene turned south and moved back into South Carolina. Greene hoped to draw his opponent into another battle and defeat him on ground favorable to the Continental Army. Cornwallis, however, refused to take the bait, moving instead into Virginia, where his army would ultimately meet disaster at Yorktown.
For his part, Greene chose to focus on the British occupying forces that remained in the South. The British held a chain of outposts that ran from Augusta, Georgia, up through South Carolina. Camden, the site of a catastrophic American defeat in the summer of 1780, lay in the center of the British line. The British garrison at Camden was led by Lt. Col. Francis Rawdon, who had been left in effective command of British forces in the South after the departure of Cornwallis.
Although Greene attempted to approach Camden in secret, his arrival did not go undetected. The British forces sat behind their fortifications, prepared for an attack by the Americans. Nonetheless, Rawdon was in a precarious position. Not only was his position threatened by Greene, his supply line connecting Camden with Charleston was under attack by Francis Marion’s partisan band. The British commander was forced to dispatch 500 men under Lt. Col. John Watson Tadwell-Watson to seek out and destroy the legendary “Swamp Fox.” Rawdon was left with 900 men to defend Camden.
On April 20, with the element of surprise lost, Greene arrayed his forces on a ridge known as Hobkirk’s Hill, a mile and half north of town. Greene commanded 1,551 men, most of whom were regular Continental Army soldiers. He hoped to draw out and destroy the British army. The next day, Greene heard that Watson’s force was en route back to Camden. In response, the American general detached his artillery and a portion of his infantry to cover the road from Charleston.
On the morning of April 25, a deserter from Greene’s army arrived in Camden and informed Rawdon of the division of the American army. With the Patriots on Hobkirk’s Hill temporarily outnumbered and undefended by artillery, the British commander decided to strike while the iron was hot. He gathered as many of his men as were fit to bear arms, including his musicians, and advanced on Greene’s position.
At around 11am, as the Americans were settling down to eat, musket fire from Greene’s pickets alerted the Patriots to their peril. From left to right, Rawdon’s line consisted of the King’s American Regiment, the New York Volunteers, and the 63rd Regiment of Foot. In reserve on the left was a unit of convalescents while the Volunteers of Ireland were placed in reserve on the right. Further back was the South Carolina Provincial Regiment as well as a force of dragoons commanded by Maj. John Coffin. Rawdon’s flanks were guarded by Tory riflemen, tasked with sniping at the enemy.
As Rawdon advanced on Hobkirk’s Hill from the southeast, the American pickets, under the command Capt. Robert Kirkwood, fell back slowly, firing as they went and buying time for Greene to prepare. Suddenly, as the British moved forward, they were showered with a hail of grapeshot. Unbeknownst to Rawdon, Greene had reunited his army early that morning, after discovering that the rumor of Watson’s approach was false.
Greene, perceiving that Rawdon was attacking along a narrow front, decided to strike the enemy on both flanks. He ordered the 2nd Maryland under Lt. Col. Benjamin Ford to attack the British right while the 1st Virginia under the command of Lt. Col. Richard Campbell assaulted the British left. At the same time, the 1st Maryland under Col. John Gunby and the 2nd Virginia under Lt. Col. Samuel Hawes were to advance from the center. The American left was under the overall command of Col. Otho Williams while the right was led by General Isaac Huger. A unit of cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. William Washington was ordered to flank Rawdon and cut off the British retreat.
While Rawdon recognized his mistake and ordered his reserves to extend his line to the right and left, Greene’s attack initially went as planned. The British were confused by the unexpected presence of American artillery and suffered heavy losses. Some of Rawdon’s men fled before the American attack, allowing Washington’s cavalry to capture as many as 200 prisoners. The Patriot’s attack began to unravel, however, when Gunby ordered his regiment to pause and return fire rather than charge the British with bayonets. After a volley, the Marylanders resumed their advance, only to falter when the officer commanding the regiment’s right was felled by an enemy bullet.
At that point, Gunby made a costly blunder, ordering his men to fall back and reform. In his report on the battle to Congress, Greene explained that Gunby’s error of judgment “impressed the whole Regiment with an idea of a retreat.” As the 1st Maryland broke, Benjamin Ford of the 2nd Maryland was severely wounded and carried off the field. His men broke as well. Greene wrote that “Both were rallied but it was too late, the enemy had gained the hill.”
On the American left, Hawes’s 1st Virginia had advanced further down the hill, exposing the flank of Campbell’s 2nd Virginia. Campbell’s regiment was the next to break. Greene ordered Hawes to hold off the British attackers while the rest of the American army retreated. Hawes’s men performed admirably, counterattacking Rawdon’s army and buying time for the rest of the Patriot force to reform before they themselves retreated.
As Greene’s army retreated, some of the American gunners abandoned their pieces, leaving the artillery at risk of capture. Greene sent Capt. James Smith and a detachment of Maryland light infantry to protect the guns and bring them to safety. As Smith’s men were evacuating the artillery, however, they were attacked by Coffin’s dragoons. After a sharp running engagement, Smith’s men were all killed or captured. Nonetheless, the artillery was saved. Greene rallied some of the fleeing gunners and personally assisted them in bringing off his army’s 6 pounders.
Because of the flight of Greene’s infantry, the American cavalry under William Washington did not have the opportunity to cut off Rawdon’s retreat. The cavalry was, however, able to escape with about 50 of the 200 British prisoners captured earlier in the battle. Washington also helped protect the army from enemy pursuit.
Interestingly, future President Andrew Jackson was a British prisoner in Camden and was a witness to the battle. He was, at the time, fourteen years old.
After the battle, Rawdon left Coffin’s dragoons on the field and returned to Camden with the remainder of his army. Later in the afternoon, Greene ordered Washington and Kirkwood to return to the site of the battle in order to rescue the American wounded. They clashed with Coffin and drove him from the battlefield, clearing the way for Greene to reoccupy Hobkirk’s Hill.
Like the Battle of Guilford Court House, Hobkirk’s Hill was a pyrrhic victory for the British, who could ill afford heavy losses. Although sources differ as to exact numbers, it seems that the British lost roughly 260 men in the battle, including at least 38 killed. The Americans lost about 270 men, including at least 19 killed.
Greene was disappointed in the outcome, writing to a correspondent “We should have had Lord Rawdon and his whole command prisoners in three minutes, if Colonel Gunby had not ordered his regiment to retire, the greatest part of which were advancing rapidly at the time they were ordered off. I was almost frantic with vexation at the disappointment.” Aware of Greene’s feeling, Gunby requested a court of inquiry, hoping to clear his name. The court found, however, that Gunby’s “order for the regiment to retire, which broke the line, was extremely improper and unmilitary, and, in all probability the only cause why we did not obtain a complete victory.”
Two weeks after the battle, on May 7, Rawdon was finally rejoined by the force he had detached with orders to seek out Francis Marion. However, while he considered going back on the offensive against Greene, Rawdon ultimately concluded that the American army was too strong and on May 10 he abandoned Camden.
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