The Battle of Camden was one of several devastating defeats suffered by the Americans in the early stages of the British military offensive in the South. After capturing Charleston in May 1780, British forces under General Charles Lord Cornwallis established a supply depot and garrison at Camden as part of their effort to secure control of the South Carolina backcountry.
In July, American General Horatio Gates marched his army into South Carolina, intent on liberating the state from British control. He commanded a force of 5,000 men.
By the time Gates reached Camden, however, his men were tired and hungry. Many were too ill for battle, weakened by dysentery. Only 3,000 of his men were in condition to fight. To make matters worse, when Gates positioned his army on the morning of August 16, 1780, he was operating under the false impression that he outnumbered Cornwallis by two-to-one.
Gates placed his experienced Maryland and Delaware regiments on his right. He positioned North Carolinian militiamen in the center. On the left, he placed green recruits from Virginia. This would prove to be a disastrous mistake.
When British regulars under Bansastre Tarleton attacked the Virginians, the novice soldiers fled at the first gleam of British bayonets. The North Carolinians did not do much better, despite the best efforts of their officers.
As the American left and center collapsed, the British concentrated on Gates’s right flank. Unlike their comrades, the Marylanders and Delawareans fought valiantly. But their heroism was not enough to stave off disaster. During the fighting, General Johann de Kalb, a Prussian officer serving in the Continental Army, was shot and mortally wounded. de Kalb was one of the 900 men killed or wounded by the British. Gates lost another 1,000 men as prisoners of war.
Gates had once been hailed as the hero of Saratoga. After the disaster at Camden, however, his reputation took a hit from which it never recovered.