George Washington loved to dance. By all accounts, he was quite accomplished on the dance floor. Such a thought confounds the senses considering his persona has come down to us more in the vein of a proud and stoic warrior.
His colonial jigs were brief, and far between however, as he spent the bulk of his War for Independence gaping helplessly at another sort of tortured minuet. One partner represented the desolate nature of his ailing and ill-fed army; the other, the never-ending train of bad news which seemed to fall upon him daily.
On this day in 1780, the devilish dance partners once again took to the floor. The Battle of Camden, South Carolina would be a disaster for the patriot cause.
Or so it seemed.
The first redcoat campaign to subdue the south early in the war did not fare well for the British. They were much more successful in the north. But having decided on a multi-pronged approach to defeating the rebellious colonists, the south’s submission would have to be effected if the mother country was to control her unruly colonial children.
In contrast, the second campaign met with great success for the Crown. Savannah fell in the waning days of 1778. By May 1780 Charleston would succumb to a British siege. Augusta, Georgia was also in British hands.
With both Georgia and South Carolina firmly in the grasp of the officers of the crown, British General Sir Henry Clinton, who had failed in his first attempt to capture Charleston, left explicit instructions to Lord Cornwallis that he was not to jeopardize the hard won victory by venturing too far afield.
But men of war are not known for their temperance and Lord Cornwallis, along with his highly aggressive Calvary Officer Lt. Colonel Banestre Tarleton, knew that to subdue the rough-hewn southern man they had to utterly defeat him.
The Continental Congress, without consulting an astonished George Washington, appointed General Horatio Gates to command the southern theater. Gates had been successful at the Battle of Saratoga so it can be assumed, perhaps, that the continental congress acted prudently in making their choice.
It was the last time they would neglect to consult Washington.
Gates, it turns out was so thoroughly ill-prepared to command an army that it was obvious to even the lowliest of privates. He made blunder upon blunder from the very start.
He began a string of mis-fires by informing his cavalry commander, William Washington (a second cousin of George Washington), that cavalry was ineffective in southern warfare – this in a part of the country in which nearly everyone was an accomplished rider!
Camden, South Carolina was an important crossroads in the south and Cornwallis rightly believed it was critical to control if he was the sustain his hold on the south.
Gates knew this too but rather than taking the route recommended by those who were familiar with the land, he ordered his army on a direct route through the countryside.
This turned out to be the first of many mistakes as his soldiers, not finding anything to eat en route to the battle, subsisted on only molasses. Molasses, “instead of enlivening our spirits served to purge us…for the men… as we went along were every moment obliged to fall out of the ranks to evacuate.”
Gates would make several other mistakes as well. Despite arriving first to the battlefield and thus afforded the benefit to prepare, he failed to press his advantage of superior numbers, allowing Cornwallis time to reinforce his position.
Not really wanting to fight, he relied upon the same defensive tactics as at Saratoga, an entirely different battlefield environment. Further, he placed his weakest troops in position opposite Cornwallis’ finest, though some military historians insist he cannot be blamed for that as in the darkness of the predawn hour, he could not have known how is enemy was to be arrayed.
But his criticism is most certainly deserved as he most certainly should have known to seize the multiple opportunities which the British had presented him that morning.
The most damaging lost opportunity was probably his hesitating to commit to battle when the British were still “displaying,” meaning they were in the middle of transitioning from columns into the their battle line formation; a time of supreme vulnerability. Though urged on by his subordinates, he gave no such order.
The British, having been given time to order themselves, finally advanced, and though some bravery was exhibited by the Americans, including Lafayette’s fellow traveler Johann de Kalb who died heroically on the battlefield, the redcoats routed Gates’ army.
As Tarleton gleefully put it, “rout and slaughter ensued in every direction.” Tarlton’s account was confirmed by an American soldier who recounted that, “every corps was broken and dispersed.” He was being kind; they ran in utter fear for their lives.
That same soldier relayed Gates role in the battle. He stated that Gates was borne away by the “torrent of unarmed militia.” Gates didn’t just run, he bolted. Alexander Hamilton described his exit rather sardonically, “One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half! It does admirable credit to the man at his age of life.”
The resulting melee would end in a disastrous defeat for the patriots, effectively ceding the whole of the south to Lord Cornwallis. It would do one other thing, however. A thing which would alter the course of the war and the world for all time: Congress would never again circumvent Washington in choosing his commanders.
Washington would quickly replace Gates with the extraordinary and able Nathanael Greene, a young man who at the onset of the war was nearly denied the ability to serve due to a very pronounced limp.
Despite his limp, Greene would be Washington’s most accomplished dance partner. Rising to the rank of Major General, the Rhode Islander would turn the tide in the south and ultimately funnel Cornwallis’ Army to the constricting confines of the Chesapeake Bay where Washington’s army and the French fleet would force Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
Dance partners for the ages.