After the Battle of Monmouth Court House in 1778, British strategy for prosecuting the war in North America shifted from the mid-Atlantic states to the South. The British believed that a large loyalist faction in the southern states would help their troops, and also looked for support from newly freed slaves. After seizing Savannah and then Charleston, British troops looked to secure the back country of South Carolina before eventually moving north through North Carolina and Virginia. Several battles in South Carolina led to British Commander Sir Henry Clinton’s belief that the state had been pacified. Clinton returned to New York, leaving behind Charles, Lord Cornwallis to command British and loyalist troops.
Washington responded by sending two regiments of his best Continental troops and General Horatio Gates to command them. Gates was widely regarded as the Hero of Saratoga, a title he did little to discourage. When Gates arrived he assumed command over troops which had been up to then led by the popular and capable Baron de Kalb. Gates was unfamiliar with the country and his troops, about two thirds of which were local militia, and ignored the services of established Patriot guerrilla fighters such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.
When Gates attacked the British garrison at Camden on August 16, 1780 the left wing of his army was made up of militia from Virginia and North Carolina. The British counterattacked with bayonets and the North Carolina militia fled so fast and far that they didn’t stop until they arrived at Hillsborough, North Carolina – 200 miles from the battlefield. The Virginia contingent remained near the scene but disengaged from the battle. With more than half of the American army gone, the Continentals retreated in good order, although Baron de Kalb was mortally wounded.
General Gates fled with the North Carolinians, although well ahead of most of the militiamen, mounted on a noted racehorse. He arrived in Hillsborough on August 19, having covered the two hundred miles in three and a half days. The American army in the Southern theater was all but destroyed. Gates had used his political connections and reputation as the Hero of Saratoga to acquire the Southern command, now he used them to exonerate himself and avoid court-martial for the crushing defeat.
Washington sent Nathaniel Greene to assume command in the South and rebuild the army. The debacle at Camden cost the Americans more than 900 killed and wounded, and over 1,000 men taken prisoner by the British. By contrast, Lord Cornwallis reported 68 British dead and 245 wounded. Although Gates rejoined Washington’s staff later in the war, he served merely in an advisory capacity and never again commanded troops.