Maj. Gen. Nathaniel
Greene to Congress
Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene to Congress
Camp Sander's Creek
April 27th 1781
About 11 o'clock in the morning of the 25th, our advanced piquets were fired upon, who gave the enemy a warm reception.
The line was formed in an instant, Gen. Isaac Huger's Brigade upon the right of the road, Col. Otho Holland Williams's Brigade of Marylanders on the left, and the artillery in the centre. Col. Read with a few (NC) militia in the rear, as a second line. Capt. Robert Kirkwood and the light infantry lay in our front, and as the enemy advanced he was soon engaged with them, and both he and his corps behaved with great gallantry.
The piquets, under the command of Capts. Morgan and Benson, behaved with equal spirit and good conduct.
As the Enemy was found to be advancing only with a small front, Lt. Col. Ford with the 2d Maryland Regiment had orders to advance and flank them upon the left; Lt. Col. Campbell had orders to do the like upon the right. Col. Gunby with the first Maryland Regiment and Lt. Col. Haws with the second Virginia Regiment had orders to advance down the hill and charge them in front. Lt. Col. William Washington had orders to turn the enemy’s right flank and charge them in the rear. The whole line was soon engaged in close firing, and the artillery under Col. Harrison playing on their front. The enemy were staggered in all quarters, and upon the left were retiring while our Troops continued to advance, when unfortunately two companies of the right of the first Maryland Regiment got a little disordered, and unhappily Col. Gunby gave an order for the rest of the Regiment then advancing to take a new position in the rear where the two companies were rallying. This impressed the whole Regiment with an idea of a retreat, and communicated itself to the 2d Regiment which immediately followed the first on their retiring. Both were rallied but it was too late, the enemy had gained the hill and obliged the artillery to retire. The second Virginia Regiment having advanced some distance down the hill, and the Maryland line being gone the enemy immediately turned their flank, while they were engaged in front. Lt. Col. Campbells Regiment had got into some disorder and fallen back a little, this obliged me to order Lt. Col. Haws to retire. The troops were frequently rallied, but had got into too much disorder to recover the fortune of the day, which once promised us a complete victory as Col. Washington found the enemy both horse and foot retiring with the utmost precipitation towards the town, and took upwards of 200 prisoners and ten or fifteen officers, before he discovered our people had left the ground, more than fifty of which were brought off. The Colonel’s (Washington) behavior and that of his Regiment upon this occasion did them the highest honor. We retired about two or three miles without any loss of artillery or ammunition wagons, the baggage having been sent off at the beginning of the action. The Enemy suffered very greatly. Our force was not materially different; but had we succeeded, from the disposition made, we must have had the whole prisoners as well as full possession of Camden. Enclosed is the returned of the killed and wounded. Among the former is Captain Baty (Beattie) of the Maryland Line, a most excellent officer and an ornament to his profession.
Our army is in good spirits, and this little repulse will make no alteration in our general plan of operations.
Enclosed I send your Excellency the conditions of the capitulation and surrender of Fort Watson, which I hope will be followed by others.
I have been honored with your two letters the 10th and 29th of March.
I have the honor to be with great respect
P.S. The horse and part of the infantry at the close of the event charged upon the enemy who retreated immediately into town with precipitation.
To: His Excellency, Samuel Huntington, Esqr. (President of Congress)
A Letter on the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, written by eyewitness Samuel Mathis in 1819, as edited by Rev. Millard H. Osborne, 1963, with slight editing by Charles B. Baxley (Republished by the Kershaw County Historical Society). (Editors Note: From Mathis' diary reprinted by Kennedy & Kirkland in Historic Camden, Vol. 1, Mathis recorded that he heard the cannon fire on April 25 and found out about the battle two days later.)
Samuel Mathis wrote this account of the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill in a letter to General William Richardson Davie. Mathis was the first white person born in Camden and, having been captured at the fall of Charleston, was paroled to his native Camden. General Davie distinguished himself during the American Revolution as an officer and later became governor of North Carolina and was instrumental in the establishment of the University of North Carolina. Gen. Davie retired to his South Carolina plantation, Tivoli, at Landsford Canal on the Catawba River in Chester County, SC.
Account of the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill as some call it, or Battle of Camden as called by others, though the ground on which it was fought is now (1819) called the Big Sand Hill above Camden.
This hill lies one mile and three-quarters from the Court House and from where the gaol then stood. Over this hill runs the great road leading from Charlotte in North Carolina to Charleston in South Carolina. It runs in a direct line from the top of the Hill past the gaol (or where the gaol then stood) and through the Town of Camden, nearly a due South course. It had been opened quite wide by Col. Joseph Kershaw a few weeks before the British came to Camden and made to correspond with the streets of the Town that it entered to wit 90 feet wide up to the top of the hill (which had an effect in sequel.) It was woody on each side of the road and in some places (near the Town) very thick near the hill and on the South side of it was not so thick, but was more open.
The hill crosses the road about at right angles, and extends about 500 yards to the west and about 800 yards to the East of the road. At the East end of the hill is a spring of fine water then called Martin’s, now called Mortimer’s Spring, which forms a very miry branch that runs a Southeast course near a mile to a stream of water called Little Pine Tree Creek which has a very boggy swamp on each side of it, this runs a South course about half a mile and empties into Big Pine Tree Creek in an impassable swamp or rather mill pond which runs about a South or Southwest course until it passes the town, having a considerable hill from 30 to 40 feet high all along between it and the town, which hill terminates and flattens down into level ground at about a parallel with the lower end of the town.
Lord Rawdon’s Headquarters were in Col. Joseph Kershaw’s house on this hill. His troops lay directly in front of him inside of a stockade of about 400 or 500 yards square, supported by four redoubts, situate at the distance of about 200 or 300 yards from each angle of it. One of these redoubts was round the gaol, from which the British frequently fired their cannon at our officers and others who out of curiosity came down the road to look at them. The trees had been cut down and lay very thick on this side of the Town to prevent the approach of our cavalry which of course prevented their horsemen taking our people that went so near to look at them.
But this I apprehend had been stopped by Gen. Greene for I was informed by Col. Gunby and Capt. Smith who dined with me 5 miles below (or South of) Camden a few days before the battle that a cannon shot from the redoubt came very near killing some of our officers that had gone too near. It hit a small brick oven behind which they had dodged.
While the British lay in this situation, Gen. Greene with the American Army approached them. When he first came he encamped on the North side of them on Hobkirk’s Hill, staid but a very short time, perhaps not more than two days. (It was during this time that some of the officers went down in sight of the town and fired at as above mentioned.) He wheeled off with the American Army went round the head of Little Pine Tree Creek and made a bridge across Big Pine Tree Creek three miles above Camden, came around and appeared below on the Southeast and Southward of Camden.
This maneuver had an excellent effect. It alarmed the British very much: it threatened their mills (alias Col. Kershaw’s merchant mills which they had taken possession of) from which most of their bread stuff was drawn, it divided their Forces, prevented their sending assistance or advice to (Lt. Col. John Doyle) Watson on Black River, to the Fort on Scot’s Lake (Fort Watson on the Santee) and Fort Motte which Gen. Marion and Col. Lee were then investing and took. It insulated Lord Rawdon himself and jeopardized his retreat.
Gen. Greene remained but a few days below Camden: but while there some of the militia attached to him made an attempt to burn said mills but failed in the attempt and retreated without any loss, but proceeded on to and took a stockade fort commanded by Maj. William Down of the Royal Militia about 7 miles below Camden in which Downs a skillful and brave man in a bad cause and several of his best men were killed and the rest fled while the British Light Horse who had gone from Camden were attacking the attackers.
This party did not continue in possession of the fort but left it in the lands of the British Light Horse and went on down to Scot’s Lake (Fort Watson on the Santee River) to assist (Col. Francis) Marion.
Gen. Greene then or perhaps an hour or two before the capture of Down’s Fort wheeled off, recrossed Pine Tree Creek and came back again and encamped on Hobkirk’s Hill. His artillery was not with him in these maneuverings it had been sent off beyond Lynches Creek under the care of Col. (Edward) Carrington who acted as Quartermaster General in the Southern Department.
Gen. Greene arrived at Hobkirk’s at night and encamped on it in battle order, his right extending a short distance to the west of the Great Road and his left reaching to the East end of the hill near Martin’s Spring. Here the hill is of very easy ascent and this spring and the Branch that runs from it contained the only water that was to be found near the American Troops. From this end of the hill a road led off Southeast towards the mill (then Kershaw’s out of use) now Carter’s, and another old obscure road directly towards the town parallel to the Great Road. Capt. (Robert) Kirkwood with his Light Infantry, being a remnant of the Delaware Troops, was posted here on or between these two roads a short and proper distance in front of the left, Capt. Smith with his Light Infantry (40 excellent men) on the right and two strong pickets were placed in front of the Army but the woods were so thick that a man could not be seen at 100 yards distance at noon day.
It was late in the evening on the 24th of April (1781) that Gen. Greene pitched his camp here, without artillery and apparently without cavalry or Militia; for Col. (William) Washington with his cavalry and about 250 North Carolina Militia under Col. (Read) Meade were encamped about 2 or 3 miles in the rear. In the night or early morning a deserter from the Americans went to the enemy and informed Lord Rawdon of Gen. Greene’s situation.
This deserter did not know of Washington’s and the militia being in the rear. His Lordship immediately had the redoubts all manned with Negroes and Tories and every man of his whole army, in the most silent and secret manner, without any drums, fife horn or any noise or general parade all went off as they got ready, the cavalry first, then men and officers all on foot leading their horses, the infantry following in open order and trailed arms, taking down the valley in the Southeast corner of the town, in the opposite direction from where the American Troops lay, lest some of them might happen to be down and discover them marking out; this was about ten o’clock in the forenoon of the 25th April. The weather had been dry and it was a beautiful clear sunshiny day rather warm for the season of the year.
The British were soon behind the hill on which their headquarters stood and of course well concealed, they proceeded up along the side of the swamp until they arrived at Col. Kershaw’s upper mill (now Carter’s) and thence along the road or along the miry branch up to Martin’s Spring at the East end of Hobkirk’s Hill. They had no doubt got in close order before this time and their cavalry (about 200 called the York Volunteers under Maj. Coffin) detached off to their left so as to fall into the Great Road a short distance in front of Hobkirk’s Hill so as to attack our right while the main army turned our left.
The British marched on until discovered by Kirkwood who attacked and fought them with great resolution until overwhelmed, the British displayed to the left, which brought them upon our pickets by whom they were attack in turn, the British did not fire but pressed directly forward with charged bayonets and drove our pickets in.
“Kirkwood’s muskets gave the first alarm to the Americans, several of whom were at the spring cooking and washing and had to run a considerable distance before they got to their arms which were stacked in the very line they had to form. However, the most if not all of them did get to their arms and were regularly formed in battle array. The Virginia Brigade with Gen. (Isaac) Huger at its head having under him Lieut. Cols. (Richard) Campbell and (Samuel) Hawes, took the right, the Maryland Brigade led by Col. (Otho Holland) Williams, seconded by Col. John Gunby and Lieut. Cols. (John) Ford and (John Eager) Howard occupied the left. Thus all the Continentals consisting of four regiments much reduced in strength were disposed in one line, with the artillery (which had just come up) under Col. (Charles) Harrison on the road in the center. The reserve consisted of the cavalry under Col. Washington (who being on parade) started at the firing of the first of Kirkwood’s muskets and the North Carolina Militia under Col. Meade (Read) who also came up at the same time.
Gen. Greene having his men now formed was much pleased with the opportunity so unexpectedly offered of a battle with the enemy not doubting that he would in a few hours be in Camden. He directed Cols. Campbell and Ford to turn the enemy’s flanks and ordered the entire regiments to advance with fixed bayonets upon him ascending the Hill and detached Col. Washington’s cavalry to gain the rear.
The British when they first attacked near the spring pressed directly forward and succeeded in turning our left. Their left had displayed towards our right under cover of thick woods and could scarcely be seen except by our pickets until they began to rise the hill (which is about 150 or 60 yards from bottom to top). Their cavalry had reached the Great Road and advanced in close order and slow step up the hill directly in front of our cannon which had just arrived and opened on them in the board road a well directed fire with canister and grape did great execution and soon cleared the road so that all their doctors were sent to take care of the wounded. Washington’s Cavalry coming up at this moment completed the rout of the York Volunteers took all the British doctors or surgeons and a great many others (alas too many) prisoners, more than one third of Washington’s men were encumbered with prisoners, who hindered their acting when necessary.
Here the battle was equal or rather in our favor and only one word, a single word, and that only because it was spoken out of season turned the fate of the day.
Our left was some what turned or yielding, our Col. Ford was wounded but the men were neither killed nor prisoners. The left of the British at least their cavalry were routed, many killed and many prisoners. Lord Rawdon hearing the cannon, and seeing his horse dispersed was stunned and astonished beyond measure, ordered the deserter to be hung and galloping up to the scene of disaster was quickly surrounded by Washington’s Horse and his sword demanded. One of his aids received a severe wound from the sword of a dragoon. Lord Rawdon is a man of uncommon address. This was a critical moment. Although our left was giving way yet Gen. Huger on our right was gaining ground and was beginning to advance upon the enemy and Col. Gunby’s Regiment of brave soldiers, veterans of the Maryland line had all got to their arms were well formed and in good order, but too impatient waiting the word of Command some of them began to fire in violation of orders and seeing the British infantry up the hill in front of the_________. Col. Gunby suffered them to come up within the few paces and then ordered his men to charge without firing, those near him hearing the word first rushed forward, whereby the regiment was moving forward in the form of a bow. Col. Gunby ordered a “halt” until the wings should become straight; this turned the fate of the day. Previously being ordered not to fire and now ordered to halt, while the British were coming up with charged bayonets, before the colonel could be understood and repeat the charge the enemy were in among them and made them give way.
Lord Rawdon was surrounded neat the head of regiment and saw the scene, and also that some of his cavalry had rallied and with (his) infantry coming to his relief while he vary politely bowed and seemed to acquiesce with the demand of the dragoons around him, pretended that his sword was hard to get out of the scabbard, feigned to endeavor to draw or unhook it for the surrender required until the party that took him were attacked and had to fly. Whether it was from that unbounded humanity that generally prevailed in the American Army and (although amiable and praiseworthy as it is yet) lost us many a battle, or whether it was from a respect they felt for a person of his appearance, whether he amused them by his manners or why they offered him no personal violence or did not take him immediately off, it is not known; perhaps they thought the day their own or they might have intended to parole him on the spot in which case a surrender of the sword (I suppose) would have been necessary. Whatever passed in their minds they had not long to consider or ruminate on it perhaps not two minutes. The scene was quickly changed Washington’s Dragoons were not attacked by horse and foot and the very prisoners that they had mounted behind them seized the Arms of their captors and over came them. General Greene now ordered a retreat and pushed on Washington’s Cavalry to Saunders (Sanders) Creek which lay 4 miles in the rear to halt the troops and stop the stragglers should there be any either from the militia or regulars to make off; in this he succeeded; carrying off with him all the British surgeons and several officers.
As above mentioned the artillery had just come up as the battle began. The guns were merely unhooked from the limbers or fore-wheels and let down to fire on the enemy. The horses were not unharnessed nor had the boys that drove them dismounted, but only removed a short distance from the cannon and now seeing a general retreat of the American Army attempted to get off through the woods without going out into and along the road, they soon got them entangled among the trees and could not get along, but cut their horses and fled leaving the limbers of both pieces of cannon in the woods where they were found by the British and taken. Under these circumstances General Greene galloped up to Capt. John Smith and ordered him to fall into the rear and save the cannon. Smith instantly came and found the artillerymen hauling off the pieces with the drag-ropes, he and his men laid hold and off they went in a trot, but had not gone far until he discovered that the British cavalry were in pursuit. He formed his men across the road, gave them a full fire at a short distance & fled with the guns as before. This volley checked the horses and threw many of the riders; but they after some time remounted and pushed on again. Smith formed his men gave them another fire with the same effect and proceeded as before. This he repeated several times until they had got 2 or 3 miles from the field of action, here one of Smith’s men fired or his gun went off by accident before the word was given which produced a scattering fire, on which the cavalry rushed in among them and cut them all to pieces. They fought like Bulldogs and were all killed or taken. This took up some time during which the artillery escaped. Smith had a stout cut and thrust and a very strong arm, with which he did great execution, both in single and double combat; i.e. 2 or more on him at once, at length having not a man to support him, being overwhelmed with numbers he surrendered; he was taken prisoner and stripped of everything he had on except his shirt and his commission which hung around his neck in his bosom. In this situation he was taken to the British main guard where he found Lieut. Trueman, one of our officers who had been wounded in the foot and taken prisoner. Lord Rawdon sent to enquire of them at what time our artillery and cavalry had come up, and their information saved the life of the deserter.
On the next day Capt. Smith was put in close confinement, locked up in gaol without being informed what it was for. After lying there 24 hours it was announced to him by the gaoler that he should be hung the next morning at 8 o’clock. He desired to know his crime and accuser but was not gratified. That night a deserter went out and informed General Greene of his situation. General Greene immediately sent in a flag to know the truth of the tale, threatening retaliation. Lord Rawdon informed the officer bearing the flag that 2 or 3 women of the British Army had come from Guilford, North Carolina since the battle there (at Guilfords Courthouse) and related that Capt. Smith had killed Col. Stewart of the King’s Guards in cold blood two hours after the battle on his knees begging for mercy. This was found to be false.
In the heat and midst of the Battle at Guilford while the Americans and British troops were intermixed with a charge of bayonets, Smith and his men were in the throng killing guards and grenadiers like so many furies Col. Stewart seeing the mischief Smith was doing made up to him through the crowd, dust an smoke unperceived and made a violent lunge at him with his small sword, the first that Smith saw was the shining metal like lightning at this bosom he only had time to lean a little to the right, and lift up his left arm so as to let the polished steel pass under it when the hilt struck his breast, it would have been through his body but for the haste of the colonel and happening to set his foot on the arm of a man Smith had just cut down, his unsteady step, his violent lunge and missing his aim brought him with one knee upon the dead man, the Guards came rushing up very throng, Smith had no alternative but to wheel round to the right and give Stewart a back handed blow over or across the head on which he fell; his orderly sergeant attacked Smith, but Smith’s sergeant dispatched him; a 2nd attacked him Smith hewed him down, a 3rd behind him threw down a cartridge and shot him in the back of the head, Smith now fell among the slain but was taken up by his men and brought off, it was found to be only a buckshot lodged against the skull and had only stunned him. Upon these facts being stated and proved to the British they liberated Captain Smith from gaol and soon afterwards on their leaving Camden, they left him, and left in his care several of their officers who had been wounded in the late action with General Greene.
Since, drawing the rough sketch of my letter I have seen Col. (Richard “Light Horse Harry”) Lee’s Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department (to which I would beg leave to refer to). I have made one and only one quotation from it which you will find duly marked in page 6 and 7 of this letter. I differ with him in a few particulars and but very few.
It seems to be necessary that I should inform you how I came by my knowledge in the premises.
I was born and raised in Camden. Am therefore well acquainted with the ground.
When the British appeared before Charleston in the latter end of December 1779 or beginning of January 1780, I with others went as a volunteer to assist in the defense of the city; was there during the siege and until the Town surrendered by capitulation and under one of the Articles I was paroled to Camden, resided in the family of Col. Joseph Kershaw, and with them continued in Camden until the British made a garrisoned post.
At General Greene’s defeat, a number of the American officers were quartered on us in our house and family, whereby I became acquainted with Capt. Smith (afterward Col. Smith) and several other of the officers. I also found it necessary to cultivate an acquaintance with several of the British officers.
After they had made Camden a garrisoned town they ordered all the families out. I went and resided on a plantation 5 miles below Camden being allowed to come up often into the Town on business, but had always to go to Headquarters for a pass to go out. It continued so until the British left Camden. I then removed up into Camden again, where I found Capt. Smith, Lieut. Trueman of our Army wounded, and several British wounded officers and Doctors, Captain Smith, the wounded soldiers of both parties, the British officers after the battle before they went away, several of the inhabitants about the place and several of Greene’s officers whom I conversed with that I received my information. I went over the field of battle a few days after it on purpose to look over the ground and besides at the end of the war Capt. Smith and myself entered into a co-partnership and were concerned and lived together many years in building saw mills low down on Lynches Creek and carrying on the sawing and rafting of lumber to Georgetown and we often talked over these matters. So that I apprehend the above is correct as far as my memory serves me.
I herewith hand a little rough map though it is a very imperfect one, yet it may give you a better idea of the situation or of plans than you could have without.
I am with great Respect yours,
26 June 1819
List of the officers killed, wounded, and taken prisoners, in the action before Camden, the 25th of April, 1781.
Captain William Beatry [Beatty], Maryland, killed; Captain J. Smith, 3d Maryland, taken prisoner; Captain Dunholm, Virginia, slight contusion; Captain-lieutenant Bruff, Maryland, wounded in both ancles [sic], and prisoner on his parole; Lieutenant M. Gallaway, Maryland, wounded slightly; Lieutenant Ball, Virginia, ditto dangerously in the leg.
Non-commissioned officers and soldiers killed, wounded, and missing. 1 serjeant, 17 rank and file, killed; 7 serjeants, 101 rank and file, wounded; 3 serjeants, 133 rank and file, missing. The greatest part of those who are missing had not well understood the order to rally at Saunder's creek; some were killed; 47 of them were wounded, and are in the enemy's hospital; we have tidings of about one third of the remaining number, and hope they will be able to join us.
O. H. Williams
cited in Tarleton, Banastre,A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1967. (originally published 1787), p. 470.
1785 Letter from Otho H. Williams to his brother Elie Williams, 27 April 1781, in Potter's American Monthly IV: 101-104
Lieut. Col Campbell and one captain of Virginia are very slightly wounded, and subaltern, through the knee. Our friend, Col. Ben(jamin) [Ford], is dangerously wounded in the left elbow. Capt. Beatty fell in the field by a ball through the head, and Capt I. Smith of the Third, and Capt Lunt (Lieut) Bruff are both prisoners, last wounded. Lieut Trueman is a prisoner, and it is said thirty-nine privates of our army are taken, besides a number wounded, the whole amounting to about fifty. We lost about one hundred and thirty killed and wounded, and, from every account, the enemy were not more lucky. The cavalry, the light infantry and the guards acquired all the honor, and the infantry of the battalions all the disgrace which fell upon our brows and shoulders. The battalions will endeavor to exculpate themselves by fixing the odium, if it can be fixed, upon the proper cause or author of our misfortune. The cavalry led on by Washington behaved in a manner truly heroic. They charged the British army in the rear, took a great number of prisoners, sent many of them off with small detachments, and when he saw we were turning our backs upon victory in front, by a circuitous maneuver, he threw his dragoons into our rear, passed the liens, and charged the York Volunteers (a fine corps of cavalry), killed a number, and drove the rest out of the field. Washington is an elegant officer; his reputation is deservedly great. Lee was unfortunately absent. He had been co-operating with Gen. Marion against Fort Watson on the Santee River, which surrendered by capitulation the 23d inst.; 73 British and a number of other prisoners were taken at that post. A pretty particular account of the siege will be published by authority.
Many of our officers are mortally mortified at our late inglorious retreat; I say mortally, because I cannot doubt but some of us must fall in endeavoring the next opportunity to re-establish our reputations. ... Otho
This letter from the collection of Prof. Lawrence Babits, East Carolina University