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 Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon, who had been left in effective command of British forces in the South after the departure of Cornwallis.
Although American General Nathanael 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 Lieutenant Colonel John Watson Tadwell-Watson to seek out and destroy the legendary “Swamp Fox.” Rawdon was thus left with only 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. He hoped to draw out and destroy the British army with his force of 1,551 men, most of whom were regular Continental Army soldiers.
On April 21, Greene learned that Watson’s force was on its way 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.
At around 11 A.M., as the Americans were settling down to eat, musket fire from Greene’s pickets alerted the Patriots to their peril. As the British moved forward, they were showered with a hail of grapeshot. Unbeknownst to Rawdon, Greene had reunited his army earlier 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. Although 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.
However, at this point Maryland troops faltered in the attack and pulled back. This costly blunder caused panic to spread through the American army, leading to a fall scale retreat.
The British lost roughly 260 men in the battle, including at least 38 killed. The Americans lost roughly 270 men.