In 1780, the British had shifted their military strategies to focus on the southern colonies. Under Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, the British Army had easily taken the Loyalist stronghold of Savannah and had recently captured Charleston and over 5,000 Patriot soldiers.
In late July of 1780, the Continental Congress voted to give command of a second southern army to Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga. This action was taken without the consent of Commander-in-Chief George Washington, whom many believed Gates aimed to supplant. Buoyed with confidence in himself and the Continental soldiers after the Battle of Saratoga, Gates outfitted his army near Charlotte, North Carolina and ordered the ragtag bunch made of Continental soldiers and militia to march toward British lines in South Carolina. Of his 4,000 soldiers, at least half were ravaged by disease or exhaustion, rendering them unfit for service. Others had little or no military experience. Soon, British General Charles Cornwallis received word of Gates’ movements and marched more than 2,000 troops from Charleston toward Gates. The armies met just after dawn on August 16, 1780. British troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Patriot right flank with their volleys before advancing with a bayonet charge. The Patriots, who lacked bayonets, immediately fled. The first retreat became contagious as other portions of Gates’ army began to flee before Gates himself fled from the battleground. Soon, the entire Patriot army fled. The battle resulted in total devastation for the Patriot southern army as over a thousand were captured and 900 were killed or wounded. The army’s artillery and baggage train were also captured. Patriot operations in the Southern Theater were utterly crippled.
The stunning defeat at Camden permanently marred the reputation of Horatio Gates. He was soon replaced by Nathanael Greene, who would lead the resurgence of the Southern Army.