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The Forgotten Revolutionary War Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill: A Defeat That Set the Stage for Victory

235 years ago this week, a nearly unknown battle in the War of Independence—a battle the Americans actually lost—helped alter the strategic situation in the South, setting the stage for the Patriots’ eventual victory in South Carolina.  The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, also known as the Second Battle of Camden, pitted Patriots against Loyalists and British regulars in a fight that epitomized American tenacity in the face of defeat.

The story of this battle is recounted in a new bestselling book, Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of the Maryland Line, some of whom played a key role at Hobkirk’s Hill.  This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, capturing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of the Revolution.

Events began to unfold on April 24, 1781 at the British outpost in Camden, South Carolina. Renowned for being the ugliest officer in the British Army, Lord Francis Rawdon (pictured, left) led the British forces at Camden which consisted primarily of Loyalists.  The twenty-six-year-old Rawdon commanded a network of fortified posts—Camden being the lynchpin —that stretched across the state, critical to the British strategy of controlling South Carolina.

Opposing him was Nathanael Greene (pictured, right), arguably George Washington’s most able general, who led a larger force that included the Maryland Line, other Continental troops, and a sizable number of militia.  Following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Greene marched his army into South Carolina. The outpost at Camden was well-fortified; therefore, Greene declined attacking it directly, hoping instead to draw Rawdon out of his defenses with a series of raids.

Around April 24, Rawdon listened intently as a deserter, a Maryland drummer, divulged priceless information.  The teenager, who had fought only hours earlier alongside his brothers in a raid near the outpost, revealed Greene’s order of battle to Rawdon.  Additionally, the young man provided crucial information that Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, both of whom led bands of militia terrorizing British forces throughout South Carolina, would soon be reinforcing Greene’s army.

To make matters worse, Rawdon had recently received word of the fall of Fort Watson, another key link in the British supply chain traversing South Carolina.  The loss of the outpost, in conjunction with Sumter and Marion’s forces running amok in the countryside and ambushing his supply train, cut Camden off from the British stronghold at Charleston.  Rawdon needed to act quickly before exhausting his food and supplies.  If Camden fell into American hands, several of the posts within the network would either wither on the vine from lack of supply or face destruction if Greene concentrated his forces on any one of them.

Rawdon, severely outnumbered—Greene had about 40% more men—organized a desperate gamble, boldly deciding to attack.  On the chilly morning of April 25, 1781, Rawdon marched out of Camden to attack Greene.  “By arming our musicians, our drummers, and in short everything that could carry a firelock [musket], I mustered above nine hundred for the field, sixty of whom were dragoons. With this force and two six-pounders we marched, about ten o’clock yesterday morning, leaving our redoubts to the care of the militia and a few sick soldiers.”

Just less than two miles away from Rawdon’s approaching onslaught, Greene sipped a cup of tea while his fifteen-hundred-man army leisurely washed their clothes and cleaned their weapons.  The Marylanders and the rest of Greene’s troops manned defensive positions outside Camden on a sandy ridge known as Hobkirk’s Hill.  Timber and thick, lush underbrush coated large portions of the knoll, while a road bisected the center of the embankment.  The general posted the Marylanders up front to the east of the road with the Virginia Continentals on its western side.  The militiamen stayed atop the hill in reserve with William Washington’s cavalry.  Greene’s army waited for Lord Rawdon to make the next move, completely unaware of how soon it would materialize.

Taking advantage of the wooded terrain and swamps to mask their movements, Rawdon and his men approached within three hundred yards of the Americans before being seen.  The Volunteers of Ireland, a unit of Loyalist Irish formed by Rawdon, charged the Patriot pickets.  Hearing the sharp firefight in their front, Captain William Beatty of the Maryland Line, a veteran since 1776, and the other officers roused the men from their camp duties and ordered them to fall into the line.  The Patriots soon brought their artillery to bear; the combination of cannon and musket fire checked Rawdon’s advance.  Seizing the initiative, Greene ordered a counterattack.  Everything seemed to be coming together for a crushing American victory, and then it all started to fall apart.

As the Marylanders led a bayonet charge into Rawdon’s advancing troops, a musket ball struck Beatty in the head, killing him instantly.  The death of a prominent, much-admired battle captain, viewed by many as bulletproof, caused “confusion and [the men] dropped out of line.”  The disorder spread through the companies around Beatty as more men fell.  Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ford, an original Baltimore Independent Cadet in the Maryland Line, was struck with a ball in the arm, a wound that eventually proved fatal.  Fatefully, in the chaos, the commanding officer of the 1st Maryland ordered the regiment to fall back and re-form, creating a disastrous chain reaction.  As the men retreated, a hole formed in the American line, dooming the American counterattack.

The British troops surged into the gap in the American line.  Although many of the Patriots fell into disarray, Captain John Smith and his company, a group of about forty-five stout Maryland Irishmen, stood firm.  In the midst of the melee, Greene galloped up to Smith and “ordered him to fall into the rear and save the cannon.”

Most of the assistant gunners who tugged on heavy ropes that hauled the American guns, had abandoned their posts at the sight of the tide of Redcoats.  Seizing the thick hemp ropes with one hand and holding their muskets in the other, Smith’s men slowly dragged the artillery from Hobkirk’s Hill.  Suddenly, at full gallop, British dragoons charged Smith’s men.  Smith and the Irish Marylanders released the ropes, formed, aimed, and fired their weapons at the oncoming horsemen—dropping many and forcing their withdrawal.  Smith’s band received Rawdon’s infantry and “fought like bulldogs” “repeat[ing] [this] several times until they got within two or three miles from the field of action.”

Their stand kept the cannons out of British hands, but Smith himself was captured.  Rawdon initially condemned him to death on the accusation that Smith had killed a British officer in cold blood weeks earlier at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.  When he discovered the inculpation after the battle, Greene sent Rawdon a letter and vigorously defended Smith’s honor and laid out the facts. Persuaded by Greene’s letter, Rawdon rescinded Smith’s death sentence and paroled the wealthy Baltimore native.

With the guns safe, Greene continued his general withdrawal, retreating several miles to the old Camden battlefield.  Here, amid the bones of the fallen and debris of the previous summer’s battle, he prepared to receive Rawdon, whose exhausted troops had the strength to pursue the Americans only a few miles.

After several failed attempts to bait Greene into battle, Rawdon abandoned his efforts to destroy the American army, because each time Greene retreated and took up a superb defensive position.  The British had won the field and deprived Greene of many of his finest officers; however, this victory could not fully reestablish the British line of supply to Camden.  About ten days after the battle and nearly out of supply, Rawdon torched Camden, leaving it a heap of ashes, and evacuated the city, bringing with him “all the most obnoxious loyalists.”  Dozens of American wounded remained behind and under the care of the paroled John Smith, whom Rawdon appointed “commandant of the place, in charge of the sick and wounded.”

Having accomplished their strategic objective, the Marylanders left the smoking ashes of Camden and pushed deeper into South Carolina to destroy Rawdon’s outposts, one by one.  Their next target was the key outpost of Ninety Six, located on the Georgia border.  Greene was not accompanied by Smith, who honored his parole and began the long journey on foot to Charleston.  There, he placed himself in the hands of the British, but feared the effects of British tyranny.  He lived out the remainder of the war in British custody.  Smith never experienced mistreatment from the British, but ironically felt the wrath of his fellow Americans.  On the road to Charleston, he was tortured and attacked by his fellow countrymen, who “stripped him, bound him to a tree and inflicted on him a barbarous castigation on the bare back.”

Despite losing the field at Hobkirk’s Hill, General Nathanael Greene was winning the strategy and slowly reclaiming South Carolina, post by post.  Greene summed it up perfectly: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”

Listen to Patrick K. O’Donnell’s discussion of this article on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM:

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest book. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell.com @combathistorian

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