The Battle of Hobkirk's Hill
April 25, 1781 at Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina
The Battle of Hobkirk's Hill was also called the Second Battle of Camden. A small American army defended a ridge known as Hobkirk's Hill against an attack by an even smaller British force. After a fierce clash, Major General Nathanael Greene retreated a few miles, leaving Brigadier General Francis Rawdon's soldiers in possession of the hill.
Even though Rawdon was the victor, he soon fell back to Camden. Later in the day, Greene sent a small force of cavalry and infantry to pick up the American wounded and stragglers. These soldiers drove off a troop of loyalist dragoons. Despite his tactical success, Rawdon found it necessary to abandon Camden two weeks later and withdraw toward Charleston, South Carolina. The battle was one of four contests in which Greene met tactical defeat, yet his overall strategy was successful in depriving the British of all South Carolina except Charleston.
Greene considered the battle a lost opportunity to defeat a significant British force of the British Army and compel them to abandon their outposts scattered across South Carolina for the safety of Charleston.
Facts about the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill
- Armies - American Forces was commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene and consisted of about 1,550 Soldiers and militia. British Forces was commanded by Lt. Col. Lord Rawdon and consisted of about 900 Soldiers and militia.
- Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 19 killed, 113 wounded, 89 captured, and 50 missing. British casualties were estimated to be 39 killed, 210 wounded, 200 captured, and 12 missing.
- Outcome - The result of the battle was a tactical British victory and a strategic American victory. The battle was part of the Southern Theater 1775-82.
When Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington, he ordered Rawdon to defend South Carolina with a command of 9,000 British and Tory soldiers. Rawdon's primary post was in Camden, a key British base, though the British maintained outposts across the state and in Georgia. In an effort to chase down and eliminate one of the major Patriot threats, Rawdon dispatched a 900-man detachment, commanded by Colonel John Watson.
This detachment was half of Rawdon's Camden garrison. Tory spies kept Rawdon informed of Greene's whereabouts. When Rawdon learned that Greene was marching toward Camden, Rawdon recalled Watson and prepared to defend the important British supply center.
On April 6, Greene detached a cavalry force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harry Lee, to assist Brigadier General Francis Marion's raiders in the eastern part of the state. If they could capture Fort Watson, they would sever Rawdon's supply line from Charleston. Colonel Andrew Pickens was sent with several hundred troops to assist Brigadier General Thomas Sumter's three small regiments of South Carolina Regulars in the fight with British outposts at Fort Ninety-Six and Augusta. Then, Greene began marching his remaining force toward Camden.
On April 20, Greene arrived on the outskirts of Camden. Rawdon's defenses were too strong to attack, so Greene established a base on Hobkirk's Hill to threaten the British post and sent word for his detached forces to join him. Hobkirk's Hill was a low sandy ridge 1.5 miles north of Camden. Woods and low marshy terrain flanked the sandy ridge on the east and west. The Great Road runs through the center of the battlefield from north to south along a low ridge. Pine Tree Creek and swamp lands dominated the area east below the battlefield.
The area was covered with woods, and flanked on the left by an impassable swamp located behind “Holly Hedges”. The ground toward Camden, which was 1.5 miles away, was protected by a forest and thick shrubbery; but the time given to improve the strength of the position had not been properly used.
The American position ran along Hobkirk's Hill from east to west. On the east end of the ridge, Greene placed two regiments of Maryland Continentals supported by North Carolina militia on the east end, and two regiments of Virginia Continentals on the west end. He also had some cavalry under Lt. Col. William Washington.
On April 23, Lee and Marion captured Fort Watson. Watson started to moving back to rejoin Rawdon. Because of this patriot action, Watson would not reach Camden in time to assist rawdon for the battle.
On April 24, Rawdon advanced in a very narrow formation, with three regiments in the line and three regiments following in reserve. This gave him a much narrower front than the Patriots, and he was hoping that he could surprise the Americans and defeat their left wing first.
During the night, a deserter reached Camden with some important news. Greene's artillery had been withdrawn, his supplies were low, and his force had been divided. Rawdon also learned of the deployment of Greene's force. Knowing that the Patriots would never be weaker than now and despite being outnumbered, Rawdon decided to launch a surprise attack on the Patriot camp.
The only way the British could reach Greene's position on Hobkirk's Hill was to march up the Great Road/Waxhaws Road linking Camden with Waxhaws. Greene deployed his army accordingly, with them camping in battle formation. He failed to prepare adequate defensive positions or make sure his advance outposts were positioned far enough away to sound an early alarm. The woods made it possible for the British to creep within artillery range without being seen.
On April 25, just before dawn, Rawdon led 900 troops northwest from Camden toward Hobkirk's Hill. He moved his force along the swamp on the eastern side of the road. They formed for battle facing uphill and northwest with a strong front.
Rawdon formed his force: three regiments were in the first line; the second line was a mobile reserve made up 50 convalescents on the left and 140 Volunteers of Ireland on the right; and the third line was comprised of 60 New York Dragoons on the left and 130 South Carolina Tories on the right. A few dozen militia were divided and placed on either flank. Two 6-lb. artillery pieces moved north with Rawdon. The British advanced quietly until skirmishers opened fire on the Patriots just southeast of Hobkirk's Hill.
The initial British firing surprised the Patriot force. They were not expecting the British to attack that morning. They quickly formed into a single line of battle along the brow of the hill facing south by southeast. This line was comprised of 930 men. Brigadier General Issac Huger's two Virginia regiments were on the right side of the road (Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Hawes's 1st Virginia Regiment formed the extreme right and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Campbell’s 2nd Virginia Regiment formed the right center), and Colonel Otho William's two Continental Regular Maryland regiments were on the left side (Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ford's 5th Maryland Regiment occupied the extreme left and Colonel John Gunby's 1st Maryland Regiment formed the left center).
Behind Williams was a reserve of 250 North Carolina militiamen and Colonel William Washington's 85-man cavalry detachment. Before the fighting started, three 6-lb. artillery pieces unlimbered in the road facing south between the Virginia and Maryland troops.
Perceiving that the British advanced with a narrow front, Greene saw this weakness and advanced his lines. The plan was to have the center attack the British directly, the Virginia and Maryland troops would wheel respectively on the British flanks and envelope them, and the cavalry would ride around to the east and attack the British rear.
When Rawdon realized what Greene was doing, Rawdon had time to extend his front by ordering up his reserves, making the British front longer than the Patriot front. This nullified Greene's plan of attack and would throw it in disarray.
When the battle began, the Virginians began forcing back the British left. On Greene's eastern flank, Gunby became confused and pulled his regiment back to reorganize. The British launched a bayonet charge against Grunby, which panicked the Marylanders, who were soon routed from the battlefield. On the left flank, Ford was leading his men when he was severely wounded. His regiment soon retreated in confusion without executing their orders.
On the west side of the road, Campbell's left flank was exposed and the British quickly attacked. Campbell's troops could not stand the brunt of the British attack and fled.
The British troops broke through the Patriot center, advanced to the summit of the ridge, brought their whole force into action on the best ground. This British movement sealed the fate of Greene's attack and forced him to order a general retreat for his entire command. Luckily on the right side of the road, Hawes's regiment held on long enough to prevent what could have been the destruction of Greene's army. Washington's cavalry reached the British rear and captured a number of noncombatants. When he learned that most of the army was retreating from the field, Washington ordered his men to withdraw and assist in the withdrawal. They arrived in time to save the 3 artillery pieces from capture.
The Patriots withdrew a few miles and went into camp near Camden. The American defeat at Hobkirk's Hill was blamed on Gunby. The tactical mistake he made by pulling back his men to reorganize his regiment started an unfortunate chain of events. A court of inquiry found him guilty with causing the defeat, but did not call for his removal from command.
Washington and his cavalry never made it to the action. Their circuit to reach the British rear took them to Rawdon's hospital and commissary area, where they took 200 prisoners. Thus laden, they were too late to assist in the battle, and joined Greene's army on its retreat from the battlefield.
Washington did, however, return in time to save the three cannons from capture. The guns were dragged from the field by 45 Maryland infantrymen. This company repelled a number of charges by loyalist horsemen under John Coffin but they suffered serious losses in the process.
The American retreat did not last long. Rawdon withdrew most of his forces to Camden, leaving only a company of dragoons at the battlefield. That afternoon, Greene sent Washington and Kirkwood back to Hobkirk's Hill, where they ambushed and drove the dragoons away; Greene turned the army around and reoccupied the site.
Gunby was castigated by Greene for his actions that caused the line to break. A court martial that was immediately convened found that his "spirit and activity were unexceptionable" but that his order to fall back was "in all probability the only cause why we did not obtain a complete victory", without mentioning the failures of Washington and his cavalry's late arrival.
Rawdon returned to Camden, where Watson's men joined him on May 7. However, the ongoing presence of Greene on one flank and South Carolina militia general Thomas Sumter on another, and the fact that Marion and Lee were wreaking havoc with his supply and communications with Charleston, convinced him that he could no longer hold Camden.
On May 9, Rawdon abandoned Camden, retreating to Moncks Corner.
In his report to Cornwallis of April 26, Rawdon said he lost 220, of which at least 38 were killed. His official return lists 258 total casualties.
Balfour in his letter to Germain of 1 May wrote: “[Rawdon’s casualties did not exceed] one hundred, in which is included one officer killed and eleven wounded.”
Tarleton: “The loss on the British side, however moderate in other respects, was much greater than they could afford, and exceeded one fourth of their whole number: It amounted, in killed, and wounded, and missing to two hundred and fifty-eight: Of these, only thirty-eight were slain; but the wounded were equally a detraction from immediate strength, and in the present circumstances, a very heavy incumbrance. Only one officer fell; but twelve were wounded, and most of them were discharged upon parole. The spirit and judgement shewn by the young commander of the British forces, deserves great commendation. He was most gallantly seconded by his officers and troops.”
Williams reported 270 casualties after the battle, nearly half of whom were listed as missing. "Many of these, according to Williams, 'had not understood the order to rally at Saunders Creek;' a third of the missing had since 'been heard of' and would soon rejoin the army, he hoped...It is not known how many returned, but Rawdon reported that a large number, whose retreat had been cut off, went into Camden and 'claimed protection as Deserters.'"
Tarleton: “The enemy’s killed and wounded were scattered over such an extent of ground, that their loss could not be ascertained. Lord Rawdon thinks the estimate would be low if it were rated at five hundred; Greene’s account makes it too low to be credited. About an hundred prisoners were taken; besides that, a number of men, finding their retreat cut off, went into Camden, and claimed protection, under pretence of being deserters.”
Balfour in his letter to Germain of 1 May wrote: ”My Lord Rawdon states the loss of the enemy on this occasion as upwards of one hundred made prisoners, and four hundred killed and wounded; his own not exceeding one hundred, in which is included one officer killed and eleven wounded.”
Lossing: “The dead, alone, occupied the battle-field. So well was the retreat conducted, that most of the American wounded (including six commissioned officers), and all of their artillery and baggage, with Washington’s fifty prisoners, were carried off. The loss of the Americans in killed, wounded, and missing, according to Greene’s return to the Board of War, was two hundred and sixty-six; that of the enemy, according to Rawdon’s statement, two hundred and fifty-eight. The killed were not very numerous. Greene estimates his number at eighteen, among whom were Ford and Beatty, of the Maryland line.”
Col. Benjamin Ford was so badly wounded that his arm had to be amputated, and he died within a few days. Capt. John Smith of the 1st Maryland Regt. was wounded and taken prisoner, but was left on parole at Camden when Rawdon evacuated the town.
Kirkwood: "25th. The Enemy sallied out and drove us back.....7 [miles]."
Greene, in a letter to Sumter of May 5th, wrote: “Nothing can be more unfortunate than our repulse the other day, which was owing entirely to an order of Col Gunbies [Gunby’s], ordering the first Maryland Regiment to take a new position in the rear. This impressed the Regiment with the idea of retreat, and drew off the second regiment with it. The Enemy were all in confusion and retiring at the same time. Victory was ours if the troops had stood their ground one Minute longer, and the defeat would have given us full possession of Camden, as the enemy would not have got back into town.”
Samuel Mathis, of Camden, to William R, Davie, written on 26 June 1813: “[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 artillery men 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 and fled with the guns as before. The 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 two or three 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 all to pieces. They fought like-bulldogs and all were killed or taken. This took up some time, during which the artillery escaped.”
Balfour in his letter to Germain of 1 May: “Judging it necessary to strike a blow before this junction could take place, and learning that General Greene had detached to bring up his baggage and provisions, Lord Rawdon, with the most marked decision, on the morning of the 25th, marched with the greater part of his force to meet him, and about ten o'clock attacked the rebels in their camp at Hobkirk's with that spirit, which, prevailing over superior numbers and an obstinate resistance, compelled them to give way, and the pursuit was continued for three miles. To accident only they were indebted for saving their guns, which being drawn into a hollow, out of the road, were overlooked by our troops in the flush of victory and pursuit, so that their cavalry, in which they greatly exceeded us, had an opportunity of taking them off…After this defeat, General Greene retired to Rugeley's mills, twelve miles from Camden, in order to call in his troops, and receive the reinforcements; but as Lieutenant-colonel Watson, of the guards, who had been for some time detached by Lord Rawdon, with a corps of five hundred men, to cover the eastern frontiers of the province, is directed by me to join his lordship, I am in hopes he will be able speedily to accomplish this.”