Weekend in Columbia, Part 3 || Saturday, June 18, 2016 || Visiting Clemson Sandhill Research area, Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site, and the Pearl Fryar Topiary Gardens
[This post brought to you by Curtis!]
After our brief morning downtown, I was pretty disappointed. Yeah, the state house was cool and those sculptures were pretty sweet, but that was it. It wasn’t even noon and we were done and I felt like junk. Jess asked what we could possibly do for the rest of the day. My normal go to, letterboxing, wasn’t going to work since most of the boxes in Columbia are in one forest and I just did not feel well enough to go hike four miles in a forest that probably was just a forest. So I began racking my brain for the obscure and remote. Fortunately, I happen to be really good at remembering the obscure and remote and so was able to piece together the remainder of our trip.
First up was a letterbox. As much as letterboxing in SC has disappointed me and Jess, I still really enjoy it and will go to great lengths to find them. I am especially good at being the opportunistic boxer. Since Jess is more into boxing as a last resort, I will do my best to plot routes and sites to see that are still interesting in themselves, but also lead us to boxes.
This was not one of those boxes. The box we were after was at a lake on the outskirts of the city, around the Clemson Sandhill Research & Education area. Rather oddly placed honestly. But it was a nice stroll and the weather was still pleasant. We saw there was another farmer’s market – much smaller than the one downtown – and thought about getting peaches at a farmers market, but showed up too late.
Next up on my list of ways to pass the time was a visit to the historic town of Camden. And so for yet another time, you will read about the Revolutionary War in South Carolina. (That’s what happens when you visit historical places not in chronological order).
Today’s history lesson is brought to you by the letter D. D as in Defeat, Dereliction of Duty, and Doesn’t matter, we still won the war.
Camden was the first back country settlement in South Carolina positioned along the Wateree River, and like Ninety Six along the Saluda River (now that I reflect on it, Camden and Ninety Six follow very parallel tracks in the Revolutionary War.), was a trading post for the Cherokee and other indians, and a governmental center for the widespread backcountry men. By the beginning of the Revolution, Camden was the central hub of the backcountry as Columbia, Greenville, and Spartanburg had yet to be founded.
For the first four years of the war (1776-1779) Camden was rather quiet and peaceful, blissfully unaware of the struggles occurring in New England. But, following the dramatic surrender of General Benjamin Lincoln and all of his forces at Charleston to the British General Clinton (May 1780), Camden would soon become the center of the partisan warfare that would consume the Carolinas for the next two years.
With the bulk of the Continental Army in the South captured or paroled, and the rest on the run, Clinton returned to New York and left General Cornwallis to take care of the Carolinas. Immediately, Cornwallis set about creating outposts such as Ninety Six and Santee Mound with small garrisons throughout the back country so as to suppress the rebellious elements.
During this period, the Americans were lead solely by the partisan Generals -Marion, Sumter, and Pickens- who made due with what they had, but without a substantial force could do little more than harass the heavily armed, heavily numbered, and well entrenched British. Congress meanwhile sent the Hero of Saratoga General Horatio Gates himself to take command of the remnants of the Continental Army being organized near Charlotte, NC.
Gates arrived in Charlotte around July and immediately decided to set forth and seek out Cornwallis’ army in a pitched battle against his Lieutenants advice. Gate’s, having just arrived, severely underestimated the abilities of his troops, many of whom were green and untested by battle. Gate’s marched his army of maybe 4000 through a Loyalist infested wilderness at the end of July. The heat and exertion, paired with a poor diet AND a large portion of troops being sent for auxiliary actions left Gate’s on the eve of Battle with maybe 2000 effectives.
On the British side of things, whereas Gates was doing most things wrong, Cornwallis was doing most things right. Camden was under command of Lord Rawdon (the same Lord Rawdon who came to the British “rescue” at Ninety-Six) with 1000 effectives. When Cornwallis realized that Gates was coming from the North, he immediately set out with an additional 1000 effectives and took command of the British forces himself.
On August 18, 1780 occurred one of the few “pitched” battles of the American Revolution about eight miles North of Camden. Each General lined up his army opposite the other and then prepared for fight. Unfortunately, Gates placed all of his inexperienced units together opposite the British Regulars. And when the Regulars made their first charge, they immediately broke. The Regulars then wheeled to engage the remainder of the Continental Army who were already engaged and were now outnumbered over 2:1. The entire engagement was over in just over an hour and by that evening, General Gates was safe in Charlotte 60 miles away. A second American Army had been defeated in under a year in South Carolina.
And so, as his friend General Charles Lee warned: Gates Northern Laurels had turned to Southern Willows.
With their commanding General in full flight, and essentially all other field grade officers hot on his heels, the remains of the Army fled and dispersed throughout the Carolinas. And again the War in the Carolinas fell to the Partisan Generals.
In the following months, while the Americans did their best to reorganize, Cornwallis decided to bring the war to North Carolina and fell upon Charlotte, but not before first suffering a painful defeat (and much needed victory for the Americans) at Kings Mountain.
In December, General Nathaniel Greene took command of the third Continental Army of the South in Hillsboro, NC. And over the next several months, beat at Cornwallis as Cornwallis chased him throughout North Carolina. After the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington to go fight the war in Virginia leaving the Carolina’s open for reconquest. (I’ve written this part so many times but have never been able to actually go into detail because we’ve never been to any of the sites in NC. And I’ll probably write it once more for when we visit Cowpens Battlefield!)
Greene with an army of only about 1500 began working his way South. Although small, he believed he could rely upon the Partisan Generals. To that effect he sent Light Horse Harry to join Marion, whereupon the two would systematically destroy the garrisons between Camden and Charleston beginning with Santee Mound (Fort Watson). Greene then requested that Sumter rendezvous with him near Camden and Pickens would go to begin engaging Ninety Six.
Arriving outside Camden, Greene realized that Lord Rawdon had known about the coming attack. Furthermore, the city itself was surrounded by a palisade and there were small earthen forts beyond the palisade protecting every conceivable approach. What’s more, Sumter did not show.
But, Marion and Lee, having recently burned Fort Watson, were nearby pursuing Lt. Col. Watson on his way from the fort to reinforce Lord Rawdon. Believing he could meet with his allies, Greene made camp a few miles north of the town on a piece of elevated land known as Hobkirk’s Hill.
Lord Rawdon, with only 900 some men, was in a pickle. His supplies were low, an army at least twice his own was only a few miles away, and his expected reinforcements were probably not going to make it. So when a drummer from the American camp deserted and informed him that Greene had yet to be reinforced by Sumter and that Greene’s artillery had yet to arrive, Rawdon decided it was now or never.
On April 25, 1781, Rawdon marched up the road veiled by trees and made his surprise attack on the American position. The Americans were quick to respond however and a more pitched battle pursued. Outnumbering the British and Loyalist, Greene ordered his right and left to envelope the enemy. Rawdon countered. And then a minor error occurred. A captain in the 1st Maryland on the American right was shot. His company lagged behind without leadership. The commander ordered the entire division to stop. Confusion ensued and the British took their advantage, forcing Greene to leave the field. A British victory.
But a hollow one at that. The defeat to the American’s was inexplicable and left Greene in a depressing mood. By all accounts, the Americans should have and would have won. By numbers, the Americans had lost under 200 effectives, the British 250. As Page Smith wrote in his history of the war, “Rawdon had gambled the existence of his little army on one throw of the dice and had won.” What’s more, the situation for Rawdon was hardly improved. If anything he gained enough breathing space in which to retreat. And retreat he did, burning the town of Camden as he left.
Greene, again free to reconquer the country-side, tasked his Lieutenants with taking the remaining British posts while he set about conquering Ninety-Six. Within six months the only British left would be those as prisoners or those in Charleston.
Today, the two battlefields themselves are practically non-existent. Following the war, the town of Camden was relocated a few miles north of its original site. Hobkirk’s hill is part of an older residential area and the Camden Battlefield (oddly the one further away) is now part of a forest which one could walk around, but offers little more than informational placards (although if someone were to maybe take the time to plant a letterbox there I may say something different).
However, the original townsite – the one that was burned after Rawdon’s retreat – is a historic park. The town of Camden owns much of the original town and has preserved and rebuilt several buildings and set about reconstructing the earthen forts that surrounded the town. So although it isn’t the actual site for either battle, it is much more put together and gives just as good a history of the area plus some. We took a long walk around the area and really enjoyed reading about the history that happened here.
Following our excursion to Camden, we decided to push a little further along I-20 (although we didn’t actually drive the interstate – we love our back highways!) to the little town of Bishopville in Lee County. Our destination: the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden.
This is literally just a place I probably saw in a “Weird Carolinas” book, or knew vaguely about through letterboxing. It literally is just some guy named Pearl who has a green thumb and decided to display his home garden and his talent at topiary (I’m having a really hard time using this word correctly). But this is a world recognized garden! There are documentaries about this guy and books and articles. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but the best word to described it is whimsy. If you’re ever bored on the I-20, definitely take a look.
After our walk in the garden we headed south through Sumter where we grabbed some Sonic (Charlotte was exhausted at this point, so we knew we had to reward her with a trip to her favorite restaurant. We treated her to 99¢ corn dogs – she was one happy pup). We had the intention of visiting the grave sites of Sumter and Marion, but decided to save it for another day if possible. I may even plant some letterboxes there. Who knows. We made it back home by 5 that evening.
So as you can see, we figured out a way to stretch out our trip to Columbia and make it worth the extra day, and now we’re so glad we did. Another successful weekend of learning more about our home state! We may miss the SW and mountains a lot, but that won’t ever stop us from trying out what the area we’re in has to offer.