Perhaps no town in what became the United States other than Boston or Philadelphia witnessed more of the American Revolution than Camden, South Carolina. Located inland about 125 miles from Charleston it was an important trading post leading into the wilderness. All roads in South Carolina seemed to lead to Camden.
The Catawba tribe lived in the area and created a trading path that linked the coast to the mountains. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the area while searching for gold in 1540. The town was established as the Royal township of Fredericksburg in 1732 along the banks of the Wateree River. The Quakers arrived in 1750 and by the 1760s the town was renamed Camden and was an important trading hub.
During the American Revolution the British army attempted to bring the rebellion to an end in the southern colonies. Their northern strategy had failed and a change in plan was necessary. Because of the road network Camden became an inevitable target. British soldiers under Lord Cornwallis entered Camden in May 1780 to establish a supply post. In August 1780 Horatio Gates attempted to reclaim the town and was defeated five miles north of the town. Gates, sensing defeat and with his army crumbling fled the scene and did not stop until he reached North Carolina. His army lost over 2,000 soldiers, all of its cannon and its baggage train and Gates lost his job as Nathanael Greene was sent to take charge. (The Battle of Camden is supposedly depicted in the 2000 Mel Gibson movie the Patriot, Gibson and Heath Ledger watch it from a farmhouse). The following year Greene tried again and was defeated at Hobkirk’s Hill on the east side of town. This was a costly victory for the British and did force them to abandon their post and retreat burning the town upon leaving. The battle was also witnessed by a young man named Andrew Jackson who was being held in prison for refusing to shine a British officer’s boots.
The town was rebuilt after the war. Standing near the newly rebuilt town square was a small oak tree. The tree was there when George Washington visited in 1791. It was standing in 1825 when the Marquis de Lafayette lead the funeral procession of his mentor the Baron Johann de Kalb, who was killed at the Battle of Camden, to a new grave at the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. It was standing as many of Camden’s youth marched off to join another rebellion, this one not as successful as US forces occupied the town by the end of the war with several properties burned by the order of William T. Sherman. Camden had six of its sons rise to become generals in the Confederate army and perhaps its most famous son was Richard Kirkland, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.
Today the site of the old town of Camden is just a field. A living history park is located across the street and two old cemeteries are located nearby. In the field though is the remains of the Camden Oak as well as an offspring of its famous neighbor. Several antebellum homes still exist and the Camden Battlefield has been preserved and offers numerous walking trails to explore.