On this day in 1780, American General Horatio Gates takes command of the southern army from Major General Johann DeKalb at Coxe’s Mill, North Carolina. When Gates took command, the Patriots numbered about 1,200 regulars, who were severely debilitated by hunger and in need of equipment, as well as a large group of militia, whose exact number is unknown. DeKalb, a German-born soldier who had served in both the French and German armies before volunteering his services to the Patriots, remained with the force as part of Gates’ headquarters staff.
Congress hoped that Gates would be able to revitalize the southern department after its devastating loss of Charleston, South Carolina, to the British and the capture of Major General Benjamin Lincoln in May. Gates was well-respected within the Continental Army only he and Charles Lee had experience in the regular British army. Some even persisted in the belief that Gates would make a better commander in chief than the inexperienced George Washington. Gates’ reputation, however, was destroyed by his experience in the South. With 900 Continentals from Maryland and Delaware and 2,000 militia from Virginia and North Carolina, Gates led his forces into battle with British General Charles Cornwallis at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780. The ensuing defeat effectively ended Gate’s career. His men ate under-baked bread and spent the night before the engagement suffering from diarrhea. To make matters worse, the militia had no bayonets. The sick and ill-armed militiamen took to panic-stricken flight when confronted by the first British charge. The Continentals stayed to fight, but to no avail.
Gates’ final action as a commander was to ride 240 miles in order to report total Defeat in a letter to Congress sent from Hillsborough, North Carolina. Gates would never again take the field as a military commander.