A major discovery near Camden, SC sheds light on heroes from the past.
Just north of Camden, the landscape transitions from a bustling urban area to scattered homesteads and expansive longleaf pine forests. Known as the Sandhills Region, the pines grow tall and straight on this edge of the prehistoric Atlantic Ocean and on August 16, 1780, these forests provided the setting for the turning point of the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, the Battle of Camden.
After Charleston fell to the British, the hero of Saratoga, Major General Horatio Gates arrived in the South with plans of replicating his victorious campaign in the North. Gates marched for Camden to capture the outpost there. Meanwhile, Major General Baron de Kalb and more than 1,000 Maryland and Delaware Continentals were marching south from New Jersey, with orders from General George Washington. Things were about to get serious in Camden and Gates’ troops were severely compromised. Food rations were nearly non-existent. The young soldiers foraged on green corn and green peaches a decision that caused them to be “breaking the ranks all night and were certainly much debilitated…”
In the early hours of August 16, the opposing armies literally ran into each other on the Waxhaw’s Road, eight miles north of Camden. After a short skirmish, both sides fell back to regroup. At early morning light, the British force of 2,335 troops, commanded by Cornwallis faced off against the Patriot forces who numbered above 3,500, nearly 2,250 of whom were inexperienced new Virginia and North Carolina militia.
“The battle of course ended up being a total disaster,” commented James Legg, Public Archaeologist for the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). “The American Army was destroyed for the second time in four months.” Legg has spent decades researching the battle and doing fieldwork on the battlefield. He described a setting where musket fire at close range continued for forty-five minutes or more before the British outflanked the Patriots and claimed victory.
We may never know how many soldiers lost their lives at Camden. When faced with charging bayonets, many Patriot soldiers fled to the north and west. Some were captured. Others were left dead or wounded where they fell. Any who were buried were done so unceremoniously in shallow single or mass graves. Historical records indicate that many others remained on the surface, their remains removed by wolves and other scavengers. Legg continues, “No one was ever removed. They didn’t get up and go home. They are still right where they fell.”
In the years following the battle, the landscape remained remarkedly intact, however, shallow graves left the soldier’s remains vulnerable to the impacts of logging and agriculture. Today, 770 acres of the battlefield are protected under the ownership of South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust and Historic Camden Foundation and under a conservation easement held by the Katawba Valley Land Trust.
Legg describes Camden as a “featureless battlefield,” a pine forest with no structures such as fortifications or trenches. The only evidence comes in the form of artifacts. Much of the early research conducted with Dr. Steven Smith involved the identification of artifacts, located either by interviewing relic hunters or utilizing systematic metal detecting. Their research in early 2000s yielded dense concentrations of lead shot and musket balls; and clothing artifacts such as buttons and clothing clasps, all within six to eighteen inches of the surface. The artifacts were catalogued, and the locations were mapped for later work. It wasn’t until 2020 when Legg confirmed that the collections of buttons marked burials.
South Carolina Battleground Trust CEO, Doug Bostick, worked closely with Legg and Smith. He knew that the remains were vulnerable, felt strongly that America’s first veterans deserved a permanent resting place, and set a course to change that. “The soldiers who fell at Camden fought a vicious, bloody battle for the liberties we enjoy today,” Bostick remarked. “They are heroes who deserve to be remembered as such.” He contracted with SCIAA for the excavation of the remains of five to six soldiers and assembled a steering committee to begin the planning for reinterment ceremonies in April 2023.
A cross-disciplinary team of archaeologists from SCIAA and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and biological pathologists from the Richland County Coroner’s Office under the leadership of Smith and Legg began the work to recover the soldiers, over an estimated timeline of four weeks. As the archaeological units were opened, graves that were believed to hold one individual, held several and the timeline extended from four weeks to eight.
John Michael Fisher, a SCIAA archaeologist, has personal connections to Camden and served his country in the Army Reserves. “My grandfather used to take me on rides throughout the state to see battlefield or historic sites. Camden was always important to him.” He continued, “As a veteran I felt humbled to be there. I’m a combat veteran, so seeing these guys who marched all the way from Maryland exhausted, and then died and were thrown into mass graves made me personally attached to this project.”
Fisher and his colleagues worked with excruciating care to remove soil from the remains with a collection of wooden spoons, chopsticks and small brushes; and relied on the biological pathologists from the Richland County Coroner’s office to lead the final removal in a manner that would not cause additional harm to the fragile bones. Deputy Coroner Bill Stevens has extensive experience in the recovery of remains. “We treat remains with dignity, especially those who have died in the conflict. That was the case for me working in Guatemala later in Cyprus, and here at Richland County, where we are provide services for homeless veterans, dealing directly with Fort Jackson to provide them burial with full military honors.”
The recovery of Revolutionary War soldier remains is rare. The manner of their burials coupled with human or animal disturbance, weather, and soil chemistry often results in the loss of these individuals. Stevens credits the partnership of experts in developing field protocols that will provide insight into these heroes and an opportunity to ensure they are remembered. “The project entailed allowed us to develop many different protocols using each other’s expertise. The Department of Natural Resources, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, and the Richland County Coroner’s Office all have different skill sets of dealing with remains material culture artifacts, knowledge about the soil, about the conditions of burial and historical knowledge to identify individuals. It’s been a great melding of experts that allowed us to carry out the field recovery and continues into the lab analysis.”
Camden’s artifacts are helping to shed light on the soldiers’ stories. Unique buttons lying among the remains helped researchers identify twelve Continentals, one loyalist militiaman, and one British soldier from the 71st regiment afoot, Fraser’s Highlanders. Continental buttons prominently featured the letters “USA” in an overlapping design. The soldier of the 71st was found with twenty-two uniform buttons with a decorative border and the numbers 7-1. The careful excavation also provided insight on the manner of death for many of the soldiers. A musket ball lodged in the spine of one soldier and in the skull of another.
The manner of burial was emotionally challenging for those who worked daily on the battlefield. While the Fraser’s Highlander was presumed to be respectfully buried, face up with his arms across his chest, the Continentals were found in a much different condition. Four graves were single burials and three were multiple burials. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Archaeologist, Tariq Gaffar, described his experience. “I’ve done disinternment before both of large cemeteries and individuals but this would be different because this is the first time I’ve dealt with individuals who have died by violent means.” He continued, “There was a tremendously callous and brutal treatment of their bodies. They were not carefully or lovingly buried. They weren’t marked. So I feel as though my role here is not so much as a doctor or healer, but as a rescuer. I’m glad that they are going to finally get the military honors that they have deserved for hundreds of years.”
The feelings Tariq describes were shared among his colleagues, resulting in the creation of a short informal ceremony as each soldier was removed. Bostick described those moments, “They were carefully removed. Each body was wrapped, boxed. Someone would say a few words. Another would offer a prayer. The flag draped box of remains were then carried to the coroner’s van by a member of the team who was also a veteran.”
The Richland County Coroner’s office is studying the remains to learn about where they came from, their diets, their ages and stature, and DNA samples are being collected. They will also prepare the remains to be placed in 18th century handcrafted replica coffins and return to Camden for reinterment ceremonies and reburial in sealed vaults in the precise location the remains were initially recovered. The graves will be marked.
“This will be a one-of-a-kind event. The opportunity to respectfully bury these soldiers who did not have the opportunity to be respectfully buried in 1780,” Bostick reflected. “We invite you to come to Camden immerse yourself in the Revolutionary War. This is going to be a ceremony that none of us will see in our lifetime again. To do so, with full military honors is what these soldiers deserve.” AM
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