CAMDEN, S.C. — On April 22nd, in the middle of a longleaf pine tree forest just north of Camden, South Carolina, Apache helicopters thundered over a large crowd gathered in front of 13 wooden coffins.
It was a grand gesture to honor the lives of a handful of revolutionary-era soldiers whose remains were recently discovered. 242 years earlier, two armies met at the Battle of Camden in a fierce contest where the cries of teenage soldiers could be heard as the American colonies struggled to gain independence.
The South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust decided to honor the soldiers with a proper funeral service and ceremony out on the battlefield.
The 13 soldiers uncovered in September 2022 included 12 patriots and one Scottish Highlander who fought for the British. Historians, preservationist groups, state authorities, and others then decided it would only be proper to give the soldiers a Christian funeral service and battlefield honors.
“These men and boys, but they were boys only in age, were and are soldiers,” said historian Rick Wise, referencing five of the recovered soldiers who were teenagers, including one as young as 15.
“These 13 soldiers are not statistics,” Wise continued. “They lie before us not as an excerpt of history, but they are tangible and real. They represent the other 400 plus soldiers spread across this hallowed ground.”
The ground had been hollowed by patriot soldiers from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and the Carolinas under the command of Prussian Count Major General Johann de Kalb and British-born Virginia gentleman Horatio Gates clashing with British and Loyalist forces under General Charles Lord Cornwallis on August 16, 1780.
The battle ended in a rout of the Americans who suffered about 1,900 casualties, whereas the British only sustained 324. Included in the American casualties was de Kalb, who had been given a commission in the army by American diplomats in France eager to get support for American independence.
Prior to the battlefield ceremony, the soldiers were carried through the streets of Camden’s historic district by horse-drawn carriages to be given a joint Anglican-Presbyterian funeral ceremony at Bethesda Presbyterian Church.
Escorted by a military band, the funeral procession passed by hundreds of locals who watched in silence. Joining the horse-drawn carriages were members of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), decked out in full colonial soldier regalia.
Brooks Lyles, Jr., chairman of the SAR education outreach committee told The Daily Wire that members from all over the country, including Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi were present at the ceremonies.
This remarkable event was organized by the Camden Burials Steering Committee, which was formed after the discovery of the bodies last year. The committee took great care, to ensure that the bodies were treated with respect and every detail was considered.
For example, the coffins holding the bodies of the patriots were draped in American flags and were custom-built from longleaf wood in the style of an 18th-century coffin. Even the nails used in the coffins were hand-forged to be in accordance with the style of the time.
This attention to detail contrasted greatly with the state the 12 patriots were found in. Many were covered in only a foot of soil with no marker and in a mass grave. The patriots had been routed so badly they didn’t have time after the battle to attend to the dead. It is believed they were cut down during the retreat by the infamous “Bloody Ban” Banastre Tarleton and his cavalry forces.
The remains, some of which contained evidence of British bullets and bayonets, were identified by their pewter buttons used by the patriot soldiers.
The funeral service was conducted very similar to a service from the time of the battle. As the bodies of the soldiers were moved from the carriages to in front of the church, the tunes to famous hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and “Be Thou My Vision” played as the clergy read Bible passages about Jesus being the resurrection and the life.
During the funeral, the patriot soldiers were once again reunited with de Kalb, whose grave is located in front of the historic church. His grave marker describes the Prussian as, “covered in wounds while gallantly performing deeds of valor in rallying the friends and opposing the enemies of his adopted country.”
After the service, which featured a number of Bible readings, the soldiers were honored by an F-16 flyover before the bodies were escorted away.
Dan Goforth, whose ancestor fought for the patriots at the battle of King’s Mountain, told The Daily Wire he was there with his son to observe the ceremonies, something he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Hours after the funeral service, another ceremony was held on the battlefield featuring speeches from Governor Henry McMaster (R-SC), South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust President Douglas Bostick, a representative from the British consulate in Atlanta, and others.
This ceremony was held out among the pines on the battlefield, where a stage had been set up not far from where de Kalb had fallen. The coffins holding the remains of the 12 patriots and the coffin with the Scottish Highlander were placed in front of a stage before the helicopters flew over.
One attendee, Bill, told The Daily Wire he had over 40 relatives who had fought in America’s war for independence. He said he was amazed by the hardships that America’s founding generation went through, especially compared to what people complain about today.
Even though the names of the fallen remain unknown, the scene at both ceremonies was solemn and emotional.
“When these coffins were coming in for a minute there, I didn’t know whether to cry or pray,” McMaster said, summing up many people’s emotions as the coffins were laid to rest just feet from where many of the remains had been discovered.
“The more I learn about our nation’s history, the more proud I am of South Carolina’s dramatic role in it. These ceremonies remind and instruct us of the virtually insurmountable challenges and burdens our people faced and overcame in securing their liberty and ours,” McMaster added.
The clash at Camden was precipitated by Gates, recently given command of the Southern Department, moving the Southern Department to take a British fort near Camden that he believed to be weakly fortified. Gates’ forces consisted of poorly trained, inexperienced militia men and more experienced units from Delaware and Maryland under de Kalb.
Cornwallis, who was in command of British forces in the South, learned of Gates’s movement and took his army north to combat the patriots. The two armies ended up meeting up about seven miles outside of Camden on the night of August 15 and briefly skirmished, before both retreated until morning to resume fighting.
The battle on August 16 was an utter disaster for the patriots. The more experienced Redcoats made quick work of the green troops.
While the militia men quickly fled, troops from Maryland and Delaware fought longer, but they too were soon overwhelmed, with de Kalb suffering multiple wounds that proved to be mortal.
After the battle, the cause of American independence appeared severely weakened. The battle had effectively destroyed the colonist’s whole southern army. For a moment, it appeared to be a turning point in the war, but only briefly as it initiated important changes.
Gates, who would be widely ridiculed for his wild retreat from Camden would be replaced by the more competent Virginian Nathaniel Greene, also known as “the savior of the South,” who would orchestrate the great patriot victory at Cowpens soon after the disaster at Camden, which followed on the heels of a great patriot victory at King’s Mountain.
While most of the fallen at Camden never received a proper burial or recognition for the price they paid for America’s independence, 12 young soldiers finally received the honor they deserved as hundreds turned up to say thank you one week in Camden.