The first official English town established in the interior of South Carolina, Camden was the site of a major American defeat in the Revolutionary War. It has become a major center for horse breeding and racing, with many fine homes and buildings from the colonial and antebellum periods.
Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce
724 South Broad Street
Camden, SC 29020
ph.: (803) 432-2525
Web site: www.camden-sc.org
South Carolina’s first inland town, Camden was the site of an American defeat during the Revolutionary War. A flourishing town prior to the Civil War, it has become a premiere area for horse breeding and racing and for tourism.
The Wateree Indians, who gave their name to the river, were the first known inhabitants of the area around present-day Camden. To facilitate trade with Native Americans and to expand the borders of South Carolina, King George II of England ordered new townships established in the interior of the colony. In 1733, surveyor James St. Julien laid out a township known as Fredericksburg; it would eventually be known as Camden.
The first settlers came in 1737, and were joined in the early 1750’s by Irish Quakers led by Samuel Wyly. Wyly founded a post for trading with the Catawba Indians, the tribe which had supplanted the Wateree. King Haigler, chief of the Catawbas, was a friend of the settlers, and his image is part of the modern town’s official seal.
In 1758 Joseph Kershaw of Charleston arrived and built a flour mill, sawmill, indigo works, tobacco warehouse, brewery, and distillery. Kershaw also built Camden’s first mansion atop Pine Tree Hill. Kershaw was a dominant figure and a leader in the movement toward independence. In 1765, at Kershaw’s urging, the town was renamed Camden in honor of Charles Pratt, Lord Camden, who supported American rights in the British Parliament.
In November, 1774, a grand jury of the Camden District adopted a declaration urging independence from Great Britain. In March, 1776, South Carolina became the first colony to declare itself independent from the Crown.
In May, 1780, British troops under First Marquis Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) captured Charleston. On June 1 Cornwallis entered Camden, and, with Kershaw’s mansion as his residence, imposed harsh military rule. On August 16, 1780, an American force of 3,000 under General Horatio Gates (1728-1806) encountered Cornwallis’s 2,300 British regulars outside Camden. Gates, rash and unskilled, placed his militia on Cornwallis’s left flank. Cornwallis attacked and routed these inexperienced troops, then drove in the flanks and rear of the Continentals; few escaped, and Johann Baron DeKalb (1721-1780), a European volunteer serving in the American army, was killed. Gates fled more than sixty miles to escape. Camden was one of the most disastrous American defeats of the Revolutionary War.
However, under General Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), Gates’s replacement, the American cause revived. On April 25, 1781, Greene faced a British force at Hobkirk’s Hill, near Camden. Although defeated, Greene by his presence forced the British to retreat to Charleston.
In the new nation, Camden became one of South Carolina’s major inland trading centers. George Washington visited in 1791 during his southern tour. By 1802 the town had over two hundred houses and hosted numerous cultural events. In 1813, a great fire destroyed many buildings, while a malaria epidemic in 1816 convinced residents to move inland from the marshy Wateree River. As a result, many houses and shops were built on higher, drier sand hills to the north of the original town. These newer houses often began as small, simple structures that were gradually enlarged into gracious mansions with beautiful gardens.
During the nineteenth century Robert Mills (1781-1855), one of America’s most distinguished architects, designed the Kershaw County Court House, Bethesda Presbyterian Church, and a monument to Baron DeKalb. The monument’s cornerstone was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. During the 1840’s and 1850’s Camden experienced great prosperity, which ended with the Civil War. By the first year of the war, eighty percent of the county’s white male population had joined the Confederate army, and Camden had six generals in gray. Camden was left almost untouched by federal troops when General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) captured it in February of 1865.
During the 1890’s, Camden became a popular destination of northern visitors who delighted in its climate, natural resources, and architecture. Horse breeding, racing, and polo became popular. The “Colonial Cup,” one of the nation’s richest steeplechase races, is held in the late fall. During the spring, the “Carolina Cup” brings an exciting mix of steeplechase and flat racing.
A major part of Camden’s charm is its architecture. The Kershaw Mansion has been reconstructed on its original site. Many historic houses and buildings remain, ranging from simple log houses to elegant structures with Charleston-style piazzas (porches). Robert Mills, the South Carolina native who designed the Washington Monument, left his mark on Camden. The Kershaw County Court House was designed by Mills in 1825 and revised in 1847. Mills also designed the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. He placed the steeple at the rear of the church and arranged the interior so that the floor and pews gradually rise as they recede from the pulpit.
Steeped in history, Camden also offers the Quaker Cemetery, founded in 1759 and still in use, as well as the 1825 town clockworks. The Revolutionary War park, centered on the Kershaw Mansion, commemorates one of fourteen Revolutionary War battles in this area of South Carolina–battles which helped earn the state its nickname of “Cockpit of the Revolution.”
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Court House: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999. Puts the battle of Camden and its Revolutionary experience in context. Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Weaves the story of Camden into the general growth of the state. Jones, Lewis P. South Carolina: One of Fifty States. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper Press, 1991. Provides a general overview of Camden’s role in the state’s history. “Kershaw County Museum.” www.camden-sc.org/museum.html. Excellent site for historical and cultural information about Camden. Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981. Outstanding presentation of the Battle of Camden and its aftermath. Sweet, Ethel Wylly. Camden: Homes and Heritage. Camden: Kershaw County Historical Society, 1978. Local history with excellent color illustrations of houses and other buildings.