Spend a few peaceful hours where the British spent a rough year!
That’s the motto of Historic Camden, South Carolina, located roughly between Columbia and Florence. I’m almost finished with my visits to all the national park units in the Southeast but as they say “almost doesn’t count.” Yesterday, I drove 200 miles to visit Historic Camden, a revolutionary war site. To me, 400 miles round trip from Asheville is a driving distance between a day trip and staying overnight, especially since I spent over five hours at the site but I made it in a long day. Historic Camden is an affiliate of the National Park Service but it’s on the map of the Southeast Region. Like all the other challenges I’ve done, if it’s the map, I have to visit it. And I’m glad I did.
When I called the day before, Joanna Craig, Executive Director of the Historic Camden Foundation (HCF), warned me that I’d be enveloped in a swarm of fourth graders. But I go when I plan to and having children around is fine. It turned out to be a bonus.
A little history
Camden was a frontier settlement since 1733. Later a prosperous merchant, Joseph Kershaw, opened a general store and built a big house befitting a gentleman on Pine Tree Hill. After Charleston fell in May 1780, British General Cornwallis marched into Camden, fortified the area, built a large stockade fence to garrison the population.
General Horatio Gates, hero of the battle of Saratoga, took command of the American troops in the South to clear the British from the Carolinas. The two armies met about eight miles north on August 16, 1780. The Americans were soundly defeated in what is called the worst Patriot defeat of the American Revolution. Many in the American militia panicked and ran. General Gates joined the fleeing troops and never recovered from this disgrace.
Lord Cornwallis moved into the Kershaw house and sent the wealthy owner to a prison in Barbados. When the British evacuated at the end of the war, they burned most of the town. Undeterred, Joseph Kershaw returned and the town was rebuilt a couple of miles north. After the Revolutionary war, the house had several owners and eventually burned in 1865.
I arrive at 10 am to find forty children from a local school, divided into four groups, already engaged with the site. The visitor center is closed so I attach myself to a group, and listen to a description of the battle and the cannons in a barn. But the resident cat, with a dead bird in its mouth, wanders around the children. The cat puts its prey on the ground and picks it up. The poor interpreter – never could figure out if they were staff or volunteers – has to compete with the cat.
The key to having children’s attention is to keep them moving and the program did this admirably. We all move to the stocks, a colonial punishment where guilty persons have to put their legs into large hinged wooden boards and endure public humiliation.
For more major offenses, the head goes into a pillory. Now the kids raise their hands eagerly so they can be imprisoned in these contraptions.
After the children let off steam playing colonial games, we watch an admittedly slow film on Camden history. The reconstructed Kershaw-Cornwallis house, the house on the hill, is the highlight of the visit. I thought we were going to get the usual house tour – The table is 18th Century oak while the bed is a reproduction…. Boring, even for adults. But Jennifer Lee, interpreter in the big house, gives a costume presentation. “What did colonial men and women wear? Not jeans and a T-shirt.”
Lee involved almost all the children, as she demonstrates nightshirts, Redcoat and Patriot uniforms, and a male wig. To involve as many kids as possible, each one only put one piece of Colonial clothing.
A woman also wore a nightshirt under all the petticoats and plumage. In colonial times, people bathed twice a year, at most. The rivers were so full of refuse that a bather would end up dirtier and even sicker after a bath than before. That made an impression on the kids. The group then move on to quill writing. What a brilliant program!
Historic Camden, now owned and managed by the Historic Camden Foundation, rebuilt the Kershaw-Cornwallis house. Using archeological records, the current house is on the same foundation as the original. The inside has generic Georgian period furniture. Several other buildings of the period have been moved to the site and interpreted.
The site has been trying to become a national park since 1983. Craig appeared before Congress, testifying on the importance of the site and for veteran protection. “There are veteran Patriots that may be here without proper burial,” she says. As an affiliated unit, the site gets no federal funding and no park rangers, though you can get your national park passport stamped.
But this site only encompasses the old village of Camden. I drive to the battlefield, itself, which lies eight miles north. This 477-acre site is protected by the Palmetto Conservation Foundation (PCF), which also manages the Palmetto Trail, the South Carolina answer to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina.
The battlefield now is covered with rows of longleaf pines, which is supposed to be the viewshed and terrain at the time of the battle. Several short trails have interpretive signs pertaining to the battle.
A few years ago, I visited Tule Springs in Nevada, when they were trying to be part of the park service. It succeeded and is now a national monument. My feeling is that Historic Camden and the battlefield will eventually become a unit of the National Park Service. They have the land, the site, and the passionate locals who will hopefully morph into a Friends group. The only question is when.