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Camden battle site trails make history more accessible

Reminders of the human sacrifice of wars form indelible images. See the granite Civil War markers at Gettysburg or the white World War II crosses at Normandy, and you'll never forget them.

At the site of one of the deadliest battles of the Revolutionary War, the most striking markers sprouting from the earth are pine trees. That pine forest at the Battle of Camden site in rural Kershaw County has garnered little attention until recent years.

Finally this month, a dozen information-laden signs spaced out along two miles of trails - along with an innovative audio podcast - make the history of the site accessible.

The interpretive trail, a project led by the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, officially opens Sunday, with a ceremony planned for 3:30 p.m. The Battle of Camden site should immediately join the must-do list of South Carolina day trips.

On cool, late fall or winter weekends, make the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site just south of town your first stop. Then tour the antique shops of Camden, most within walking distance of each other. After lunch in town, drive about eight miles north to the battle site.

The hike at the battle site isn't beautiful. The trail is relatively flat. Much of the interpretive trail is on wide, former roadbeds through a typical sandy soil pine plantation. (The ongoing conversion from slash pine to the long-leaf pine more typical of the battle period eventually will open the understory and make the views more interesting.)

On the other hand, the trail is set up to be accessible to everyone. People who aren't physically ready for long hikes can do a one-mile loop on either side of Flat Rock Road. Those in better shape can do both loops. And those looking for exercise as much as history can try the two hiking trail extensions and stretch the walk into four miles.

Of course, the Battle of Camden journey is about history, not recreation. The Revolutionary War pivoted here, as the American leaders learned important lessons in one of their worst battlefield losses.

With the Patriot effort seeming hopeless four months after the fall of Charleston to the British, the Continental Congress appointed Gen. Horatio Gates to take control of the Southern Army. Based on misinformation that the British garrison at Camden was ripe for the picking, Gates marched toward South Carolina's largest inland town.

As the Patriot forces approached Camden in the night on Aug. 16, 1780, they ran head on into a potent British contingent under the command of Lord Francis Rawdon. After a brief skirmish in the dark, both armies regrouped to prepare for battle at daybreak.

But upon seeing the advancing British regulars, many of the poorly trained Patriot militia on the left flank turned and ran without firing a shot. While the Patriot soldiers on the right flank fought and at one point seemed to have the upper hand, the collapse of the left flank began a domino effect along the Patriot line.

Hundreds lost their lives in the fight. Hundreds more were killed while fleeing. Gates fled on horseback to North Carolina and never overcame the disgrace.

But the American forces bounced back.

"What lessons were learned on this site!" said military historian George Fields of the Palmetto Conservation Foundation.

Gates was the last American general appointed by Congress. George Washington, as commander in chief of the military, had backed Nathanael Greene to lead the Southern Army, but he lost out in a political vote.

Since then, Fields, said, Congress only confirms appointments, which are made by the president as commander in chief.

The Patriot leaders "also had to learn how to use the militia's strength, and that started here," Fields said.

With Greene taking over command in the South, the Patriot leaders began asking the untrained militia to hold the front line briefly in front of regular troops, fire one or two shots, and then retreat just far enough to be ready for another rally if necessary, Fields said.

That strategic change was among the keys to a reversal in the war. In the next few months, the Patriots won battles or stalemated more powerful British forces at Musgrove Mill, Kings Mountain, Blackstock and Cowpens, starting the trend that led to eventual victory at Yorktown.

The lessons at Camden were important, and the price was high. Archaeological work done in recent years indicates as many as 500 unmarked graves are spread over hundreds of acres. Yet until recently, this hallowed ground was devoted mainly to pine production.

Since the early 1900s, the Daughters of the American Revolution has owned six acres at the heart of the battle along Flat Rock Road, where a granite historical marker was erected. History buffs, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation and the Katawba Valley Land Trust began pushing for larger recognition in the late 1990s.

Timber giant Bowater agreed to put a conservation easement on 310 acres of the battle site in 2000. Later that land and an additional 161 acres were purchased, in part with funds from the S.C. Conservation Land Bank.

Backers hope the property will one day become a National Park Service site. But for now, it's a low-key memorial to the fight for our nation's independence.

It's unstaffed, so the new signs and a downloadable podcast with Ken Burns documentary-style audio were designed to help visitors soak up the history. You can access the podcast at www.palmettoconservation.org/camdentour.asp.

"We want people to understand that a great thing happened here, a momentous thing," Fields said.

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