By Nick Suhr ~
Situated about seventy-five miles south from Sun City Carolina Lakes on US 521, Camden proudly proclaims itself to be the oldest inland city and the fourth oldest city in South Carolina. Camden’s main thoroughfare, Broad Street, is also the “business” portion of US 521 and one of the widest streets I have ever seen in a sleepy little town. The 2010 U.S. Census put Camden’s population at 6,838, and sources say it is presently around 7,200. The city covers roughly 10,000 acres and is well worth a visit.
Some Camden History
Camden is the seat of Kershaw County, named after Joseph Kershaw, an Englishmen who set up a rural store as agent of the Charleston firm of Ancrum, Lance & Loocock, and gave the city its original name – Pine Tree Hill – in 1758. As the clamor for revolution and independence grew, so did the Kershaw businesses, which soon expanded into saw-, grist- and flour-milling as well as indigo works, tobacco warehouses, and breweries along the winding course of the Wateree River. Pine Tree Hill was growing, too. It changed its name to Camden and became a finely laid out city before the Revolutionary War.
Revolution in the Carolinas
Among many interesting areas of downtown Camden are the Colonial and Monument Square districts. What many Americans do not realize is something I first learned when my wife and I visited Camden recently and took an hour-and-a-half “Historic Camden” tour; namely, that the most decisive battles of the Revolution were fought right here in South Carolina, and those battles involved primarily American Loyalists and Patriots fighting each other.
The Battle of Camden took place on August 16, 1780, on a battlefield about ten miles north of the city. Although it was won decisively by British troops and Loyalist militia, the defeat of General Gates and his Continental Army and Patriot militia so disrupted the southern strategy devised after Gates defeated the British at Saratoga that it set forces in motion, leading ultimately to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.
Most of the events took place not far from Sun City Carolina Lakes. In May, before the battle of Camden, British troops brutally slaughtered most of the 300 men of the 11th Virginia Regiment. Some said the massacre at the “Battle of the Waxhaws” (near Lancaster) took place after the Virginia militia had surrendered; others said they were killed in battle. Either way, the Patriots from Virginia and the Carolinas who soundly defeated an army of Loyalists at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, recalled their dead comrades and shouted, “Remember the Waxhaws” as they stormed the mountain and forced the Loyalists to surrender. Almost a thousand Loyalists were killed or captured. The Patriot toll was twenty-eight killed and sixty wounded. The Loyalists and a British regular army battalion commanded by twenty-six-year-old Col. Banastre Tarleton (the man who ordered the slaughter of the Virginians at Waxhaws) took another beating in January 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens, where another thousand or so men were killed or captured. These were soldiers Gen. Cornwallis was counting on to come to his aide at Yorktown, where the Revolutionary War would end with a British surrender on October 17, 1781.
The Heart of Horse Country
Camden is the center of South Carolina’s equine culture. It got this distinction because, for generations starting in the 1880s, it was a favorite winter destination for wealthy northerners anxious to escape harsh winters. Several luxurious hotels sprang up, and many plantations were converted to horse farms and stables. Steeplechase races became a pastime of the rich and famous. The Springdale Race Course in Camden, near the National Steeplechase Museum, hosts many steeplechase events. The two most famous are the “Carolina Cup” in the Spring (which draws 70,000 or more attendees each year) and the “Colonial Cup” in the Fall. The South Carolina Equine Park is a relatively new but very popular venue.
Even a quick drive around Camden will take you past the kinds of ante-bellum homes that Charleston is known for and the wealthy always compete for whenever one comes on the market. One mansion, now the Bloomsbury Inn bed and breakfast, was built by the Chesnut family, one of whom was Mary Chesnut. She kept a diary throughout the Civil War that Ken Burns often quotes in his PBS masterpiece.
If You Visit Camden
Camden is only about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Charlotte. In addition to the Bloomsbury Inn and some other B&Bs, there are a Holiday Inn, a Comfort Inn, and the local Colony Inn. My wife and I visited only one restaurant, but highly recommend the “¡Salud!” Mexican Kitchen. It is located at 1011 Broad Street in part of a beautifully restored and redecorated storefront building.
About the author: Nick Suhr is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and a frequent contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine where this piece was originally published. Nick frequently writes about history, and especially about local history. Thanks, Nick, for sharing your writing with our readers.
Photo of of the Mulberry Plantation, home of James and Mary Boykin Chestnut, by Jack E. Boucher