Camden, South Carolina
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Family Road Trip

History, heroes and horses in charming Camden, South Carolina

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As a parent, I’m always looking for educational opportunities for my kids. Luckily, my teens make it pretty easy with an inherent interest in history. It may have stemmed from war-themed board games and video games, but I’ll take all of the leverage I can get. Our latest adventure was inspired by some homework my 16-year-old son, Wills, had on the Revolutionary War.

It mentioned two important battles fought in Camden, South Carolina. While the battles were defeats, both were instrumental in changing the course of American history. How could losing possibly mean winning? Knowing it was within easy driving reach for us, I did a little digging online and found Camden to look charming, authentic and full of stories. So, of course, I arranged the trip.

Totally selflessly—for the sake of my kids’ education.

Travel back in time

Much of Camden’s history revolves around the British occupation during the Revolutionary War. I’d learned that Historic Camden would provide a good introduction, and made it the first stop for Wills, his 13-year-old brother, Charlie, and me. Located on the southern fringe of Camden city limits, this 107-acre outdoor museum—on the site of the original colonial settlement and grounds of founder Joseph Kershaw’s home—is as close to reliving this part of history as you can get.

Our travel back in time began as we headed down the long driveway shaded by mature trees and framed with low, split-rail fences on either side. Surrounded by wide-open, natural grassy fields, the colonial village is made up of a cluster of small, white frame and pine log houses, a blacksmith shed, a tavern and the reconstructed colonial Georgian house used by Lord Charles Cornwallis as headquarters during the war, now known as the Kershaw-Cornwallis House.

“Woah! Do you hear that?” Wills asked.

“‘Charge!’ Charlie rallied Wills into a race down the winding dirt road, past a reconstructed fortress wall to the Kershaw-Cornwallis house.”

At first I thought Wills was pulling Charlie’s leg, but then my ear recognized it. The popping sound of gunfire from a nearby shooting range added an extra dimension of realism to the experience.

“Cool!” Charlie said. But I wasn’t entirely sure if he was talking about the sound, or the next attraction in his sights.

Charlie led Wills over to test the pillory and stock replicas, which were used as punishment for crimes such as stealing, lying and even quarreling. I was fascinated by the open blacksmith shed, which included a forge, cypress dugout canoe and three military field cannons. Informational signs provided details on the battle, the soldiers and historical context.

Period-dressed guide by a fireplace inside the Kershaw-Cornwallis House in Camden, South Carolina
Guided tours at the Kershaw-Cornwallis House provide extra insight.

“Charge!” Charlie rallied Wills into a race down the winding dirt road, past a reconstructed fortress wall to the Kershaw-Cornwallis house.

To learn more about the battles, the friendly staff at Historic Camden suggested we take a short eight-mile drive north of town to the actual site of the Battle of Camden.

Following the footsteps of heroes

Wills prepared us for the hiking trail at the battle site by downloading its accompanying 13-track podcast onto my phone. Created by Palmetto Conservation, a non-profit that protects South Carolina’s natural and cultural resources and historic landmarks, the podcast is about an hour and a half long, and includes dramatizations of events along the way.

It was an easy three-mile walk along the Battle of Camden Hiking Trail, but the podcast made the battle palpable. We followed the same sandy route of the Great Wagon Road, where two opposing armies met head-on one sticky summer night, under a full moon. Standing right where it happened, we paused to imagine the intensity of the opening attack of the colonial militia against the charging British army. I strained to hear in my mind the hushed instructions, the snapping branches under stealthy feet, the gunshots, the raw battle cries. Ok, maybe it wasn’t only war-themed board games and video games to blame for my sons’ passion for history.

“I know they lost, but I still want them to win!” Charlie said.

“They did, eventually,” Wills answered like a sage.

“Standing right where it happened, we paused to imagine the intensity of the opening attack of the colonial militia against the charging British army.”

“Yeah,” Charlie conceded in acknowledgement of the ultimate victory.

When prompted by the podcast, we moved to interpretive signs, which recalled the march through the inland wilderness, the vicious attack and struggle, the frenzied chase and defeat of colonial troops. It was a hard-fought battle. When we completed our journey (and the podcast), we left the battle site and headed back into Downtown Camden to learn more.

Horsing around

Camden is known as the “steeplechase capital of the world,” so it was fitting that our tour continued by horse-drawn carriage. Our guide introduced us to the horses, Andre the Giant and Alex, as we climbed in the carriage. The 80-minute ride reinforced and added to our education.

Guests sightseeing on a horse-drawn carriage with Camden Carriage Company in South Carolina
Take in a history lesson on a relaxing 80-minute ride with Camden Carriage Company.

Camden is divided into nine different tour districts and includes more than 60 historic sites, which made it easy to plan out the areas we wanted to see. In the Downtown District, every building had a story—including a few ghost tales. As we passed the King Haiglar Clock Tower, located at Broad and Rutledge streets, we learned about the Catawba Indian Chief after whom the tower was named (King Haiglar befriended Camden settlers), and about the impressive firearm collection at the Camden Archives and Museum, located in the Monument Square District.

“It was here that a small army, led by Gen. Nathanael Greene, fought to rescue Camden from British control.”

We rounded the corner to where another significant battle of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, took place. Now a residential neighborhood with stately Southern homes, it was here that a small army, led by Gen. Nathanael Greene, fought to rescue Camden from British control. Though the battle at Hobkirk’s Hill also ended in defeat, Greene’s army went on to push Cornwallis north to Yorktown, VA where the British ultimately surrendered.

Hometown charm

In the car on our way home, I couldn’t help but continue talking about all that we had learned. “And the podcast!” I rambled. “It just made it all so real, and incredible!”

“Don’t worry, Mom—we got a lot out of it too,” Wills said as a nod to the purpose of the trip.

“Oh yeah,” I answered laughing, “I think it’ll be valuable to revisit Camden when Charlie takes that class in a couple of years too.”

In all honesty, however, I might not be able to wait that long.

Dive into more Camden history!