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When Camden was the capital of South Carolina

Posted: June 1, 2012 1:40 p.m.
Updated: June 4, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Governor John Rutledge and his Privy Council left Charles Town in April 1780 before the British siege of the city closed all escape routes.  He journeyed north to Camden, arriving there in late April or early May.  That he should go to Camden was to be expected since Camden was the only town of any size in the interior of the state at the time.  Roads to Camden were relatively good and Rutledge knew and had done business with Joseph B. Kershaw for several years.

While in Camden he appointed Isaac Motte and Nicholas Everleigh as South Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress. He wrote letters to N. C. Gov. Abner Nash on May 16, 24 & 27.  He clearly was conducting the “affairs of state” while in Camden

Rutledge likely left Camden on May 27th since he narrowly escaped capture by Tarleton while spending the night at Clermont (Rugeley’s) 14 mi. north of Camden on May 28th.   Rutledge retreated from Rugeley’s to Charlotte, N. C.     

In 1905 in their book, Historic Camden, Colonial & Revolutionary, authors Kirkland and Kennedy observed about Rutledge’s stay in Camden:  “The seat of government at that period was where ever these gentlemen [Rutledge and his Council] found it safe to tarry long enough to hang their hats.”

Over the next year after Rutledge left Camden in May 1780, the Patriot cause improved immensely with victories at King’s Mountain, Cowpens and elsewhere.  After Lord Rawdon left Camden and retreated toward Charles Town on May 10, 1781, Rutledge quickly returned to the town.

Recently the South Caroliniana Library purchased at auction a historically significant Revolutionary War letter dated September 3, 1781, pertinent to Rutledge’s time in Camden.  Governor Rutledge was writing from Camden to Thomas Burke, Governor of North Carolina.

Rutledge wrote:  “I propose calling a legislature as soon as the gentlemen late prisoners in Charles Town and St. Augustine (Many of which were members of the last Assembly) arrive and I daily expect them.”

His statement about their expected arrival was based on his knowledge that many were en route to Camden. In his letter he requested Burke to provide assistance, if they needed any, to some he knew would be coming thru N. C.   

Joseph B. Kershaw, Generals Gadsden and Ferguson plus “sundry others” were travelling together from Philadelphia through North Carolina to Camden when Kershaw penned a letter on Sept 25, 1781, to a local acquaintance, Henry William Harrington, giving him his regards and remarking:  ‘You have probably heard of the death of my brother Ely on our passage from Providence to Bermuda….I understand Ld. Rawdon left me quite bare in Camden.”  He would soon find out just how bare! 

The legislative branch of South Carolina’s government ceased to function after the British captured Charles Town in May 1780.   Although Rutledge had been granted extraordinary powers to conduct the war, he wished to reconstitute the law-making branch of state government as quickly as feasible.  This letter of Rutledge is further evidence of his activities in continuing to govern South Carolina under very trying war-time conditions.

Kirkland & Kennedy state:  “Governor Rutledge, who, since the evacuation by Rawdon, had chiefly made Camden his headquarters…issued writs of election for a session of the Legislature to be held at this place.”

Due to the rapidly changing military situation at the time, by late 1781 most British troops had moved into or near Charles Town and its environs.  As a result, Rutledge also moved his headquarters to the Jacksonboro area and issued writs to elect members of the General Assembly who convened in early January 1782 at Jacksonboro and not Camden.   

Ninety-three years after Kirkland and Kennedy stated the state capital was where Rutledge was, historian Dr. Walter Edgar agreed with them in South Carolina, A History: 

 “Since the fall of Charles Town in May 1780 until the end of 1781, civilian government in free South Carolina existed in the person of Gov. John Rutledge.  His proclamations were a continual reminder, despite British successes in the field, that South Carolina had not given up.                More important was his success in persuading the Continental Congress to support the war in the state.  The capital of the state was wherever he was and on several occasions he barely escaped capture.”

Camden can claim to have been the “provisional”, if not the actual capital of the state while Rutledge was there for four or more months.  It was a military center during the Revolutionary War but was also a governmental and political center as well. It narrowly missed being chosen as the state’s capital in 1786 during the debate about moving the capital from Charleston. 

Rutledge’s letter has many other interesting historical aspects.  He describes some of the movements of Generals Greene and Sumter, the situation in Georgia with the election of Gov. Dr. Brownson and Council and the Tory uprisings in North Carolina which he states Burke should be able to crush since most British troops had left the state.  Unfortunately, his view was much too optimistic for Burke as we shall soon see.

The first half of Rutledge’s letter is devoted to a situation where “One Richard Sutton lately left the state with a number of negroes and horses, a quantity of Indigo and several horses and teams of which he had plundered [from] some of our honest inhabitants.”

General Sumter learned of this felony by Sutton while in Salisbury, North Carolina, and had him arrested and jailed.  Unfortunately, a member of the North Carolina judiciary, one Matthew Locke, set him free.

Rutledge protested and made the case that under the 4th article of the Articles of Confederation he had the right as governor to have Sutton arrested and returned to South Carolina for trial before the “proper tribunal” here.  He further stated he was sending Sumter to locate Sutton and he had every confidence that he (Gov. Burke) would assist Sumter by having Sutton arrested and returned to South Carolina.

Burke was elected governor of North Carolina in June of 1781.  Like Rutledge, military situations required him to move about.  On the 9th of September, six days after Rutledge wrote to him on the 3rd   he arrived at Hillsboro, North Carolina from Halifax.

Three days later on the 12th he was captured by a group of Tories, handed over to a British officer and spirited away to Charles Town.  He was paroled later that year, escaped and returned to govern North Carolina in late 1781.

On March 18, 1782, some six months after Rutledge wrote him, Burke responded to then Gov. John Mathews:  “I found amongst my papers delivered to me by the gentlemen who administered the government in my absence a letter from Gov. Rutledge charging one Richard Sutton….”   He goes on to say Sutton has been arrested and will be returned to South Carolina.  At this point, Sutton’s trail has “gone cold”.

As should be expected, Rutledge’s letter contains already known information, but it likewise contains new information.  Today, it is both remarkable and refreshing to be able to expand our knowledge about the birth of our state and nation from new information found in a letter written 231 years ago. 

Since this letter clearly demonstrates we will never “know it all”, that fact challenges us to continue the search for new information.  Many of us certainly will!

(Special thanks to the South Caroliniana Library’s Manuscript Division staff for research assistance with this article.)


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