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Revisiting Andrew Jackson in Camden

Posted: September 4, 2017 10:20 a.m.
Updated: September 5, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Recently, an undated and unsigned 47 page manuscript speech concerning Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) turned up at the South Caroliniana Library. I became intrigued with the possibility this manuscript might contain previously unknown information about Andrew Jackson in Camden. I immediately secured a copy for study.

Since Andrew Jackson died in June 1845, this speech honoring his life would have occurred after that date. The speech writer stated, “When his death was announced in the chief city of South Carolina [likely Charleston] the whole population was poured out at night into the streets and funeral torches lighted up the surrounding gloom. In Greenville and Lancaster the spot of his nativity oratory was delivered in connection with his life and services.”

The speech writer continued, “Here in the capital [likely Washington] when all of its citizens have returned from their summer pursuits either of business or pleasure these funeral obsequies have been moved in his honor. These solemn preparations, this vast assembly, this military display, these civic processions are all imminently appropriate to such an occasion.”

This speech excerpt likely placed its proposed delivery date in the fall of 1845. From the description of the upcoming event, its elements suggested a very large and involved one was being planned. The speech writer never indicated a close relationship with Andrew Jackson. This means what he wrote was likely gleaned from what he learned from what others had written about Jackson. 

The speech writer chronicled the coming of the Jackson Family to America, their settlement in the Waxhaw area, his birth and his very early life. He continued with stories of his capture in the edge of North Carolina by Tories when he was about 14, being slashed across the face with a sword for refusing to shine a Tory’s shoes, and his imprisonment in the Camden jail.

He continued on page 8 of his speech, “General Greene had at that time approached within a short distance of Camden, and young Jackson could see by an opening he made in the walls [of the jail] in which he was confined the preparations and he detailed to his fellow prisoners all the preparations for battle and engagement.”

Obviously this speech writer was not adding anything new to what was already known about this matter. What a disappointment! At this point we will leave this anonymous speech writer and discuss what Jackson could have seen on the morning of April 25, 1781, at the Battle of Hobkirk Hill.

On February 1, 2004, the Kershaw County Historical Society sponsored an experiment on the subject of how well Jackson could have seen the Battle of Hobkirk Hill 1.8 miles away through the hole he fashioned in one of the boards the British had nailed over the jail windows. The Camden Fire Department positioned a fire truck in the middle of Broad Street by the Robert Mills Court House and the British jail site across the street. The fire department then raised a number of Historical Society members, including yours truly, to a height comparable to that of Jackson when he was in the Camden jail and witnessed the Battle of Hobkirk Hill.

We concluded Jackson could not have seen very much of the battle due to the height of a hill on Broad Street which ends just beyond the present Kershaw County Court House. He could see smoke rising, hear cannons firing and other battle noises, see soldiers and their prisoners returning from the battle, and talk with prisoners captured in the battle and jailed with him. He may have been able to see Rawdon’s Army leave in the very early morning for the battle. 

Jackson’s story of the Battle of Hobkirk Hill likely was told from a combination of what he saw himself, what he heard and what others told him about the battle.

We also wondered how much the trees on Hobkirk Hil had obscured Jackson’s vision. Although Kirkland and Kennedy in Historic Camden do bring up this matter, it has not been addressed very thoroughly by historians. 

In 1876, William M. Shannon, who would die four years later in a duel with Col. Boggan Cash, did address this matter of the trees on Hobkirk Hill in one of his articles in the the Kershaw Gazette that he entitled “Old Time in Camden.” Shannon was born in 1822. When he wrote the account below in 1876, he likely recorded information he remembered from the 1830s. 

“It has been our fortune to dig up the pine trees on forty acres of land, just at the foot of Hobkirk, the area of the hottest strife. On our grounds and fields we exhumed old musket locks and barrels, and quantities of bullets, etc. We were surprised in the large and seemingly old pines but a single tree, an old gnarled monarch, that bore the marks of the conflict, and that had buried in it the balls of the firearms. This induced us to examine the trees and count their rings, and with that one exception, we did not find a tree antedating that battle. It may be then that the open land on the west above referred to, had a smaller and different growth at that period and did leave the view open on the west side….”

Perhaps Jackson could have seen more than we thought! Adding to that possibility is the matter of Hobkirk Hill having eroded and been cut down a few feet from its height in 1781.

In 2001, the noted historian and biographer, Hendrik Booraem’s book, Young Andrew Jackson, rolled off the press. Present day historians consider his book to be the “Bible” on Andrew Jackson’s early life. Booraem’s book was published three years before the Kershaw County Historical Society did their experiment with the Camden Fire Department on what Andrew Jackson could have seen of the Battle of Hobkirk Hill.

In footnote 22 of Chapter Nine, Booraem writes, “There was and is some doubt in Camden about whether it was really possible for AJ to have viewed the battle from the jail, even from an upper floor because of the topography. Kirkland and Kennedy comments on the difficulty but goes on to add that another revolutionary veteran, Will McCain of the Waxhaws claimed to have witnessed it from the same floor.” Only in Camden and Kershaw County would we spend time studying and puzzling over some of these lesser known topics of the Revolutionary War.

We know Andrew Jackson and his family visited Camden a few times to buy goods from Joseph Kershaw’s Store prior to the Revolutionary War, he was present as a non-combatant at the Battle of Hanging Rock, spent three weeks in the Camden jail, witnessed the Battle of Hobkirk Hill and contracted small pox. These experiences contributed to forging, molding and burnishing this 14-year-old into a man who later became the seventh President of the United States.

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