Government officials, historic site representatives, preservationists, business owners and history buffs crowded into the Robert Mills Courthouse in downtown Camden for two public meetings Wednesday all in support of an effort to designate two historic sites as units within the U.S. National Park Service (NPS).
“This is an amazing show of public interest,” said Tom Thomas, of the NPS’ planning service center in Denver during the first session at 2 p.m.; a second session was held at 6 p.m.
Thanks to a bill passed in Congress in 2010, Thomas and his staff were authorized to conduct a study to determine if the Battle of Camden site on Flat Rock Road and Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site on South Broad Street should achieve national park status.
Thomas said while the NPS is studying the two sites together, they will receive separate recommendations within the agency’s report.
As Charles Baxley, of the Kershaw County Historical Society, pointed out, there are those who have been working toward that goal for more than 10 years.
“We haven’t always welcomed the federal government, but we thank you for coming,” said Baxley.
Baxley pointed out there have been efforts to preserve the battle site for more than 100 years, starting with the Daughter of the American Revolution (DAR).
“If it becomes a part of the National Park Service, it would build on what the DAR began,” he said.
Thomas began the session with an overview of the steps involved in the study, including what criteria the NPS will consider for its report to Congress. That consideration will be based on three criteria: national significance, suitability and feasibility. In addition, Thomas said the NPS tries not to duplicate experiences -- that Camden’s sites should offer unique contributions to the understanding of the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign.
The NPS will also have to determine whether the parks -- if so designated -- would be under agency management or would be better suited for another agency, local government, private entity or non-profit to handle.
The balance of the afternoon session was left to questions, the first of which was how long the rest of the study would take. Thomas said there were still 18 months to completion.
“It’s difficult to give a hard timetable because we’re dealing with two separate sites,” said Thomas, “and things can change significantly as we go through the steps.”
Tray Dunaway, a member of Historic Camden’s board of directors -- who attended the meeting in Revolutionary War garb -- noted that Camden was an English settlement from 1730 until the Revolution. Thomas said that fact would be an important consideration, but couldn’t say if would necessarily help.
Thomas also couldn’t say how either site might ultimately be classified if brought into the NPS.
“It could become a national memorial, national battlefield or national military park,” he said.
David Libman, of the NPS’ Southeast Region office in Atlanta, told the audience the Battle of Camden/Historic Camden study is one of many being conducted.
“They are at various levels of completion with some waiting for available funding to get started,” Libman said. “We are just looking at the sites to be part of the NPS; designation will come later and set by an act of Congress.”
A woman attending the meeting said it was “unfair” that a potential Revolutionary War site would have to be compared to others in the South, saying there were not as many such sites as those commemorating the Civil War. Thomas said there were other NPS Revolutionary War sites, but mentioned mostly ones in the Northeast. The woman said the Southern Campaign was “very much invested” into the history of the country, not to mention the end of the Revolutionary War despite the loss at Camden.
“I teach a college history course at night,” said Thomas. “When I asked them about the Southern Campaign, they didn’t know about it. Then again, they didn’t know much of Revolutionary War history anyway.”
Dunaway said his daughter was taking an advanced placement history course and the text book her class was using depicted the Great Wagon Road, which linked Pennsylvania to Georgia. According to Historic Camden Executive Director Joanna Craig, the road split with a western fork passing through North Augusta while a more eastern fork passed through Camden. Historians believe the Battle of Camden might not have been fought if not for control of both old Camden and the Wagon Road.
Thomas asked Dunaway what his daughter’s history book said of the Battle of Camden.
“That it was the greatest American defeat,” said Dunaway. “I think that shows the British had a better public relations team.”
George Fields, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation’s (PCF) military heritage program manager, said America “rose like a phoenix” after the Battle of Camden. The PCF owns 476 acres of the core battlefield.
“The site is unique because we learned from it and became the world’s foremost military power,” said Fields. “A lot of issues were learned out of the Battle of Camden. Gen. Horatio Gates was the last general appointed by Congress. Since then, they have been appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress.”
Another person in attendance pointed out that the British concerned their victory at Camden as the end of the war. Thomas agreed.
“Certainly, if anyone had told Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis that he was going to give up at Yorktown he would have said they were insane,” said Thomas. “The question is, is this the best place to tell that story? It’s important to place battles into larger context.”
It appeared everyone in attendance thought Camden was the perfect place to tell that story. Several people mentioned the level of support the potential NPS designations already have.
Ben Schreiner, owner of historic Holly Hedge, noted that the bill to conduct the study was introduced and championed by former U.S. Rep. John Spratt. Schreiner wondered if the man who defeated him in November’s election would continue to support the effort.
He was answered when a woman stood up to indicate she was in attendance: Pam Mulvaney, new U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s wife.
A man attending the meeting pointed out two foreign dignitaries have visited Camden in recent years, from Britain and Germany. Respectively, they commemorated British war dead at the battlefield site and Maj. Gen. Baron Johann de Kalb at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Camden.
Camden City Councilman Walter Long asked whether it would be helpful for Camden and Kershaw County councils to offer joint resolutions supporting the project, as well as seeking recommitments from the county’s state and federal legislative delegations. Thomas indicated while that is only piece of what the NPS must look at, it could only help.
Glen Inabinet, who with his wife, Joan, wrote the Kershaw County Historical Society’s recently published history of the county, said the level of support was not just in numbers but in the fact that -- at least at Wednesday afternoon’s session -- there were no negative comments.
Thomas said he received one by e-mail from someone saying the defeat at Camden should not be celebrated, an idea that brought a chorus of moans from the audience.
Other characteristics those in attendance thought were either unique or at least rare about the sites included:
• Camden was a supply post to other backcountry towns, forts and garrisons, including Ninety-Six;
• de Kalb was one of only 30 major generals to fight in the Revolution -- both Gates and his replacement, Nathanael Greene, were also major generals;
• Camden has four national U.S. historic landmarks;
• future president Andrew Jackson was held at the Camden goal (jail) during the Revolution and may have witnessed the battle; and
• Camden was a multi-cultural community with people from different European countries as well as Native Americans living nearby.
“One thing many people forget is that (thousands of) soldiers are laying up there in unmarked graves and have never been honored by the federal government,” said Craig. “Without those soldiers there would be no federal government.”
Camden City Planner Shawn Putnam said while he was no expert, he had studied the Ninety-Six and Kings Mountain NPS sites as well as the proposal for the Battle of Camden and Historic Camden.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I think the sites meet the criteria,” said Putnam. “It’s not just about the battle that was fought, but what led up to it and what followed, and the integration of the community into that history.”
There were also discussions on the possible economic impact on Camden and Kershaw County.
A representative from King’s Mountain State Park said the public spent $11.9 billion at NPS sites in 2010.
Thomas said the relationship between “gateway” communities and parks is significant.
“Those numbers are available for any other park unit and you can look at those online,” said Thomas.
He also said the public will continue to have opportunities to provide input prior to the study’s publication to the Secretary of the Interior and Congress. He agreed with a suggestion from Craig to conduct individual interviews with members of the Battle of Camden Advisory Committee.
“The first step is what’s happening here today,” said Thomas. “The expressions of support and concern is what today is all about.”
Bill Denton, who recently joined the Historic Camden board, summed up the community’s support not only of the battlefield but of Historic Camden this way:
“The people of Camden support the protection of the shallow grave of its original town site. The original foundation and other architectural resources are still there.”