The American Revolution in North Carolina

Major General Horatio Gates


Horatio Gates (1726-1806) was an American general during the Revolutionary War. He is usually credited with the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga and the later disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden.

Horatio Gates was born to a couple in the service of Peregrine Osborne, 2nd Duke of Leeds, at Maldon, England in 1727.

Gates received a lieutenant's commission in the British Army in 1745. He served in Germany during the War of the Austrian Succession, and later was promoted to captain in the Nova Scotia provincial ranks in 1753.

During the French and Indian War, Horatio Gates served under General Edward Braddock in America. In 1755, he accompanied the ill-fated Braddock Expedition in its attempt to control access to the Ohio Valley. This force also included other future Revolutionary War leaders such as Thomas Gage, Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan, and George Washington. Gates later served in the West Indies and participated in the capture of Martinique.

In October of 1754, Horatio Gates married Elizabeth Phillips. The couple had a son, Robert, in 1758. Since advancement in the British army of this period required money or influence, Gates' career stalled. He therefore retired at the rank of major in 1769 and emigrated to America. The family settled on a modest plantation in Virginia.

When the word of the revolution reached Gates in late May of 1775, he hurried to Mount Vernon to offer his services to George Washington. In June, Congress began organizing the Continental Army. In accepting command, Washington urged the appointment of Gates as adjutant of the army. So, on June 17, 1775 the Congress commissioned him a Brigadier General and Adjutant General of the Continental Army.

His wartime service as adjutant was invaluable to the fledgling army. Gates and Charles Lee were the only men available with significant experience in the British regular army. As adjutant he created the army's system of records and orders, and he helped with the standardization of regiments from the various colonies.

While his administrative skills were valuable, Gates longed for a field command. By June of 1776, he had been promoted to Major General, and his aspirations were addressed by giving him command of the Canadian Department to replace John Sullivan.

Gates' results in command was much less satisfactory than his term as adjutant. He never got to command the Canadian Department, since the American Invasion of Canada had been abandoned before his arrival. He wound up as an assistant to Major General Philip Schuyler in the Northern Department.

By December he was lobbying Congress for a new appointment, while his troops were with General Washington at the Battle of Trenton. He was sent back north with orders to assist Major General Schuyler in New York. But in 1777, Congress blamed Schuyler and St. Clair for the loss of Fort Ticonderoga and gave Gates his position as Commander of the Northern Department on August 4th.

He took command on August 19th, just in time for the defeat of British General Burgoyne's invasion at the Battle of Saratoga. While Gates reputation was greatly enhanced by this victory and Burgoyne's surrender of a British army, most actions were directed by field commanders like Benedict Arnold, Enoch Poor, and Daniel Morgan. Credit is also due to other events, such as the actions of John Stark at Bennington.

Gates attempted to maximize the political return on his victory, since Washington was having very little success with the main army. Congress named Gates to head the Board of War, and he took this post while keeping his field command. There was some thought given to having him replace Washington as commander-in-chief. The political maneuvering ended with the failure of the Conway Cabal. Gates resigned from the Board of War, and took an assignment as commander of the Eastern Department in November of 1778.

In May of 1780, news of the fall of Charleston, South Carolina and the capture of Major General Benjamin Lincoln's southern army reached Congress. On May 7th, they voted to place Major General Horatio Gates in command of the Southern Department. When he learned of his new command while at his home, near modern Shepherdstown, West Virginia, he headed south to assume command of the remaining Continental forces near Deep River in North Carolina of July 25, 1780. Major General Baron DeKalb was waiting his arrival.

He led his forces and militia south, to their stand-up fight with British Lt. General, Charles Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden on August 16th. The result was an overwhelming defeat. Gates' only notable accomplishment was to cover 170 miles in three days on horseback, retreating to Hillsborough, North Carolina. His bitter disappointment was further aggravated when he learned that his son Robert had been killed in combat in October. When Major General Nathanael Greene replaced him as commander on December 3rd, he returned home.

While never placed in command again, Horatio Gates did later return to serve with the Continental Army. When Congress repealed its resolution requiring a board of inquiry into the Camden disaster in 1782, he rejoined Washington's staff at Newburgh, New York. Rumors connected some of his aides in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, but Gates himself had no obvious connection.

Gates' wife Elizabeth died in the summer of 1783. Gates retired in 1784 and returned to Virginia. He served as the President of the Virginia Society of the Cincinnati, and worked to rebuild his life. He proposed marriage to Janet, the widow of General Richard Montgomery, but was refused. In 1786, he married Mary Vallance, a wealthy widow.

Gates sold his Virginia estate and freed his slaves at the urging of his friend John Adams. The aging couple retired to an estate on northern Manhattan Island. His later support for Thomas Jefferson's presidential candidacy ended his friendship with Adams. He and his wife remained active in New York City's society, and he was elected to a single term in the New York state legislature in 1800. He died on April 10, 1806, and was buried in Trinity Church's graveyard on Wall Street.

Biography from Benson J. Lossing in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution [with minor edits]:

Horatio Gates was a native of England, and was educated to the military profession. He was an officer under Braddock when that general was defeated, but does not seem to have acquired particular distinction. When the Continental Army was organized in 1775, he was appointed adjutant general, with the rank of brigadier. He was residing in Virginia.

He accompanied Washington to Cambridge in July of 1775 and in June of 1776 the chief command of the Northern army was conferred upon him; he was promoted to major general. In the autumn of that year he joined the main army in the Jerseys with a detachment of his command, but his career was not marked by any brilliant action.

In the summer of 1777, he was unjustly placed in command of the Northern army in place of General Schuyler, who had succeeded him in the spring of that year; and the victory over Burgoyne at Saratoga gave him great eclat. The glory of that achievement was not due to him, but to the previous operations of Schuyler, and the bravery and skill of Arnold and Morgan.

In the winter of 1778, he was involved in attempts to wrest the supreme command from Washington. His position as President of the Board of War enabled him to throw obstacles in the way of the chief, nor were they withheld. From that period until appointed to the command of the Southern army, his military operations were of little account, and were chiefly in Rhode Island.

When Congress gave him command of the Southern forces, General Charles Lee said to Gates, "Take care that you do not exchange Northern laurels for Southern willows." This caution was prophetic.

The disastrous battle near Camden scattered his troops, and, apparently panic-stricken himself, he fled toward Charlotte [no, Hillsborough]. He was superceded in his command by General Greene in the autumn of that year and his conduct was scrutinized by a committe of Congress. Upon their report he was acquitted of blame.

He was reinstated in his military command in the main army in 1782 but active service was no longer required. At the close of the war, he retired to his estate in Virginia, and in 1790 took up his permanent abode upon Manhattan Island, almost three miles from the then city of New York. His mansion, which was an elegant country residence, near Rose Hill, was standing as late as 1845 near the corner of Twenty-third Street and Second Avenue.

In 1800, he was elected a member of the Legislature of New York, where he served but one term. He died at his residence on April 10, 1806, at the age of seventy-eight years.

General Gates was an accomplished gentleman in manners, but did not possess a brilliant or highly-cultivated intellect. He possessed many excellent social qualities, but was entirely deficient in the qualifications necessary for a great military commander. His vanity misled his judgement, and often perverted the finer feelings of his nature. He was always a generous friend, and not an implacable enemy. Humanity marked his treatment of prisoners, and benevolence was a ruling principle of his heart.

A few years before his death, he manumitted all his slaves, but so great was the attachment of many that they preferred to remain with his family. He died without surviving issue, his only son having been taken from him by death at the moment when he was informed that General Greene had superceded him. On that occasion, Washington wrote a most touching letter consoling him for his domestic affliction and sympathasizing with him on account of the troubles of his public life. His patriotism is undoubted and the faults of his military career may be charged to errors of judgement.

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