GATES, HORATIO. (1728–1806). Continental general. England. Horatio Gates was the son of Robert Gates, a Thames waterman, and Dorothy Reeve, housekeeper of Peregrine Osborne, second Duke of Leeds. Gates' godfather, Horace Walpole, was only eleven years old when he assumed this responsibility. Following the duke's death, Robert and Dorothy Gates entered the service of Charles Powlett, third Duke of Bolton, at Greenwich. Through Bolton's patronage, Robert Gates was appointed tidesman in the customs service, and later became surveyor of customs at Greenwich. In 1745, Bolton purchased for young Horatio Gates a commission as ensign in the Twentieth Regiment. In the same year, Gates was appointed a lieutenant in a regiment that Bolton was privately raising. Although he lost this position when Bolton's regiment was reduced in 1746, he was able to return to his ensigncy in the Twentieth Regiment. During the War of the Austrian Succession, he served as regimental adjutant in Germany. In November 1748, following the treaty of Aixla-Chapelle, he was placed on half pay. Seeking new employment, he volunteered in 1749 to serve as an aide-de-camp to Colonel Edward Cornwallis, governor of Nova Scotia. He helped establish the naval base at Halifax and secured appointment as captain-lieutenant in Colonel Hugh Warburton's Forty-fifth Regiment. In the summer of 1750, he was promoted to the rank of captain.
THE SEVEN YEARS' WAR
Facing slight prospects for further advancement at Halifax, Gates returned to England in January 1754. On 13 September, with the assistance of Cornwallis, he sold his captaincy in the Forty-fifth Regiment and purchased a captain's commission in the Fourth Independent Company of Foot, doing duty in New York. He returned to Nova Scotia, where, on 20 October 1754, he married Elizabeth Phillips. They had one child, a son named Robert. Upon the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1755, Gates and his company joined Major General Edward Braddock's army in Pennsylvania. Gates was with Braddock on 9 July 1755, when Braddock's army was ambushed near Fort Duquesne. Badly wounded, Gates spent a few months recuperating at Lancaster, and then Philadelphia. In December he sailed with his company to New York, and in the summer of 1756 took the field in the Mohawk Valley. For the next two years he did garrison duty on the New York frontier.
In 1759, with the assistance of his mentor, Edward Cornwallis, Gates was appointed brigade major to Brigadier General John Stanwix, commandant at Fort Pitt (formerly Fort Duquesne). When Brigadier General Robert Monckton replaced Stanwix in May 1760, Gates was appointed Monckton's brigade major. On 20 May 1761 Monckton was appointed governor of New York, and Gates accompanied him to his new post. During the summer and fall, Gates assisted Monckton in organizing an expedition against the French West Indian island of Martinique. In February 1762 the island's key bastion of Fort Royal capitulated, and although Gates had not taken part in the fighting, Monckton gave him the honor of carrying the news to England. On 24 April Gates was promoted major in his old regiment, the 45th, now commanded by Edward Boscawen and still posted in Nova Scotia. He attempted without success to become adjutant general or quartermaster general under Sir Jeffery Amherst in New York.
When the Seven Years' War ended in 1763, Gates began a frustrating decade of thwarted ambition and declining morale. Losing his patrons, he had difficulty advancing in the peacetime army. On 8 November 1764 he was promoted major of the Sixtieth, or Royal American, Regiment, stationed in Quebec. After maneuvering without success to secure promotion to lieutenant colonel, he exchanged his major's commission in the Royal Americans for a majority on half pay in the Seventy-forth Regiment. In despair, he resigned from the army on 10 March 1769, and sought consolation in drinking and gambling. Overcoming these vices, he flirted with Methodism and embraced radical politics. While in New York, he was befriended by liberal young men of the Whig Club, and he now socialized with "friends of America" in England such as Monckton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Lee. Soon he was being called a "red hot Republican." Although this characterization was not entirely accurate, he soon was contemplating a move to America. In August 1772 he brought his family to Virginia, and in March 1773 bought a plantation of 659 acres in the lower Shenandoah Valley, near Shepherdstown. Naming his new home "Traveller's Rest," he settled into a life of substantial middle-class comfort. His only public duties were justice of the peace and lieutenant colonel of Virginia militia.
THE WAR FOR AMERICA
Over the next two years, Gates took no active part in the escalating quarrel between Britain and her colonies. However, he grandiosely asserted in public that he was willing to risk his life to preserve the liberty of the Western world. The Continental Congress, desperate for officers to command its army at Boston in 1775, was aware of Gates's politics and reputation in military administration. Hence, on 17 June, the legislators appointed him adjutant general with the rank of brigadier general. He joined General George Washington at Cambridge on 9 July, and in the following months worked diligently to bring order and discipline to the fledgling Continental Army. While at Boston, he became a vocal advocate of militia armies, believing that America's citizen-soldiers would overcome martial deficiencies through high political motivation. He argued in favor of a cautious, defensive strategy, which he believed was adapted to the militiamen's willingness to fight so long as they were ensconced behind fortifications. He also was outspokenly in favor of independence from Britain and adoption of a decentralized republican government for his new country. An ambitious man, he cultivated friendships with influential New England congressmen such as John Adams, who agreed with his politics and might advance his military career. After the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, he accompanied Washington to New York.
On 16 May 1776, with the assistance of his friends in Congress, Gates was promoted major general, and a month later was given command of an American army that had invaded Canada the year before. Upon his arrival at Albany to assume his new command, he was dismayed to learn that his army had retreated from Canada into New York, where Major General Philip Schuyler was in charge. Since both generals asserted control over these troops, they agreed that Congress must clarify the command problem—which it did in favor of Schuyler on 8 July. Gates accepted this decision with scant grace, but was somewhat mollified when Schuyler appointed him commander of American troops at Fort Ticonderoga. During the summer and fall of 1776, Gates worked in close harmony with Schuyler and Benedict Arnold to repel a thrust from Canada by Major General Guy Carleton up Lake Champlain toward Fort Ticonderoga. On 2 December he led six hundred Continentals to Washington's assistance on the Delaware River. Falling ill, he left the army and traveled to Philadelphia, where he took command of American troops for the winter.
While in Philadelphia, Gates lobbied his friends in Congress to supersede Schuyler as commander of the Northern Department. Achieving his purpose on 25 March 1777, he arrived at Fort Ticonderoga, only to learn that Schuyler had gone to Philadelphia to demand that he be restored to command. This continual bickering between Gates, Schuyler, and congressional proponents of the two generals profited no one except Major General John Burgoyne, who threatened to invade New York from Canada in the spring of 1777. But the matter was not easily resolved, for it reflected deep political divisions in America between proponents of a strong central government, who supported Schuyler, and "small government" men, who favored Gates. The quarrel still had one more round to go before it ceased. On 15 May, Congress restored Schuyler to office, only to have Gates rush southward to lobby against him once more. On 5 July, Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga and impelled Schuyler to order an American retreat toward the Hudson River. The British general seemed poised to capture Albany and seize control of the upper Hudson River. Taking advantage of Schuyler's reversal, congressional supporters of Gates succeeded on 4 August in having their favorite restored to command of the Northern Department.
THE NORTHERN COMMAND
With the command situation at last clarified, Gates devoted his full attention to stopping Burgoyne's advance toward Albany. Putting into action his views on defensive warfare, he ordered Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer, to construct impressive fortifications on the west bank of the Hudson River at Bemis Heights. He then posted his troops behind these works, which Burgoyne must capture if he would make further progress southward toward Albany. In the battle of Freeman's Farm on 19 September, Gates stymied an attempt by Burgoyne to turn the Americans left by sending the riflemen of Colonel Daniel Morgan and Major Henry Dearborn to stop him. Benedict Arnold, who was quarreling with Gates, also likely was involved in the fighting, although without orders. Encamping near the American lines, Burgoyne contemplated the military situation for the next few days. On 7 October, in the battle of Bemis Heights, he attempted once more to bypass the enemy's formidable works by flanking them on their left, and once again was stopped by Gates's forces.
On 9 October Gates learned that Burgoyne was with-drawing toward Fort Ticonderoga, and cautiously followed him. Four days later, Burgoyne's line of retreat was severed when John Stark's militiamen took up positions on the east bank of the Hudson River. On 17 October Burgoyne capitulated to Gates, with the stipulation that his army return to England and no longer serve in America. Gates was severely criticized for the liberality of this provision, but correctly noted that during negotiations with Burgoyne, his supply base at Albany was threatened by a British army under Sir Henry Clinton. Thus, he was compelled to direct his attention to that problem. He was also charged with deliberately delaying the report of his victory to Washington, but he explained that his messenger, James Wilkinson, through no fault of his own, had dallied on his way southward with the news. Finally, he was accused of withholding troops from Washington's hard-pressed main army in Pennsylvania in late 1777. But Gates correctly pointed out that he had in fact sent more than was prudent for his own safety.
These criticisms of Gates, and many others besides, were leveled against him in the winter of 1777–1778 by adulators of Washington who believed that Gates was complicit in a scheme against the commander in chief. Generally called the Conway Cabal, this conspiracy supposedly was intended to remove Washington as commander in chief of the Continental army and put Gates in his place. The plotters were thought to include the army officers Gates (although in a secondary role), Thomas Mifflin, and Thomas Conway, and politicians John Adams, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and James Lovell. Gates himself was not believed to be the prime mover of the cabal, only the willing recipient of its fruits. The plotters, all "small government" men, putatively feared that army officers around Washington were not evincing due deference to civilian authority. Washington and his admirers were particularly sensitive about these matters, for the triumphant Gates had prevailed over his enemies in the military campaigns of 1777 while Washington had lost the city of Philadelphia, as well as a number of battles against William Howe.
In defending his position as commander in chief, Washington publicly treated Gates and his supposed plotters with scorn. Gates, serving as chairman of the Board of War during the winter of 1777–1778, was attempting to implement a number of useful army reforms. Any success he might have had was destroyed by Washington's attitude. Innocent of the charges laid against him by Washington and his friends, Gates was hurt and angry, and although he managed to weather the storm of invective, he developed a profound and lasting dislike of Washington. Without trial, he declared, he had been found guilty of dissuading true believers from divine worship of Alexander's statue. On 15 April 1778, he was ordered by Congress to take command in the Hudson Highlands, where on 4 September he fought a ludicrous duel with James Wilkinson. He commanded at Boston and Hartford in the winter of 1778–1779. After spurning Washington's offer to lead an expedition against the Mohawk Indians in 1779, he served instead at Providence.
THE SOUTHERN COMMAND
In the summer of 1780, Gates was ordered by Congress to take command of the Southern Department, after Benjamin Lincoln had surrendered Charleston to the enemy on 12 May. Although he was not optimistic about his chances against surging British military power in the south, he assumed command of a small army at Coxe's Mill on 25 July. Marching immediately against an enemy garrison at Camden, he directed his army through country barren of provisions, instead of taking a more distant line of advance through country abounding with supplies. Gates's haste seemed to violate his own precepts about careful, defensive warfare, but he had his reasons. He wanted to maneuver his army into a defensive position just north of Camden, which he would fortify, and compel the British army, led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis, to assault at a disadvantage. Unfortunately for him, as he marched his army southward on the night of 15 August toward Camden, he encountered Cornwallis's army marching northward toward him. Forced to deploy his soldiers in the open, Gates hoped that his army of 3,050 men would overwhelm Cornwallis's force of 2,100 soldiers.
In the battle of Camden, on 16 August, Gates commenced the battle by ordering untrained militiamen on his left to charge against veteran British regulars. Soon that entire part of his battle line collapsed, leaving the Continental regulars on his right, commanded by Johann de Kalb, facing most of Cornwallis's army. Gates was forced off the field by his panicky militiamen, and even though his regulars were still fighting, he rode toward Hillsborough, North Carolina, to rally his forces and reorganize. Meanwhile, de Kalb was killed and the Continentals also disintegrated into a retreating mob. Gates's defeat at Camden and his unfortunate gallop northward destroyed his military reputation, and his political foes never allowed him to forget his poor performance at Camden. In the next three months, as he worked diligently to get his army back into fighting form, Congress debated his future. During that time he learned the devastating news that his son, Robert, was dead at the age of twenty-two. On 5 October Congress voted to order a court of inquiry into the general's conduct at Camden, and to allow Washington to appoint another officer to take his place. Washington immediately appointed Nathanael Greene, who superseded Gates on 2 December. The American army then numbered 1,804 men, and according to Banastre Tarleton, a British cavalryman, presented a tolerable appearance.
For almost two years after his defeat in the south, Gates labored to restore his military reputation, while his political enemies allowed him to languish in forced retirement at Traveller's Rest. The court of inquiry was never convened, and it was not until 14 August 1782, months after the War for America had begun to wind down, that Congress finally voted unanimously to rescind its resolution and invite Gates to rejoin the army. On 5 October he reached the army's final cantonment at Newburg, New York, where he was greeted by his nemesis, Washington. According to observers, their meeting passed with perfect propriety on the part of both men. Gates was placed in command of the right wing of the army, composed of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut troops. During the winter of 1782–1783, he played an important role in mobilizing officer discontents against Congress, sometimes called the Newburgh Conspiracy. He was particularly disgusted that the officers had not received their pay. Nationalists in Congress apparently tried to use these discontents to increase the authority of the national government. Gates refused to be their tool; his only aim was to secure justice for his fellow officers. When Washington suppressed the discontents, for fear that they might lead to an army mutiny, Gates acquiesced.
In late March 1783 Gates rode away from the army for the last time, to be by the bedside of his dying wife, Elizabeth. On 1 June she died, leaving her husband a lonely and embittered man. As the Continental army went through final shudders of demobilization, he reflected upon the ungratefulness of a country that would send its loyal soldiers home to an uncertain future without even paying them. His own economic future seemed uncertain, and he completely lost interest in politics. In 1786, his future began to look rosier, for on 31 July of that year he married Mary Vallance, a rich widow. Once again politically engaged, he expressed concern that Congress was making inadequate provision for the peacetime military. Also he expressed concern that the government as defined by the Articles of Confederation was too weak, even though he had earlier been a proponent of decentralized power.
In 1787, Gates supported the Constitutional Convention, but made no effort to attend the deliberations in Philadelphia or the ratifying convention held later in Virginia. When the Constitution went into effect in early 1789, he seemed happy about the new system of government, despite concerns about Washington's election as the first president and his appointments to the cabinet and Supreme Court. But Gates had no reservations about the nomination of Thomas Jefferson, his fellow Virginian, to be secretary of state. In 1790, Gates and his wife moved to Manhattan and bought an estate named "Rose Hill Farm." Reverting to his earlier Whiggish principles, he became a Jeffersonian republican and supported the French Revolution. In 1800 he was elected to one term in the New York legislature, but then fell into unmerited neglect by the public. Nevertheless, he spent his last years recollecting with pleasure his part in the creation of the American republic, and died fulfilled.
Gates was a controversial man during the American Revolution, and he made a number of powerful enemies. His politics were too radical for some, and he had a habit of meddling in military politics. But his reputation was most sullied by unwarranted accusations that he was plotting to supersede Washington as commander in chief. At best, he was only a modestly gifted military man, although his conduct of the campaign against Burgoyne was hard to fault. His uncharacteristic lack of caution in the Camden campaign led him to disaster. Clearly his strongest military gifts lay in the areas of army organization and administration. On balance, he has been too severely criticized for his errors and too little credited for his successes. His contributions to the cause of American independence outweigh his failures and deficiencies.
Alden, John R. The South in the Revolution, 1763–1789. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.
Arnold, Isaac. The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg and Company, 1880.
Billias, George A. "Horatio Gates: Professional Soldier." In George Washington's Generals. Edited by George A. Billias. New York: William Morrow, 1964.
Johnson, William. Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene. Vol. 1. Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1822.
Knollenberg, Bernhard. Washington and the Revolution, a Reappraisal: Gates, Conway, and the Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
Kohn, Richard H. "The Inside Story of the Newburgh Conspiracy: America and the Coup d'Etat." William and Mary Quarterly 27 (1970): 187-220.
Nelson, Paul David. General Horatio Gates: A Biography. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution, or Burgoyne in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1928.
Pancake, John S. 1777, the Year of the Hangman. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Patterson, Samuel White. Horatio Gates: Defender of American Liberties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.
Rossie, Jonathan Gregory. The Politics of Command in the American Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1975.
revised by Paul David Nelson
Gates planned to follow up by invading Canada, but Washington blocked the expedition. A hero after Saratoga, Gates became Washington's rival, but in 1778 was discredited on the spurious charge that he had plotted with the “Conway cabal” to elevate himself over Washington. Assigned to command the Continentals in South Carolina in 1780, he undertook a rash offensive with ill‐prepared troops and was disastrously defeated at the Battle of Camden by Gen. Charles Cornwallis. In 1783, he was associated with, but took no active part in, the officers’ aborted Newburgh “conspiracy” to coerce Congress into giving them backpay. A novel combination of professional and populist, Gates managed short‐term militia unusually well, and was a generally competent, if ultimately flawed, commander.
Max. M. Mintz