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American Revolution: Major General Horatio Gates

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American Revolution: Major General Horatio Gates

Major General Horatio Gates

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

Horatio Gates - Early Life & Career:

Born July 26, 1727 in London, Horatio Gates was the son of Robert and Dorothea Gates. While his father worked in the Customs Service, Gates' mother held the post of housekeeper for the third Duke of Bolton. This position allowed her a degree of influence and patronage. As a result, she was able to have Horace Walpole serve as her son's godfather. In 1745, Gates decided to seek a military career. With assistance from Bolton, he was able to obtain a lieutenant's commission in the 20th Regiment of Foot. Serving in Germany during the War of the Austrian Succession, Gates quickly proved to be a skilled staff officer and later served as regimental adjutant. With the end of the conflict, Gates found himself unemployed when his regiment was disbanded. In 1749, he secured an appointment as aide-de-camp to Colonel Edward Cornwallis and traveled to Nova Scotia.

Horatio Gates - In North America:

While in Halifax, Gates earned a temporary promotion to captain in the 45th Foot. Unable to afford to purchase the captaincy permanently on his limited means and desiring to marry, he elected to return to London in January 1754 with the goal of advancing his career. These efforts initially failed to bear fruit and in June he prepared to return to Nova Scotia. Before departing, Gates learned of an open captaincy in Maryland. With the assistance of Cornwallis, he was able to obtain the post on credit. Returning to Halifax, he married Elizabeth Phillips that fall before joining his new regiment in March 1755. That summer, Gates' marched north with Major General Edward Braddock's army with the goal of avenging Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's defeat at Fort Necessity the previous year and capturing Fort Duquesne.

One of the opening campaigns of the French & Indian War, Braddock's expedition also included Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage, Lieutenant Charles Lee, and Daniel Morgan. Nearing Fort Duquesne on July 9, Braddock was severely defeated at the Battle of the Monongahela. As the fighting erupted, Gates was badly wounded in the chest and was carried to safety by Private Francis Penfold. Recovering, Gates later served in the Mohawk Valley before being appointed brigade major (chief of staff) to Brigadier General John Stanwix at Fort Pitt in 1759. A gifted staff officer, he remained in this post after Stanwix's departure the following year and the arrival of Brigadier General Robert Monckton. In 1762, Gates accompanied Monckton south for a campaign against Martinique. Capturing the island in February, Monckton dispatched Gates to London to report on the success.

Horatio Gates - Leaving the Army:

Arriving in Britain, Gates soon received a promotion to major for his efforts during the war. With the conflict's conclusion in early 1763, his career stalled as he was unable to obtain a lieutenant colonelcy despite recommendations from Lord Ligonier and Charles Townshend. After briefly serving as an aide to Monckton in New York, Gates elected to leave the army in 1769. In doing so, he hoped to obtain a post with the East India Company, but instead decided depart for America in August 1772. Arriving in Virginia, Gates purchased a plantation on the Potomac River near Shepherdstown. Dubbing his new home Traveller's Rest, he reestablished connections with Washington and Lee as well as became a lieutenant colonel in the militia and a local justice. On May 29, 1775, Gates learned of the outbreak of the American Revolution following the Battles of Lexington & Concord.

Horatio Gates - Organizing an Army:

Racing to Mount Vernon, Gates offered his services to Washington who was named commander of the Continental Army in mid-June. Recognizing Gates' ability as a staff officer, Washington recommended that the Continental Congress commission him as a brigadier general and Adjutant General for the army. This request was granted and Gates assumed his new rank on June 17. Joining Washington at the Siege of Boston, he worked to organize the myriad of state regiments that composed the army as well as designed systems of orders and records. Though he excelled in this role and was promoted to major general in May 1776, Gates greatly desired a field command. Using his political skills, he obtained command of the Canadian Department the following month. Relieving Brigadier General John Sullivan, Gates inherited a battered army that was retreating south following failed campaign in Quebec.

Horatio Gates - Lake Champlain:

As the remnants of his army concentrated around Fort Ticonderoga, Gates clashed with the commander of the Northern Department, Major General Philip Schuyler, over jurisdiction issues. As the summer progressed, Gates supported Brigadier General Benedict Arnold's efforts to construct a fleet on Lake Champlain to block an anticipated British thrust south. Impressed with Arnold's efforts and knowing that his subordinate was a skilled sailor, he allowed him to lead the fleet at the Battle of Valcour Island that October. Though defeated, Arnold's stand prevented the British from attacking in 1776. As the threat in the north had been alleviated, Gates moved south with part of his command to join Washington's army which had suffered through a disastrous campaign around New York City. Joining his superior in Pennsylvania, he advised retreating further rather than attacking British forces in New Jersey. When Washington decided to advance across the Delaware, Gates feigned illness and missed the victories at Trenton and Princeton.

Horatio Gates - Taking Command:

While Washington campaigned in New Jersey, Gates rode south to Baltimore where he lobbied the Continental Congress for command of the main army. Unwilling to make a change due to Washington's recent successes, they later gave him command of the Northern Army at Fort Ticonderoga in March. Unhappy under Schuyler, Gates lobbied his political friends in an effort to obtain his superior's post. A month later, he was told to either serve as Schuyler's second-in-command or return to his role as Washington's adjutant general. Before Washington could rule on the situation, Fort Ticonderoga was lost to the advancing forces of Major General John Burgoyne. Following the fort's loss, and with encouragement from Gates' political allies, the Continental Congress relieved Schuyler of command. On August 4, Gates was named as his replacement and took command of the army fifteen days later.

Horatio Gates - The Saratoga Campaign:

The army that Gates inherited began to grow as a result of Brigadier General John Stark's victory at the Battle of Bennington on August 16. In addition, Washington sent Arnold, now a major general, and Colonel Daniel Morgan's rifle corps north to support Gates. Moving north on September 7, Gates assumed a strong position atop Bemis Heights which commanded the Hudson River and blocked the road south to Albany. Pushing south, Burgoyne's advance was slowed by American skirmishers and persistent supply problems. As the British moved into position to attack on September 19, Arnold vigorously argued with Gates in favor of striking first. Finally given permission to advance, Arnold and Morgan inflicted heavy losses on the British at the first engagement of the Battle of Saratoga which was fought at Freeman's Farm. Following the fighting, Gates deliberately failed to mention Arnold in dispatches to Congress detailing Freeman's Farm. Confronting his timid commander, who he had taken to calling "Granny Gates" for his timid leadership, Arnold and Gates' meeting devolved into a shouting match, with the latter relieving the former of command. Though technically transferred back to Washington, Arnold did not leave Gates' camp.

On October 7, with his supply situation critical, Burgoyne made another attempt against the American lines. Blocked by Morgan well as the brigades of Brigadier Generals Enoch Poor and Ebenezer Learned, the British advance was checked. Racing to the scene, Arnold took de facto command and led a key counterattack that captured two British redoubts before he fell wounded. As his troops were winning a key victory over Burgoyne, Gates remained in camp for the duration of the fighting. With their supplies dwindling, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates on October 17. The turning point of the war, the victory at Saratoga led to the signing of the alliance with France. Despite the minimal role he played in the battle, Gates received a gold medal from Congress and worked to use the triumph to his political advantage. These efforts ultimately saw him appointed to head Congress' Board of War late that fall.

Horatio Gates - Failure in the South:

Despite the conflict of interest, in this new role Gates effectively became Washington's superior despite his lower military rank. He held this position through part of 1778, though his term was marred by the Conway Cabal which saw several senior officers, including Brigadier General Thomas Conway, scheme against Washington. In the course of the events, excerpts of Gates' correspondence criticizing Washington became public and he was forced to apologize. Returning north, Gates remained in the Northern Department until March 1779 when Washington offered him command of the Eastern Department with headquarters at Providence, RI. That winter, he returned to Traveller's Rest. While in Virginia, Gates began agitating for command of the Southern Department. On May 7, 1780, with Major General Benjamin Lincoln besieged at Charleston, SC, Gates received orders from Congress to ride south. This appointment was made against Washington's wishes as he favored Major General Nathanael Greene for the post.

Reaching Coxe's Mill, NC on July 25, several weeks after Charleston's fall, Gates assumed command of the remnants of Continental forces in the region. Assessing the situation, he found that the army was lacking in food as the local population, disillusioned by the recent string of defeats, was not offering supplies. In an effort to boost morale, Gates proposed immediately marching against Lieutenant Colonel Lord Francis Rawdon's base at Camden, SC. Though his commanders were willing to strike, they recommended moving through Charlotte and Salisbury to obtain badly needed supplies. This was rejected by Gates who insisted on speed and began leading the army south through the North Carolina pine barrens. Joined by Virginia militia and additional Continental troops, Gates' army had little to eat during the march beyond what could be scavenged from the countryside.

Though Gates' army badly outnumbered Rawdon, the disparity was mitigated when Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis marched out from Charleston with reinforcements. Clashing at the Battle of Camden on August 16, Gates was routed after making the grievous error of placing his militia opposite the most experienced British troops. Fleeing the field, Gates lost his artillery and baggage train. Reaching Rugeley's Mill with the militia, he rode a further sixty miles to Charlotte, NC before nightfall. Though Gates later claimed that this travel was to gather additional men and supplies, his superiors viewed it as extreme cowardice.

Horatio Gates - Later Career

Relieved by Greene on December 3, Gates returned to Virginia. Though initially ordered to face a board of inquiry into his conduct at Camden, his political allies removed this threat and he instead rejoined Washington's staff at Newburgh, NY in 1782. While there, members of his staff were involved the 1783 Newburgh Conspiracy though no clear evidence indicates that Gates took part. With the end of the war, Gates retired to Traveller's Rest. Alone since the death of his wife in 1783, he married Mary Valens in 1786. An active member of the Society of Cincinnati, Gates sold his plantation in 1790 and moved to New York City. After serving one term in the New York State Legislature in 1800, he died on April 10, 1806. Gates' remains were buried at Trinity Church graveyard in New York City.

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