American Revolution: Major General Horatio Gates

Horatio Gates during the American Revolution
Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

Fast Facts: Horatio Gates

  • Known For: Retired British soldier who fought in the American Revolution as a U.S. brigadier general
  • Born: About 1727 in Maldon, England
  • Parents: Robert and Dorothea Gates
  • Died: April 10, 1806 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Unknown, but gentleman's education in Great Britain
  • Spouse(s): Elizabeth Phillips (1754–1783); Mary Vallence (m. July 31, 1786)
  • Children: Robert (1758–1780)

Early Life

Horatio Lloyd Gates was born about 1727, in Maldon, England, the son of Robert and Dorothea Gates, although, according to biographer Max Mintz, some mystery revolves around his birth and parentage and haunted him through his life. His mother had been the housekeeper for Peregrine Osborne, Duke of Leeds, and some enemies and detractors whispered that he was Leeds' son. Robert Gates was Dorothea's second husband, and he was a "waterman," younger than herself, who ran a ferry and bartered produce on the Thames River. He also practiced and was caught smuggling casks of wine and fined about 100 British pounds, three times the value of the contraband.

Leed died in 1729, and Dorothea was hired by Charles Powlett, the third Duke of Bolton, to help discreetly establish and manage the household of Bolton's mistress. As a result of the new position, Robert was able to pay his fines, and in July of 1729 he was appointed tides-man in the customs service. As a decidedly middle-class woman, Dorothea was thus uniquely positioned to see her son obtain an excellent education and further his military career when it was required. Horatio's godfather was 10-year-old Horace Walpole, who happened to be visiting the Duke of Leeds when Horatio was born, and later became a famed and respected British historian.

In 1745, Horatio Gates decided to seek a military career. With financial aid from his parents and political 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. In 1746, he served with the regiment at the Battle of Culloden which saw the Duke of Cumberland crush the Jacobite rebels in Scotland. With the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, Gates found himself unemployed when his regiment was disbanded. A year later, he secured an appointment as aide-de-camp to Colonel Edward Cornwallis and traveled to Nova Scotia.

In North America

While in Halifax, Gates earned a temporary promotion to captain in the 45th Foot. While in Nova Scotia, he took part in campaigns against the Mi'kmaq and Acadians. During these efforts, he saw action during the British victory at Chignecto. Gates also met and developed a relationship with Elizabeth Phillips. Unable to afford to purchase the captaincy permanently on his limited means and wanting 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 October before joining his new regiment in March 1755. They would have only one son, Robert, born in Canada in 1758.

In the summer of 1755, 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 and gained valuable administrative experience. Capturing the island in February, Monckton dispatched Gates to London to report on the success.

Leaving the Army

Arriving in Britain in March 1762, 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. Unwilling to serve further as a major, he decided to return to North America. After briefly serving as a political aide to Monckton in New York, Gates elected to leave the army in 1769 and his family re-embarked for Britain. In doing so, he hoped to obtain a post with the East India Company, but, upon receiving a letter from his old comrade-in-arms George Washington, instead took his wife and son and departed for America in August 1772.

Arriving in Virginia, Gates purchased a 659-acre plantation on the Potomac River near Shepherdstown. Dubbing his new home Traveller's Rest, he reestablished connections with Washington and Lee and 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. Racing to Mount Vernon, Gates offered his services to Washington, who was named commander of the Continental Army in mid-June.

Organizing an Army

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 the failed campaign in Quebec. Arriving in northern New York, he found his command riddled with disease, badly lacking in morale, and angry over a lack of pay.

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 River, Gates feigned illness and missed the victories at Trenton and Princeton.

Taking Command

While Washington campaigned in New Jersey, Gates rode south to Baltimore and 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 15 days later. 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.

The Saratoga Campaign

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.

To 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, Rhode Island. 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, South Carolina, 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, North Carolina, 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 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, South Carolina.

Disaster at Camden

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, North Carolina, before nightfall. Though Gates later claimed that this travel was to gather additional men and supplies, his superiors viewed it as extreme cowardice.

Later Career and Death

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, New York, in 1782. While there, members of his staff were involved the 1783 Newburgh Conspiracy—a planned coup to overthrow Washington—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 (or Vallence) 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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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Horatio Gates." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Major General Horatio Gates. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Horatio Gates." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).