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Professor Donald Elder: George Washington’s Generals

Sep 4, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: George Washington’s Generals

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, in this series of interviews, we are going to look at some of the real leaders of the American Revolution—those generals and military leaders who led the colonists and patriots against the British.

Today, we are going to look at General Horatio Gates. What do we know about his early life? Like many American generals who supported the patriot cause during the American Revolution, Horatio Gates came here from a foreign land. But while most of these individuals arrived in North America during the war, Gates had come here from his native Great Britain long before the outbreak of hostilities. Born on July 26, 1727 in Maldon, England, Gates grew up in a fairly privileged position due to the connections that his parents had made with members of the English nobility. Because of this backing, Gates received a commission in the British Army at the age of 18 in 1745. Assigned to an infantry regiment, Gates saw military action in present-day Germany as part of the War of the Austrian Succession (which had broken out the previous year). At the conclusion of that conflict, the British government transferred Gates and his regiment to North America. After serving there for a year, Gates received a promotion to the rank of captain and a transfer to a different infantry regiment. In 1750, he participated in a battle in Canada against Native Americans loyal to France. For reasons that remain unclear, Gates decided to give up his commission in the British Army in order to receive an appointment as a captain in a New York militia unit. In 1755 he accompanied British General Edward Braddock on his ill-fated expedition into the Ohio Territory, and received a serious, but non-life threating, wound during that campaign. Ironically, Braddock’s expedition also included George Washington, who Gates would serve under two decades later. Braddock’s foray into the Ohio Territory provoked a war between the British and the French, a conflict that we call The French and Indian War here in the United States. Recovering from his wound, Gates returned to duty, but did not participate in any of the war’s major battles. He did gain promotion to major in the British Army, but the end of the war in 1763 saw the British government reduce the size of their military. Sensing that he had no future in the British Army, Gates resigned his and purchased a plantation in the colony of Virginia. He became a planter, little knowing that he would soon become a soldier once again.

2) Some of Washington’s generals became generals due to military acumen and experience, and others thru social status. Tell us a bit about this process, and how did Gates become a general?

News of the outbreak of the American Revolution reached Gates at his Virginia plantation in May of 1775, and he immediately decided to offer his services to the Patriots opposing the British. The Second Continental Congress had taken the mantle of leadership in this endeavor, and George Washington served in this body as a delegate from Virginia. Recognizing his military talents, the body chose him to command the Patriot Army, and Washington then asked Congress to appoint Gates as his adjutant. Given the rank of brigadier general, Gates helped Washington organize the force that became the American Army. Even his most strident critics give Gates praise for his efficiency in this role. Because of his service, Congress promoted him to major general in June of 1776. He would hold that rank until the end of the Revolutionary War.

3) Apparently, Gates thought very highly of himself, and believed that he could replace George Washington. What does history tell us about this?

As I will discuss later in more depth, Gates achieved a major success in the fall of 1777. Given command of an army in the field and tasked with stopping a British invasion from Canada, Gates not only halted the advance, but forced the invaders to surrender to him near Saratoga, New York. Although a number of his subordinates, most notably Benedict Arnold, had done the fighting that led to the capitulation, Gates received the lion’s share of the credit. At the same time that Gates received the surrender of the British force at Saratoga, another element of the British Army had driven George Washington from Philadelphia. In the aftermath of these two campaigns, Gates secretly worked behind the scenes to replace Washington in command of the American Army. This effort, known to history as “The Conway Cabal,” did not succeed, and Gates eventually gave Washington an apology for seeking to undermine his authority.

4) What were some of his most famous battles, and what were some stories associated with him?

In the summer of 1777, a general named John Burgoyne invaded New York with an army of over 8,000 British and Hessian soldiers. When Congress gave Gates a field command in 1776, it had sent him to the northern frontier, and because of that Gates received orders to stop the invasion. Initially, Burgoyne met with nothing but success, advancing to within 40 miles of Albany. But a number of Gates’ subordinates managed to strike blows against the British, first stalling the advance and then halting it completely. Twice, the British attempted to break through the American defenses and push south, but both times the Americans prevailed. Knowing that he couldn’t reach Albany and sensing that retreat would lead to a disastrous rout, Burgoyne chose to surrender his force to Gates. Interestingly, one regiment that surrendered to Gates was the unit that he had been assigned to when he received his commission in 1745. When he wrote his report of the campaign, Gates downplayed the contributions made by his subordinates, making it seem that he had taken the critical actions that led to victory. This success paved the way for Congress to send him south in 1780 to counter a British campaign to conquer the colonies situated there. He found the advancing British force near Camden, South Carolina, and on August 16, 1780, he offered battle. Unfortunately, Gates suffered one of the worst defeats ever experienced by the American Army. Virtually every American soldier either died or surrendered. This defeat meant that Gates would never command American troops again.

5) Apparently (and I may be wrong about this) he vanished off the face of the earth after a military loss at Camden. Was he killed?

Wounded in action? Body never found? This is somewhat of a mystery. Is there any agreement among historians about this? While his men suffered death or imprisonment, Gates did not. Rather, when the battle turned against him, Gates mounted his horse and rode away. Indeed, he did not stop his ride until he had put 170 miles between him and the battlefield. Not surprisingly, when Congress learned of his behavior it removed him from command. Many wanted to court-martial Gates for his mismanagement of the battle, but his allies in Congress prevented that from ever happening. Gates eventually rejoined Washington in camp at Newburgh, New York. When the army disbanded at the end of the Revolutionary War, Gates returned to his plantation in Virginia. After the war, Gates decided that he could not in good conscience own slaves. As a consequence of this epiphany, Gates freed his slaves, sold his plantation, and moved to New York City. He died there in 1806. We know that his grave lies in the cemetery of New York City’s Trinity Church, but the exact location of it has been lost to history.

6) What would you say were his contributions to the American Revolution and what have I neglected to ask?

Horatio Gates deserves credit for valuable service to the American cause in the first three years of the Revolutionary War. First, he helped organize what was essentially an armed mob into an effective military force. And second, although he did not play as decisive a role in the American success at Saratoga as he claimed, he did occupy the position of supreme command over that crucial effort. But because of his conduct during and after the Battle of Camden, Horatio Gates will always remain a largely marginal figure in the history of the war that won us our independence.

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