General Horatio Gates was an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He led American forces to victory at Saratoga but failed at Camden. He was also involved in the Conway Cabal, a plot against George Washington, and the Newburgh Conspiracy against Congress.
Biography of Horatio Gates
Horatio Gates was a prominent General in the Continental Army until he suffered a devastating loss at the Battle of Camden. He was born in England and joined the army at an early age. He was with General Edward Braddock and his expedition at the Battle of Monongahela, where the British were ambushed and Braddock lost his life. After the French and Indian War, he bought land in Virginia. When the American Revolutionary War started he was appointed as a Brigadier General by Congress. After the failed Canada Campaign, he devised a scheme to replace General Philip Schuyler as commander of the Northern Department, and he was eventually successful. However, in 1777 he was faced with the British invasion from Canada. The Americans were able to stop the British at the end of the Saratoga Campaign, but the victory was due more to the efforts of Schuyler and Benedict Arnold. Soon after, he played a role in the Conway Cabal — a scheme to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief. The plot failed and Gates retired and went back to Virginia. However, in June 1780, he was called on to lead the opposition in North Carolina against the British and General Charles Cornwallis. In August, Cornwallis crushed Gates at the Battle of Camden. Congress replaced Gates with Nathanael Greene, which ended Gates’ military career. He retired to his home in Virginia and eventually moved to New York City, where he died in 1806.
This painting by John Trumbull depicts Burgoyne surrendering to Gates (hands outstretched) at Saratoga. Image Source: Wikipedia.
5 Things to Know About Horatio Gates
- Gates was born on July 26, 1727, in Malden, Essex County, England, in 1728 and died in New York City on April 10, 1806.
- In 1777, he was given command of the Northern Department and led the American forces during the Battles of Saratoga. Although the Americans beat the British, the victory was due largely to the efforts of Philip Schuyler, Benedict Arnold, and others.
- After Saratoga, he became involved in the “Conway Cabal,” which tried to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army with Gates. The plot was uncovered and Gates retired from service.
- In 1780, Congress gave him command of the army in North Carolina and wanted him to stop the advance of the British under the command of General Charles Cornwallis. Gates failed and was badly beaten by Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden. After the battle, he was accused of being a coward by Alexander Hamilton, which helped earn him the nickname “The Coward of Camden.” Gates was suspended from duty until 1782.
- In 1783, he was involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy, which was a plot devised by some officers in the Continental Army to undermine the authority of Congress.
Facts About Horatio Gates, His Life, and Career
Early Life, Education, and Family
- His parents were Robert and Dorothea Gates.
- His mother had been married once before, to Thomas Reeve, whose family had connections to the royal Customs service. This helped Robert Gates find employment in the Customs service.
- In 1729, Dorothea was appointed the housekeeper for the Duke of Bolton.
- She listed Horace Walpole as his godfather.
Early Military Career
- Gates entered the British army at an early age with the help of his parents and the support of the Duke of Bolton.
- He served in the War of Austrian Succession and fought in German. After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war, his regiment, under the command of Hugh Warburton, was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
- Gates fought in engagements with the Micmac Tribe and French Acadians and the Battle of Chignetco.
- Edward Cornwallis, the uncle of Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis was the Governor of Nova Scotia. Under Cornwallis, he quickly rose to the rank of major.
Marriage and Move to New York
- In 1754, he married Elizabeth Philipps. She was the daughter of Erasmus James Philipps. They had one son together, Robert, who was born in 1758.
- He sold his commission and left Nova Scotia.
- When he arrived in New York, he purchased a Captain’s commission in one of the New York Independent Companies.
French and Indian War
- Gates was part of General Edward Braddock’s expedition to capture Fort Duquense in 1755.
- The expedition ended in disaster when Braddock’s army was ambushed at the Battle of Monongahela. Braddock was killed and Gates was badly wounded.
- Due to the injury, Gates would not be able to take an active role again until later in the war, when he served as an aid to General Monckton
- At the start of the French and Indian War, he joined General Braddock’s army in the expedition against Fort Duquesne and was badly wounded and unable to serve in the field again until the end of the war.
- In 1762, he served as an aid to General Robert Monckton at the Capture of Martinique.
- Soon after, Gates was promoted to the rank of Major.
Farming in Virginia
- After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, Gates, like many other British officers, settled in America.
- He purchased land in Berkeley County, Virginia, and devoted himself to farming.
General in the Continental Army
- In May 1775, news reached Gates that the war had started.
- On June 17, 1775, Congress commissioned him as a Brigadier General and Adjutant General in the Continental Army.
- At some point, Gates became jealous of Washington and conspired to replace him as Commander-in-Chief. He had friends in Congress, mainly delegates from the New England colonies, who supported him.
Command of the Northern Army and Dispute with Schuyler
- On May 16, 1776, he was appointed to the rank of Major General and ordered to go to Fort Ticonderoga to take command of the portion of the Northern Army that was retreating from Canada after the failed Canada Campaign.
- At the time, that portion of the army was under the command of General John Sullivan. Sullivan outranked Gates and was furious over Congress taking the command from him and giving it to Gates, a lower-ranking officer.
- The remaining part of the Northern Army was under the command of General Philip Schuyler, who was at Albany.
- When Gates reached Fort Ticonderoga, he attempted to take control of the Northern Department from Schuyler and a debate ensued between the two of them.
- The dispute was resolved in the summer of 1776 when Congress confirmed Schuyler was in command of the Northern Department and Gates was to serve under him.
- Gates was responsible for the defense of Fort Ticonderoga and the area around Lake Champlain.
This illustration depicts General Philip Schuyler, who was in command of the Northern Department. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Battle of Valcour Island
- As the American army retreated from Canada, they were pursued by a British force, under the command of General Guy Carleton and General John Burgoyne.
- Gates knew he would have to have ships on Lake Champlain to help stop the British advance, so he had a small fleet assembled.
- Most of the work that was done was performed by Benedict Arnold, so Gates put him in charge.
- In October 1776, Arnold engaged the British at the Battle of Valcour Island. Although the American fleet was almost wiped out and lost the battle, Arnold was able to slow the British down enough that they could not continue on to attack Fort Ticonderoga.
Gates Marches to Philadelphia
- When it was clear the British were not going to attack the fort, Gates took some of his men and marched to Philadelphia, where he joined George Washington’s army.
- Washington planned to attack the Hessians at Trenton, which Gates disagreed with. Gates went to Baltimore, where Congress was meeting, and lobbied the members to promote him to Commander-in-Chief.
- However, Washington’s brilliant victories at the Battle of Trenton and Battle of Princeton — which included Gates’ men under his command — kept Washington in the position.
- Congress ordered Gates to return to Ticonderoga.
Command of the Northern Department
- In the spring of 1777, the British returned with an army under the command of Burgoyne.
- Burgoyne planned to capture Fort Ticonderoga and then take control of the colony of New York, which would allow the British to cut New England off from the other colonies.
- Burgoyne surrounded the fort. The American forces were badly outnumbered and the commander of the fort, General Arthur St. Clair, evacuated on July 6. The loss of Fort Ticonderoga was a severe blow to American morale. Congress blamed Schuyler and St. Clair.
- On August 4, Gates replaced Schuyler as commander of the Northern Department and Gates assumed command on August 19.
Hubbardton, Bennington, and Fort Stanwix
- Although there was a change in leadership, it did not stop the American forces from taking a stand against the British and slowing them down.
- At the Battle of Hubbardton on July 7, the Americans under the command of Seth Warner slowed down the advance of the British and gained a strategic victory
- On August 16, another American force, led by John Stark, defeated the British at the Battle of Bennington.
- Less than a week later, the Siege of Fort Stanwix ended in an American victory.
- The American victories created problems for Burgoyne as he continued to press on toward Albany and he was significantly weakened by the time Gates took command of the Northern Department.
Preparations at Saratoga
- Washington sent reinforcements from New York to support Gates. Some of the prominent officers were Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Lincoln, and Daniel Morgan.
- On September 7, Gates ordered his army to march to Bemis Heights. When they arrived, they built defensive works on a bluff that provided a strong defensive position. The fortifications were planned by Polish engineer Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
- Gates placed Arnold, Morgan, and their men to the right of the American center. Gates took command of the left.
- From September 13 to 14, Burgoyne and his army crossed the Hudson River and marched south toward the Americans at Bemis Heights. By the 18th, the Burgoyne was camped just four miles north of Gates.
- Burgoyne needed information about the size of the army Gates had, so he decided to send a small force to attack Gates on the left flank.
First Battle of Saratoga — Freeman’s Farm
- On the morning of September 19, Burgoyne sent troops heading toward Bemis Heights.
- Arnold pressed Gates for permission to move into position to attack the British. Although Gates preferred a defensive strategy, he gave his approval. Arnold moved forward with Morgan and his men.
- The two forces met in a clearing on the property of John Freeman in the afternoon and the Americans charged at the British.
- The fighting was intense and lasted into the afternoon. Gates and Burgoyne both sent reinforcements to the field.
- Later in the afternoon, Burgoyne sent an attack on the right flank of the American line.
- Arnold went to Bemis Heights and asked Gates for more reinforcements, but Gates refused because he was worried it would make the center of the American line vulnerable and allow the British to attack there. Arnold and his men were forced to fall back to Bemis Heights.
- Despite heavy losses, the British were able to control the battlefield at Freeman’s Farm. However, they were unable to attack Gates and the main American army at Bemis Heights.
Second Battle of Saratoga — Bemis Heights
- The British fortified their position at Freeman’s Farm and built a redoubt.
- After a disagreement between Gates and Arnold, Gates replaced Arnold with Benjamin Lincoln. Arnold threatened to quit the army and leave, but some of the other officers talked him into staying.
- Burgoyne started to run out of supplies, so he decided to launch an attack on Bemis Heights and the left flank of the American line.
- The British moved into position on the morning of October 7 and Gates sent Morgan and his men to meet them. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, the fighting started, and Morgan received reinforcements led by Major Henry Dearborn. More American troops led by General Enoch Poor joined in and attacked the British center.
- Arnold asked Gates to allow him to attack. Gates finally agreed and when Arnold entered the field the men cheered. The American attack intensified and the British line started to fall apart.
- General Simon Fraser was shot and mortally wounded by Timothy Murphy, an American rifleman. When Fraser fell from his horse the Britsih panicked and ran, and the Americans chased after them.
- Arnold ordered an assault on the redoubt at Freeman’s Farm and rode to the front. The men followed him and overwhelmed the redoubt. As the British pulled back Arnold was shot in the leg.
- The British suffered significant casualties, including Fraser, who died that night.
- The next day, Burgoyne ordered his men to start the march north and to retreat. They went to Saratoga, where the Americans surrounded them.
- Burgoyne negotiated with Gates and the Americans and surrendered his army on October 17.
- It was the first time in history that a British army had surrendered, and it was a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War.
- While Gates led his army to a major victory at Saratoga, Washington was struggling and the British were able to capture Philadelphia.
- General Thomas Conway and others conspired with members of Congress, including Benjamin Rush, to replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief with Gates. Other conspirators were Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Mifflin, who also served on the Board of War.
- Conway wrote a letter to Gates where he was critical of Washington.
- General William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling, found out about the letter and informed Washington. Alexander learned about the letter from James Wilkinson, an aide to Gates.
- Conway offered his resignation to Congress. Instead, the Board of War promoted him to Inspector General with the rank of Major General. In that role, Conway would have to work with Washington, but would report to the Board of War. Further complicating matters, Congress appointed Gates as President of the Board of War on November 27, 1777.
- Conway and Gates were both in a position to criticize Washington, which would provide the conspirators in Congress with what they needed to make a change.
- After Washington refused to cooperate with Conway, Conway wrote letters to Washington that were critical of the Commander-in-Chief. Washington sent some of them to Congress, and the entire plot was exposed.
- Gates was furious with Wilkinson for giving details to Alexander and challenged his aide to a duel. Wilkinson declined.
- On January 19, 1778, Gates and Conway went before Congress and tried to clear their names.
- The Marquis de Lafayette spoke on behalf of France and said his country could not conceive of anyone other than Washington leading the American army.
- Congress responded by transferring Gates to a command in the Hudson Highlands. He refused and offered his resignation, which Congress accepted. Gates returned to his farm in Virginia.
Battle of Camden
- In May 1780, the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, and the southern army under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. The British, who were under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, set up a supply depot and garrison at Camden.
- Congress responded by appointing Gates to take command of the Southern Department.
- He went to North Carolina and gathered the American forces that had not been captured with Lincoln. Gates took command on July 25, 1780.
- Gates marched into South Carolina toward Camden. Cornwallis, who was in Charleston, found out, mobilized his army, and headed toward Gates. They met at Camden on August 16, 1780.
- Gates made a critical tactical error and organized his line so his most inexperienced men were opposite the most experienced men on the British line. The British advanced and when they presented their bayonets the inexperienced Americans turned and ran. The American line collapsed into a chaotic retreat. The Americans suffered heavy casualties, including Major General Johann de Kalb.
- The British victory opened the way for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina.
- Two months after Camden, Gates was replaced by Major General Nathanael Greene.
This illustration depicts the death of Major General Johann de Kalb at the Battle of Camden. Image Source: Archive.org.
In 1783, the United States was in negotiations with Britain to finalize the peace between the two and bring the American Revolutionary War to an official end. However, high-ranking members of the Army began to fear that if the Army disbanded the soldiers would never receive their pay. A faction, which included Gates, accused Congress of trampling on the rights which the soldiers were told — and believed — they were fighting for.
On March 10, 1783, a letter circulated through the American camp at Newburgh. It stated the concerns of the faction and called for a meeting to be held on March 11 to discuss payment and grievances and to develop a plan of action for dealing with Congress. It even suggested the army could disband, which would open the country up to an attack, or stay together and potentially threaten to take military action against Congress.
On March 11, Washington issued his General Orders for the day. He acknowledged the letter and the meeting that had been proposed. He requested the meeting to be postponed to March 15, where he said representatives from his staff would listen to their grievances. Washington gave the impression he would not be in attendance.
The delay gave Washington time to send word to Congress about the situation. He also used the time to prepare remarks, which he intended to deliver, in person, to the conspirators. A second letter circulated through the encampment that suggested Washington supported the actions of the conspirators.
Gates opened the meeting on the morning of March 15. In Washington’s absence, he was the ranking officer, and in charge of the proceedings. Within moments, Washington entered the room, to everyone’s surprise. He asked to speak to the assembly. Gates granted permission, and Washington proceeded to deliver one of — if not the most — crucial speeches of his career.
After his speech, he read a letter to the men, which he had received from Joseph Jones, a Congressman from Virginia. In order to read the letter, Washington was forced to put on his new reading glasses. He told the men, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
As he read the letter, some men in the room began to openly cry. Major Samuel Shaw remembered the moment in his journal, where he wrote, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”
When he finished reading the letter, he folded it up, took off his glasses, and left the room. General Henry Knox and others who were faithful to Washington offered resolutions confirming their support for the General and the Congress.
The conspiracy to revolt against Congress was quelled right then and there, as the officers voted against the measures. Instead, they asked Washington to negotiate with Congress on their behalf.
Life After the American Revolutionary War
- In 1783, his wife, Elizabeth died.
- He retired the next year and returned to his farm in Virginia where he tried to rebuild his reputation.
- He married Mary Valens in 1786.
- They moved to New York where he supported Thomas Jefferson for the Presidency.
- In 1800, he was elected to the New York State Legislature.
- Gates died at his home in New York City on April 10, 1806.
- He was buried in the graveyard at Trinity Church on Wall Street.
Interesting Facts About Horatio Gates
Preparations for Saratoga
- After the retreat from Canada, the American army was demoralized, lacked food and clothing, and had not been paid.
- Schuyler, whose expertise was in securing provisions and maintaining order, was just starting to see the results of his efforts when he was replaced by Gates.
- Burgoyne’s army was significantly weakened by the losses at Hubbardton, Bennington, and Fort Stanwix.
- Gates was not responsible for preparing the army for the battles at Saratoga, Schuyler was.
Conduct at Saratoga
- Gates received criticism for his lack of involvement in the battles. He watched the fighting from a distance while Burgoyne led his men in the field.
- Gates was indecisive in his command and slow to make decisions.
- In his report to Congress about the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, he failed to mention the efforts of Benedict Arnold, which upset Arnold and others.
- Gates took responsibility for the victory at Saratoga and quickly turned his attention toward replacing Washington as Commander-in-Chief.
Gates created controversy when he failed to mention the efforts of Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Congressional Gold Medal Recipient
- Congress passed a vote of thanks to Gates and his army and presented him with a gold medal on November 4, 1777.
- He was the second recipient of a gold medal by the Continental Congress. Washington had been awarded one on March 25, 1776, after the British evacuated Boston.
- On one side, the medal has a bust of Gates with the words “HORATIO GATES DUCI STRENUO”, and on the other side is Burgoyne offering up his sword.
Horatio Gates is important to the history of the United States because of the role he played in overseeing the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga. However, his reputation was tarnished by his personal ambition, which led him to participate in the Conway Cabal. Although he had an opportunity to restore his name, he made critical errors at Camden. Following the war, his personal ambition took over again, and he worked to undermine the authority of Congress in the Newburgh Conspiracy.