Rising to the second highest general in the Continental Army, Horatio Gates is little regarded among the Revolutionary War generals and remains an enigma in most historical accounts. At the pinnacle of his career, Gates presided over the seminal British surrender at Saratoga while at the same time; Washington was losing battles in the defense of Philadelphia. Garnering this pivotal victory, historians cite Gate’s effective organizing capabilities and his static defensive plans, but on the battlefield give credit to others. In fact, he is criticized for remaining in the rear; keeping teamsters ready to evacuate supplies and never commanding at the front.
Historians generally conclude that Gates was an able military administrator but not an effective battlefield commander. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Congress named Gates, a former British officer as the first Adjutant General in charge of Continental Army administration and management operations. In the first round of promotions, Congress elevated Gates to Major General and assigned him a combat command. Serving throughout the war, Gates led five military commands (Northern, Canada, Hudson Highlands, Eastern and Southern), more than any other general officer and all but the Western and Main army commands.
The Southern Command, his last and most independent command, ruined Gate’s military reputation. Stumbling into a smaller British army outside of Camden, South Carolina, Gate’s unreliable militia folded and ran, opening an opportunity for the British to roll up the remaining Continentals. In disarray, the remnants of the Patriot forces fled the battlefield. Personally retreating over 180 miles on horseback, some contemporaries viewed Gates as a coward, a conclusion ascribed by many historians. Gates successor, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene did not endorse to this view and concluded that Gates acted appropriately given the circumstances. However, while Gates resumed duties with the Continental Army, he never again commanded soldiers in battle.
Further staining his Revolutionary War service, Gates is implicated in two unsuccessful conspiracies against Washington among officers and politicians. After Saratoga, Gates likely angled to replace Washington as supreme commander. A group of officers, eponymously named for the ringleader Maj. Gen. Thomas Conway, the Conway Cabal sought to name Gates as supreme commander. In addition, at the war’s conclusion Gates became wittingly or unwittingly associated with the Newburgh Conspiracy in which the a group of Continental officers sought to forcibly compel Congress to grant additional compensation for their war services. In both cases, Gate’s participation is murkily based upon circumstantial evidences. However, after the fact, his reputation suffered.
Gate’s reputation is further clouded by his tempestuous relationships with influential colleagues. His relationship with Washington was strained at best given their competing command interests. Also Gates clashed with many other generals including Philip Schuyler, Henry Knox and Benedict Arnold. He generated significantly less followership among the Continental Army officers than Washington.
Remarkably for someone with both achievements and failures, Gates never kept a diary or published memoirs. He did not attempt to burnish his military, patriotic or democratic reputation or to establish his true participation in the two wartime conspiracies. While he sought glory and supreme command, he did not seek to memorialize his achievements nor explain away his failures. Other than serving one term in the New York State legislature, Gates faded from the national picture and nondescriptly lived out his remaining life, except for one admirable action. Historians generally overlook this courageous factor in evaluating Gate’s reputation.
After the war, Gates, sold his plantation Travelers Rest. Many historical acounts state that with the sale of his plantation, Gates freed his slaves. However, Paul David Nelson cites a deed of sale which indicates that Gates received $800 for the slaves with a stipulation that some will be freed after five years of continued servitude and the remainder at the age of 28. So while Gates’ slaves might eventually be freed, it was not a completely altrusitic abolitionist act that is commonly asserted.
To obtain a good overview of Gate’s life, Rev. John H. Brandow, authors a short, but informative overview of his pre-war, Revolutionary War and post-war activities.
Brandow, John H. “HORATIO GATES.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association 3 (1903): 9-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42889819.
There are only two full-length biographies of Gates, both over 40 years old. Interestingly in the 19th Century, the age that venerated Revolutionary War leaders, no historian compiled a Gates biography. The first full-length Gates biography did not appear until 1941.
Patterson, Samuel White. Horatio Gates: Defender of American Liberties. First. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.
The Patterson volume contains flowery language, embellished descriptions and is regarded as weak scholarship. For a review of this article, albeit from a descendant of General Philip Schuyler, a Gates antagonist, see;
Schuyler, Robert Livingston. “The Life of General Horatio Gates.” Political Science Quarterly 56, no. 4 (1941): 600-07. doi:10.2307/2143649.
The second biography is viewed more authoritatively and is the key life of Gates reference today.
Nelson, Paul David. General Horatio Gates: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Recent Gates and Revolutionary War scholarship hints at a more balanced view of his actions. For example, historians (and many eminent ones) have derisively referred to Gates as “granny Gates”. As fact, they state that common soldiers and officers referred to him by this nickname. However, contemporaneous evidence does not exist to confirm this appellation. For a complete analysis of this misconception, see the following article in the Journal of the American Revolution.
Monk, Will. “The Myth of Granny Gates.” Journal of the American Revolution, October 2, 2014. https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/10/the-myth-of-granny-gates/.
While Horatio Gates may not be among the most vaunted Revolutionary generals, a reexamination of his participation in the war is warranted. His legacy is more than the “hero of Saratoga” and the “coward of Camden”. Further an account is needed which comes from a dispassionate point of view and not one from the perspectives of Washington and his allies. If politically allied with Washington, Gate’s reputation would have likely been greater and there would be many more biographies written to venerate his contributions.