Horatio Gates- A controversial military figure

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Horatio Gates served as an American General during the American Revolutionary War. It was during one of the battles that he earned the title ‘Hero of Saratoga’. However, due to many factors, he is deemed as one of the most controversial military figures during the Revolutionary War.

Let’s explore the life of Horatio Gates- A controversial military figure

1) Horatio Gates was British-born

Horatio Gates was born and brought up in the English county of Kent. In 1745, he decided to seek a career in the military. With the help of his parents and political aid, he served in the 20th foot Regiment in Germany during the Austrian Succession Wars.

A picture of Horatio Gates
Horatio Gates

2) Enroute Nova-Scotia

After the end of the Austrian Succession Wars, Gates travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia and became an aide to Edward Cornwallis. Due to his capabilities, he was made captain of the 45th Foot Regiment. As captain, he engaged in several campaigns against the Mi’kmaq and Acadians.

A picture of Edward Cornwallis
Edward Cornwallis

3) Horatio Gates learned of a position of open captaincy in Maryland. With the help of Cornwallis, he was able to obtain the post on credit. Subsequently, in 1755 he joined his new regiment under General Edward Braddock.

A picture of General Edward Braddock
General Edward Braddock

4) The French and Indian Wars

Horatio Gates was one of the officers who accompanied Braddock during his failed expedition. This expedition was an attempt to capture the French Fort Duquesne. However, Gates did not see much action in battle as he had suffered a major injury early in the battle. In 1759, he became Brigade Major to Brigadier Major John Stanwix. He held the same position when General Robert Monckton took over Stanwix’s command in 1760.

A picture of an engraving of Braddocks failed expedion
An engraving of Braddock’s failed expedition

5) Promotion to major

Following the success of the British expedition against Martinique, General Monckton gave Gates the honour of delivering news of victory to England. Subsequently, Gates was promoted to major. Following this advancement Gates’ military career stalled for quite a while. He then sold his major’s commission and decided to leave the army.

A picture of an engraving of Horatio Gates
An engraving of Horatio Gates

6) In 1772, Horatio Gates arrived in North America, following which he purchased a modest plantation in Berkeley County, Virginia.

7) The American Revolutionary War

The Revolutionary War broke out in 1775. After hearing about the war, Gates immediately went to George Washington and offered his services. Washington vouched for Gates’ appointment as adjutant to the American army. Gates was then appointed as Brigadier General and Adjutant General of the Patriots.

A picture of the Revolutionary war
(C: Civil War Trust)

8) Due to his wartime experiences, Gates was of great help to the fledgeling army, he helped standardise records and organise the regiments of the army.

9) In May 1776, Horatio Gates was promoted to the position of Brigadier Major and was given command of the Canadian Department. However, this unit was in disarray. Many soldiers were lacking in morale and dissatisfied with the pay.

10) Lake Champlain

Horatio Gates then fell into conflict with Major General Philip Schuyler, the commander of the Northern Department over jurisdiction issues. After working out their issue, Gates got the command of Ticonderoga and the defence of Lake Champlain.

During the summer, Gates took command of the American Fleet which was going to be the defence against the British naval forces. However, Gates gave that responsibility to Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. Arnold then led the American Fleet against the British. The American Fleet suffered defeat at the Battle of Valcour Island, but it was instrumental in delaying the British advancement against Ticonderoga.

A picture of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold
Brigadier General Benedict Arnold

11) Horatio Gates joins Washington’s army

Once it was clear that the British were not going to attack anytime soon, Gates and some of his troops marched south to join Washington‘s army in Pennsylvania, where it had retreated after its disastrous defeat in the campaign of New York. Here Gates advised Washington to go on the defensive and retreat from the British forces in New Jersey. However, Washington dismissed Gates’ advice and advanced. Gates then feigned illness and did not join his troops at the battles of Trenton and Princeton and subsequently missed out on the victories.

A picture of Washington leading his troops to victory at Princeton
Washington leading his troops to victory at Princeton (Getty/Stock Montage)

12) Battle of Saratoga

After Gates was given command of the Northern Department, he led it to victory twice against the British troops who were under the command of Major General John Burgoyne. On October 17, 1777 Gates and his troops forced Burgoyne to surrender near Saratoga. This success was a major turning point during the American Revolution. Additionally, in 1778, it convinced France to form an alliance with the Americans against the British. The success of this battle gave Gates the title of ‘Hero of Saratoga’. However many argue that this victory is credited to his competent subordinate officers.

A picture of The surrender of Major General John Burgoyne (Horatio Gates pictured in the centre)
The surrender of Major General John Burgoyne (Horatio Gates pictured in the centre)

13) Horatio Gates and the infamous Conway Cabal

Horatio Gates infamously informed Congress of his victory directly instead of first reporting to his commanding officer Washington. Subsequently, Congress appointed Gates as the President of the Board of War. A post that made Gates superior to Washington, which conflicted with Gates’ lower military rank. He briefly held the position, but the infamous Conway Cabal marred his term. Subsequently, Gates apologised to Washington and resigned from the Board. He then became the commander of the Eastern Department in November 1778.

14) The disastrous Battle of Camden

In 1780, Gates was appointed as commander of the Continental forces in Deep River, North Carolina. As commander, he led an army that was a mix of Continentals and militia against the British forces under Lord Cornwallis. In the Battle of Camden, the American army suffered a disastrous defeat due to Horatio Gates’ poor leadership. Gates also infamously abandoned his army and fled the battlefield via a swift horse. Following the army’s defeat, Major General Nathanael Greene replaced Gates as commander of the Continental Army.

A picture of the Battle of Camden with Horatio Gates as the commander of the American army
The Battle of Camden

15) Aftermath of the battle

After the debacle of the battle, Congress called for a board of inquiry to look into Gates’ conduct. Gates was obviously against this and his supporters in Congress helped remove this threat. Gates then joined Washington’s staff at Newburgh.

16) Life after the war

After the war ended, Gates retired to his Virginia Plantation. In 1790, he sold his farm, freed his slaves and moved to ‘Rose Hill Farm’ an estate he bought in New York. His career ended after he served one term in the New York State Legislature. Horatio Gates died on April 10, 1806.


Read about one of the most infamous battles during the American Revolutionary War  Battle of Camden- Key Facts & Brief Summary

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