Last updated: November 17, 2022
Born on July 26, 1727, in Maldon, England, Horatio Gates came to America at the age of twenty-two as a volunteer with the governor of Nova Scotia, Edward Cornwallis. In 1754, Gates rose to the position of captain and fought during the French and Indian War, suffering a wound during Major General Edward Braddock's defeat in western Pennsylvania in 1755.
After the French and Indian War, Gates returned to England and retired from the Royal American Regiment. In 1772, Gates returned to America and purchased a plantation in Berkeley County, Virginia. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Gates, a strong supporter of independence, became a brigadier general. Promoted to major general in 1776, he took command of troops in New York (Northern Army), and turned back General Guy Carleton's invasion of northern New York in October 1776. The victory gave the Americans time to prepare for the second British invasion the following year.
When British troops under the command of Major General John Burgoyne invaded New York in 1777, Gates' army defeated Burgoyne twice, on September 19, 1777 and October 7, 1777. Gates' troops forced Burgoyne to surrender his 5,700 man army near Saratoga on October 17, 1777. This victory, a major turning point of the American Revolution, convinced France to recognize American independence and form a military alliance with the Americans against Great Britain in 1778. Gates received one of seven gold medals awarded by the Continental Congress during the Revolution, the highest possible honor. Of the recipients, Gates proved to be the only one who emerged from the war with his reputation ruined by his conduct at Camden.
Tensions between Gates and General George Washington grew immediately following Saratoga, after Gates informed Congress directly of his victory rather than informing his commander-in-chief. Washington was further angered that Gates did not promptly return troops sent to help Gates during the New York campaign. Washington was also convinced that Gates played a role in the Conway Cabal in late 1777, which was a supposed plot to remove Washington from command and replace him with Gates. In November 1777, Gates became president of the Board of War and technically became Washington's superior. Bickering continued between the two men as Gates drew up plans for an invasion of Canada without consulting Washington.
That the thanks of Congress, in their own name, and in behalf of the inhabitants of the thirteen United States, be presented to Major-General Gates, commander in chief in the northern department, and to Major-Generals Lincoln and Arnold, and the rest of the officers and troops under his command, for their brave and successful efforts in support of the independence of their country, whereby an army of the enemy of ten thousand men, has been totally defeated, one large detachment of it, strongly posted and entrenched, having been conquered at Bennington; another repulsed with loss and disgrace from Fort Schuyler; and the main army of six thousand men, under Lieutenant-General Burgoyne, after being beaten in different actions and driven from a formidable post and strong entrenchments, reduced to the necessity of surrendering themselves upon terms honourable and advantageous to these states, on the 17th day of October last, to Major-General Gates; and that a medal of gold be struck under the direction of the Board of War, in commemoration of this great event, and in the name of these United States presented by the President to Major-General Gates.
In the spring of 1778, Gates returned to field command in the north, commanding troops in New York and Massachusetts. Gates took command of the Continental Army in the Southern Department in South Carolina in July 1780 to counter the British advance into the interior after their capture of Charleston. Gates unwittingly marched his army toward the British troops in Camden, South Carolina, despite the fact that his men were running low on supplies. This action led to the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, which was one of the largest American defeats of the war. As the American troops retreated, Gates left the battlefield and abandoned his army, riding nearly 200 miles in three days. Alexander Hamilton wrote of Gates' conduct at Camden, questioning “But was there ever an instance of a General running away as Gates has done from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life.” Accused of cowardice, his reputation was ruined. Gates was removed from command in October 1780.
Congress briefly reinstated Gates into the army in the summer of 1782, but after uneventful service he left for the final time in 1783. In 1790, Gates sold his Virginia plantation, freed his slaves, and bought an estate in New York. He ended his career serving one term in the New York legislature from 1800-1801. Gates died on April 10, 1806.