The details of Gates’s early life are somewhat obscure. He was born in England in 1727 to working class parents. Because his mother was a favored housekeeper for the Duke of Leeds, young Horatio was afforded a higher level of education than most born to his class. With financial assistance from his parents—and some key noble patronage—Gates purchased his first commission in the British Army as an ensign in the 20th Regiment of Foot in 1745.
Over the next 25 years, Gates served in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) in Europe, the Micmac War (1749-1755) in Acadia, and the French and Indian War (1754-1763) in Pennsylvania and New York. He served in staff positions for British governors and military commanders, including Edward Cornwallis, John Stanwix, and Robert Monckton. Gates probably developed his talents as a military administrator during these times, a skill that would serve him during the American War for Independence.Although Gates returned to England after the French and Indian War as major of the 45th Regiment of Foot, he recognized that further career advancement would prove difficult due to his lack of social status. He sold his commission and returned to North America in 1769. With the help of his French and Indian War comrade-in-arms, George Washington, Gates purchased land for a plantation, called Traveler’s Rest, in Virginia. He settled there with his wife, Elizabeth (a native of Nova Scotia who he married in 1754), and their son, Robert, in 1773. Within days of buying his Virginia lands, Gates purchased Nace, an enslaved African; Gates continued to purchase enslaved people and benefit from their labor for as long as he owned the estate.
Gates was a strong supporter of the American cause, and Congress appointed him as the Army of the United Colonies’ adjutant-general, with the rank of brigadier general, on June 17, 1775—the same day Washington was appointed commander-in-chief. Gates put his administrative experience to use by creating the Continental Army’s system of records and orders. He was promoted to the rank of major general on May 16, 1776 and, no longer adjutant general, his hope for a field command was granted in mid-June when he was made commander of the Canadian Department. However, as the failed American effort to conquer Canada ended before his arrival, Gates was relegated to command at Forts Ticonderoga and Independence in the Northern Department under the auspices of Major General Philip Schuyler. After the British threat from Canada was quelled in the fall of 1776, Gates led most of his troops to New Jersey in order to bolster Washington’s army in advance of the December 26 attack on Trenton.
Gates held nominal commands during the first half of 1777, but on August 4, Congress dismissed Schuyler (perceived as ineffectual in dealing with the 1777 British invasion from Canada) and appointed Gates to replace him. As such, Gates assumed command of the Northern Department on August 19 and commanded the Northern Army in the Battles of Saratoga, his first army-level command. His sensible defensive strategy, combined with Major General Benedict Arnold's aggressive battle tactics, defeated Burgoyne. Gates’s choice to pursue Burgoyne to Saratoga and force his surrender—the first surrender of a British Army in world history—was the highlight of Gates’s career.
Appointed president of the newly-configured Board of War by Congress on November 27, Gates was tasked with overhauling Continental Army management and overseeing another Canadian invasion. Concurrently, Washington faced backbiting criticism over his military failures of 1777, with some suggesting that Gates should replace Washington as commander-in-chief. While no attempt to replace Washington was afoot, the Board’s ill-conceived, congressionally sanctioned authority (along with its own appropriation of powers), created an unworkable co-command within the Continental Army. Later known as the “Conway Cabal,” Washington and his allies successfully opposed the Board’s oversight, and its authority quickly diminished.
Gates’s subsequent assignments ran the gamut, including command of the Highlands Department (May - November 1778), the Eastern Department (November 1778 - November 1779), and the Southern Department (June - October 1780). It was in the August 16, 1780 Battle of Camden, South Carolina, that Gates’s battlefield prowess was tested—the result was nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. The defeated general was replaced by Major General Nathaniel Greene on December 3.
Stricken with sickness, the Gates’ only child, Robert, died on October 22, 1780.
Gates joined the main army at Newburgh, New York, in October 1782, and apart from Washington, stood as the Continental Army’s senior officer. It was there that Gates became immersed in the “Newburgh Conspiracy,” whereby Continental Army officers challenged Congressional legitimacy due to unkept promises of financial compensation. Gates supported the agitators, some of whom called for acting in opposition to congressional authority. It was only through Washington’s intervention that the conspiracy was quashed in March 1783.
Gates went on leave shortly afterward in order to spend time Elizabeth, who was incapacitated with a serious illness. Gates never again returned to the army. His wife died on June 1, 1783.
Gates married an English immigrant, Mary, in 1786. He sold his Virginia estate in 1790, a sale which included all his enslaved people. In the sale contract, he arranged for their eventual emancipation—five enslaved adults would be freed after five years, the remaining children and young adults would gain their freedom at the age of twenty-eight. The Gateses then moved to Rose Hill (in present-day Midtown Manhattan). A Jeffersonian Republican, Gates briefly served in the New York State legislature (1800), but this was the extent of his public service.
Horatio Gates died on April 10, 1806 and was buried in Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church Cemetery.
Last updated: August 3, 2021
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