Elizabeth Phillips Gates

Wife of Revolutionary War General Horatio Gates

Horatio Gates was born in England in 1727. He received a lieutenant’s commission in the British Army in 1745. Gates went to Halifax, Nova Scotia in June 1749 and served as aide-de-camp to Colonel Edward Cornwallis, uncle of Charles Cornwallis. In 1752, Colonel Cornwallis returned to England, but Gates served as aide-de-camp to two successors. During this time, he met Elizabeth Phillips, but in order to marry her, he had to improve his prospects, so in January 1754, he returned to London.

Image: General Horatio Gates

There, Gates found that his connections were no help in the present political climate. By June, he had given up and was about to return to Nova Scotia. Then a position came available in a company stationed in Maryland. A captain was ill and wanted to sell his commission. Edward Cornwallis recommended Horatio Gates and Gates was able to purchase the commission.

In October 1754, Gates returned to Halifax and married Elizabeth Phillips, and they had a son in 1758.

During the French and Indian War, Gates joined his new company in the American colony of Maryland in March 1755. The company was part of an army that General Edward Braddock would lead into the wilderness against the French and Indians. Also in this army were George Washington, Charles Lee, Thomas Gage and Daniel Morgan. Braddock was defeated and killed in July 1755, and Gates was badly wounded by a bullet in the chest and disabled for a long time afterward.

Following his recovery, Gates served in the British forts in the Mohawk Valley, while Elizabeth lived in New York City. By 1761, Gates was a major had become expert in military administration and an experienced leader of men in battle. After the war ended, Gates’ military career stalled – advancement in the British army required money or influence.

Gates retired from the army on half pay in 1765. On the advice of his old comrade George Washington Gates bought a 659-acre farm in Berkeley County, Virginia, in 1772 and began building his home, Travelers Rest. He remained there for some time cultivating the land and being a father and husband.

When word of the revolution reached him in late May 1775, Gates rushed to Mount Vernon and offered his services to George Washington. In June, the Continental Congress began organizing the Continental Army. On June 17, 1775, at Washington’s urging, Congress commissioned Gates as a Brigadier General and Adjutant General of the Continental Army.

Gates’ experience as adjutant was invaluable to the fledgling army; he created the army’s system of records and orders, and helped with the standardization of the regiments from the various colonies. In the following winter, he served with Washington in the siege of Boston, where he proved to be a capable administrator and a loyal supporter of his commander-in-chief.

Impressed with his performance, Washington praised Gates to Congress, and in 1776, he was promoted to Major General. However, Gates longed for a field command. By June 1776, he was given command of the Canadian Department. Gates’ results in command were much less satisfactory than his term as adjutant. He never got to command the Canadian Department, since the American Invasion of Canada had been abandoned before his arrival. He wound up as an assistant to General Philip Schuyler in the Northern Department.

Though his troops were with Washington at the Battle of Trenton, Gates was not. Always an advocate of defensive action, Gates argued to Washington that they should retreat farther rather than attack. When Washington dismissed his advice, Gates feigned illness as an excuse not to join the nighttime attack.

Gates had always been of the opinion that he, not Washington, should command the Continental Army, an opinion supported by several rich and prominent New England delegates to the Continental Congress. By December, Gates was actively lobbying Congress for the appointment.

Washington’s stunning successes at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton left no doubt who should be commander-in-chief. Gates was sent back north with orders to assist General Schuyler in New York. But in 1777, Congress blamed Schuyler and St. Clair for the loss of Fort Ticonderoga, and finally gave Gates command of the Northern Department on August 4.

Gates assumed command of the Northern Department on August 19, 1777, just in time for the Battle of Saratoga. While Gates took credit for the victory and Burgoyne’s surrender on October 17, Gates never appeared on the battlefield. The military actions were directed by Benedict Arnold (who headed the attack and retreated only when he was shot in the leg), Enoch Poor, Benjamin Lincoln and Daniel Morgan. John Stark‘s defeat of a sizable British raiding force at the Battle of Bennington was also a substantial factor in the victory.

Gates attempted to maximize the political return on the victory, particularly since Washington was having no present successes with the main army. Gates insulted Washington by sending reports direct to Congress instead of to Washington. At the behest of his friends, Gates was named President of the Board of War, a post he took while keeping his field command – an unprecedented conflict of interest. It was during this time that he tried in earnest to displace Washington as Commander-in-Chief, but the attempt was unsuccessful.

In October 1778, Gates was appointed to the command of the Eastern Department in Boston. A year later he left the army for a period and retired to his plantation.

In May of 1780, news of the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina, and the capture of General Benjamin Lincoln‘s southern army reached Congress. They voted to place Horatio Gates in command of the Southern Department. He learned of his new command at his home, and headed south to assume command of the remaining Continental forces near the Deep River in North Carolina on July 25, 1780.

In August, Gates gathered his forces, about half of which was untrained militia, for a quick march southward toward the enemy under British General Charles Cornwallis. On the night of August 15, Gates encountered the British Army near Camden, South Carolina, and Cornwallis attacked the following morning. Gates overestimated the capabilities of the inexperienced militia, and they broke and ran in wild confusion.

Even while his soldiers were still in battle, Gates rode north, reaching Charlotte, North Carolina, by evening, 70 miles from the battlefield. He said he was searching for a base to put together a new army, but it was an unfortunate gallop that his political enemies never let him forget. His disappointment was compounded by the news of his son Robert’s death in combat in October at the age of 22.

Nathanael Greene replaced Gates as commander on December 3, 1780, and Gates returned home to Virginia. Because of the debacle at Camden, Congress passed a resolution requiring a board of inquiry (prelude to a court martial) to look into Gates’ conduct in that affair.

Always one to support a court martial of other officers (particularly those with whom he was in competition with), Gates vehemently opposed the court of inquiry into his conduct at the Battle of Camden. While he was never placed in field command again, Gates’ supporters in Congress again came to his aid in 1782, when Congress repealed its resolution requiring a board of inquiry into the Camden disaster. Gates then rejoined Washington’s staff at Newburgh, New York.

Elizabeth Phillips Gates died in the summer of 1783.

Gates retired in 1784 and again returned to Virginia. He worked to rebuild his life, and served as the president of the Virginia Society of the Cincinnati, the organization of former Continental Army officers. He proposed marriage to Janet Montgomery, the widow of General Richard Montgomery, but she refused.

In 1786 Gates married Mary Valens, a wealthy widow. Gates sold his property in Virginia in 1790, and freed his slaves on the advice of his friend John Adams. Gates then moved to his new wife’s estate at Rose Hill Farm on Manhattan Island. Despite his old age, he remained active in New York City society and served one term in the New York State legislature in 1800.

Gates later supported Thomas Jefferson as a presidential candidate, which ended his friendship with John Adams. Gates spent most of his personal wealth caring for less fortunate Revolutionary soldiers. Sensing his approaching death, Gates expressed great satisfaction at having had a part in the founding of America.

Horatio Gates died at his farm on April 10, 1806, at the age of 79. He was buried in Trinity Churchyard on Wall Street.

Historian George Bilias describes Gates as one of “the Revolution’s most controversial military figures” due to his attempts to discredit and replace George Washington through a whispering campaign, the ongoing historical debate over who should receive credit for the victory at Saratoga, and Gates’ actions after the defeat at Camden.

Wikipedia: Horatio Gates
Encyclopedia Britannica: Horatio Gates
ExplorePAhistory.com: General Horatio Gates

1 comment

  1. Elizabeth Gates – a Medusa who ruled with a rod of scorpions!

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