J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

“My Godson, Mr. Horatio Gates”

No one has found a record of Gen. Horatio Gates’s birth. According to Max M. Mintz in The Generals of Saratoga, over his career Gates gave his birth year in various documents as 1727, 1728, and 1729. So the confusion in American newspapers when he died is understandable.

Fortunately, we have an eyewitness recollection of Gates’s christening—from his godfather, no less. That account dates from decades later, so the details might be hazy. It offers no definite date or place, but it provides other, juicier details.

The British writer, politician, aesthete, and world-class gossip Horace Walpole first wrote about his link to Gates in a letter to George Montagu dated 22 Mar 1762. Gates was then an army captain, and had just brought the news of the British capture of Martinique to London. Walpole wrote:

Perhaps you may think me proud; but you don’t know that I had some share in the reduction of Martinico; the express was brought by my godson, Mr. Horatio Gates…
Since I plan to take partial credit for everything good my godson accomplishes, I can certainly understand Walpole’s pride at that moment.

Later Gates became more notorious in London as the victor in the Battle of Saratoga. On 16 Feb 1778, Walpole put more detail into his journal:
Gates was the son of a housekeeper of the second Duke of Leeds, who, marrying a young husband when very old, had this son by him.

That Duke of Leeds had been saved, when guilty of a Jacobite plot, by my father, [prime minister] Sir Robert Walpole, and the Duke was very grateful, and took great notice of me when I was quite a boy.

My mother’s woman was intimate with that housekeeper, and thence I was godfather to her son, though I believe not then ten years old myself.

This godson, Horatio Gates, was protected by General [Edward] Cornwallis when Governor of Halifax [uncle of the Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown]; but, being afterwards disappointed of preferment in the army, he joined the Americans.
Walpole was born in 1717, so if he was accurate about standing as baby Horatio’s godfather at short of “ten years old myself,” Gen. Gates was most likely born in 1727.

Walpole’s diary entry also explains why Gates said little about his family background: his mother was a housekeeper, and her husband presumably of the same working class. British army officers expected all their peers to have been gentlemen from birth.

This anecdote, first published in London in 1859, raises a question: If Walpole was only nine years old when Gates was born, why had people whispered that he was secretly the general’s real father?

TOMORROW: The Walpole connection, part 2.

(Portrait of Walpole above courtesy of the Gothic Imagination blog.)

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