Horatio Gates was one of the retired British army officers who joined the Continental Army at the outbreak of war. He was the army’s first adjutant, or chief administrative officer, and thus helped to keep the American forces organized during the siege of Boston.
Finding out the facts about Gates’s background and childhood has been a challenge for historians, and apparently he wanted it that way. He left few direct statements, and some of the things he did say are contradictory.
In 1847, Thomas Wyatt published a book called Memoirs of the Generals, Commodores, and Other Commanders who Distinguished Themselves in the American Army and Navy during the Wars of the Revolution and 1812. He wrote:
Horatio Gates was the son of a clergyman at Malden, in England, and was born in the year 1729. Having lost his father at an early age, he was left pretty much to the dictates of his own passion. He appears to have determined on a military life as early as twelve years of age, when the frequent remonstrances of his uncle and guardian could not prevail on him to relinquish the thoughts of a profession so much against the wishes of his family.However, Washington Irving’s biography of George Washington, which started to appear in 1855, states of Gates:
He was an Englishman by birth, the son of a captain in the British army. Horace Walpole, whose Christian name he bore, speaks of him in one of his letters as his godson, though some have insinuated that he stood in filial relationship of a less sanctified character.In other words, Irving had heard folks whisper that Horace Walpole was actually Gates’s biological father, though not his legal one.
The very next year, Winthrop Sargent (not the artillerist of that name, but a grandson) wrote in The History of an Expedition against Fort Duquesne, in 1755:
Horatio Gates, afterwards so distinguished in American history, is said to have been the son of a respectable victualler in Kensington. . . . Gates was born in 1728.Finally, in his three-volume edition of the Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, published in London in 1858, Charles Ross described Gates this way:
Major-General Horatio Gates, son of a clergyman at Maldon in Essex, and godson of Horace Walpole; b. 1728, d. April 10, 1806.Maldon in Essex County is on the eastern edge of England. Malden, as Wyatt spelled it in the first quotation above, was a town slightly southwest of London.
After Gates died on 10 Apr 1806, the American Citizen and the Mercantile Advertiser told his fellow New Yorkers that he’d been seventy-eight years old. The New-York Weekly Museum said he was seventy-seven, and many other American newspapers repeated that figure.
So we have three or four contradictory remarks about the profession of Gates’s father, two years in which he was born, and three places in which he was born or his family lived. And just enough hint of juicy gossip to keep us digging.
TOMORROW: The Walpole connection, part 1.