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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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Legend of “Granny Gates”

The Revlist, an email discussion group for Revolutionary War reenactors and researchers, has been busy investigating some fabled nicknames from histories of the war.

Jack Kelly, author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics, got off the first shot by writing:

Many historians refer to the fact that Horatio Gates was called “Granny” by his men—e.g., John Ferling [in Almost a Miracle]: “His appearance led his troops to refer to him as ‘Granny Gates,’ though they did not mean it in a derogatory sense.”

The only primary source I can find is a quotation from 1864 by a 102-year-old veteran Samuel Downing who at that time said Gates was an “old granny” looking fellow and claimed (improbably) that [Gen. John] Burgoyne called Gates “Granny” at the Saratoga surrender.
Downing was quoted in The Last Men of the Revolution, which is transcribed here. Specifically, he said:
Gates was an “old granny” looking fellow. When Burgoyne came up to surrender his sword, he said to Gates, “Are you a general? You look more like a granny than you do like a general.”

“I be a granny,” said Gates, ”and I’ve delivered you of ten thousand men to-day.”
In fact, Gates was a former British army major, and he and Burgoyne appear to have had a collegial, if understandably awkward, conversation. It’s possible that Downing or other Continental soldiers heard other British officers grumble about Gates’s appearance and then decided to ascribe those comments to Burgoyne, with a witty reply from their general.

Don Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution found the nickname in John Neal’s novel Seventy-Six, or Love and Battle:
This led to an alarming agitation in the public mind; and then there had been a serious disagreement brewing at the North, which finally led to the reproof of General [Philip] Schuyler, one of the most indefatigable men that ever lived, and one of the truest hearts that ever beat for America, by Congress; and the appointment of General Gates to the command of the Northern army—Granny Gates, as he was called, a talkative, pleasant old gentleman, who is remembered now rather for his good fortune than his generalship.
Google Books preserves an 1840 London edition of that novel, but Neal originally published it in 1823, working from Portland, Maine. Did he base that comment on hearing old Revolutionary veterans talk about Gates? He didn’t say so explicitly. But clearly he wasn’t being complimentary.

I found a description of an 1855 letter by an American veteran, Cpl. Nathan Knowlton, writing that British officers referred to Gates as ”Granny Gates” at Saratoga.

(In addition, Google Books kicked up a curious 1892 memoir of New York recalls the cottage of “‘Granny’ Gates, a niece” of the general. But all Gates’s family by that name were back in England. Was that how folks in the neighborhood misremembered the general’s own house?)

The evidence for Gen. Gates’s “Granny” nickname is therefore very weak. There appear to be only three mentions of that name, all dating from many decades after the war. The earliest is a novel, and its popularity could have affected the stories that veterans later told about Gates.

Furthermore, none of these examples show American soldiers fondly calling their general “Granny.” Two are about the disrespectful way that British officers referred to their erstwhile colleague and conqueror at Saratoga, and the third is just as derogatory. Somehow in twentieth-century accounts of the Revolution those sparse references got turned around to become how Continental soldiers viewed Horatio Gates.

TOMORROW: Gentleman Johnny and Champagne Charlie.


Hemlock Bob said...

Interesting read on Gates. He's been of interest to me because there's a nearby suburb of Rochester -- Gates -- which was named in 1813 in honor of the man. I've long wondered why a township would name itself after a man whose legacy is dotted by so many questions surrounding events at Saratoga, the Conway Cabal and his infamous retreat at Camden. Maybe in 1813, these questions weren't public as of yet.

Thanks as always for your insight day in and day out. It's appreciated.

J. L. Bell said...

Gates was popular with his men, and thus with veterans of the war. After the death of his first wife, he remarried and moved to New York. So it makes sense for that state to name a township after him.

Gates was very important in the organization of the Continental Army in 1775-76. He lived and worked beside Washington, who had demanded that the Congress appoint him adjutant general. He was also one of the generals most pushing for a republican form of government, well before many native-born Americans.

In the late 1800s American authors turned against Gates because he had become a rival to Washington in late 1777. Gates wasn’t really involved in the “Conway cabal,” which was really less a conspiracy than a logical discussion of whether the Congress should continue to rank the loser at Brandywine above the winner at Saratoga. A century later, many authors disliked the thought of anyone displacing Washington, so they tore down Gates.

That meant erasing Gates's role in the victory at Saratoga. Consensus promoted Benedict Arnold, of all people, as the real victor there, though it's unclear what Arnold actually did. It also meant emphasizing Gates's loss at Camden, and especially his swift withdrawal from the enemy—as though letting himself be captured would have been better.

Gates had the poor luck to end his Revolutionary War command with a major loss at Camden. Obviously Nathanael Greene did better in that theater. But how much of that loss was Gates's fault?

Gerry said...


How about "Granny" Joseph Spencer? As to Camden, I think that Gates was essentially responsible for the loss.

Bill Welsch

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Gates bore responsibility for Camden just as he bore responsibility for Saratoga. But could another general have done better? Or was entering that battle an avoidable mistake? (Those are genuine questions—I haven’t read much about Camden.)

J. L. Bell said...

I now wonder whether Joseph Spencer’s “Granny” nickname, which is solidly documented, might have inspired the reference to Gates as “Granny” in John Neal’s Seventy-Six.