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.”Downing was quoted in The Last Men of the Revolution, which is transcribed here. Specifically, he said:
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.
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.”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.
“I be a granny,” said Gates, ”and I’ve delivered you of ten thousand men to-day.”
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.