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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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Who Was Gen. Horatio Gates’s Father?

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.


Bob said...

I anticipate eagerly the rest of this topic. I live near Rochester, N.Y. and Gates has been of interest to me since learning that Gates, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, was named in his honor in 1813. My limited knowledge of Gates tells me he was a valuable contributor toward the Revolution, but I have long wondered how he could receive such an honor after stealing credit from Arnold in Saratoga, his alleged involvement in Newburgh, and his famous retreat at Camden.

J. L. Bell said...

Gates remained respected through and after the Revolutionary War, especially by the American troops. He had a reputation particularly for caring about the welfare of the common soldier.

Gates was the commanding general at Saratoga, so I’m not sure it’s fair to say he stole credit from Arnold—though Arnold himself might differ. As for Camden, every American general including Washington had some battlefield debacles during the war, and Saratoga was such an important victory that Camden didn’t erase respect for Gates. At Newburgh, many officers were involved in the grumbling about the Congress, and I think the idea of a “plot” was exaggerated.

What sank Gates’s reputation among American historians was the so-called “Conway cabal”—Washington’s term for a conspiracy of Congress delegates and officials to replace him as commander-in-chief. Once Washington became a sainted historical figure, anyone involved in that effort was perforce a villain. And Gates, as the most likely candidate to replace him, was portrayed as obviously ambitious and incompetent.

The evidence for a “cabal” is about as misty as the evidence for a planned coup at Newburgh, and Gates himself wasn’t really involved in the plans. What’s more, the idea of replacing the loser at Brandywine with the winner at Saratoga looks doesn’t look like an awful idea from the perspective of late 1777.