(born circa 1728, Maldon, Essex, Eng.—died April 10, 1806, New York, N.Y., U.S.) English-born American general. He served in the British army during the French and Indian War. In 1772 he immigrated to Virginia, where he sided with colonial interests. He was made adjutant general of the Continental Army (1775) and succeeded Gen. Philip Schuyler in New York (1777). Assisted by Benedict Arnold, he forced the surrender of British forces under John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga (1777). Congress then chose Gates as president of the Board of War. Supporters, including Thomas Conway, sought to have Gates replace George Washington, but the plan failed, and Gates returned to his New York command. In 1780 he was transferred to the South, where he attempted to oust the British forces under Charles Cornwallis but was defeated at the Battle of Camden, S.C. An official inquiry was ordered, but charges never were pressed. He retired to Virginia, then freed his slaves in 1790 and moved to New York.
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During the French and Indian War, Gates served General Edward Braddock in America. In 1755 he accompanied the ill-fated Braddock Expedition in its attempt to control access to the Ohio Valley. This force included other future Revolutionary War leaders such as Thomas Gage, Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan, and George Washington. In 1762 he returned to the 45th Foot as a Major. Gates later served in the West Indies and participated in the capture of Martinique.
In October of 1754, Gates married Elizabeth Phillips and had a son, Robert, in 1758. Gates' military career stalled, as advancement in the British army required money or influence. He sold his major's commission in 1769 and emigrated to America, settling on a modest plantation in Virginia.
Gates' previous wartime service as adjutant was invaluable to the fledgling army, as he and Charles Lee were the only men with significant experience in the British regular army. As adjutant Horatio Gates created the army's system of records and orders, and helped with the standardization of regiments from the various colonies.
While his administrative skills were valuable, Gates longed for a field command. By June 1776, he had been promoted to Major General and given command of the Canadian Department to replace John Sullivan.
Though his troops were with Washington at the Battle of Trenton, Gates was not. Always an advocate of defensive action, Gates argued to Washington that, rather than attack, Washington should retreat farther. When Washington dismissed this advice, Gates used a purported illness as an excuse not to join the nighttime attack. Gates had always been of the opinion that he, not Washington, should command the Continental army, an opinion supported by several rich and prominent New England delegates to the Continental Congress. By December, Gates was actively lobbying Congress for the appointment. Washington's stunning successes at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton left no doubt who should be commander-in-chief. Gates was sent back north with orders to assist Schuyler in New York. But in 1777, Congress blamed Schuyler and St. Clair for the loss of Fort Ticonderoga, though Gates had exercised a lengthy command in the region, and finally gave Gates command of the Northern Department on August 4.
Gates assumed command of the Northern Department on August 19, just in time for the defeat of British General Burgoyne's invasion at the Battle of Saratoga. While Gates and his supporters sought to place the credit for the victory and Burgoyne's surrender with Gates, the actual military actions were directed by field commanders such as Benedict Arnold, Enoch Poor, Benjamin Lincoln, and Daniel Morgan. John Stark's defeat of a sizable British raiding force at the Battle of Bennington (Stark's forces killed or captured over 900 British soldiers) was also a substantial factor in the victory. Gates is prominently depicted in center the painting of the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga by John Trumbull , which hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Gates attempted to maximize the political return on the victory, particularly since George Washington was having no present successes with the main army. In fact, Gates insulted Washington by sending reports direct to Congress instead of to Washington, his superior officer. At the behest of Gates' friends and delegates from New England, Congress named Gates to head the Board of War, a post he took while keeping his field command - an unprecedented conflict of interest. Again, through the efforts of Gates and his friends in Congress, Congress at this time briefly considered replacing Washington as commander-in-chief with Gates. The failure of the Conway Cabal ended the political maneuvering. Gates resigned from the Board of War, and took an assignment as commander of the Eastern Department in November of 1778.
He led continental forces and militia south, to their stand-up fight with British general Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden on August 16, where he was overwhelmingly defeated. Gates' only notable accomplishment in the unsuccessful campaign was to cover 170 miles in three days on horseback, headed north in retreat. His bitter disappointment was compounded by the news of his son Robert's death in combat in October. Nathanael Greene replaced Gates as commander on December 3, and he returned home to Virginia. Because of the debacle at Camden, Congress passed a resolution requiring a board of inquiry (prelude to a court martial) to look into Gates' conduct in that affair.
Gates sold his Virginia estate and freed his slaves at the urging of his friend John Adams. The aging couple retired to an estate on northern Manhattan Island. His later support for Jefferson's presidential candidacy ended his friendship with Adams. Gates and his wife remained active in New York City's society, and he was elected to a single term in the New York state legislature in 1800 . He died on April 10, 1806, and was buried in Trinity Church's graveyard on Wall Street, though the location of his grave is unknown.