“That his northern laurels would be turned into southern willows” Major General Horatio Gates Arrives to take command in North Carolina, July 25, 1780

Opportunity knocked for Horatio Gates with the fall of Charleston, South Carlina in May 1780. A devastating loss for the Americans, with nearly 6,000 men of the Southern Army under Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to Sir Henry Clinton. Unless something wasn’t done soon, the entire southern colonies could fall and the revolution along with it. Congress needed someone who could inspire men to join the war effort and a trusted leader with a positive record. Washington put Nathaniel Greene’s name forward, but Congress in a rare move went against Washington’s wishes and appointed Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Department on June 13th

Major General Horatio Gates, ca. 1794 by Gilbert Stuart

The road from his victory at Saratoga to the Southern Department wasn’t an easy one for Gates. He sought independent field command and many believe he wanted Washington’s position as commander in chief. His allies in Congress and the Continental Army lobbied heavily on Gates’ behalf and were able to have Gates appointed to the powerful Board of War (the defacto Department of Defense). Though an important role (and serving as Washington’s civilian superior), Gates believed he belonged in the field.  Though his role in the famous “Conway Cabal” is still debated today, he was implicated via letters in criticizing Washington’s leadership. Whether his involvement was real or not, the relationship between him and Washington (and Washington’s inner circle) was seriously damaged. Due to the situation, Gates resigned from the Board of War and accepted appointment as department commander of the Northern Department. In this role he was responsible to look after the New York Highlands and watch from British incursions from Canada or New York city. Gates was unhappy in this role and proposed another American invasion of Canada. Washington and Congress disagreed and rejected his plans. He disliked his task of dealing with enemy native tribes in the region and dragged his feet in following orders. Finally, that fall, Gates took command of American forces in New England with his headquarters in Boston. Though excited by this appointment, he quickly realized that this post was not where the action would be. The British left Boston in 1776 and since the city was peaceful and not a welcome place for a man seeking glory and military action. Finally, after much frustration, Gates asked to return to his farm in Virginia and arrived there by December 1779. Gates found himself a hero without an army and continued to brood over his situation.

Gates’ ability to play politics and make powerful friends finally paid off. On June 13th Gates received the field command he longed for, commander of the Southern Department. In the summer of 1780, this was the most important command in America. Also, he was far enough away from Washington to operate with some independence. Plus, Gates was to report to Congress and the Board of War, bypassing Washington’s authority. Gates received the much-coveted authority he thought he deserved. In his orders, he was given freedom to call any militia from any state south of Pennsylvania. He could appoint all his officers and staff and draw up to $30,000 from the Continental treasury to pay for any of his expenses.[1]

Gates received word of his appointment while at his farm Traveller’s Rest a few days later. He quickly made his plans and started south. But before he could join his new army, he wanted to deliver some good news to an old friend, Daniel Morgan. The two men met at Berry’s Tavern in Ashby’s Gap on June 28th. Morgan was serving out his semi-retirement at his home a few miles west of the tavern. The two men visited often and respected one another; Morgan was still unhappy for not receiving a promotion the year before. Though he was unhappy with Congress, he was itching to get back into the war. He believed Gates would have success in the south and wanted to join him. Gates needed men he could trust and secured a promotion for Morgan to lead a light infantry unit. Morgan accepted and headed home to make arrangements, sadly for Gates his favorite subordinate would not join him until the fall. It would be one of the many “what ifs” of the Camden campaign.[2]

After leaving Morgan, Gates headed to Fredericksburg and then south to North Carolina. His destination was Deep Creek, here Continental forces from Maryland and Delaware under Maj. Gen. Baron De Kalb were encamped awaiting a Department commander. De Kalb was sent south by Washington to assist the Americans in Charleston. On their way south, De Kalb received word of the fall of Charleston. These men would now serve as the nucleus for the new Southern Army and its new commander, Gates called it his “Grand Army.”

Gates’ route to Camden, SC; July 27 – August 13. 1780

Horatio Gates arrived at the Continental camp along Deep Creek on July 25th. Baron deKalb was happy to receive Gates, he knew the situation in the South was dire and hoped that the hero of Saratoga could reenergize the Patriot cause in the Carolinas. DeKalb provided as much pomp and circumstance for Gates as his little force could. As Otho Holland Williams wrote “the baron ordered a continental salute from the little park of artillery.” [3] Now it was up to Gates to turn around the American cause in the south. His over confidence would prove to cloud his judgment of the military situation in the south. Not everyone was confident of Gates’ chances. General Charles Lee, when he heard of Gates’ appointment to the command of the southern army, he foretold “that his northern laurels would be turned into southern willows.”[4]

Rob Orrison is the coauthor (along with Mark Wilcox) of a forthcoming book on the Battle of Camden titled “All That Can Be Expected” The Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780; published by Savas Beatie Publishing. The book is due out summer 2023.

[1] Paul David Nelson, General Horatio Gates: A Biography (Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 219.

[2] Gates to Samuel Huntington, July 4, 1780, Magazine of American History, 5, 282.

[3] Williams, pg. 486.

[4] Wirt, William, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817). Pg 227.

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