“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.

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