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Last Exit Magazine « New York’s Forgotten Revolutionary

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[published: July 01, 2009]

Horatio Gates

New York’s Forgotten Revolutionary

Why at 5 a.m. every July 4th, I visit the lost grave of Horatio Gates, the unknown general who won the most important battle in the American Revolution.

July 4th is a funny holiday. Coming at the beginning of summer, it is for most people an occasion to take a day off to go to the beach or a baseball game or to have a backyard barbecue. In New York City, in recent years the major public events every July 4 are the Macy’s fireworks display and the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. The latter seems to grow in importance and media attention every year.

Two hundred years ago, July 4th celebrations in New York City were somewhat different, as July 4th was a day for speeches and other observances reflecting on the Declaration of Independence (which was invariably read in its entirety) and the importance of democratic government and the American victory in the Revolution. In fact an organization called the Tammany Society (later Tammany Hall) would for more than 100 years after the revolution organize a celebration, consisting of four hours of lectures in an unairconditioned hall on the Declaration of Independence and other aspects of early American history that drew thousands of people, most of them immigrants.

Although the Tammany Society was officially dissolved in 1961 after New York County leader Carmine Desapio was defeated in his home district by an unknown Greenwich Village lawyer named Ed Koch, I have long believed that there is a need to reclaim the original meaning of July 4th and revive the tradition of teaching bout the history and importance of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Toward that end, I have for the past 12 years, given a walking tour from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.sponsored by the Fraunces Tavern Museum that visits important Revolutionary War sites in Lower Manhattan, including the graves of three significant Revolutionary War Generals.

Although most people do not consider New York as important a Revolutionary War site as Massachussetts or Virginia, New York was actually equally if not more important than those places in the revolution. Furthermore, contrary to the belief of most New Yorkers, the American Revolution was critically important to what New York is today. Two of the major battles of the Revolution —the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Saratoga — were fought in New York. The Lower Manhattan hosts the graves of three very significant Revolutionary War generals: Richard Montgomery, hero of the battle of Quebec; Alexander Hamilton, the commander of the final assault at Yorktown; and Horatio Gates, commanding officer of the victorious American troops at Saratoga. Although probably few New Yorkers notice it, General Montgomery’s grave is well marked in the front of St. Paul’s Church on Broadway and Vesey Street, the oldest fully intact building in Manhattan. Similarly there is a large and perhaps even ostentatious marker over the grave of Alexander Hamilton on the south side of Trinity Church graveyard, which is regularly visited by Hamilton devotees. However, the grave of Gates — who to my mind, for reasons discussed below, is militarily by far the most significant and important of the three generals — buried in Lower Manhattan receives no visitors because it is completely unmarked. While historical sources make it clear that Gates was buried in Trinity Church graveyard after his death in 1806, his grave is lost and unmarked.

I have always been fascinated by the fact that the most important Revolutionary War general buried in New York State, if not the country, is lost and completely unmarked. To me, the lost grave of General Gates is a metaphor for New York’s failure to understand its history.

Horatio Gates was born in 1728 in Malden, England. His parents were the chief domestic servants to the Duke of Leeds. Although from a lower middle class background, his parents — presumably though the sponsorship fo their employer the Duke —were able to obtain a commission for young Horatio as an officer in training in the British army. Such commissions were generally restricted to “gentlemen” of more aristocratic backgrounds, but at the time England was fighting wars on three continents —in India, the Caribbean and North America — and the definition of who was a “gentlemen” had clearly become somewhat elastic.

As a young British Army officer, Gates was assigned to service in America, and served stints in Canada, the Caribbean and New York. Though not considered a battlefield officer, Gates earned a reputation as an excellent administrator and supply officer, and in the late 1750s in the French and Indian War he served as quartermaster of the British troops under General Braddock in his disastrous attack on Pittsburgh. Allied with these troops was a Colonial regiment under a young Virginia colonel named George Washington.

Later, Gates successfully organized and coordinated an attack for his commander Robert Monckton in Martinique, who recommended him for promotion. However, as there was a lull in the overseas wars and Monckton’ s political power faded, the promotion never came through. Gates returned to England where for some years he waited and hoped for a promotion that never came. By 1772, he retired from the army in disgust and decided to try his luck in America. He was the classic passed-over mid level executive who always said he could have had a great future if only fate and internal politics had not conspired against him. With his military pension he purchased land in West Virginia not far from George Washington’s brother Sam.

As a gentlemen farmer and expatriate Englishman, Gates took an active interest in the developing dispute between England and the colonies. Like several other recent English immigrants such as Thomas Paine and his friend Charles Lee, whose backgrounds and careers were in certain respect similar to Gates, Gates was a bitter opponent of the British monarchical system and a strong supporter of American independence. After active hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord he immediately offered his services to his fellow Virginian George Washington, who had him appointed adjutant general of the army (an administrative post).

In this position Gates became a key member of Washington’s staff when Washington took command of the American army at Cambridge, Massachussetts after the battle of Bunker Hill, inwhich the army consisted largely of Massachussetts militia men. As the staff officer in charge of organizing and supplying the ragtag American army, Gates performed admirably, and his efficiency in keeping the troops supplied as well as his ardent support for the American causesoon brought him to the attention of important Massachussetts politicians such as John and Samuel Adams, to whom he became an informal military advisor.

He could not have picked better sponsors, and as a result of the support of the Massachussetts politicians his rise in the nascent American army would far outstrip his progress with the British. In 1776, he was appointed by Congress to lead all operations in Canada, but after the American defeat at the Battle of Quebec there were no such operations and Congress placed Philip Schuyler, a wealthy, politically connected land owner in upstate New York with deep ties with the New Yorkmilitias, in charge of operations in New York.

After Washington‘s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Long Island in September 1776, the American army was forced to abandon New York City and retreat to Pennsylvania. A regiment under Gates joined with Washington for the Battle of Trenton in December 1776, which to a limited extent revived American morale. However Gates had opposed Washington’s plan for a sneak attack on Christmas Eve as much too risky and took no part in the battle, which caused Washington to have grave doubts about Gates‘ suitability as an American commander. Notwithstanding the American success at Trenton, by the summer of 1777, the American cause seemed almost hopeless.

Lord Howe, the British commander in North America, had taken most of the British troops stationed at New York to attack Philadelphia, the American capital. At the battles of Brandywine and later Germantown, he had defeated George Washington and the bulk of the Continental army, and the Americans patriots (including the Continental Congress) were forced to abandon Philadelphia as they had New York a year earlier. A third British force under general “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne, consisting of 10,000 regular British and Hessian troops plus 2,000 Indians, was coming down from Canada intent on taking Albany and the Hudson River.

Burgoyne was a flamboyant, aggressive general, popular with his men and known for his daring ability to lead troops in battle, as well as his skills as a playwright and amateur philosopher.He had convinced the king and his ministers that he would be able to end the war by the end of 1777 by leading a force to control the Hudson River and split the colonies in two. Ironically he and Gates had started in the same regiment 25 years earlier.Whereas Gates had failed to advance beyond mid level, Burgoyne had moved to the highest level of the British army, thanks to previous victories such as his daring frontal assault at the battle of Valencia in Spain

At the time he left Canada in June of1777, with the British in control of New York and shortly thereafter Philadelphia, it was clear that if Burgoyne succeeded in his goal of reaching Albany, the Revolutionary War would almost certainly be over. Already throughout New Jersey and other middle Atlantic states, citizens were signing oaths of allegiance to the British to assure their property would not be forfeited after the expected British victory.

The only American hope would be to stop Burgoyne. However, with most of the Continental army pinned down in Pennsylvania, the job would have to fall to New England militia men and the approximately 6,000 New York troops, also largely militia men, under Schuyler. Unfortunately there was considerably friction between the two groups, as New York and New Hampshire had for some years both claimed the territory that is now Vermont. The New England militia men and their leaders distrusted the aristocratic Schuyler. Similarly the New York troops refused to serve under a New England commander. The major American asset was considered to be Fort Ticonderaga, the supposedly impregnable fortress from the French and Indian War at the north end of Lake George and the south end of Lake Champlain. When in July of 1777, Burgoyne’s force was able to take Fort Ticonderoga without a fight, American morale plummeted, as it appeared that Schuyler would never be able to prevent Burgoyne from reaching Albany.

The Battles of Saratoga

Seeing this desperate situation, the Continental Congress, unable to send more troops, decided to replace Schuyler with a new commander. By a vote of 11 to 1, with the strong support of the New England representatives over the objection of those from New York (where the battle would have to be located), Congress placed General Gates in command of the entire army in the North. Thus by a strange twist of fate, Gates, a man who had never progressed beyond the rank major in the British army, had never commanded troops in a major battle and about whom Washington had severe reservations, was now in command of all American troops in this critical situation on which the future of the Revolution would depend.

In August of 1777, with the dispirited New York troops having retreated to Albany, Gates surveyed the situation. He immediately called on the New England militias whose political leaders had been holding back to set aside their sectional differences with the New Yorkers and join him and the New York troops at Albany. He also wrote a well-publicized letter to his former comrade Burgoyne, questioning how such a cultured man could carry out the British policy of having the hostile Indian tribes attack American settlers (Christian men and women) who did not swear loyalty to the British. In particular he cited the case of Jane MacCrae, a Tory woman affianced to a Canadian soldier in his army, whom his Iroquois allies had mistakenly raped and murdered. Her scalp was presented as a trophy to the horrified Burgoyne. Word spread throughout New England that if this is what the British and their alllies did to their own women, what could New England settlers expect for their sisters, daughters or mothers if the British succeeded. Militia men from throughout New England were soon turning up in Gates’ camp, so that the strength of the American army grew from 6,000 men under Schuyler to 18,000. Fortified by these augmented forces, Gates ordered his troops to advance back up the Hudson River to meet the invading British, and American morale rose. However, ever the cautious commander, Gates ordered the army to stop its advance at Bemis Heights, a high ridge overlooking the Hudson approximately 28 miles north of Albany near the town of Saratoga. This was a spot that local residents pointed out to him as having a commanding view of the Hudson and by which any invading force would have to pass on the way to Albany. With the help of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer, Gates had his army build defensive fortifications and await the British advance.

On September 19, 1777, near the farm of a Tory named John Freeman, the advancing British ran into an American scouting party, and soon a major battle ensued.. Benedict Arnold, the impetuous but brilliant young commander who three years later would defect to the British whom Gates had assigned to be in charge of the effort to reconnoitre the situation and check the advance of Burgoyne’s army, claimed the British could be completely defeated and sent an urgent request that Gates provide many more troops, possibly the whole army. Gates, uncertain as to how the largely militia army would perform against the professionally trained British and German troops, flatly refused and ordered the Americans to retreat. Arnold was furious, ass the British held the field of battle and thus by traditional standards won. However, their losses were heavy and Gates as a supply officer knew that their provisions would soon start running out, particularly since they were far from their supply bases in Canada. In contrast,, Gates’ army with its back at Albany was well supplied and from the high ground on Bemis Heights and had a much better field position.

For three long weeks the two armies faced each other, but every day the Americans grew stronger and the British with dwindling supplies grew weaker. A situation which for the Americans had seemed hopeless when Gates took command six weeks earlier was now hopeful. Benedict Arnold urged Gates to attack and press his advantage lest the British army escape. Gates, whose 50 years had taught him more caution than Arnold’s 34, refused, believing that Burgoyne, the upper class aristocrat whom he had known as a gambler when they were in the same regiment 25years earlier, would not retreat before people he thought his inferiors. Gates correctly guessed he would ultimately risk all on a frontal atttack, as he had at Valencia in Spain. The arguments between Gates Arnold became heated and Gates relieved him of his command.

On October 7, 1777 Burgoyne sent a probing force of 1,700 men to attack the American lines with the hope that later he could send his whole army to drive the Americans off Bemis Heights. Gates with a much larger force, and a superior field and supply position ordered a counter attack which easily stopped the British advance. Having failed to break the American lines, the British were now effectively finished. Benedict Arnold, watching this situation without command, strode on to the field of battle without authorization from Gates, commandeered a few regiments and led an attack that overran several key redoubts the Hessian commanders had set up, pushing the British back further., for which he is sometimes today erroneously credited as the true winner of the battle.The British troops returned to their camp now completely defeated and almost completely without supplies. Gates sent part of his numerous militia to cut off their escape routes to the north and surround them. Although Burgoyne still wanted to make a suicide counterattack, his German allies refused, and he began negotiations with Gates for surrender. Gates offered very liberal terms (later repudiated by the Continental Congress) in which the British troops would be allowed to return to England if they agreed not to fight in America anymore, and he immediately sent supplies to prevent them from starving. In a dramatic ceremony Burgoyne offered Gates his sword (which Gates refused) and the officers from the two sides had a dinner where they toasted to the health of George Washington and the king. The British were permitted to stack their arms and still receive the honors of war, so there technically was no surrender.

Nevertheless, the impact throughout the colonies was electric. The Continental Congress hiding out at York, Pennsylvania and expecting the worst was elated to hear that the men who they had placed in command had completely outmaneuvered the supposedly crack British generals and with an army of citizen soldiers. One quarter of the British army in North America were now prisoners of the Americans, and any threat that the British would retake New England as they had planned was eliminated. Benjamin Franklin, negotiating for help from France, was able to show the French that the Continental army was viable and conclude an alliance. The entire character of the Revolutionary War changed. The confidence of the British that their professional soldiers could easily defeat American armies of citizen soldiers and militia men was shattered and they would ultimately abandon Philadelphia and refocus their strategy to concentrate on the Southern colonies. For Gates on a more personal level it was a vindication against all the slights he had received as a passed over British officer, and a triumph of his view that the British monarchical system stifled men of merit by prevnting those without noble birth from achieving their full potential. After all, the housekeeper’s son from Malden, England had now defeated the King’s best generals.

After the battle, Gates was properly considered the architect of this stunning American victory, and to the many in Congress who in late 1777 and early 1778 were dissatisfied with Washingon’s leadership seen as a logical successor. In fact Congress appointed Gates to be the head of a “Board of War” to oversee the American Army. After all, unlike Washington, Gates had won the most important battle to date, and, unlike Washington who detested militia companies after they had failed him at the Battle of Long Island, Gates seemed to be able to lead them effectively. However, Washington had a much stronger political base, and his many allies were able to quash any movement to replace him. Gates was demoted, and after a much less distinguished performance at the battle of Camden in which he was accused of abandoning his troops, his reputation was diminished. He eventually returned to Virginia. where his only son and first wife died suddenly, and lived in relative obscurity. After a period of depression, he remarried a wealthy widow named Mary Vallance, sold his property in Virginia and, at the age of 62, moved with his new wife to an estate near the present day 23rd Street in Manhattan, then a suburb outside the city, to live a quiet comfortable life of a retired general.

Though Washington was President of the United States and his friend and former mentor John Adams was Vice President, Gates had no active role in the government or politics of the new nation he had helped to found.

However, Gates’ fight to establish Democratic government in America was not over. In the 1790s after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution there was an increasingly conservative trend in both local and national politics.

The predominant Federalist party led by Alexander Hamilton in New York and George Washington nationally began to favor men of wealth and power, a number of who had been Tories (Tories were guaranteed rights under the U.S. Constitution). Men of a lower economic class who had fought with the continental army in the Revolutionary Wa and served with Gates at Saratoga in the hopes that their economic positions would improve found themselves increasingly shut out of the local economy as the prewar aristocracy began to reassert itself. These former revolutionary war veterans who were supporters of the ideals of Paine and the principles of the Declaration of Independence began to congregate in a social organization called the Tammany Society which would hold the elaborate July 4th celebrations described above. By 1800 they had formed a political party in opposition to the Federalists called the Democratic Party. The party sought to deny re-election to resident John Adams and replace him with Thomas Jefferson. It soon became clear that since New England favored Adams, and the southern states favored Jefferson, New York was critical and the national election could turn on the result in New York City in the elections of representatives to the State Assembly, which selected at the time electors to the electoral college. Aaron Burr, the key strategist for the Jeffersonian effort in New York, asked Gates, whose role at Saratoga 23 years earlier made him the very symbol of the revolution, to run as a candidate for state assembly on the Tammany ticket. Gates, who was increasingly troubled by the aristocratic direction of New York politics under the Federalist Party, agreed notwithstanding his personal friendship with Adams, who had been instrumental years earlier in having him appointed the commander at Saratoga. With Gates at its head, the Tammany ticket was successful, and New York State and the nation went for Jefferson. The conservative trend in New York and national politics was reversed, as Federalist measure such as the hated Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed. With the Federalist monopoly on banking broken, and generally a more open economy, smaller merchants and artisans prospered under Jeffersonian democracy. The Democratic party would control the nation’s politics nationally intothe 1840s, and the Tammany Society (later Tammany Hall) would be the major factor in New York City’s politics for the next 150 years.

Thus Gates was at the center of two of the most important events in American history — the Battle of Saratoga and the elections of 1800. After his death in 1806, however, with the near deificaion of George Washington as the father of our country, many would denigrate or obscure his achievements so that he sois largely forgotten today that his grave has been “lost” in Trinity church graveyard.

However, as I have for the past twelve years, I will tell his story in front of Trinity Church graveyard at around 5 a.m.thon July 4 as the sun rises over Manhattan.

James S. Kaplan is a tax and estate attorney at Herzfeld +
Rubin, P.C. in Lower Manhattan. He is a walking tour historian who has given walking tours of Lower Manhattan for more than 25 years, including for the past 12 years an all night tour on July 4 sponsored by the Fraunces Tavern Museum. His previous work for Last Exit looked at Thomas Paine’s legacy in New York.


Reader Comments [1]

  1. 1.  

    I wonder if Horatio Gates’ second wife Mary Gates was buried next to him. She died in Dec 181O, also in NYC. Perhaps she is in a marked grave, and finding her might lead to HG?

    E Scully · Aug 6, 02:33 PM ·#

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