Historical Markers
Gen. Horatio Gates Historical Marker
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Gen. Horatio Gates

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
157 W Market St, York, PA

Dedication Date:
December 14, 1949

Behind the Marker

Gen. Horatio Gates, the Continental Army's victorious commander at Saratoga in 1777, was an ambitious, manipulative individual who allegedly attempted to supercede George Washington as Commander in Chief. Although his role in the infamous "Conway Cabal" of 1777-78 has never been established, Gates well represents the intrigue that existed between Congress and the high command during the War for American Independence.
Oil on canvas of a formal portrait of Horatio Gates in uniform
Horatio Gates, by Charles Willson Peale, 1782.

Serving in the British Army, Horatio Gates gained valuable military experience in Nova Scotia and along the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontiers during the French and Indian War. Settling in Virginia in 1772, Gates was commissioned adjutant general of the Continental Army by Congress three years later. After proving himself an able administrator, he was promoted to commander of the Northern Department of the army in 1777. In that capacity, he defeated British Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga on November 27, 1777. With his reputation on the rise, Gates looked to advance himself in the chain of military command.

Washington was aware of Gates' ambitious and, often unscrupulous, nature. To keep him in check, he appointed him Quartermaster General responsible for supplies during the harsh winter encampment at markerValley Forge. Uninterested in the post, Gates resigned and persuaded Congress to appoint him president of the Board of War. Beginning in January, 1778, Gates was comfortably situated in York. While there, the rumor spread that he was campaigning to replace Washington as Commander of the Continental Army, in collaboration with an Irish-born Frenchman, Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway, another fierce critic of Washington.

Having served under Frederick the Great of Prussia, Conway believed himself to be the most experienced officer at Valley Forge. He became almost dictatorial at Washington's councils of war and suggested that he be appointed Inspector General, in charge of drilling all the troops. Seeing an opportunity for himself, Gates convinced Congress to promote the aggressive Frenchman. When Richard Henry Lee, a fellow Virginian and member of Congress, informed Washington of the Congress" intention, Washington responded succinctly but strongly: "To raise an officer without conspicuous merit over the heads of many senior brigadiers would give a fatal blow to the existence of the army. It will be impossible for me to be of any further service of this should happen."

Predictably, when he reported to Valley Forge to assume his duties as Inspector General, Conway was coolly received by Washington. To the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington, clearly aware of the conspiracy to replace him, confided his disdain of Conway. "His ambition and great desire of being puffed off as one of the first Officers of the Age could only be equaled by the means which he used to obtain them. But finding that I was determined not to go beyond the line of my duty to indulge him nor to exceed the strictest rules of propriety, to gratify him, he became my inveterate enemy; and has, I am persuaded, practiced every art to do me injury."

By mid-January Gates knew from Conway that Washington had learned of their intrigue. Gates felt obliged to write the Virginian a letter of explanation, especially since Congress had now become more sympathetic about the problems of morale and supply shortages he faced. While Gates' letter expressed concern that his dispatches were being opened and copied, he did not deny his relationship with Conway or his alleged criticisms of Washington. In his response, Washington explained that he had been informed of the conspiracy by loyal officers, denying any improprieties and any suspicions that Gates' correspondence had been tampered with. He also enumerated the inconsistencies of Gates" behavior as an officer, and sent a copy of his letter to Congress.

Because of the steadfast support Washington received from Henry Laurens and other congressional officials, Gates was forced to write a letter of apology. Washington replied on February 24th, agreeing to dismiss the issue entirely. Shortly after, Thomas Conway threatened to resign his commission - an offer that Congress readily embraced.

Gates' reputation continued to decline with his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden, two months after he assumed command of the Southern Department, and later for his alleged involvement in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783. After the war, Gates spent the remaining years of his life in relative obscurity, living off the wealth of his second wife, Mary Vallance Gates. He died in New York on April 10, 1806.
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