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By Charles Willson Peale
An English-born Continental general, Horatio Gates is best remembered for his spectacular defeat by Earl Cornwallis at the battle of Camden (Aug. 1780). He remained in command of the rebel Southern Army until late-1780, when he was replaced by Nathanael Greene.
Gates spent his early military career in the British Army, and saw action during the Seven Years' War. He retired from the army in 1765, and settled in Virginia. When war broke out, he immediately sided with the rebels, and was given a commission as brigadier-general. He served for a time as Washington's adjutant-general -- they had been friends prior to the war -- and saw service in the north, where he managed to gain credit for victories which historians (as well as some contemporaries) feel belong to others, including Daniel Morgan and Benedict Arnold. After the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga, a power faction within Congress backed him to replace Washington as commander in chief of the Continental forces. The scheme failed, but in the face of Washington's opposition, Congress named Gates to command the Southern Department (July, 1780).
Gates took over command from De Kalb in North Carolina and against the advice of his subordinates, marched his army in a direct line towards Camden. This meant marching for two weeks through land that could not provide provisions and support. The march was followed by a series of ill-advised maneuvers which culminated on August 16 in the battle of Camden, one of the few set-piece battles of the campaign, and an overwhelming victory for Cornwallis.1
Gates gained an extra dollop of infamy by his fleet escape after the battle, prompting Alexander Hamilton to an amusing and oft-quoted observation:
Was there ever an instance of a general running away as Gates had done from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half! It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life. But it disgraces the general and the soldier."2
After turning command over to Greene in late-1780, Gates retired and pressed for a Congressional inquiry to clear his name. He received it in 1782, and lived out his life in semi-retirement, occasionally emerging for brief ventures into politics.
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1 Perhaps the most famous comment on the march is that his troops used their hair powder to thicken their stew made from stringy beef and green corn. The hair powder was essentially rice flour, by the way, not talc as modern readers often assume. So it actually was edible -- though hardly choice fare. [ back ]
2 Alexander Hamilton to James Duane, 6 Sep 1780, quoted in Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), p415. [ back ]
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