A Revolutionary War General’s Reputation Is Dusted Off

Mention the Victor at Saratoga and many people might think that you’re talking about a horse. Yet that so called victor, Gen. Horatio Gates, the commander of the American forces at the Battle of Saratoga, played a crucial role in the triumph there over the British forces of Gen. John Burgoyne in October 1777.

Though other figures of the War of Independence are still widely revered and studied, Gates faded from the national memory. He died in New York in 1806 and was buried at Trinity Churchyard in Lower Manhattan. (It is not known precisely where he is buried.)

On Sunday afternoon, though, more than 150 people gathered at the cemetery just off Wall Street to celebrate the installation of a plaque that will serve as his gravestone and to highlight his long neglected role in American history.

“This is a great day in my point of view in the history of the City of New York,” James S. Kaplan said in an address to the gathering, made up mostly of members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The story of Gates’ recent escape from history’s margins began with Mr. Kaplan, a New York tax lawyer who discovered Gates’ legacy during a visit to the Saratoga National Historical Park two decades ago. For the past 16 years, he has conducted an early-morning walking tour of Lower Manhattan on July 4th, with Gates’ story as the centerpiece.

Make that very early morning: It begins at 2 a.m. and ends at 6.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people have said, ‘It’s a great time of day for a tour, because I’m not doing anything then,’” Mr. Kaplan said.

According to Mr. Kaplan, Gates was a perpetual underdog who believed that men should advance in life through merit, not wealth.

Gates was born in England and became a soldier. After several frustrating years trying to advance, he left the army and sailed to the colonies, becoming a farmer in Virginia. When the Revolution broke out, he volunteered for the colonial forces. In this army, he rose rapidly through the ranks, largely perhaps because he had a deep understanding of the enemy.

By August 1777, the British and American forces were at a standoff in New York. Gates was placed at the head of the Northern Army. Within a month of taking control, his force grew to be equal in size to that of the British. Eventually he amassed an army of 17,000 men. “People kept coming in,” Mr. Kaplan said. “It was like Woodstock.”

In September, British and American troops clashed at Saratoga, and the Americans were defeated. Some of the officers serving under Gates — including Benedict Arnold — urged an immediate counterattack, but he called for restraint and told them to wait for a British offensive. Sure enough, a British attack failed, allowing American forces to encircle and defeat the British on Oct. 7.

While it was Gates’ strategy that achieved victory, it was Arnold who led that final attack. That is why Arnold, not Gates, is often credited with victory at Saratoga. “It was his strategy that was successful,” said Mr. Kaplan, referring to Gates.

Saratoga was a decisive moment, spurring the French to enter the war on the side of the Americans, which helped secure eventual victory. “Many people today,” Mr. Kaplan said, would say that “Benedict Arnold won it.”

“I say it’s bunk,” he continued. “The whole thing was over before Arnold even jumped in.”

Yet Gates may have helped put himself on the path to relative obscurity. He had a falling out with George Washington. And in 1780, his forces were defeated at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina.

The New York chapter of the D.A.R. decided his memory was worthy of revival. After Mr. Kaplan wrote an article about the general, the D.A.R.’s New York State regent, Denise Doring VanBuren, made a commitment to raise $2,200 for a plaque on the south side of the Trinity cemetery.

On Sunday afternoon, members of the organization, some of whom had traveled from as far as Florida and Kansas, gathered by the plaque. With the cemetery’s soft green ground treacherous for high heels, they listened as Mr. Kaplan spoke of the general, who was in his 50s at the time of the Battle of Saratoga and was called “Granny Gates,” by his peers.

“I thought it was such a wonderful historic opportunity to be here,” said Rhoda Justice Garcia, 63, of Tampa, Fla., a descendant of of Brig. Gen. Silas Newcomb, another Revolutionary War leader. “I knew about Gates, but now I will look up more.”

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