Sunday, October 30, 2022

ARP258 Gates Takes Command

In the spring of 1780 the revolution in the south seemed to be unraveling.  The British capture of Savannah in late 1778 with a relatively small force, and made manifest the vulnerability of the southern colonies.  Both sides had largely ignored the southern theater, deploying few soldiers and a “b” team of commanding officers.  Southern politicians typically refused to cooperate with the Continental commanders.  

Horatio Gates

Generals Lachlan McIntosh and Robert Howe, both southerners themselves, had been transferred north because of their inability to work well with the southern governors and other civilian leaders.  Washington had eventually sent General Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts, to command the southern army, in hopes of creating a credible army to secure the region and retake Georgia.  Instead the British captured Lincoln and his entire army at Charleston, South Carolina, after a short siege led by British General Henry Clinton.  Following that, both sides predicted that North Carolina and perhaps even Virginia might soon fall under British control.

Baron De Kalb

With the fall of Charleston and the surrender of Lincoln’s army, the highest ranking officer in the south was Major General Johan De Kalb, the German-born officer who had served a lifetime in the French Army, before coming to America with the Marquis de Lafayette.

Up until this time, De Kalb’s vast military experience in Europe had not really been put to the test in America.  He did not receive his commission until after the Philadelphia Campaign had ended in late 1777.  He was in Philadelphia during the Battle of Monmouth.  Although he suffered through the winter encampments at Valley Forge and Morristown, serving as a division commander, he had not had any opportunity to prove himself as a battlefield commander.

In April of 1780, De Kalb was still commanding a division near Morristown when Washington directed him to take a division of soldiers from Delaware and Maryland south to support General Lincoln at Charleston.  De Kalb was still in Philadelphia, trying to prepare for his march to the south by the time Charleston fell.  He finally left Philadelphia on May 13, the day after Charleston had fallen, but before word of Lincoln’s surrender had reached Philadelphia.  It was nearly a month later, by which time De Kalb had made it as far as Richmond when he learned that the British had occupied Charleston.

Johann de Kalb

De Kalb had hoped that his force of about 1000 Continental soldiers would be supplemented by thousands of Maryland and Virginia militia once word of Charleston’s fall motivated the states to turn out in force.  Like most Continental generals, De Kalb would be frustrated by the failure of state leaders to provide him with the men or supplies to mount any credible defense against the British army that was by this time subduing South Carolina and clearly aiming at moving into North Carolina.  Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson provided the army with almost no supplies, and only a few hundred militia.

On June 20, de Kalb’s Continentals crossed from Virginia into North Carolina.  The army reached Hillsboro two days later and remained in camp there until the end of the month.  The promises of supplies and militia reinforcements never materialized.  De Kalb had to put the army on reduced rations.  North Carolina officials seemed focused on feeding the militia that had been called out. The militia leaders did not bother to link up with the Continentals and no one was providing food to de Kalb’s men.  Decades of experience in Europe had convinced General De Kalb that supply lines were critical to any army’s success.  He was hesitant to move anywhere without knowing how he would feed and supply his men.  In July, de Kalb tentatively began to move south from Hillsborough.  He met with a few militia leaders, including Francis Marion, who had brought his militia from South Carolina.  

De Kalb was trying to link up with the North Carolina militia under General Richard Caswell.  North Carolina had called up an army of several thousand militia.  Caswell was a political leader who had been Governor of North Carolina until April.  Despite his minimal military experience, he received an appointment from the state as major general.

Despite the impending crisis of a British invasion from the south, Caswell made no effort to link up with, or even communicate with the Continental Army in his state.  Following what seems to have become an inexplicable pattern among southern leaders, Caswell simply ignored the Continental army there to assist in the defense of his state.  He collected supplies to feed his militia army but showed no interest in providing any of his supplies with the Continentals who were on starvation rations or doing anything about attacking the growing British and loyalist threat building just across the border in South Carolina.

A frustrated de Kalb continued to write letters to Washington and officials in Philadelphia that he was receiving no support and had no supplies for his army.  This was de Kalb’s first independent command and he indicated he could not succeed with the limited resources at his disposal.

Horatio Gates

The Continental Congress seemed to agree with de Kalb that he was not up to the job.  Although experienced, this foreign general had become the southern commander only by the accident that General Benjamin Lincoln had been taken prisoner at Charleston before de Kalb could join up with him.

Before de Kalb had even entered North Carolina, Congress acted to appoint a new southern commander.  General Washington strongly recommended that Congress give the command of the new southern army to General Nathanael Greene. By this time, Greene had become Washington’s top general.  He was the man that Washington recommended to replace himself as the commander-in-chief should he ever die or be captured.  

On receiving Washington’s recommendation, Congress voted on June 13 to commission Major General Horatio Gates to take command of the southern army.  Although most of Congress had come to respect Washington’s military leadership, many delegates still believed that they knew better than he did.  Besides, Greene had insulted Congress a few months earlier in his letter resigning as Quartermaster General.  Many in Congress had wanted to dismiss him from the army entirely.  They certainly were not about to give this guy an important independent command.

When the time came for Congress to pick a new commander for the south, General Gates had positioned himself where he was always most effective, in Philadelphia lobbying on behalf of himself.  I know I’ve talked about Gates extensively in the past, but perhaps this is a good time for a refresher.

Gates had been a British officer in the regular army for decades before the war.  His family did not have wealth or position, but was pretty well connected with those who did.  He had managed to scrape together enough money to buy a commission as a lieutenant in 1745, in time to fight at the battle of Culloden, crushing the Scottish rebellion there.  When the war of Austrian Succession ended, Gates found his regiment dissolved.  

General Gates, 1780
He decided to head to America, serving as aide to Colonel Edward Cornwallis, the uncle of future General Charles Cornwallis.  In Halifax, Gates assisted with the removal of the French Acadians and the Mi'kmaq Indians.  He returned to London to lobby for a promotion and ended up purchasing a captaincy on credit.  In 1755, Gates joined up with a great number of other future leaders, including George Washington, Charles Lee, and Daniel Morgan on General Edward Braddock’s assault on Fort Duquesne in what would become western Pennsylvania.  Gates was wounded in the ensuing massacre that killed Braddock.

Later in the French and Indian War, Gates served as an aide to General John Stanwix at Fort Pitt.  Later, he participated in the British assault on the island of Martinique under General Robert Monkton, and was given the honor of reporting the British victory to London.  By tradition, messengers of good news were granted a promotion as thanks.  Officers often chose messengers like Gates, who were deserving of promotion but could not afford to buy a higher commission.  As expected, Gates received a promotion to major.

But with the end of the Seven Years War, Gates found his military career stalled once again.  He returned to New York to work as a political aide for Robert Monckton, who had been appointed Royal Governor of New York.  After Monckton returned to England, Gates also returned and sold his commission.  With the money from that commission, Gates moved his family to Virginia on the recommendation of an old war buddy named George Washington.  

He purchased a large plantation in what is today West Virginia, and by his mid-40’s was ready to settle into the quiet life of a plantation owner.  He served as a lieutenant colonel in the local militia, but probably figured his military days were behind him.  Gates was not an active voice in the colonial protests of the early 1770’s but when the war began in 1775, he immediately offered his services to his old friend George Washington before Washington left for the Continental Congress.  

When Washington was appointed commander in chief of the new Continental Army, he requested that Gates be given a commision as brigadier general and made Gates the first Adjutant General of the Continental Army.

While Gates did have battlefield experience, his main experience had been serving as a staff aide to other officers and an expert in the necessary administrative duties that every army requires.  He had gained an expertise in seeking promotion through relationships with politically powerful men, and trying to be in the right place at the right time.

Gates was one of the first brigadier generals to be promoted to major general in early 1776, based primarily on his administrative skills in organizing the Continental Army. But Gates knew that he needed a field command to establish himself as a leader.  He spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia, trying to develop friendly relationships with the delegates to the Continental Congress.  He succeeded in establishing a powerful fan base among many of the New England delegates.

Gates convinced Congress to appoint him to command the Army in Canada early in the war, replacing John Sullivan. But by the time Gates actually made it to Canada, the army had been pushed back into New York.  That started Gates’ feud with General Philip Schuyler, one of the few generals who was more senior to Gates. Schuyler had command of the army in New York.  Now that Gates’ Canadian army was in New York, he fell under Schuyler’s command.

Gates and Shuyler tried to work together for more than a year.  When Gates got frustrated, he would leave his command and personally return to Philadelphia to lobby Congress to replace Schuyler as the commander of the Northern Army.  At the end of 1776, Washington begged Gates to cross the Delaware with him and attack Trenton.  Gates refused, assuming that Washington’s attack would not succeed.  Instead, Gates rode to Baltimore to be ready to lobby Congress for command of the Continental Army once Washington had failed.  Of course, Washington’s victory upset those plans, and Gates moved back to Plan A: getting Congress to dump Schuyler and give Gates command of the Northern Army.

When news of Schuyler’s loss of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, Gates was still in Philadelphia, ready to lobby Congress for his proposed change.  This time, his lobbying worked. Gates took over command of the Northern Army just before the battles that culminated in the surrender of General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga.  I’ve argued that Gates was primarily the beneficiary of all the work that Schuyler and others had done to make that victory possible.  I’ve also argued in earlier episodes that the victory was due primarily to the efforts of General Benedict Arnold, who had to defy Gates’ orders in order to defeat the British.

Gates, ever the politician, had ended what had been a pretty good relationship with Arnold, because Arnold took on several of General Schuyler’s aides after Schuyler lost his command.  Gates saw that as a disloyal act that made Arnold a competitor for power.  Therefore, Gates did not want to give Arnold any position that might increase his stature and reputation.  After Saratoga, Gates went out of his way to ignore Arnold’s contributions to the victory.

Congress gave Gates full credit for the victory at Saratoga.  Many in Congress began discussing the possibility of Gates replacing Washington as military commander.  Gates’ victory at Saratoga was contrasted with Washington’s series of losses that had led to the British occupation of Philadelphia.  Although Washington remained military commander, Congress appointed Gates as Chairman of the Board of War, which could essentially give orders to Washington and tell him how to use his army.  Many in Congress thought this might end up convincing Washington to resign. Washington, however, fought back politically and shrewdly, eventually allowing events to show Congress that Gates really wasn’t that impressive.

Following this tussle with Washington, Gates’ star seemed to fall.  He remained head of the Board of War, but the Board essentially lost its authority.  Gates also continued in command of the Northern Department, but with the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, there was not much action in that region.  The main threat came from small raids by loyalists and Indians.  Washington had offered Gates command of the campaign to stamp out those raids, but Gates demurred, allowing General Sullivan to lead the campaign instead.  Washington then assigned Gates to command of the Eastern Department, New England, in 1779.  Again there was nothing really happening militarily in that region by this time, so Gates ended up just going home to his plantation in Virginia.

When the British threatened Charleston in early 1780, Gates headed back to Philadelphia to provide military advice, and once again lobby for a new command.  Congress obliged and appointed Gates the new commander of the Southern Army.  For Gates, this was a wonderful opportunity.  He once again had an independent command in an important theater.  A great victory would give him the opportunity to show up Washington once again, and prove that he was the greatest military leader in the Continental Army.

Gates attempted to convince Colonel Daniel Morgan to join him on this campaign. But Morgan had resigned his commission about a year earlier.  Despite being such a critical leader in so many battles, Morgan never played the political game to get ahead.  Congress had continually failed to promote Morgan to general.  Years in the field had left the aging colonel with so many aches and pains, that he decided to hang it up and retire.  When Gates tried to bring him out of retirement, he was having none of it.

Gates Takes Command

Gates was well aware of the challenges to victory in the south.  He knew about the lack of money, supplies and men, the lack of cooperation of the state governments, and the success the British had had in recruiting more loyalist regiments in the south.

Richard Caswell
Although Congress had granted command to Gates in mid-June, nobody bothered to inform General de Kalb, who was still making his way toward the South Carolina border.  When he finally received notice in the form of a letter from Gates on July 16, de Kalb actually seemed relieved that he would no longer be in command.  De Kalb was not confident of his situation, and was loath to try anything without having the proper resources available to him.  While he was more than happy to serve under General Gates, he did not want the responsibility of command under the conditions that he faced. De Kalb was probably further relieved by Gates’ reassuring letters that he had been in close contact with Congress and Governor Jefferson of Virginia and that they would provide the support that the army needed.  

Gates finally caught up with the army on July 25. The forces under his command were not promising.  With the arrival of the Virginia militia, Gates had less than 2000 soldiers.  Various units and individuals fleeing British-controlled Georgia and South Carolina had traveled north to join up with the army.  Still missing were the North Carolina militia under General Caswell.

Gates’ army was spread out, to make use of resources throughout the region, but were on starvation rations and had no sufficient ammunition or supplies for a military campaign.  The army also had only about 50 cavalrymen, which were often critical to southern campaigns outside of larger towns.

None of this seemed to phase General Gates.  After a peremptory review of his new army, Gates ordered his officers to prepare the men to march immediately into South Carolina.  Gates specifically wanted to hit the British outpost at Camden.  De Kalb and many local officers recommended marching to the west, through Salisbury and Charlotte.  The land in that area had much stronger patriot sentiment and had much more food and water available for an army on the march.  

Gates disagreed, and instead chose a more direct march toward Camden, one that would go through the heart of Tory strongholds, and where there would be very few resources for the army.  He told his officers not to worry about the lack of food, that wagons with food and rum would catch up with the army soon.  This was a lie, and Gates knew it, but used it to reassure his officers that his plan would work.

Even on the direct route, the march would take at least a couple of weeks. Over the objections of just about everyone, Gates began marching south, with an army still on half-rations through a region described by some as a desert, toward the British outpost at Camden.  

Next Time: The battle of Camden.

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Next Episode 259 The Battle of Camden 

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Further Reading


Johann De Kalb:

Horatio Gates:

The Battle of Camden:


Battle of Camden:

Waters, Andrew “The Mysterious March of Horatio Gates” Journal of the American Revolution, September 24, 2020

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.

Moultrie, William, Memoirs of the American Revolution: so far as it related to the states of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, New York: D. Longworth, 1802. 

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.

Stevens, John A. “Gates at Camden”  Magazine of American History Vol. V, No. 4, October 1880. 

Tarleton, Banastre A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, London: T. Cadell 1787. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Piecuch, Jim The Battle of Camden: A Documentary History, History Press Library, 2006. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on

Smith, David Camden 1780: The Annihilation of Gates’ Grand Army, Osprey Publishing, 2016. 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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