For many years New York City has not been known for its patriotic ceremonies recognizing important Revolutionary War heroes or sites.
Recently this has begun to change, beginning with the rediscovery of the grave of General Horatio Gates, who many consider the second most important American general of the American Revolution. Until about ten years ago his grave located in Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan was completely unmarked.
Gates was the commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga in October of 1777, which most historians agree was the most important battle of the American Revolution and the turning point of the Revolutionary War. He played another important role in early American politics in the city of New York after the war.
A passed over British officer who had only been in the Unites States for less than five years, John Adams influenced Gates’ selection for command of the faltering Continental Army’s Northern Department on August 18, 1777. (Much to the chagrin of the supporters of Philip Schuyler, who had held the post).
Gates help unify the quarreling American forces from various colonies, rallied the New England militias and forced British General John Burgoyne’s highly trained troops into a position where they became short of supplies on their march to take Albany and divide the rebellious colonies.
In October 1777 at the Battle of Bemis Heights the British failed to break through the better entrenched American lines and were routed by an (unauthorized) attack by Benedict Arnold. In a stunning victory with major implications for world history, Gates forced the beleaguered British troops to surrender.
It has been debated ever since whether Gates or his subordinate officers (including Arnold) were really responsible for the victory, but there is no doubt that immediately after the battle Gates received well-earned credit.
After the battle, George Washington sent his young 21-year-old aide Alexander Hamilton to convince Gates to send him most of his victorious army. This created long standing friction between Gates and Hamilton, which would emerge 25 years later in the city of New York during the Election of 1800.
In late 1777 and early 1778, just months after Gates victory at Saratoga, some senior Continental Army officers sought to have Washington replaced as Commander-in-Chief. What became known as the “Conway Cabal,” was led in part by Brigadier General Thomas Conway, who lobbied Congress for Washington’s replacement. When a letter to Gates criticizing Washington was made public, a political battle ensued after which Conway resigned and Gates issued an apology for his role.
Hostility to Gates was exacerbated after his forces were disastrously defeated at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780 and for many years Gates was described as a third-rate general who tried to upstage George Washington. For many interested in the American Revolution, discussion of Gates typically ends with his defeat at the Battle of Camden.
After the enactment of the U,S. Constitution in 1789, when Washington and John Adams were President and Vice President, Gates – then 61 – was living in relative obscurity and reportedly depressed at his farm in Virginia following the death of his first wife.
Even his few biographers tend to largely ignore the importance of the subsequent 17 years when Gates became an active and important political figure in the city of New York. There he would play a key role in the election of Thomas Jefferson, and in defeating Alexander Hamilton and the then prominent Federalist Party.
While still living in Virginia, Gates remarried a wealthy woman named Mary Vallence. He and the new Mrs. Gates – apparently unhappy with life on the Virginia frontier – decided around 1790 to move to New York, where she had relatives. They purchased (it’s presumed with her money) the Rose Hill Farm around modern day 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue.
Gates received a favorable reception in New York, owing in part to the presence of more veterans of the Battle of Saratoga. Over time he and his wife participated in the City’s social life, and he became increasingly active in veterans’ and civic affairs.
His estate became a meeting place for Revolutionary War veterans; among those entertained there were Thomas Paine, Taddeus Kosciusko and John Adams. He also formed a close relationship with Aaron Burr, a younger veteran in the city, and also an opponent of Hamilton and the Federalists, who was instrumental in forming the Democratic-Republican Party.
At the time, New York City politics were very much in a state of flux. Right after the Revolution much of the land in the city had been owned by Loyalists, who had sided with the British.
Under New York State law this land was required to be forfeited to the State. It was then given to Revolutionary War veterans, a process that was carried out in 1784 and1 1785 by then High Sheriff Marinus Willett.
After the enactment of the U.S. Constitution these forfeiture laws were abrogated by the provision of the Constitution that “no state shall impair the obligation of contract.” As a result certain pro-Federalist lawyers, particularly Hamilton, began to specialize in recovering the land for its Loyalist owners.
Hamilton and the Federalist party thus significantly gained the upper hand in the City’s politics and economy, often to the detriment of many who supported the Revolution. This created considerable resentment and hostility among many veterans who began to congregate in the Tammany Society, a politically oriented civic organization.
By the 1790s the Federalist Party and its leaders (including Hamilton) controlled the city’s politics. John Adams became President in 1796 after Washington retired and sought reelection in 1800. Gates was also uncomfortable with the loss of status by Revolutionary War veterans and became increasingly friendly with Tammany leaders such as Aaron Burr and Marinus Willett.
During the Election of 1800 the Tammany Society backed Thomas Jefferson and the newly established Democratic-Republican Party (largely the antecedent of today’s Democratic Party) against Adams.
At the time, the member of the Electoral College in New York was selected by the New York State Legislature, so local elections for the State Assembly were critical to determining who New York sent to the Electoral College. As the country was largely split between the Federalist supporting New England, and Virginia and the Southern States who supported Jefferson, the electoral vote of New York was likely to be decisive.
Aaron Burr and the Tammany Society hoped they could pull off an upset victory in the city of New York’s State Assembly elections and with Democratic-Republicans upstate they could swing the state’s electoral votes to Jefferson.
Alexander Hamilton announced a slate of fairly obscure Federalist candidates for the State Assembly, and Aaron Burr realized that if he could recruit high profile celebrity candidates to run for the position of Assembly, the Jeffersonians might have a chance. He approached General Horatio Gates to request that he run on the Democratic-Republican ticket.
This seems to have been a difficult decision for Gates. He had never run as a candidate for political office and had only lived in New York for 10 years. He doubted that the Jeffersonians were strong enough to defeat the Federalists in local elections.
Furthermore, he would be running against the interests of John Adams who had been instrumental in appointing him 25 years previously. Adams had remained a good friend in the intervening period. Finally at the age of 72 Gates thought he was too old to run and was unsure of his reputation.
On the other hand he was concerned about the policies of the aristocratic Federalists, which he viewed as a betrayal of the principles for which the Revolution had been fought. It’s said his wife Mary helped convince him that he was not too old to strike another blow for liberty and that his leadership in the election might be as important as his command at Saratoga. He accepted the role as candidate for the New York State Assembly.
Ultimately, Gates led the Tammany ticket to a significant victory over Hamilton and the Federalists, and New York State’s electoral votes, and those of the nation, went to Jefferson. Within fifteen years, the Federalist party would only exist in the history books, but the Tammany Society and the New York Democratic Party which Gates had helped to create would remain the predominant force in New York City politics for the next 150 years.
John Adams felt so betrayed that its’ said he never spoke to Gates again.
Gates served one term in the New York State Legislature where he spoke in favor of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, but then in ill health retired to the Rose Hill Farm in Manhattan. He died in 1808 and was buried in Trinity Churchyard, not far from Alexander Hamilton, Marinus Willett, Robert Fulton and other prominent New Yorkers.
He requested a modest funeral and was soon all but forgotten, so much so that the exact location of his grave was unknown to almost everyone.
It wasn’t until the 1990s when a walking tour of Lower Manhattan sponsored by the 92nd Street Y and later the Fraunces Tavern Museum began to tell Gates’ story and decry the fact that the most important Revolutionary War general in New York State was buried in an unmarked grave. The tour later came to the attention Denise Van Buren, the New York State Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who made it her personal project to mark his grave.
Assiduously working with the cooperation of Trinity Church vicar Ann Mallonee, Van Buren organized with Karen Stewart of the DAR New York City Knickerbocker Chapter, an elaborate ceremony on October 21, 2012 that was attended by more than 150 DAR members, including a number of officers from the DAR Headquarters in Washington. National DAR President General Merry Ann Wright was in attendance (Van Buren would later hold the same DAR role), along with a representative of the U.S. Army Adjutant General, an office which Gates had been instrumental in creating.
The ceremony was in itself an event of historical importance as it was a catalyst for the formation of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association, which now annually holds a Saratoga-Yorktown Celebration at Trinity Church.
This year’s Saratoga-Yorktown Celebration is planned for October 21, 2023 and will be preceded by a 90-minute walking tour starting at 1 pm from the Fraunces Tavern Museum and covering the route to Trinity Churchyard. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Illustrations, from above: A portrait of General Horatio Gates (National Portrait Gallery); Detail of a painting of the surrender of Burgoyne to Gates by John Trumbull, 1822; Horatio Gates’ Rose Hill Farm property in Manhattan from an 1820 map; “A new display of the United States” by Amos Doolittle, August 14 1799, a previous version included George Washington at center; the old State Capitol in Albany which housed the State Government from 1812 to 1878; and Horatio Gates’ burial plaque at Trinity Church.