The True George Washington: Enemies: Gates

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Turning from these public rather than personal foes, a very different type of enemies is encountered in those inimical to Washington in his own army. Chief of these was Horatio Gates, with whom Washington had become acquainted in the Braddock campaign, and with whom there was friendly intercourse from that time until the Revolution. In 1775, at Washington's express solicitation, Gates was appointed adjutant- and brigadier-general, and in a letter thanking Washington for the favor he professed to have "the greatest respect for your character and the sincerest attachment to your person." Nevertheless, he very early in the war suggested that a committee of Congress be sent to camp to keep watch on Washington, and as soon as he was in a separate command he began to curry favor with Congress and scheme against his commander. This was not unknown to Washington, who afterwards wrote, "I discovered very early in the war symptoms of coldness & constraint in General Gates' behavior to me. These increased as he rose into greater consequence."

When Burgoyne capitulated to Gates, he sent the news to Congress and not to Washington, and though he had no further need for troops the commander-in-chief had sent him, he endeavored to prevent their return at a moment when every man was needed in the main army. His attitude towards Washington was so notorious that his friends curried favor with him by letters criticising the commander, and when, by chance, the General learned of the contents of one of these letters, and news to that effect reached the ears of Gates, he practically charged Washington with having obtained his knowledge by dishonorable means; but Washington more than repaid the insult, in telling Gates how he had learned of the affair, by adding that he had "considered the information as coming from yourself, and given with a friendly view to forewarn and consequently forearm me, against a secret enemy ... but in this, as in other matters of late, I have found myself mistaken." Driven to the wall, Gates wrote to Washington a denial that the letter contained the passage in question, which was an absolute lie, and this untruth typifies his character. Without expressing either belief or disbelief in this denial, Washington replied,?

"I am as averse to controversy as any man, and had I not been forced into it, you never would have had occasion to impute to me, even the shadow of disposition towards it. Your repeatedly and solemnly disclaiming any offensive views in those matters, which have been the subject of our past correspondence makes me willing to close with the desire, you express, of burying them hereafter in silence, and, as far as future events will permit, oblivion. My temper leads me to peace and harmony with all men; and it is peculiarly my wish to avoid any personal feuds or dissentions with those who are embarked in the same great national interest with, myself; as every difference of this kind must in its consequence be very injurious."

After this affair subsided, Washington said,?

"I made a point of treating Gen. Gates with all the attention and cordiality in my power, as well from a sincere desire of harmony, as from an unwillingness to give any cause of triumph among ourselves. I can appeal to the world, and to the whole army, whether I have not cautiously avoided offending Gen. Gates in any way. I am sorry his conduct to me has not been equally generous, and that he is continually giving me fresh proofs of malevolence and opposition. It will not be doing him injustice to say, that, besides the little underhand intrigues which he is frequently practising, there has hardly been any great military question, in which his advice has been asked, that it has not been given in an equivocal and designing manner, apparently calculated to afford him an opportunity of censuring me, on the failure of whatever measures might be adopted."

After the defeat of Gates at Camden, the Prince de Broglie wrote that "I saw General Gates at the house of General Washington, with whom he had had a misunderstanding.... This interview excited the curiosity of both armies. It passed with a most perfect propriety on the part of both gentlemen. Mr. Washington treated Mr. Gates with a politeness which had a frank and easy air, while the other responded with that shade of respect which was proper towards his general." And how fair-minded Washington was is shown by his refusal to interfere in an army matter, because, "considering the delicate situation in which I stand with respect to General Gates, I feel an unwillingness to give any opinion (even in a confidential way) in a matter in which he is concerned, lest my sentiments (being known) should have unfavorable interpretations ascribed to them by illiberal Minds." Yet the friendship was never restored, and when the two after the war were associated in the Potomac company, Washington's sense of the old treachery was still so keen that he alluded to the appointment of "my bosom friend Genl G-tes, who being at Richmond, contrived to edge himself in to the commission."

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