Why the Adjutant General Corps should ditch Horatio Gates
I am a US Army Adjutant General Corps officer. The branch is the second oldest in the Army (behind the Infantry), founded on June 16, 1775 when Congress appointed Horatio Gates as the Continental Army’s first Adjutant General. (The Chaplain Corps sometimes claims that it’s the second oldest, but they’re wrong. They weren’t established until July 29 of that year.)
The AG Corps is supremely proud of Gates and his American Revolution fame. I’m proud of my branch, its steeped history, and the integral work we do. I am not, however, proud of the corps’ so-called founder. (As an aside, he’s sometimes called “Granny” Gates in historical accounts. The nickname has been refuted here and other places, but in at least one case, years later, Timothy Pickering called Gates “an old woman.”)
Major General Horatio Gates was the commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga which resulted in British General John Burgoyne surrendering. It was the greatest American victory of the Revolution to date, and it is often cited by historians as the turning point of the war. It convinced France to finally recognize American sovereignty and throw in with the rebels.
Congress was so elated, they ordered a coin minted in his honor. Today, the Adjutant General Corps Regimental Association (AGCRA) awards three levels of distinguished service medals to its members based on the 1777 design.
I have three problems with Gates that force me to question the choice to make him the “mascot” of the corps.
Strike 1: Gates and Saratoga
If we stop reading history at the reports of Gates’ victory at Saratoga and don’t scratch any deeper, everything is hunky-dory. But as many conclude nowadays, Benedict Arnold (of traitorous fame) was largely responsible for sealing American victory. During the final skirmish at Bemis Heights during the Second Saratoga engagement, Arnold led the decisive attack (possibly while drunk) against Burgoyne’s forces (and against Gates’ orders). It was Arnold’s final battle after he was shot in the leg, and then that same leg was crushed under his horse.
Even before the victory, the success at Saratoga was set up by Arnold, Daniel Morgan, Enoch Poor, Benjamin Lincoln, and others before Gates arrived to take over in August — the Saratoga fighting began just a month after he assumed command.
Strike one against Gates.
Strike 2: Gates vs. Washington
Then there was his role in the Conway Cabal, the conspiracy to replace General George Washington with Gates as Commander-in-Chief. It was the titular Brigadier General Thomas Conway who declared Washington a “weak general” in a letter to Gates. Around that same time, presumably full of himself after his Saratoga victory, Gates began going over his boss Washington’s head and reporting directly to Congress. Instead of reprimanding him, Congress appointed Gates president of the Board of War, which effectively made him Washington’s civilian boss. Congress also appointed Conway Inspector General of the Continental Army.
This was, of course, before “George Washington became George Washington” as Sarah Vowell puts it in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. After Valley Forge and the transformative magic of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (who Washington unabashedly appointed as Inspector General to snub Conway), Washington proved his mettle at the Battles of Barren Hill and Monmouth.
The Conway Cabal fell apart. Gates resigned from the Board of War in November 1778, but that didn’t stop him from badmouthing Washington to Congress. John Jay brought the rebukes to Washington’s attention, and the general replied at length to explain himself and address Gates’ accusations:
“…General Gates has entirely mistaken my intentions. Hoping that I had embarked in a Scheme, which our situation would not justify, he eagerly siezes the oppertunity of exposing my supposed errors to Congress; and in the excess of his intemperate zeal to injure me, exhibits himself in a point of view, from which I imagine he will derive little credit. The decency of the terms in which he undertakes to arraign my conduct both to myself, and to Congress, and the propriety of the hasty appeal he has made will I believe appear at least questionable to every Man of sense & delicacy.”
“I discovered very early in the War symptoms of coldness & constraint in General Gates’s behaviour to me — These increased as he rose into greater consequence; but we did not come to a direct breach till the beginning of last year. This was occasioned by a corrispondance, which I thought rather made free with me between him and Genl Conway, which accidentally came to my knowledge. The particulars of this affair you will find delineated in the packet herewith, indorsed “Papers respecting Genl Conway.” Besides the evidence contained in them of the genuine-ness of the offensive corrispondance, I have other proofs still more convincing, which having been given me in a confidential way, I am not at liberty to impart.”
Strike 3: Gates at the Battle of Camden
Gates wasn’t done leading troops, though. He eventually took command of the patriots’ Southern Department, arriving in North Carolina late in July 1780. With an unprepared mix of Continental regulars and cherry militia, Gates immediately marched to attack the British at Camden, South Carolina.
Tactical blunders aside, where the story really gets interesting is when, in the face of crushing defeat at the hands of General Cornwallis at Camden, it is purported that Gates fled the battle in cowardice, not stopping for three days. Political rival and founding father Alexander Hamilton wrote:
“But was there ever an instance of a General running away as Gates has 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 Soldiers.”
There are conflicting accounts that suggest Gates was simply riding to head off his fleeing troops in order to rally them back to battle. Even Hamilton, in that same letter, warns to take his account with a grain of salt. (“I am his enemy personally, for unjust and unprovoked attacks upon my character, therefore what I say of him ought to be received as from an enemy, and have no more weight than as it is consistent with fact and common sense.”)
But it doesn’t matter. Perception is reality, and Gates was relieved for his failures. He never commanded again, and Congress resolved to launch an inquiry into “Horatio Gates’ Conduct as Commander of Southern Army.” In 1782, the wily old Gates petitioned Congress and weasled out of the inquiry, even getting his commission back in the Continental Army. Washington stuck Gates on his staff, and an unhappy Gates eventually retired for good the next year.
Strike three, Horatio. You’re out.
If not Horatio, who?
I didn’t have an answer initially, so I started from square one by referring to the history of the AG Corps published on the Army Human Resources Command (HRC) web site. After Gates, the history lauds Alexander Macomb, Zebulon Pike, and Roger Jones among others.
Macomb is a venerable figure, to be sure. He earned acclaim at the Battle of Plattsburgh during the War of 1812 and went on to serve as the Commanding General of the US Army. In that role, he advocated for many personnel-related reforms, including pay increases and relief for widows and orphans. He even has his own Congressional Gold Medal, like Gates!
However, Macomb was only ever an acting Adjutant General, and for only less than three months, during which time he did nothing significant.
I hoped beyond anything that Zebulon Pike saved a busload of babies and won a half dozen wars while serving as the Adjutant General so we could have a Zebulon Award. Alas, he too did nothing significant as AG, which he only was for less than two months anyway. Pike is better remembered as a famous explorer, and he has a laundry list of places and things named after him — most of which chose not to use “Zebulon” and went with “Pike” instead. Missed opportunity.
Roger Jones, the next AG on the list, is the longest serving Adjutant General in US Army history, holding the position for over 27 years. Interestingly enough, five years into Jones’ AG tenure, former Adjutant General Macomb, now as the Commanding General of the Army, brought him to court martial for five counts of “Disobedience of orders,” two counts of “Conduct subversive of good order and military discipline,” and one count of “Disrespect towards his commanding officer.”
The final of those three charges came when Macomb informed Jones that he was going to court martial him, to which Jones is alleged to have replied “I defy you, sir; I defy you!” In written responses recorded in court martial documents, Jones acrimoniously signed his correspondence as “R. Jones, Adj. Gen., in arrest.”
“I defy you, sir; I defy you!”
-R. Jones, Adj. Gen., in arrest.
The whole episode (which, boringly, dealt with the division of responsibilities and authority for reviewing and publishing the annual Army Register) ended with the court finding Jones guilty of the first and third charges and sentencing him “to be reprimanded in general orders.” He went on to continue serving as Adjutant General for another 22 years.
Jokes aside, Jones’ court martial was primarily based on silly federal statutory confusion, and it was the beginning of a movement toward unity of command within the Army that would eventually lead to the modern command and staff system. After the trial, Macomb ordered all of the other bureaus to also report directly to him.
Jones tackled a manpower crisis in the mid-1830s as officers left the Army in droves to pursue more lucrative civilian careers after the enactment of the General Survey Act. He worked with political leaders to fix the issue, and he published a General Order stopping “the detachment of line officers for engineer duty on state and private projects.” Jones also played a crucial role in Washington during the Mexican-American War by overseeing the mobilization of troops and by drafting important wartime legislation.
He doesn’t have the battle accolades of Macomb (or a cool name like Zebulon), but Jones served in combat with distinction, first as a US Marine Corps officer, then as a US Army artillery captain during the War of 1812. He progressed through the ranks during that war and was eventually appointed Adjutant General in 1825, a job he kept until he died in 1852.
General Jones was the longest serving Adjutant General, a respectable combat veteran (with no stories — true or not — of cowardly flight), served during a transformative period in the Army of the young American republic, and brought distinct credit to his corps during peacetime and war.
I propose that Roger Jones replace Horatio Gates as the US Army Adjutant General Corps poster general.
Views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the US Army or the Department of Defense.