October 7, 1780: A Letter from Horatio Gates to William Blount

Historic artifacts and documents intrigue me. The more I know about something, the more I want to find out. I wrote a short biography of William Blount as a History Quick unit study. Blount was what we could call a “complicated” man. Deeply devoted to his family, he was a patriot in the Revolutionary War, leader in the formation of the state of Tennessee, the owner of thousands and thousands of acres, but also the owner of slaves. He was Speaker of the (Tennessee) Senate, and while he was a United States Senator representing Tennessee, the focus of the first-ever federal impeachment. And we’re just getting started.

{Related: There’s a lot more to learn about William Blount. A link to History Quick The Complicated Politics of William Blount is HERE.]

While doing the research for this project, I came across a letter from Horatio Gates to William Blount, dated October 7, 1780. You can watch this 5 minute video about it, or read the highlights below. (We would appreciate it if you would SUBSCRIBE while you’re there!)

Video Highlights

Our story today is about William Blunt and Horatio Gates. In case those names aren’t familiar to you let’s set the scene. William Blount was an American politician who lived from 1749 to 1800. Blount was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention for North Carolina and signed that historic document. He was the first and only governor of the Southwest Territory that became the state of Tennessee. He was a state senator for Tennessee and he was the first United States senator to be expelled from the senate and charges of impeachment were brought against him.

Now, let’s back up a bit. During the Revolutionary War, William Blount was a regimental paymaster and fought along with George Washington’s main army in an important battle to defend Philadelphia. After the battle, Blount went home but continued to serve as the chief paymaster for various forces and helped organize, and served with, a North Carolina militia.

Meanwhile, Horatio Gates was a general during the American Revolutionary War. He was born in England and served in the military there, spent some time in Nova Scotia and got married there, and later came to America to become the owner of a small plantation in Virginia, the part which is now in West Virginia.

Gates served with the American troops in the French and Indian war and among his notable comrades was George Washington and they both became leaders. At a time when Gates was having some victories in battle, and Washington wasn’t, Gates and Washington had some serious issues come up between them and Gates eventually apologized. As a result of his military administrative skills and victories in battle, in May 1780 congress voted to put Gates in charge of the southern troops.

It was on August 16th, just three months later, that Gates led his troops to a major military loss in what became known as the Battle of Camden. Records don’t fully agree on the total number of casualties but there were many deaths, and there were many wounded, and there were many men captured, and the Americans lost all of their artillery, including guns, wagons, and supplies. And even though the Americans outnumbered the British 2-1, all of this happened in just one hour. One witness wrote, “Picture it as bad as you possibly can and it will not be as bad as it really is.”

Many reasons have been given for this major defeat and all of them go back to the leadership decisions made by Gates, and all of this as you might expect ended the military career of Horatio Gates. So what does all this about William Blount have to do with Horatio Gates?

Well, Blount was the paymaster general for Gates’ troops and was there during the Battle of Camden. As Gates and his troops left the battlefield quickly, they left behind many items. Among the items lost that day, in addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, was three hundred thousand pounds (think three hundred thousand dollars) in paper money for which Blount was responsible.

That brings us back to the letter I told you about. There’s a scanned copy of a letter from Horatio Gates to William Blount dated October 7th, 1780. Old style handwriting, cursive, can be difficult to read under the best of conditions and the style of that handwriting is much different than what we use today. What to us should look like the letter s is often written as a lowercase f. In the case of this particular letter, it was written on both sides of the paper and the ink from one side bleeds to the other side.

I’ll give you a link to the document. I invite you to gather up your best detective skills and see what you can figure out. Email me your ideas and I’ll include them on my website and in future updates on the History Quick William Blount unit. I would appreciate it if you hit that subscribe button and the notification bell so that you’ll know each time we upload a new History Quick video and check out those links. There’s a lot of information there. And as always, remember we learn from the past but we don’t live there. Go be awesome today and make your own history. Bye for now.

The October 7 date makes it not quite 60 days after the Battle of Camden. I’ve tried — with only limited success — to decipher this letter and what little I have figured out only makes me want to know more! I only have one page of the document but I’ll include it here in the highest resolution I could find.

Take a look and see how much of it you can unravel. Email me at contact@gailmasinda.com and we’ll combine efforts to see if we can get this thing figured out.

One Comment

  1. peleti@reagan.com says:

    Loved your History Quick! WISH I could translate that darn letter! :0) I remember Gates, from the closing stages of the War, but no recall on Blount. Very interesting story on him. Guess we impeached him for something we ended up doing anyway. Funny how things turn out. Thanks, Gail! Keep ’em coming; I do appreciate it. I’m subscribed, I believe. Glen

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