One of the great unsung heroes of the American Revolution was an Irish Catholic colonel in the Continental Army who called Alexandria, Virginia home. His name was John Fitzgerald and he would be by George Washington’s side during some of the most dramatic moments of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, today in his adopted hometown, people are working to erase his gallant memory.
In 1769 John Fitzgerald sailed from the emerald green fields of County Wicklow, Ireland to the southern British colonial town of Alexandria, Virginia. Fitzgerald left a country that was firmly under the domination of British and Protestant rule. Despite making up a majority of the residents of the country, Irish Catholics were treated as second class subjects in Ireland. What Fitzgerald would find in colonial Virginia would not have been that much different as many British colonists had anti-Catholic sentiments. Fitzgerald would find it illegal for him to openly worship in Virginia. He would be forced to celebrate Catholic mass in his private home.
Despite the prejudices he faced, Fitzgerald became a merchant in Alexandria and would soon become good friends with the prominent local citizen, George Washington. As tensions began to build between Great Britain and the American colonies, Fitzgerald would become an early proponent of the patriot cause. As early as 1774, Fitzgerald had joined the local patriot militia, the Fairfax Independent Company, as an officer.
In early 1776, Fitzgerald became a captain in the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line, and was promoted to major that fall. In November, Fitzgerald was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and joined Washington’s headquarters as an aide-de-camp. Fitzgerald joined his staff at one of the darkest moments of the entire war. Fitzgerald joined as what was left of Washington’s army was retreating across the state of New Jersey. Washington’s army was dissolving before his very eyes. From 24,000 men that August, by December Washington only counted about 3,000 men. In this trying time, Fitzgerald would be by Washington’s side as the revolution seemed near an end. He would then join Washington and his men as they crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and took part in the pivotal battles at Trenton and Princeton. (Read about these important battles in my book “Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton”)
Many years later, Fitzgerald would recount to Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, what he witnessed on the battlefield of Princeton:
“Washington, after several ineffectual efforts to restore the fortunes of the fight, is seen to rein up his horse, with his head to the enemy, and in that position to become immovable . . . the American chief is between the adverse posts, as though he had been placed there, a target for both. The arms of both lines are leveled. Can escape from death be possible? Fitzgerald, horror-struck at the danger of his beloved commander, dropped the reins upon his horse’s neck, and drew his hat over his face, that he might not see him die. A roar of musketry succeeds, and then a shout. It is the shout of victory. The aide-de-camp ventures to raise his eyes, and Oh, glorious sight! the enemy are broken and flying, while dimly amidst the glimpses of the smoke is seen the chief, “alive, unharmed, and without a wound,” waving his hat, and cheering his comrades to the pursuit.
Colonel Fitzgerald, celebrated as one of the finest horsemen in the American army, now dashed his rowels in his charger’s flanks, and, heedless of the dead and dying in his way, flew to the side of his chief, exclaiming, “Thank God! your excellency is safe!” The favorite aide, a gallant and warm-hearted son of Erin, a man of thews and sinews, and “albeit unused to the melting mood,” now gave loose rein to his feelings, and wept like a child, for joy.
Washington, ever calm amid scenes of the greatest excitement, affectionately grasped the hand of his aide and friend, and then ordered — “Away, my dear colonel, and bring up the troops — the day is our own!”
Fitzgerald was with Washington at Brandywine and Germantown, and weathered the terrible winter at Valley Forge. In the summer of 1778, while riding by Washington’s side at the battle of Monmouth, he was wounded by a British musket ball. Fitzgerald would return to Alexandria where he would stay for the remainder of the war. At one point in April of 1781, he rallied Virginia militia soldiers to Jones Point in Alexandria in order to scare off a British raiding party that was making its way up the Potomac River. The British never landed and sailed away.
After the war, Fitzgerald would become a major figure in the local politics of Alexandria. In 1786 he was elected the mayor of the town. That same year, Virginia passed the Statute of Religious Liberty. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the legislation ensured freedom of religion for the inhabitants of the state. The freedom of religion was clearly a right Fitzgerald had fought for and was eager to establish the Catholic Church in Virginia. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1788, Fitzgerald hosted George Washington in Alexandria and offered his support in the ratification of the new United States Constitution. During this event, Fitzgerald also proposed to Washington the creation of a Catholic Church in Alexandria, and Washington offered some money to help establish this church. Thus, Fitzgerald was instrumental in establishing the first Catholic church in Virginia, the Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town, Alexandria.
Fitzgerald died in December of 1799 just a couple weeks before the death of Washington. He was buried with military honors at the home of his wife near Fort Washington, Maryland.
John Fitzgerald has long been a patriot and Catholic Irish-American who has been revered for his contributions to the securing of American independence and liberty. Like many of the men of his class in Virginia at this time, Fitzgerald was a slaveholder. In a town that has begun to remove plaques to Washington because he owned slaves, just last year the city council of Alexandria has stripped Fitzgerald’s name from a city park because he owned slaves. As historical figures continue to be judged by presentism, it is sad to see the contributions of those like John Fitzgerald cast aside. I hope that the city council sees the error of their way and will reinstate John Fitzgerald’s name on the park and restore his legacy as a true American patriot.
George Washington summed it up best when he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1787 and said that “a Gentleman who is a native of Ireland — Colo. John Fitzgerald. The active Services of this Gentleman during the War — his long residence in the Country—and intermarriage in it . . . all entitle him to be considered as an American.”