Irish Catholic John Fitzgerald was George Washington’s friend before the Revolution, his “favorite aide” during the Revolution, and a hero of American history; “ever one constant and faithful in devotion” to America.
There are so many inspiring, beautiful stories about the great heroes of American history which are scarcely ever told. Today I want to talk about one of the many Irish Catholic heroes of the American Revolution.
In the book George Washington and the Irish, Niall O’Dowd tells the story of Washington’s lifelong friend John Fitzgerald, the Irish Catholic immigrant to Virginia who became an Aide-de-Camp to Washington during the Revolution and wrote diary entries which provide very valuable information about the famous Delaware River crossing on Christmas Night, 1776. Fitzgerald continued to be Washington’s friend after the war and the latter’s last public engagement outside his Mt. Vernon residence before his death was a dinner in Alexandria in November 1799 with Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was a rising business man and a social favorite in Alexandria, Virginia, where he was elected a Burgess or councilman in 1770, soon after his arrival. He was a great favorite with the local ladies and married into a family that lived close to George Washington, which might explain how they became friends. Fitzgerald is recorded as having visited Washington’s home no fewer than 80 times (based on Washington’s own diary), indicating the intimacy of the friendship between the Irish Catholic immigrant and the Anglo Protestant soldier.
Washington wanted the younger man by his side during the Revolution, too. Niall O’Dowd says Fitzgerald stood beside Washington as the latter took command of the Continental Army in 1775, and Fitzgerald then joined the Army himself as Aide-de-Camp to the commander-in-chief, a position that, according to Washington himself, required a person “in whom entire confidence must be placed.” In November that year, Fitzgerald was appointed Washington’s secretary. The young man who had been a prominent and prosperous business man in Alexandria was fighting for principles rather than personal gain, because he only made $33 monthly, then later $40 a month as lieutenant-colonel. Washington’s adopted grandson George Washington Parke Custis said Fitzgerald was Washington’s “favorite aide,” a great testament, especially light of the fact that Fitzgerald was competing with the likes of Alexander Hamilton.
Fitzgerald’s journal entries during and after that history-changing Christmas Night, 1776, are fascinating reading, as providing a first-hand account of the Battle of Trenton, a turning point in the American Revolution.
But while the Delaware River crossing has become iconic in American history, the other victories of that remarkable campaign—a campaign which won Washington the unwilling but high admiration of his enemies both in America and Europe—are little known. The Battle of Princeton was an unplanned clash that resulted in American victory mere days after the Delaware crossing. Washington lost one friend at Princeton, Hugh Mercer, but it became a key point in the life of his other friend, John Fitzgerald.
“Washington was now out in front of his men and a despairing Fitzgerald watched as the bullets flew closer. Finally, Fitzgerald could take it no more and, convinced Washington would be shot by either friendly fire or British muskets, buried his face in his hat, unable to watch.
He was aroused a few moments later by Washington riding up to him unscathed. The tough young Irishman broke down in tears … Washington smiled and grasped his young friend’s hand and simply said, ‘The day is ours.’”
Fitzgerald died not long after Washington, and is buried in a Catholic cemetery in Alexandria, on the road to Washington’s home Mount Vernon. He always guarded “his general” in life, and he continues to guard the road to the General’s home in death.
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