John Fitzgerald, Catholic hero

Terry Riley has send us a diary entry of great interest to American Catholic historians and especially parishioners of St. Mary’s, the church founded by John Fitzgerald.
But first, who was Lieutenant Colonel John Fitzgerald?


” It will be interesting to our readers to gain from this article an idea of the very intimate relations that existed between General Washington and some of the prominent Irish Catholics of his day in this country, and of the services which these men rendered to the United States in its struggle for independence. Mr. Griffin says : “One of the first, and, no doubt, the most prominent in a public capacity, of the early Catholic settlers of Alexandria, Virginia, at a time when Catholicity was not, by the law of that Colony, even tolerated, and its members much less enjoying liberty of public worship, was John Fitzgerald, a young Irishman who settled in that town in 1769 or 1770. He must have been a man of culture, refinement and education, as well as possessing means enabling him to enter into mercantile life, and also to be permitted to enter the social circle, however limited it may have been, in that important Virginia port and town. In youthful manhood, he had the reputation of being one of the rising business men and a favorite, even in the social life of the town. ” It shows social import and intelligence to have, so early, made the acquaintance of Colonel George Washington of Mount Vernon, who, after his services in the French and Indian war, and his co-operation with others against the Stamp Act and other unjustifiable actions of the British ministry, had settled down to the peaceful life of a Virginia planter.”

A long account is given, in Griffin’s American Catholic Historical Researches for January, 1909 of “Colonel John Fitzgerald, Aide-dc-Camp and Secretary to Washington. You can see more on this Boston College website:

Excerpt from the Diary of Colonel John Fitzgerald Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware, December 25-26, 1776
Christmas, 6 p.m….It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet, but I have not heard a man complain…I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now…He stands on the bank of the stream, wrapped his cloak superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife…
[3 A.M.] I am sitting in the ferry house. The troops are all over, and boats have gone back for the artillery. We are three hours behind the set time…[the fishermen directing the boats] have had a hard time to force boats through the floating ice with the snow drifting in their faces… …it was broad daylight when we came to a house where a man was chopping wood. He was much surprised when he saw us. “Can you tell me where the Hessian picket is?” Washington asked. The man brightened, and he pointed toward the house of Mr. Howell.
It was just eight o’clock. Looking down the road I saw a Hessian running out from the house. He yelled in Dutch and swung his arms. Three or four others came out with their guns. Two of them fired at us but the bullets whistled over our heads. Some of General Stephen’s men rushed forward and captured two. They took to their heels, running toward Mr. Calhoun’s house, where the picket guard was stationed, about twenty men under Captain Altenbrockum. They came running out of the house. The Captain flourished his sword and tried to form his men. Some of them fired at us, others ran toward the village. The next moment we heard drums beat and a bugle sound, and then from the west came the boom of cannon. General Washington’s face lighted up instantly, for he know that it was one of [General John Sullivan’s] guns.
We could see a great commotion down toward the meetinghouse, men running here and there, officers swinging their swords, artillerymen harnessing their horses. Captain Forrest unlimbered his guns. Washington gave the order to advance, and we rushed on the junction of King and Queen streets. Forrest wheeled six of his cannon into position to sweep both streets. The riflemen under Colonel Hand and Scott’s and Lawson’s battalions went upon the run through the fields on the left to gain possession of the Princeton Road. The Hessians were just ready to open fire with two of their cannon when Captain [William] Washington and Lieutenant [James] Monroe with their men rushed forward and captured them.
We saw [Colonel Johann] Rall [commander of the Hessians] riding up the street from his headquarters which were at Stacy Potts’ house. We could hear him shouting Dutch, “My brave soldiers, advance.” His men were frightened and confused, for our men were firing upon them from fences and houses and they were falling fast. Instead of advancing they ran into a apple orchard. The officers tried to rally them, but our men kept advancing and picking off the officers. It was not long before Rall tumbled from his horse and his soldiers threw down their guns and gave themselves up as prisoners…
[9 P.M.]…I have just been with General Washington and [Nathanael ]Greene to see Rall. He will not live through the night. He asked that his men might be kindly treated. Washington promised that he would see they were well cared for.” Source:
Quoted in Edward S. Gifford, Jr., The American Revolution in the Delaware Valley (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution, 1776), pages 40 – 43. 

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