John Fitzgerald emigrated as a young man from the County Wicklow, south of Dublin, Ireland, and settled in Alexandria, Virginia in 1769. Like the majority of Irish Catholics who came to the American colonies, John Fitzgerald would support the American cause for independence and offer his service toward the war effort. This service included Fitzgerald being a part of General Washington’s military family at Valley Forge. Although absent for a good part of the six month encampment, aide-de-camp Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald filled the role of personal express courier for General Washington, and upon his return to Valley Forge, assisted other aides with correspondence writing and other administrative duties vital to the Continental Army’s continued existence. Fitzgerald’s American experience began with his settlement in Alexandria, Virginia.
Upon his settlement in Alexandria, John became a partner in the mercantile business, Fitzgerald and Peers. Being established within miles of Mount Vernon, he would become a business acquaintance, neighbor, and good friend of George Washington. It was a friendship that would last a lifetime.
With the outbreak of war in April, 1775, Fitzgerald joined the Continental Army outside Cambridge, Massachusetts, in March of 1776. Promoted to the rank of major in the 3rd Virginia Regiment on 3 October, Major John Fitzgerald became a trusted aide-de-camp for his hometown friend, Commander-in-Chief George Washington the following month in November of 1776. Having been promoted to Lt. Colonel, the first letter Fitzgerald is known to have drafted for Washington as an aide-de-camp was written on 2 December 1776. He would serve at the Battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777.
Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald would be absent during much of the late 1777-1778 Continental army encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Records indicate that he was sent to his home state of Virginia with a packet of letters and did not return to Valley Forge until May of 1778. Lt. Col. Fitzgerald left Valley Forge with the rest of Washington’s staff on 19 June 1778. Fitzgerald was involved with the Continental Army at the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June 1778. During the crucial morning fight, he reportedly rode up to General Charles Lee carrying a dispatch from General Washington demanding an explanation for the army’s retreat from the field.1 Later, Fitzgerald would be among Washington’s aides who testified at the court marshal hearing against Charles Lee. Wounded during the battle, John Fitzgerald resigned his commission shortly after Monmouth and returned to civilian life.
Fitzgerald returned to Alexandria, Virginia in late 1778 to continue his mercantile business. He would be elected mayor of Alexandria in 1783 following the successful end of America’s War for Independence. His continued close friendship with George Washington after the war led to Fitzgerald becoming one of four directors in George Washington’s post-war business venture, the Potomac River Canal. This attempt by Washington to construct a canal around the rapids on the Potomac River, near present-day Washington, D.C., never materialized.
The election of George Washington as the first President of the United States in 1789 placed John Fitzgerald in a new political role for the city of Alexandria. He would serve on Alexandria’s city council beginning in February 1784. During the spring of 1793, Fitzgerald was appointed as the local collector of customs for the port of Alexandria.
The lifetime friendship between Fitzgerald and George Washington would come to an end just days before Washington’s death on 14 December 1799. The same month, John Fitzgerald declared bankruptcy and died within weeks of George Washington. Although the date of Fitzgerald’s death is uncertain, one source places his death on 2 December 1799.3 The same source declaring his death, records that John Fitzgerald was buried in the Saint Mary’s Catholic Church cemetery of Alexandria. New evidence suggests that John Fitzgerald is buried on land he owned in Maryland across from his beloved town of Alexandria.
1. Washington’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman in his 1968 abridged edition of his biography, Washington, credits Lt. Col. Fitzgerald with carrying Washington’s letter of 30 June 1778 to Charles Lee. This letter responded to Lee’s original letter inquiring about the charges brought on him for his actions at Battle of Monmouth. According to Freeman, Fitzgerald returned back to General Washington with Lee’s response to the accusations. Page 401.
2. See www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/John Fitzgerald.
3. See newspapers.bc.edu. p.3: The Sacred Heart Review, Vol. 41, Number 6, 30 January 1909. Boston College Library.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Washington: An abridgment of the 7-volume biography, George Washington. New York, MacMillan Publishing Company. 1948, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1957.
Lefkowitz, Arthur S. George Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. Mechanicsburg, Pa., Stackpole Books. 2003.
http://newspapers.bc.edu/The Sacred Heart Review/Volume41/number6/30january1909.
Last updated: February 20, 2019