3

Fortnight For Freedom: Catholics in the American Revolution

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.

Pope Leo XIII

American Catholics, a very small percentage of the population of the 13 colonies, 1.6 percent, were overwhelmingly patriots and played a role in the American Revolution out of all proportion to the small fragment of the American people they represented.  Among the Catholics who assumed leadership roles in the fight for our liberty were:

General Stephen Moylan  a noted cavalry commander and the first Muster Master-General of the Continental Army.

Captains Joshua Barney and John Barry,  two of the most successful naval commanders in the American Revolution.

Colonel John Fitzgerald was a trusted aide and private secretary to General George Washington.

Father Pierre Gibault, Vicar General of Illinois, whose aid was instrumental in the conquest of the Northwest for America by George Rogers Clark.

Thomas Fitzsimons served as a Pennsylvania militia company commander during the Trenton campaign.  Later in the War he helped found the Pennsylvania state navy.  After the War he was one of the two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787

Colonel Thomas Moore led a Philadelphia regiment in the War.

Major John Doyle led a group of elite riflemen during the War.

The list could go on at considerable length.  Figures on how many Catholics served in the Continental Army or the American militias is speculative as records of religious affiliations were not normally kept.  From anecdotal evidence my guess would be at least five percent, far in excess of the Catholic percentage of the population.

The foreign volunteers who came to fight for our freedom were overwhelmingly Catholic, including LaFayette,  Duportail, Kosciuszko  and Pulaski.  Of course the French troops were almost all Catholic, and there were tens of thousands of them who saw service in the US.  The first mass in Boston was a funeral mass for a French soldier with members of the Continental Congress in attendance.  Washington on occasion attended mass during the War along with other Founding Fathers.

France serving as our ally in the American Revolution not only helped us win our freedom but also began to dispel the anti-Catholic prejudice held by most Americans prior to the Revolution.  After the alliance the British attempted to use anti-Catholicism to convince Americans to abandon the fight.  Here is a portion of a proclamation by the American traitor Benedict Arnold after he had turned his coat:

“What is America now but a land of widows, orphans, and beggars?–and should the parent nation cease her exertions to deliver you, what security remains to you even for the enjoyment of the consolations of that religion for which your fathers braved the ocean, the heathen, and the wilderness? Do you know that the eye which guides this pen lately saw your mean and profligate Congress at mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in Purgatory, and participating in the rites of a Church, against whose antichristian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.”

The effort proved futile.  Except for the Tory minority, Americans saw that the French were fighting to assist them and not to impose either French rule or the Catholic church upon them.  On July 4, 1779, at the invitation of the French minister Gerard, members of the Continental Congress attended Mass at St. Mary’s in Philadelphia for a Te Deum for American independence.

 

After the War Washington paid tribute to the role Catholics played in the American Revolution:

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the independent United States, and the brother of Daniel Carroll, a signer of the Constitution, and cousin of Charles Carroll of Carollton who signed the Declaration of Independence, summed up Catholic participation in the Revolution:

Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any of their fellow-citizens: They concurred with perhaps greater unanimity than any other body of men, in recommending and promoting that government, from whose influence America anticipates all the blessings of justice, peace, plenty, good order and civil and religious liberty.

Share With Friends
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

3 Comments

  1. Colonel Fitzgerald was one of the founding members of my church, St. Mary’s in Alexandria, VA. He hit up his friend General Washington for a donation to the building fund of the first church. So George Washington is on the original donor list to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the oldest Catholic Church in Virginia.
    Another great American president, Abraham Lincoln, allowed the builders of the first predominately black Catholic Church in D.C., St. Augustine’s, to hold a fundraising picnic on the White House grounds. There is a plaque in the back of the church commemorating this event.

  2. An excerpt from the diary of Colonel Fitzgerald on the battle of Trenton:

    “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 in 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 writing in the ferry house. The troops are all over, and the 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 the 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 very much surprised when he saw us. ‘Can you tell me where the Hessian picket is?’ Washington asked. The man hesitated, but I said, ‘You need not be frightened, it is General Washington who asks the question.’ His face 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. The others 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 knew 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 to 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 in 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 an 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.”

Comments are closed.