George Washington Parke Custis provided a suspenseful account of one of Washington’s greatest victories which kept the patriot cause alive. It mentions another worthy Alexandrian, Col. John Fitzgerald.
After his improbable victory at the Battle of Trenton, Washington engaged the British at Princeton on Jan. 3, 1777. The following is an excerpt from George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by His Adopted Son (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), pp. 190-192:
“We have often enjoyed a touching reminiscence of that ever-memorable event from the late Colonel Fitzgerald, who was aide to the chief, and who never related the story of his general’s danger and almost miraculous preservation, without adding to his tale the homage of a tear.
“The aide-de-camp [Fitzgerald] had been ordered to bring up the troops from the rear of the column ... Upon returning to the spot where he had left the commander-in-chief, he was no longer there, and, upon looking around, the aide discovered him endeavoring to rally the line which had been thrown into disorder by a rapid onset of the foe. 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. It was a last appeal to his soldiers, and seemed to say, Will you give up your general to the foe?.... The discomfited Americans rally on the instant, and form into line; the enemy halt, and dress their line; 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 levelled. Can escape from death be possible?
“Fitzgerald, horror-struck at the danger to 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 ….. The aide-de-camp ventures to raise his eyes … 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 …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!”
This victory saved Washington’s army from future British attack, showed that the patriot army could win against trained British troops and raised patriot morale. After the Revolution, Col. Fitzgerald hosted Washington, participated in business with him, and persuaded him to help found St. Mary’s Church (now Basilica).
Terence J. Riley