Black and White in Irish History


Edward Fitzgerald was born on October 15 1763 to Lord James Fitzgerald, a peer in the Irish Aristocracy, educated in Dublin and on the death of his father in 1773, the family relocated to France.  There young Edward learned of the activities of the American colonies in the French press.  Like most young sons of men of property, he joined the British Army and at 16, he received a commission in the 19th Regiment of Foot.  He sailed from Cork to join a force that had just captured Charleston, South Carolina in the American Revolution.

Edward arrived as the British began a march inland from Charleston.  After 60 miles, they were met by American troops.  After a four-hour battle, both sides left the field leaving 600 American and 400 British wounded or dead alongside Eutaw Creek.  It was a pointless battle, for nothing was gained by either side. It was also the last engagement of the Revolution, for General Cornwallis was about to surrender.  However, on September 8, 1781, as darkness fell on Eutaw Creek, figures moved quietly among the dead and dying. There were doctors looking for wounded, sweethearts looking for loved ones, scavengers looking for plunder, and there was Tony Small – an African slave who had been abandoned by his master fleeing the conflict. Tony was searching for food or anything he could swap for food when he heard a groan.  It sounded like a man, but he looked down into the face of a boy in a British officer’s uniform.  Alive, but barely conscious, he had been overlooked by the search parties of both sides. Thinking he could barter him for money, Tony lifted the young soldier on his strong shoulders and carried him away to his shack.  Later, Lord Edward Fitzgerald opened his eyes to see a tall black figure washing and binding his wound.  He was not startled, for his liberal education had taught him that mankind was basically good, and before him, instead of a slave, he saw a black Samaritan.  As he was nursed back to health, Lord Edward offered Tony a new life, and a paid position as his companion.  Tony seized the opportunity, but had no idea he would be bound to this charismatic young man for the rest of his life – not by service, but by devotion.

They sailed for London where Lord Edward entered politics as a representative from Kildare .  His belief in human rights led him to seek many reforms for Ireland.  He soon found that his enthusiasm for reform and religious emancipation was not shared by the Ascendancy who relied on the Crown for their policy and power.  To boost his sagging morale Lord Edward and Tony traveled to America in 1788.  In America, he was reminded of his own Irish tenants when he saw, “a whole tract of country, peopled by Irish who came out not worth a shilling, and now have all new farms worth thousands of Pounds.” This confirmed his belief in equality for without a ruling class, equality brought happiness and prosperity.

In their travels they were introduced to the ways of the Iroquois – no monarch, no political parties, no standing army, and no system of inheritance.  Their travels with Chief Joseph of the Mohawks reinforced Edward’s opposition to royalty when the Chief complained of the British betrayal in handing over Indian land to the new U.S. government.  Chief Joseph brought them to Detroit into the care of Chief David of the Seneca nation. The Seneca made Edward a Chief of their tribe.  Then,  Edward and Tony headed for New Orleans where they learned of the French Revolution.

In 1791, Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, published a pamphlet entitled The Rights of Man in which he claimed the American and French Revolutions renewed the natural order of things, and restored the natural dignity of man.  Combined with his experience with Tony, his life among the Indians and the French Revolution, The Rights of Man solidified the political idealism of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, converting him from a radical to a republican.  He became a close friend of Paine, and partly from their conversations, Paine published the second installment of The Rights of Man in 1792.  In it he proposed a radical redistribution of government wealth from fighting war and supporting an aristocracy to assisting the poor and elderly.  The book and its ideas spread rapidly.  In August, Paine fled to France to avoid arrest in England.  Lord Edward and Tony followed him.

At a dinner on 18 November, Lord Edward proposed a toast, “The armies of France: may the example of its citizen soldiers be followed by all enslaved countries, til tyrants and tyranny are extinct.”  Then Edward Fitzgerald, 5th son of Ireland’s premiere peer, nephew of the Duke of Richmond, and great-great-grandson of Charles II, renounced his inherited title of Lord and became Citizen Edward Fitzgerald.  He had become a revolutionary; all he now needed was his own army.  He conferred with fellow Irishman and republican, Henry Sheares, and with Tom Paine about the possibility of repeating the French Revolution in Ireland.  He reasoned that with French support, a force of 4,000 volunteers could take the undermanned garrisons in Ireland in three months.  Paine agreed to talk to the Foreign Minister.  Fitzgerald set off for Ireland with Tony Small, but first he had to stop in London and introduce his family to his new wife, Pamela Seymour.

In Ireland, he took his seat in a different parliament than he had left.  He was drawn into a debate on equality, and was censured for blaming unrest on the government.  His former colleagues now began to fear him.  Claiming pride in being on a level with his fellow citizens, he scorned his horse and strode the Dublin streets with his wife and Tony Small by his side. They were a curious trio for he dressed, not like a Lord, but in ordinary clothes with a green cravat around his neck; his wife was also a misfit for she was not only French, but Catholic as well; and then there was Tony, a black man who puzzled people as to whether he was bodyguard, servant, or friend.

Citizen Fitzgerald found his calling when Hamilton Rowan introduced him to the Society of United Irishmen – an organization founded to “forward a brotherhood of affection and a union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions.” He met Napper Tandy, Thomas Addis Emmet, and Wolfe Tone, and began to influence them with his revolutionary ideas.  However, the revolution in France made England strengthen her military in Ireland to frustrate anything that resembled reform; Hamilton Rowan was jailed for sedition.  Between the Crown’s abuse and Edward’s urging, the United Irishmen gradually turned revolutionary.  The story of the United Irishmen and the Rising of 1798 has been told by many, but until Stella Tillyard’s biography of Lord Edward, entitled Citizen Lord, appeared in 1998, the tremendous influence of this sensitive, caring man of principle and his black companion was little known.  In 1795, Fitzgerald and Tony moved to a secluded villa in Kildare to train a rebel army!  In October, under growing government repression, Fitzgerald took his pregnant wife, their son and Tony to Hamburg where his daughter, little Pam was born while he and Tony slipped into Switzerland to meet a French representative.  In June 1796, French General Hoche was given charge of a French invasion force and Fitzgerald and his family returned to Ireland.

They found Ireland in a state of unrest.  The government had increased penalties for disaffection and reduced the rights of the accused.  The United Irishmen tried to unite both communities against the Crown, but the government promoted division and moved against the United Irishmen arresting leaders as soon as they were identified.  As the only leader with military experience, Fitzgerald was planning strategy and drilling units, but he was running out of money.  On November 5, he mortgaged his estate.  At Christmas, a French invasion force came, but a winter storm prevented them from landing and they returned to France.  Hopeful that they would come again, United Irish continued recruiting and British reaction intensified. As a marked man, Fitzgerald could no longer be seen with Tony who was an easy sign of his identity.  In one instance, Tony saw troops approaching and hurried Fitzgerald out a back door.  Knowing he was a clue to recognition, Tony wept as he let Fitzgerald flee alone.

Fitzgerald was reported in dozens of towns, appearing and departing without a trace; he had become a mythical figure, a master of disguises, and his legend grew. In truth, he never left Dublin where, as the new leader of the Society, he rebuilt the Executive Committee.  On 19 May, he was betrayed and a party of Yeomen burst in his bedroom and demanded his surrender. He sprang from the bed, and in the ensuing scuffle was stabbed, battered and shot twice in the shoulder.  He was taken to Newgate Jail.  His wife and Tony appealed to see him, but the government ordered their extradition and they left for London. The British had to decide what to do with him.  He was a Lord, and brother of Ireland’s leading peer, and was tremendously popular with the common people.  A public trial might start the rising they all feared.  They finally decided on the answer; though his wounds were not serious, they would not treat him.  The bullets were left in his shoulder, and the wound infected. Septicaemia spread through his body, and tortured his mind.  Mad with fever, he shouted, “Dear Ireland, I die for you,” and “My country, you will be free.”  Then on June 4, after 16 days of intense pain, Edward Fitzgerald died of his wounds. The uncoordinated risings of the United Irishmen were put down by the British military throughout the summer of 1798.

The rising which made Lady Pamela a widow, made her and the Fitzgerald children paupers as well.  Tony and his wife Julie cared for Lady Pamela and little Pam until she later married the American Consul in Hamburg.  Tony then broke his life long association with the family of his dearest friend, and he and Julie settled in London where a few years later, it was said he died of a broken heart.  Today his descendants walk through the streets of London brushing shoulders with the descendants of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his United Irish associates – both unknown to each other and to history.

America’s First Woman Wounded Warrior

With Memorial Day just behind us, Flag Day on June 14 and the Fourth of July ahead, it may be a good time to remember America’s first Woman Wounded Warrior.  Although she is often confused with Molly Pitcher, Margaret ‘Captain Molly’ Corbin was a totally different heroine who was almost forgotten by history.  She was born Margaret Cochran on Nov 12, 1751 on the American frontier in western PA  to Irish immigrant Robert Cochran and his wife Sarah.  When Margaret was five years old, her father was killed in an Indian raid and her mother was kidnaped.  Margaret and her brother, John, escaped the raid and went to live with their uncle.

At 21, Margaret married a farmer named John Corbin.  When the American Revolution began, John enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery, a part of what was called ‘the line of Ireland’ by General ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee.  As was common at the time, Margaret accompanied her husband in his enlistment, joining the other women in cooking, washing, and caring for the wounded soldiers.  Margaret’s forceful personality won her the nickname ‘Captain Molly’ from the other women in the camp.

On November 16,1776, while stationed in Fort Washington, NY, the fort was attacked by the Brits.  John Corbin was on a canon crew that was slowly being decimated by enemy fire. When at last John was killed, Margaret sprang into action and began loading and firing the cannon by herself until she was wounded by grapeshot which tore her shoulder, mangled her chest and lacerated her jaw.  The fort was captured by the British, but the wounded Americans were paroled.  They were ferried across the river to Fort Lee and then transported in a jolting wagon all the way to Philadelphia.  Margaret never recovered fully from her wounds and was left without use of her left arm for the rest of her life.  Life was extremely difficult for this wounded warrior since she had no way to earn a living.  She even had trouble bathing and dressing and needed special care.  In June, 1776 the Commonwealth  of Pennsylvania gave her $30.00 to help with expenses in recognition of her bravery, but this didn’t go far.

Margaret had trouble getting along with the local women in town because of her blunt and tactless personality.  They considered her unsophisticated, unfriendly and unclean especially since she spent most of her time at the post smoking her pipe and conversing with soldiers.  The Philadelphia Society of Women planned to erect a monument honoring her as the first heroine of the Battle of New York, but when they met with her they discovered that she was a ‘hard-drinking impoverished veteran’ and cancelled the monument.  It seems the unpolished reality of her personality was unacceptable to the Philadelphia Society of Women

Nevertheless, in 1779 she received unprecedented aid from the government as Congress’s Board of War, impressed with her service and bravery, granted her half the monthly pay of a soldier and an annual clothing allowance.  She was even given a rum ration and the government added in some back pay. With this act, Congress made Margaret Corbin the first woman in the United States to receive a military pension.  She was included on military rolls until the end of the war when she was transferred to the Corps of Invalids, created by Congress for wounded soldiers.  In 1781, the Corps of Invalids became part of the garrison at West Point, NY.  Here, she performed many helpful tasks such as cooking and laundry.  In Major Boynton’s History of West Point, Captain Molly is described as “usually appearing with an artilleryman’s coat over her skirts. She was brusque, coarse, red-haired, wholly wanting in feminine charms, and one of her biographers has recorded that she made use of swear words”  She died in Highland Falls, NY on Jan 16, 1800, at the age of 48.  In an age of Victorian values the smokin’, drinkin’ and cussin’ heroine of the Revolution was hardly the image of an American lady and Captain Molly was soon forgotten.

All the help she received from the government however, clearly indicates how highly her military contemporaries appreciated her acts of bravery. Though she never got her monument in Philadelphia, today three commemorative plaques celebrating her memory can be found in New York’s Fort Tryon Park near the Fort Washington battle site.  One tablet, erected in 1909, commemorates her as “the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the War for Liberty“; the entrance to the park is named Margaret Corbin Circle in her honor.    A large Art Deco mural depicting the battle scene decorates the lobby of a nearby building at 720 Fort Washington Avenue.

In 1926, the 50th anniversary of American independence prompted a search for her forgotten burial site.  Her overgrown grave was finally discovered and her body was exhumed and identified by the wounds she incurred in the war.  The Daughters of the American Revolution had her remains re-buried with full military honors in the West Point Cemetery and erected the Margaret Corbin Memorial, making her the only Revolutionary War veteran honored in this way.  Today, Captain Molly’s grave and memorial can be seen behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point – a tribute to a young Irish-American girl, born on the frontier, who grew to become America’s first woman wounded warrior.