How George Washington Celebrated St. Paddy’s Day at Valley Forge


One aspect of the Father of Our Country that is little known is how many Irish friends and officers he had and how supportive he was both of the Irish in America and the Irish pursuit of independence from the British back in Ireland. Today is St. Patrick’s Day, celebrating both Irish culture in general and particularly the world-changing saint who converted Ireland to Catholicism and guaranteed the preservation of Western civilization. So, in honor of the holiday, I’d like to share a story about how George Washington diffused a dangerous quarrel in his Revolutionary Army and honored St. Patrick’s Day at the same time.

Related: ‘Unwoke’ Free-for-All #30: The Great St. Patrick’s Day Cabbage Debate

Washington had many Irish generals, aides, and friends both before, during, and after the American Revolution. Among them was his favorite aide, Irish Catholic immigrant John Fitzgerald. Another was his aide and the man credited with first calling this country the United States of America, Irish Catholic immigrant Stephen Moylan. Washington’s key spy during the war was Irish Presbyterian immigrant Hercules Mulligan. He also reportedly felt increasing sympathy with the Irish quest for freedom from British rule as the American fight for independence progressed. So what happened at Valley Forge on St. Patrick’s Day 1778 is not surprising.

The German and Irish soldiers in the Revolutionary Army were all too often at loggerheads, as historian Niall O’Dowd notes. This was partly because the Germans were often recruited as a sort of military police, and the Irish were more than a little apt to drink and carouse and thus get punished by the MPs. The fact that many of these Germans didn’t speak English only complicated the situation and led to misunderstandings.

But on St. Patrick’s Day 1778, as the grueling winter at Valley Forge wore tempers thin, Col. Allan McLane recalled that Washington had to put a stop to an argument that threatened to grow serious. From O’Dowd’s book George Washington and the Irish and the Pennsylvania Historical Society:

[S]ome of the Pennsylvania Germans made a Paddy and displayed it on Saint Patrick’s Day to the great indignation of the Irish in the camp. [A Paddy is a scarecrow covered with bits of green cloth and a bishop’s mitre—it was a Protestant way of insulting both St. Patrick and Irish Catholics.]

[The Irish] assembled in large bodies under arms, swearing for vengeance against the New England troops saying they had got up [that is, created] the insult. The affair threatened a very serious issue; none of the officers could appease them.

At this, Washington, having ascertained the [claims of] entire innocence [from] the [German] troops rode up to the Irish and kindly and feelingly argued with them, and then requested the Irish to show the offenders and he would see them punished.

They could not designate anyone [specifically]. ‘Well,’ said Washington, with great promptness, ‘I too am a great lover of Saint Patrick’s Day, and must settle the affair by making all the army celebrate the day.’

He therefore ordered extra drink to every man of his command and thus all made merry and were good friends.

That wasn’t the only memorable March 17 during the Revolution. On St. Patrick’s Day 1780, Washington commanded the whole army to celebrate a holiday “held in particular regard by the people of [Ireland].” That week, Washington and some of his staff attended a dinner where they drank toasts to the freedom fighters back in Ireland and to “St. Patrick: The Volunteer of Ireland: May the cannons of Ireland bellow until the nation be free.”

Have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day!

Las Vegas News Magazine

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