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Fitzgerald's Leave to Alexandria

As a former military officer, I recognize the importance of leave and liberty for troop morale. In the Marine Corps, it was common for Marines to take leave before and after deployment. Leave was earned at 2.5 days per month. Due to the pace of operations, Marines often accrued significant amounts of leave.


It was common for commanders to fret about pre-deployment leave. There was a concern that someone might do something stupid and not be able to make the deployment. However, for the most part, Marines spent time with family and friends. Most of the stories that I heard were about someone's vacation to the beach or Disneyland.


During the Revolutionary War, soldiers also took leave or were granted furloughs even in the middle of a war. In fact, during the winter at Valley Forge, George Washington had to implement a policy that clamped down on furloughs because of the high rates of desertion. Simply put, some soldiers were granted leave and never came back. Talk about a headache for commanders like General Washington!


Valley Forge was not the severest winter in terms of weather. However, it was a trying time as Washington sought to keep the Continental Army intact and capable of fighting the British when the winter ended. At that time, it was customary for armies to go into winter quarters. This was a European military tradition.


One of Washington's best military aides-de-camp was an Alexandria man named John Fitzgerald. Lt Colonel Fitzgerald was an Irishman by birth. He moved to Alexandria in 1769 and started a merchant business with a partner names Valentine Peers.


Lt. Col. Fitzgerald served in the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army. Due to his battlefield leadership, Washington asked him to join his "military family" i.e. his circle of trusted aides. Washington had several Alexandrians in his military family.


Fitzgerald accepted the position and served closely with Washington. The two men knew each other previously having done business together prior to the Revolutionary War.


In February 1778, Washington and his army were camped at Valley Forge. At this time, Fitzgerald was on leave from Valley Forge. On February 28, 1778, Washington wrote a letter to Fitzgerald that thanked him for his part in helping to uncover the Conway Cabal, which was an internal plot to overthrow Washington as commander-in-chief. Washington wrote, "I thank you sincerely for the part you acted at York respecting C-y's letter."


Washington did not spell out the name Conway in his correspondence. This is a reference to General Thomas Conway, who was one of the central figures in the plan to replace Washington with Horatio Gates, the commander from the Battle of Saratoga.


Washington's reference is to York, Pennsylvania where the Continental Congress fled after the British captured Philadelphia on September 26. 1777. There were some members of Congress that also had an interest in removing Washington from command. Fitzgerald appears to have had a small role in helping Washington during this period of political intrigue.


Later in Washington's letter, the commander-in-chief wrote, "remember me in the most affectionate terms to all my old friends & acquaintance in Alexandria."


While in Alexandria on March 17, 1778, Fitzgerald wrote a reply to Washington. In his letter, he discussed the fallout from the Conway Cabal. By that time, the plot against Washington had been defeated. Washington was grateful to have friends like Fitzgerald, who worked behind the scenes, to uncover the machinations of the plotters. It was a good thing that Fitzgerald was on leave to help his friend from Alexandria!


Fitzgerald's Warehouse at the foot of King Street
Fitzgerald's Warehouse at the foot of King Street in Old Town Alexandria (Photo take 4/27/2023)

But, that was not the only thing Fitzgerald accomplished while on leave from Valley Forge. We can see one of the remnants of his leave to this day. At the foot of King Street, there is a building known as Fitzgerald's warehouse.


On April 27, 1778, John Fitzgerald purchased the property upon which his warehouse would be built. At the time, the property was still in the mudflats of the Potomac River. It would not be usable until the land was filled in or "banked out."


Alexandria's shoreline was once a crescent shape and the edge of the city was up on the banks of the Potomac. Today, we see how the city slopes down to the water. The high banks are gone. They were filled in many years ago so that local business owners such as Fitzgerald could build the wharves and piers needed to operate their businesses.


As a port city, Alexandria's commerce was tied to the deep waters of the Potomac where ships could travel and disembark goods from all over the world. Note the sail loft at the top of the building. This was used in ship repairs and construction. It is a nice reminder of Alexandria's maritime commercial roots.


After the Revolutionary War, Fitzgerald continued to expand his business. However, he had some ups and downs in his career. A lot of businessman speculated on land, and Fitzgerald was one of them. While some made wise investments, others accrued a lot of debt and weren't as fortunate. It appears that Fitzgerald may have been in the latter category.


Nevertheless, the legacy of Fitzgerald's period of leave from Valley Forge is visible to this day at the building known as Fitzgerald's warehouse. There is a gift shop and a Starbucks. But, the original structure remains intact including the distinctive sail loft, which can still be seen.


Alexandria's original map
Alexandria's original layout. Note the crescent shape and the shaded in mudflats. That area was banked out to create the location where the wharves and warehouses would be.




John Fitzgerald Alexandria
John Fitzgerald plaque on the side of the warehouse






























Fitzgerald's warehouse now a Starbucks
Inside of Fitzgerald's Warehouse. Now a Starbucks..





















Sources:

  • Office of Historic Alexandria. Fitzgerald's Warehouse King and Union Streets. Link to study.

  • Founder's Online. Link to Washington letter and Fitzgerald letter





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