In the late 18th century, the Irish in America were some of the most ardent and loyal supporters of the cause of American independence from British rule. Recent scholarship has put the participation of the Irish and Scots-Irish in Washington’s Army at 40% and possibly more. A few of those Irishmen are fairly well known, such as Dublin-born General Richard Montgomery, who was killed during the assault on Quebec; County Wexford native Commodore John Barry, considered to be the “Father of the U.S. Navy” by some; Corkman General John Sullivan, a delegate to the 1st Continental Congress from New Hampshire and one Washington’s better generals; and more recently, thanks to the Broadway show, “Hamilton,” the spy Hercules Mulligan.
Geroge Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Park Custis, placed the significant Irish contribution to the American Revolution in a proper historical perspective:
“When our friendless standard was first unfurled for resistance, who were strangers [foreigners] that first mustered ’round its staff when it reeled in the fight, who more bravely sustained it than Erin’s generous sons? Who led the assault on Quebec [General Montgomery] and shed early luster on our arms, in the dawn of our revolution? Who led the right wing of Liberty’s forlorn hope [General Sullivan] at the passage of the Delaware [just before the attack on Trenton]? Who felt the privations of the camp, the fate of battle, or the horrors of the prison ship more keenly than the Irish? Washington loved them, for they were the companions of his toil, his perils, his glories, in the deliverance of his country.”
An Irish-born officer who was very prominent at the time but whose contributions to the cause have been obscured over time was another Corkman, Stephen Moylan. Moyland was born in 1737, probably in the Shandon section of northern Cork City. His family was one of the wealthiest Irish Catholic families in Cork. His father, John, known locally as “Seán na Long” (“John of the ships”), was a successful merchant, and his mother’s family, Mary Doran, was as well. As many such Catholic families in Ireland did during the Penal Law days of the 18th century, they sent Stephen and his brothers to France to be educated in Jesuit schools.
Stephen’s older brother, Francis (right), would be ordained in France and serve as a priest there for several years. He eventually returned to Cork and rose to be bishop. He became one of the most prominent members of the Irish clergy. Stephen also had two half-sisters who became Ursuline nuns.
Stephen Moylan had two younger brothers and a younger half-brother who would also assist the United States in winning its independence. James Moylan significantly contributed to the storied career of the famous John Paul Jones. James was born in 1741; by 1771, he had joined Stephen in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, founded on the principle of religious freedom by William Penn, offered Catholics a fair chance to succeed in commerce. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in the city, founded in 1733, was one of the first Catholic churches in the colonies.
Near the beginning of the war, James went to France, where he partnered with a French merchant named Gourlade. James was made the U.S. commercial agent in L’Orient and got involved in acquiring ships for the fledgling U.S. Navy.
In late 1778, James helped obtain a ship called “Duras” for Captain John Paul Jones. He realized the ship’s condition was not optimal, telling Jones, “I cannot recommend her to you for a lasting ship.” Jones was ready to do his best with whatever he could get. “She must be ours,” was his reply. The American representatives in France had little money, so France’s King Louis XVI paid to turn Duras into a 42-gun warship.
Duras would be renamed “Bonne Homme Richard” in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Moylan’s estimate of the ship proved correct, as the ship would not survive its first engagement. Despite that, it was aboard that ship that Jones would win lasting fame in his “I have not yet begun to fight” victory over HMS Serapis at the Battle of Flamborough Head on Aug 14, 1779. Jones’ ship sank after the British surrendered, and he sailed back to France in the Serapis. One of the keys to his victory also had an Irish connection. The Marines on Jones’ ship were members of Walsh’s regiment of the Irish Brigade of France.
James also negotiated a treaty allowing the new nation to sell tobacco to the French. This helped provide much-needed cash to finance the war. He never returned to the U.S., dying young in L’Orient in 1784.
Irish merchant families in the 18th century often sent their sons to establish business branches in other European cities. Around 1765, Stephen set up a branch of the family business in Lisbon, Portugal, along with cousin David Moylan. Another of Stephen’s younger brothers, John, was sent to Cadiz, Spain. In 1768, Stephen moved on to Philadelphia to set up another merchant venture there. In 1781, John also came to Philadelphia, perhaps to manage their business there while Stephen served in the war.
(Below: Major John André)
John would also contribute to winning the revolution when appointed the "clothier general" of Washington’s Army. Given the horrendous financial situation of the country at the time, one might call that a punishment rather than an honor, but John toiled mightily to help keep the troops clothed and shod. The neglect of his business interests left his finances depleted. Sometime after the war, he returned to Ireland and then to England, where he had to keep his U.S. government services a secret.
He died in Bath, England, in 1799. Interestingly, he felt so bad about the hanging of Major Andre, the British officer who assisted Benedict Arnold, that he left £500 to the Major’s brother in London as a “small measure of compensation for the wrong done him.”
(Below: Jaspar Moylan)
The fourth brother to come to Philadelphia was Stephen’s half-brother, Jaspar, whose mother was elder John’s 2nd wife, Alicia Joyce. At the war’s end, he served as an ensign in a Pennsylvania militia unit. After the war, Jaspar had a long career as a lawyer in Philadelphia. He was one of the founders of the Insurance Company of North America, the first marine insurance company in the U.S. The company still exists now as the CIGNA insurance company.
Stephen, John, until he left, and Jasper were known around Philadelphia as the “three polite Irishmen.” It was a back-handed compliment that managed to insult the Irish as a race while simultaneously being a sign of the Moylan’s respect in the community.
Stephen was well-educated, well-spoken, a dynamic leader, and said to have a great sense of humor. French General Francois Jean De Chastellux, author of “Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 & 1782,” became well acquainted with Moylan in the later part of the war. He gave this impression of Moylan: “ … a very gallant and intelligent man, who had lived long in Europe, and who has traveled through the greatest part of America. I found him perfectly polite; for his politeness was not troublesome, and I soon conceived a great friendship for him.”
(Below: The emblem of Friendly Sons of St. Patrick)
These qualities served him well in both business and society. The business Stephen set up in 1768 was quite successful. He was soon the owner or part owner of numerous ships. Stephen was well-received by Philadelphia society, despite being Irish and a papist. In 1770, he was invited to join the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club. He was also elected the first president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, which he helped to found on St. Patrick’s Day in 1771. This was another indication of the esteem in which he was held, as most of the original members were Protestants. Later members included Commodore John Barry, Generals “Mad” Anthony Wayne, John Cadwalader, William Irvine, Richard Butler, and William Thompson. Members of the Friendly Sons contributed 35% of the funds Robert Morris used to establish the Bank of the U.S., helping to supply the Continental Army.
George Washington would be made an honorary member after the war. Of this honor, he said: “I accept with singular pleasure the Ensign of . . . a Society distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked. Give me leave to assure you, Sir, that I shall never cast my eyes on the badge with which I am honored, but with a grateful remembrance of the polite and affectionate manner in which it was presented.”
By the time the 1st Continental Congress met, Moylan had become acquainted with many of the leading political figures during the lead-up to the rebellion. On Sept 24, 1774, John Adams recorded he “dined with Richard Penn ; a magnificent house and most splendid feast and a very large company; Mr. (john) Dickinson and General (Charles) Lee were there and Mr. Moylan, besides a great number of the Delegates.” The fact that he names Moylan and none of the other delegates is significant.
(Col. Joseph Reed)
Moylan became a staunch supporter of independence. After the 2nd Continental Congress had their “Olive Branch” proposal rejected by King George III in August 1775, Moylan was all in for the permanent split with Great Britain. In January 1775, he wrote to his friend Lt. Colonel Joseph Reed of General Washington’s staff: “Shall we never leave off debating and boldly declare independence?”
At that point, Moylan was already serving in the Continental Army. Washington had appointed him Muster-Master General on August 11, 1775, on the recommendation of John Dickinson. It was a job involved with keeping track of the army’s strength, training, and equipment.
Furthermore, in October, he was authorized to hire ships and buy or borrow cannon to raid British supply vessels. Given the new nation’s lack of resources, this was a Herculean effort. Congress would not officially authorize the U.S. Navy until the 1790s, but the ships Moylan helped acquire could be considered the beginning of that navy.
On March 24, 1776, Moylan was appointed an aide-de-camp to Washington. With that came a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. In June, Congress voted to appoint Moylan the 2nd Quartermaster General of the Army. He replaced his fellow Philadelphian, Thomas Mifflin, who resigned to take a combat command. The timing could not have been worse. The Army, still around Boston, was about to make its first significant change of position to defend New York City. To make it worse, Washington then decided to move a large part of the army to defend Brooklyn Heights on Long Island. With the British Navy having total control of the water, moving your army onto an island is a suspect strategy.
(Below: A company of the Maryland Regiment crossing Gowanus Creek
during the retreat on Long Island, as painted by Don Troinai.)
The disastrous American defeats at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (Long Island) and Harlem Heights made Moylan’s supply effort nearly impossible. Washington barely extricated his army from Long Island by small boats with the seemingly divine intervention of heavy fog. There was no way to rescue most of the supplies and wagons they had moved to the island to support them. This greatly inhibited Moylan’s ability to supply the army in the following weeks. As is often the case after military disasters, the politicians looked for people to blame. One could easily make the case that Washington was mainly to blame for the supply disaster, not Moylan. In September, Moylan resigned as Quartermaster when it became clear that Congress would place most of the blame on him. Thomas Mifflin was once again given the unenviable position.
Though he thought his treatment by Congress was unfair, Moylan did not give up on his commitment to fight for America’s independence. As he wrote to Washington after the war, “I entered the service in the first year of the war, with a firm determination of prosecuting it to the end. I made up my mind, and my affairs for that purpose. I have shared its fatigues, its dangers and its pleasures with Your Excellency ever since — a man who has sacrificed everything for the service of his country.”
(Below: George Washington in 1776, as painted
by Charles Willson Peale 1741-1827).
Washington had not lost his confidence in Moylan. Or perhaps he realized his own faulty strategy had made Moylan’s Quartermaster duties impossible. He took Moylan back on his staff. Moylan later wrote to Robert Morris of his exhilaration riding with Washington as the army pursued the defeated British following the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. “The feeling when pursuing the flying enemy is unutterable .. inexpressible. I know I never felt so much like one of Homer’s Deities before. We trod on air. It was a glorious day.”
Now that the army was mobile and not just laying siege to the enemy in Boston, Washington had a desperate need for cavalry. A few days after Princeton, Moylan was commissioned Colonel of the newly formed 1st Pennsylvania Regiment of Cavalry, later renamed the 4th Continental Light Dragoons, but usually referred to as Moylan’s Dragoons. The term “regiment” is, in some ways, a misnomer here. In most instances, the U.S. Army has considered a regiment to consist of 1000 men. The dragoon “regiments” were actually closer to company size, i.e. 100 men. Moylan would spend the rest of the war in cavalry commands. Supply problems were not magically corrected under Thomas Mifflin or the others who followed him as Quartermaster during the war. Moylan’s unit was forced to wear red uniform coats captured from the British.
On May 12, 1777, Washington wrote to Moylan about the dangers of these uniforms. “I therefore desire that you will immediately fall upon means for having the colour of the Coats changed, which may be done by dipping into that kind of dye that is most proper to put upon Red. I care not what it is, so that the present Colour be changed.” Moylan had just the color in mind for his regiment’s coats. He had them dyed green. No one would doubt what regiment they were seeing after that.
Among the men serving in Moylan’s Dragoons were General Washington’s nephew, William Washington, and Zebulon Pike. Pike’s Peak in Colorado was named for his son, also Zebulon, who was killed in the War of 1812. The number of men involved in the dragoon regiments was never large enough to make them a force in any significant battles. Their main use was in scouting, gathering intelligence, and guarding the army’s flanks. These were vital contributions to the final victory but lacked the glory of large cavalry formations fighting in great battles.
(Left: William Washington at the Battle of Cowpens.)
In the 2nd half of 1777, Washington brought in Casimir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman with military experience in Europe, to help train his nascent mounted units. Pulaski was commissioned a general and given command of all the cavalry units. He had a rather imperious attitude and limited English skills. This led to much friction with his American subordinates, including Moylan. Pulaski had Moylan court-martialed after one dispute with him, but the court acquitted him. Pulaski resigned his cavalry command in March 1778 and organized his own unit, the Pulaski Cavalry Legion. He was mortally wounded while leading a cavalry charge in October 1779 during the siege of Savannah.
(Below: Casimir Pulaski)
Moylan’s Dragoons shared the deprivations of the army in Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–78. Many were from Pennsylvania and used their area knowledge to guard the camp. When Pulaski resigned, Moylan was named overall commander of the cavalry corp, tiny as it was. Moylan’s men helped harass the retreating British returning to New York after the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. They spent the rest of the year patrolling northern New Jersey and keeping an eye on British forces around New York.
Throughout the war, Moylan would struggle to keep his corps armed, clothed, and, crucially for cavalry, mounted. Horses were used up quickly by the strenuous work demanded of them. Cavalry units were much harder to keep supplied than infantry units. In addition to needing the normal arms and ammunition, there had to be a constant supply of new horses, saddles and other tack, and food for the horses in addition to food for the troopers.
The lack of timely pay was also a problem for Moylan’s command. In July 1777, nineteen of Captain Craig’s dragoons took the nearly fatal step of attempting to march on Congress in Philadelphia to get their pay. In August, they were court-martialed, convicted, and sentenced to hang. General Washington commuted the sentences and had them transferred to infantry regiments.’
Moylan commanded his regiment along with Sheldon’s 2nd Dragoons and French Colonel Armand’s Legion for most of the next three years. Operating mainly in New York and Connecticut, he set up a base in Pound Ridge, NY. The British actively raided along the Connecticut coast in the summer of 1779. On July 11, Moylan led the 4th Dragoons as they took part in the effort to oppose a large British raid on Norwalk, CT. They captured four British soldiers in that action.
Moylan apparently had time for some personal pursuits during this time as well. The Middlebrook, New Jersey, home of former militia Colonel Col. Phillip Van Horne, became a frequent stop for American officers, including Moylan. With the various movements of the two armies around New Jersey, Van Horne would also sometimes host British officers. It was said that one day, he served breakfast to General Lincoln of the American army and lunch to British General Lord Cornwallis.
Van Horne had five daughters. In 1778 Moylan began to court one of them, Mary, who was known as the “Belle of Middlebrook.” They were engaged in July and married in October.
In 1780, there were only small engagements and raids going on as the Americans kept the British penned up in New York City. Moylans was involved in General Wayne’s failed attempt to capture a blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry, New Jersey, on July 20-21. Two days later, they participated in General Nathaniel Greene’s successful repulse of a 5,000-strong British force commanded by Hessian general Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen at Springfield, New Jersey. This battle was the last significant engagement of the war in the northern theater.
(Below: A trooper of Moylan's Dragoons, painted by Don Troiani.)
In the summer of 1781, Moylan and his dragoons joined in the Yorktown campaign. They were sent to serve with the troops of Generals Lafayette and Wayne, who were desperate for cavalry help. Moylan was at Yorktown for the surrender of Cornwallis but then left for Philadelphia due to health problems. He was brevetted to the rank of Brigadier General as the war ended.
Moylan continued to be a good friend of General and then President Washington. In 1785, he and his wife visited the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. He wrote to him saying, “… sincere thanks for the polite attentions which Mrs. Moylan and myself received from you & your good Lady during our agreeable sojourn at Mount Vernon. You may be assured it will be long remembered with pleasure.”
Moylan resumed his merchant business in Philadelphia and bought a farm near West Chester, where the family resided. He and Mary had two children that lived to adulthood, Elizabeth and Maria, and two more that did not. Mary passed away in 1795.
In 1792-93, Moylan served as Chester County Recorder of Deeds. Governor Mifflin, his army comrade, appointed him Major General in the Pennsylvania militia in May 1793. He was also appointed Commissioner of Loans for the State of Pennsylvania by President Washington in December of that year. In 1796, he was reelected president of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick.
Stephen Moylan died at age 74 on April 11, 1811, after what was called a “lingering illness.” He was once again living in Philadelphia then and is buried there in St. Mary’s Churchyard on 4th Street. Unfortunately, the location of his gravesite within the cemetery has been lost, though a memorial has been placed in the cemetery. Another thing about Moylan that had been lost for years was recently discovered through historical research.
Historians have always been on the lookout for the first mention of the term “United States of America” in the colonial period. For many years, people thought the first public mention was June 1776, weeks before Jefferson enshrined it in the Declaration of Independence. At least two members of the 2nd Continental Congress used the term United States of America that June. One was Moylan’s friend, Pennsylvania delegate John Dickenson, and the other was Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry. The anonymous writer Republicus, who may have been another member of Congress or possibly Thomas Paine, also used the term in a Philadelphia newspaper.
Then, researcher Byron DeLear found an earlier mention of the term in an anonymous, pro-independence essay by “A Planter.” It was published in the Williamsburg newspaper, the Virginia Gazette on April 6, 1776, but he continued to search.
In his latest research, Delear has found that the first known instance of the use of the United States of America was months earlier than that. It was in a letter discovered in the papers of Moylan’s friend, Joseph Reed. In a letter to Reed from Stephen Moylan dated January 2, 1776, when Moylan was hoping to be named ambassador to Spain, we see this: “I should like vastly to go with full and ample powers from the United States of America to Spain.”
Does this mean the name “United States of America” originated with Moylan and that it was then passed on by Reed and spread to others? There is no way to know. As far as is known, Moylan never made any claim to have invented the name. This letter was written while Moylan and Reed were both on Washington’s staff, and it could well be that the term was then commonly used among his staff and originated by someone else.
(Right: Stephen Moylan in his later years.)
Although born in Ireland, Stephen Moylan was as dedicated and patriotic an American as any then or since. He could have easily sat out the war in Philadelphia and probably made massive amounts of money transporting war-related supplies. A lesser man might have left the army after Congress blamed him for the supply disaster resulting from Washington’s imprudent decision to defend Long Island with the British controlling the sea around the island. But Moylan swallowed his pride, resigned as Quartermaster General, and continued to serve the nation. He then undertook another strenuous and often thankless task, helping provide Washington with a cavalry corp. His contributions to the birth of the United States deserve to be recognized more widely than they are. And it can be a source of pride for all who have Irish ancestry that an Irishman may have been the first person to put down on paper the words: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
Griffin, Martin (1909) ”Stephen Moylan, Muster-Master General, Secretary and Aide-de-Camp to Washington, Quartermaster-General, Colonel of Fourth Pennsylvania Light Dragoons and Brigadier-General of the War for American Independence, the First and the Last President of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Philadelphia.”
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