Catholics in the American Revolution

Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.

Pope Leo XIII

American Catholics, a very small percentage of the population of the 13 colonies, 1.6 percent, were overwhelmingly patriots and played a role in the American Revolution out of all proportion to the small fragment of the American people they represented.  Among the Catholics who assumed leadership roles in the fight for our liberty were:

General Stephen Moylan  a noted cavalry commander and the first Muster Master-General of the Continental Army.

Captains Joshua Barney and John Barry,  two of the most successful naval commanders in the American Revolution.

Colonel John Fitzgerald was a trusted aide and private secretary to General George Washington.

Father Pierre Gibault, Vicar General of Illinois, whose aid was instrumental in the conquest of the Northwest for America by George Rogers Clark.

Thomas Fitzsimons served as a Pennsylvania militia company commander during the Trenton campaign.  Later in the War he helped found the Pennsylvania state navy.  After the War he was one of the two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787

Colonel Thomas Moore led a Philadelphia regiment in the War.

Major John Doyle led a group of elite riflemen during the War.

The list could go on at considerable length.  Figures on how many Catholics served in the Continental Army or the American militias is speculative as records of religious affiliations were not normally kept.  From anecdotal evidence my guess would be at least five percent, far in exess of the Catholic percentage of the population.

The foreign volunteers who came to fight for our freedom were overwhelmingly Catholic, including LaFayette,  Duportail and Pulaski.  Of course the French troops were almost all Catholic, and there were tens of thousands of them who saw service in the US.  The first mass in Boston was a funeral mass for a French soldier with members of the Continental Congress in attendance.  Washington on occasion attended mass during the War along with other Founding Fathers.

After the War Washington paid tribute to the role Catholics played in the American Revolution:

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the independent United States, and the brother of Daniel Carroll, a signer of the Constitution, and cousin of Charles Carroll of Carollton who signed the Declaration of Independence, summed up Catholic participation in the Revolution:

Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any of their fellow-citizens: They concurred with perhaps greater unanimity than any other body of men, in recommending and promoting that government, from whose influence America anticipates all the blessings of justice, peace, plenty, good order and civil and religious liberty.

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  1. Thanks for this report. Any thoughts on the Catholic contribution to the British side? I imagine many Irish soldiers, some Scots, etc. Please share your insights.

  2. There were of course quite a few Irish Catholics among the British regulars, probably about 25%, Ireland being a chief recruiting ground for the Royal Army. The French Canadians were almost all on the side of the British Crown during the War, the Quebec Act having granted them a measure of self-government, to the ire of many anti-Catholic Americans. Some Catholic Americans did fight for the crown, but their numbers were quite small, probably in the hundreds. One group was organized in New York calling themselves the Roman Catholic Volunteers. They were eventually disbanded by the British, proving themselves only proficient in plundering and militarily useless. On the other hand the Irish Volunteers, mostly Catholics, were a very good unit that after the War was taken into the Royal Army as a regular unit, the 105th Regiment of Foot.

  3. You mentioned Pulaski but not Kosciuszko, who engineering skill ensured the American victory at Saratoga, which led to official French recognition. Pulaski was arguably the father of American cavalry, despite lukewarm support from Washington. As far as Moylan is concerned, he butted heads with Pulaski on several occasions and conspired to undermine Pulaski’s authority, which led to Pulaski resigning to organize his Legion…there is no evidence that Moylan had any battlefield skill…and much to suggest was felt more comfortable with his flask.

  4. Pulaski was a brave and talented cavalry commander who had a quarrelsome disposition which undercut his effectiveness. You libel Moylan who was an effective cavalry commander getting valuable information to Washington about the British forces prior to the Battle of Monmouth. Kosciuszko was a good engineer, as he proved throughout the War, but I think you overstate his role in the Saratoga campaign. Morgan and Arnold, along with hordes of enraged American militia were much more important in that victory. I would have mentioned him if I had intended the list to be a comprehensive one, which was not my intent.

  5. If anti-Catholicism had not been so prevalent in the Colonies, I suspect Quebec may have entered the war on the American side. When approached by the Americans, Quebec flatly rejected them – not because of love for Great Britain, but because of the Americans’ attitude towards the Catholic Church….yet another episode in history where being anti-Catholic is just plain stupid.

    The French soldiers, sailors and officers were certainly almost 100% Catholic. Let us not overlook the contributions of Spain. Then-Catholic Spain did fight in the War for Independence on the side of the United States. The Spanish Navy wreaked havoc on Great Britain in the Caribbean Sea and the Spaniards kicked the British Navy out of the Mississippi Valley.

    While the numbers of American Catholics in the War for Independence were understandably small, the Catholic contribution from France and Spain played no small part in the defeat of Great Britain. Under the Treaty of Paris, Spain got Florida back from England (later ceded by Madrid to the US in 1821).

    As we know, things did not end well for the Catholic monarchies in France and Spain. France was drained financially after the war and it was only six years after the Treaty of Paris that the Reign of Terror began.

    Spain was invaded by Bonaparte in the first decade of the 19th century and Great Britain, of all nations, fought to liberate Spain. Spain lost almost its entire empire less than 25 years after the Treaty of Paris. Eventually, most of Spain’s landholdings in North America ended up as the American West, which was evangelized by Catholic missionaries long before there was anyone who spoke English settled in the present day US.

  6. Yes, Pulaski was quarrelsome…frustrated I suspect by the language barrier and the American distrust of foreign officers, but his problems with Moylan were fundamentally driven by the American lack of understanding of the role and potential of cavalry. Gathering intelligence was an important role and Moylan may have done well in that role, but he was not a battlefield commander. With with rare exceptions, Light Horse Harry Lee being the most prominent, American cavalry played no significant battlefield role in the major battles of the revolution…Tarleton showed what impact a couple of hundred well trained cavalry could have when he scattered the Virginia legislature and almost captured Thomas Jefferson.

    Koscuiszko’s fortifications at Bemis Heights, selected by both he and Arnold, forced the British to try and outflank them, requiring them to fight in wooded terrain giving Morgan’s men and the militia an advantage they would not have enjoyed if the British could just push up the road along the Hudson.

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