Stephen Moylan: More than a War Hero

Detail of the Declaration of Independence broadside printed by John Dunlap in Philadelphia, 1776. Stephen Moylan may have been the first person to write the phrase, "United States of America," so prominently featured on the Declaration. (Library of Congress)

Serving on George Washington’s staff were many talented young men, including some who became famous later. Alexander Hamilton served on the staff ably for several years; his extraordinary career has earned him a place in theatrical history. Joseph Reed became president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Thomas Mifflin was the first governor of Pennsylvania and James McHenry served as secretary of war in the John Adams administration. Talented men like Tench Tilghman, Robert Harrison, and John Laurens[1] served on Washington’s staff. One of those who served Washington during most of the first two years of the Revolutionary War, both as a secretary and volunteer aide, was an Irishman, Stephen Moylan. He would have a varied and interesting career during the Revolutionary War. He also may have been the first to use one of the most important phrases in American history.

Stocky and plain looking, Moylan was born in Ireland to a middling sort of family which sent him to Portugal as a young man to learn the ropes in trading and shipping. In 1768 he traveled to Pennsylvania and settled in Philadelphia, a city open to various religions. As an Irish Catholic, he looked forward to opportunities in the bustling metropolis. He became the president of “The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick,” an immigrant organization he helped form. He was friendly with many of the prominent Whigs, including Charles Carroll.

In 1775, Moylan joined the Continental Army. With the recommendation of his friend John Dickinson he was appointed muster master for the fledgling army. Muster master was a post that dealt with keeping track of the personnel of the army, finances, and some logistics. In the new army it was a position of endless frustration as the organization slowly sorted itself out.

During those early days, George Washington found himself in need of young men to serve as his aides and secretaries. He wrote to Joseph Reed explaining that he needed someone more than just a clerk:

The business, as I hinted to you before, is considerably Increased, by being more comprehensive; and, at this time (from the great changes which have, and are happening every day) perplexed; so that you would want a good Writer, and a Methodical Man, as he should be a person in whose Integrety you can confide, and on whose capacity—care—& method you can rely. At present, my time is so much taken up at my Desk, that I am obliged to neglect many other essential parts of my Duty; it is absolutely necessary therefore for me to have person’s that can think for me, as well as execute Orders-[2]

Washington had known Moylan before the war and was pleased with his work as muster master; often Moylan would help the commander in chief with his paper work. On March 5, 1776, Washington appointed him a secretary on his staff with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Thomas Mifflin, frustrated with his job as quartermaster general, resigned his position and Washington recommended Moylan for the job. Taking over on June 7, 1776, Moylan soon found the job much more difficult than the aggravating job as muster master. A poor administrator, he found himself under constant criticism and unable to fulfill his duties. After the defeat in New York City, Washington himself pointed a finger at the quartermaster: “Our retreat from Long Island was made without any loss—so might that have been from New York, but for a defect in the department of the Quarter Master Genls not providing Teams enough;”[3] Moylan finally resigned on September 28, 1776 and returned to Washington’s staff as a volunteer aide.

Moylan served ably for Washington, riding great distances to deliver messages as well as doing mundane office chores. At the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, Moylan was with Washington when the commander in chief led the counterattack that routed the British.

Moylan was promoted to colonel and named commander of a dragoon regiment on January 5, 1777. His men participated in scouting and foraging expeditions. They were on picket duty at Brandywine on September 11, 1777 and screened a flank at Germantown on October 4, 1777. Casimer Pulaski was named commander of all of the army’s cavalry on September 15, 1777, causing problems in the independent regiments of cavalry. Pulaski and his aides, none of whom were American, arrogantly tried to instigate reforms among the free-spirited cavalrymen. Often bypassing regimental commanders, Pulaski and his staff offended the Americans. Moylan was confronted by one of Pulaski’s foreign officers berating the American soldiers and Moylan knocked him down. When confronted by Pulaski, Moylan sarcastically spoke in defense of his men. Pulaski, who spoke little English and was reluctant to learn it, preferred charges against Moylan but a court martial found the American not guilty.

Pulaski became frustrated, as were the American cavalry leaders with his haughty, overbearing personality; he finally resigned in March 1778. Moylan took command of the depleted cavalry corps and led it well during the Monmouth Campaign in June 1778, nipping at the British as they retreated from Philadelphia to the safety of New York. He spent the remainder of the war with a small group of cavalry in Virginia and was present at the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. He was given a brevet award of brigadier general after the war ended. The French traveler Marquis de Chastellux described Moylan as,” a very gallant and intelligent man, who lived long in Europe, and who had travelled through the greatest part of America. He was, “perfectly polite, for his politeness was not troublesome, and I soon conceived a great friendship for him.”[4]

Somewhat of a dandy, well dressed and articulate, Moylan served in several civic positions after the war, ran a successful business, and led an Irish fraternal organization. He died on April 13, 1811. He experienced an interesting life of distinction that anyone could be proud of. But there is more to Stephen Moylan’s legacy.

At the beginning of 1776, Moylan thought that the new nation needed an ambassador to Spain and that he could fulfill that role. On January 2, 1776, he wrote to Joseph Reed, Washington’s military secretary, to seek such a position. In the letter he included the sentence: “I should like vastly to go with full and ample powers from the United States of America to Spain.”[5] During this period it was common to refer to the rebelling states as the “united colonies” or “united provinces,” making Moylan’s reference important because this is probably the first time the words United States of America were written. The tract Common Sense by Thomas Paine, that urged independence, would not be published until January 10 and the Declaration of Independence would not be presented to Congress until June 28. Stephen Moylan was a friend of George Washington and a distinguished veteran of the American Revolution. He also deserves credit as the first to use our country’s name.

 

[1]“The Glorious Career and Unfortunate Death of John Laurens,” Journal of the American Revolution, September 11, 2018, allthingsliberty.com/2018/09/the-glorious-career-and-unfortunate-death-of-john-laurens/, and “Colonel Tench Tilghman: George Washington’s Eyes And Ears,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 27, 2016,  allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/colonel-tench-tilghman-george-washington-eyes-ears/.

[2]Washington to Joseph Reed, January 23, 1776. Philander D. Chase, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 3, 1 January 177631 March 1776, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 172-173.

[3]George Washington to Samuel Washington, October 6, 1776. Philander D. Chase and Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., ed.The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 6, 13 August 177620 October 1776,(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 487.

[4]Frank Monaghan, “Stephen Moylan in the American Revolution,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 19, no. 75, 1930, 486, www.jstor.org/stable/30094651.

[5]“Who Coined the Phrase “United States of America’? You May Never Guess” From the Stacks, New York Historical Society, Museum & Library, November 5, 2014, blog.nyhistory.org/coined-phrase-united-states-america-may-never-guess/.

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3 Comments

  • Signal in the air, and close up: BZ- Well Done!
    Stephen Moylan of Cork was one of six foreign-born heroes of the American War for Independence chosen to be represented in the museum in the base of the Statue of Liberty (Lafayette, France; John Paul Jones, Scotland; von Steuben, Germany; Kościuszko, Poland; General Stephen Moylan, Ireland; Commodore John Barry, Ireland). Along with John Barry, Stephen Moylan was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati. His brother, James Moylan, was Benjamin Franklin’s purchasing agent in France, most notably acquiring the BONHOMME RICHARD, to be, famously, commanded by John Paul Jones. Stephen Moylan is buried near his Society of the Cincinnati comrade-in-arms, Wexford-born John Barry, in Old Saint Mary’s churchyard, in their adopted home of Philadelphia.
    x Liam Ó Murchadha, Staraí
    Bord Contae Westchester
    Iar-Eagarthóir, National HIBERNIAN DIGEST
    Ord Ársa na nÉireannach i Merica (AOH)

  • Pulaski may have been haughty but as a Pole, descended from the famed Winged Hussars, he knew more about cavalry than the whole Continental Army combined. Poland produced the best heavy cavalry Europe ever produced. Napoleon swore by them. Frankly as a historian myself, the continentals were nowhere near as disciplined or educated at war. But Pulaski is remembered as the Father of American Cavalry.

  • There is no doubting Pulaski’s abilities or the contribution he made to the American war effort. The short time (six months) that he commanded the American cavalry must have been as frustrating for him as it was for the Americans. The intent of the story was not to disparage Pulaski’s reputation but tell how Moylan looked out for his men.

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