Edward Fitzgerald Sr., (1785-1857) Purser USN

By John G. M. Sharp

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Edward Fitzgerald Sr., Purser USN, had a long and distinguished naval career. A veteran of the War of 1812, he served with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie and again in the second Barbary War. Author Herman Melville who served with Fitzgerald aboard the frigate United States used him for a character in his novel White Jacket. In October 1844, Fitzgerald gained unwanted notoriety as the respondent in Commonwealth vs. Edward Fitzgerald re Robert Lucas. This important case settled the issue of whether enslaved persons could enter naval service. At the time of his death Fitzgerald was the longest serving naval purser.

Edward Fitzgerald Sr. was born circa 1785 in Pennsylvania and came to District of Columbia in 1804. He secured an appointment at the Washington Navy Yard as Assistant Clerk of the Yard, possibly with the help of Captain John Cassin also a Pennsylvania native. Commodore Thomas Tingey, writing to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith on 9 July 1806, provides the earliest description of Edward Fitzgerald.

Tingey stated that Fitzgerald was previously “employed with your permission at $350 – per annum, as an assistant to the Clerk of the Yard, to enable me always to have one to copy my letters and orders, and occasionally to draw out accounts.” He admitted reservations as to Fitzgerald’s handwriting, a crucial job skill. “I was desirous also that he should keep my Books of receipts and expenditures of public money. But, although he appear’d well versed in figures, his hand writing did not admit to that part of the of tedious duty I therefore determined to dispense with his services…”

John Cassin however desired to retain Fitzgerald and recommended him for “Clerk of the Check” to conduct and record the various prescribed musters of the civilian workforce. Tingey agreed and added, “Fitzgerald would gladly attend to it, for a small addition of salary-his present pay is $60. - per month were allowances for house – rent…” To secure Smith’s agreement Tingey added an enclosure listing his duties and responsibilities. This document is one of the first position descriptions for a clerical job in the federal shipyard:

And it will also be the duty of the said Clerk, at the end of every month to make out separate payrolls, for the respective objects of employment, headed in the manner herein after directed, varying the description as to designate each separate object of employment. Viz “Pay roll for the Ship carpenters, caulkers &c employed in repairing the Frigate United States in the month of January 1806” Including in the said respective payroll every person employed in that particular object, designating, their respective occupations and stating the number of the day’s work actually performed or ascertained from the muster rolls made out hereinbefore directed; which pay rolls he will then submit to the inspection of the Superintendent.-

No. 2

You are to attend at the Navy Yard of Washington as sun rises every morning (Sunday excepted) where you are to continue till 8 return to duty at 9 o’clock A.M. continue till 1 o’clock P.M. return to duty at 2 clock P.M. and continue to sun set.

You will not leave the yard except for the stated hours for breakfast & dinner, without permission of the commanding officer.

At the navy yard young Fitzgerald was constantly in the presence of senior naval officers who saw service in the American Revolution and Barbary War. Over time he formed a strong desire to enter the naval service as purser. After securing the endorsements of Captain John Cassin and Naval Purser Buller Cocke, he made application. The naval purser was a combination of supply and financial officer afloat. A modern scholar explains the position as “ship’s business agent, responsible for keeping the ship’s pay and muster roles and for paying officers and men at the end of a cruise.” The purser also ran a kind of ship’s store wherein he issued, to be deducted from the ship’s company’s end of cruise pay, essential articles of clothing and luxury items such as tobacco, sugar, tea or coffee.”

On 15 November 1809 Fitzgerald wrote to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton with his history and expressed his desire to serve:

Having been employed nearly five years as clerk under the immediate superintendent of Capt. Cassin whose application of my service during that period induced him to [write]

The accompanying letter of Capt. Cassin has been so good as to aid my application, will inform my wish to enter the Navy as a Purser-Should I be so fortunate as be honored with the appointment, I have applied for, I shall endeavor by strict attention to its duties to merit your approbation and of the Department.

Fitzgerald had two powerful individuals, Tingey and Cassin, as patrons. Appointments for Purser positions were highly competitive and much sought after. On April 25, 1812, Fitzgerald finally gained his coveted appointment. During the War of 1812 Fitzgerald served on the corvette Madison in the Great Lakes. While aboard the Madison he participated in the attack on Fort George, and engagements on Lake Ontario with the British Squadron in August and September 1813. At the conclusion of the war, he continued to serve with Perry in the Mediterranean on the frigate USS Java during the second Barbary War.

The 1850 U S Census enumerated the Fitzgerald family as residents of Norfolk, Virginia. Listed was Edward Fitzgerald, 65, Purser USN, Mary, 56, William, 28, Passed Midshipman USN, Francis I, 18, student, Thomas, 12, student, Emily, 22, and his sister Ann Maria Fitzgerald, 60.

As a purser Fitzgerald was able to accumulate wealth and afford homes in both Georgetown D.C. and Norfolk Virginia. Like many naval officers Fitzgerald was a slaveholder with enslaved people residing in his house as servants and cooks with the family in Norfolk. In October 1844 the long standing practice of enrolling an enslaved man into naval service made Fitzgerald a brief celebrity.

In October 1841 requested and received the permission of the Secretary of the Navy, to enter his enslaved man Robert Lucas as a “servant “

Letter dated 18 October 1841 from Edward Fitzgerald to Secretary of the Navy A.P.Upshur

On the books Robert Lucas was a “Landsman” an entry level for all men enlisting in the U.S. Navy with no experience at sea. In reality he was Fitzgerald’s enslaved personal steward on board the frigate United States while all the while Fitzgerald collected Lucas' $ 9 per month wages. After a long Pacific voyage in 1844, the United States anchored in Boston. While there, Lucas made a daring bid for freedom and with help of two white shipmates was able to acquire a writ of habeas corpus and a subsequent favorable ruling. This important case Commonwealth vs. Edward Fitzgerald re Robert Lucas became a precedent in the naval service effectively barring enslaved individuals as seamen.

On 18 August 1843 author Herman Melville was entered on the books of the United States as an Ordinary Seaman and left the vessel in Boston on 3 October 1844. In his fourteen months on the United States Melville was a keen observer and witnessed 163 floggings. Melville never really understood that despite appearances Lucas as a slave had no choice, no rights and as an enslaved man was always subject to observe a beating or a sale. Melville later contrasted the treatment Lucas, as a slave and steward to the purser, received with that accorded to white seamen. Melville found that Lucas was excluded from mustering, and the enslaved man was not forced to view harsh floggings that were the lot of the ordinary seaman. Melville's admiration for Fitzgerald as a slaveholder was based largely on his perception that the older purser possessed an essential decency and stoic acceptance of life. Melville used his shipboard experiences on the United States in his 1850 novel, White Jacket. In summing up the purser, Melville wrote that Fitzgerald “never coming into disciplinary contact with the seamen and being withal a jovial and apparently good-hearted gentleman--was something of a favorite with many of the crew."

1844 muster of the frigate USS United States enumerating no. 438 Robert Lucas Landsman

In June 1855 Fitzgerald and his family were assigned to Norfolk Navy Yard when a ship carrying persons infected with the virus for yellow fever arrived in Hampton Roads. The virulent disease spread quickly through the community, eventually killing about 3,000 people. Among those overtaken in Norfolk was Fitzgerald’s family. The newspapers in the District of Columbia and at Norfolk Daily National Intelligencer, Alexandria Gazette and Norfolk Daily Dispatch carried graphic accounts of the fever’s progress and listed among the dead were four of Fitzgerald’s family. That September the fever had killed his wife Mary age 62, sons Francis “Frank” Fitzgerald age 23, Charles H. Fitzgerald age 26, and daughter Francis Fitzgerald age 20. The old purser too became seriously ill but recovered, only learning the extent of the tragedy later.

Edward Fitzgerald Sr. died in Georgetown, District of Columbia, on 27 February 1857. His obituary in the April 1857 Monthly Nautical Magazine and Quarterly remembered him as, “officer, husband, father and gentleman--he was in every sphere a noble specimen of man."


Edward Fitzgerald to A.P. Upshur 18 October 1841 Department of the Navy, Officers Letters, RG 45 NARA

McKee, Christopher A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession The creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794 -1815 Naval Institute Press: Annapolis 1991, p.31.

The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville Cambridge University Press, 1998 edited by Robert S. Levine, pp.61-64.

For more on Fitzgerald’s enslaved workers see:

John G. M. Sharp "Send for a Midwife" African American Women as Nurses, Cooks, and Washers at Gosport (Norfolk) Naval Hospital 1815 – 1842 accessed 30 September 2019 http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/gnhaafworkers.html

John G.M. Sharp The Ship Log of the frigate USS United States 1843- 1844 and Herman Melville Ordinary Seaman 2019, pp3-4 accessed 30 September 2019 http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/portsmouth/shipyard/usunitedstates-hmelville


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John G. “Jack” Sharp resides in Concord, California. He worked for the United States Navy for thirty years as a civilian personnel officer. Among his many assignments were positions in Berlin, Germany, where in 1989 he was in East Berlin, the day the infamous wall was opened. He later served as Human Resources Officer, South West Asia (Bahrain). He returned to the United States in 2001 and was on duty at the Naval District of Washington on 9/11. He has a lifelong interest in history and has written extensively on the Washington, Norfolk, and Pensacola Navy Yards, labor history and the history of African Americans. His previous books include African Americans in Slavery and Freedom on the Washington Navy Yard 1799 -1865, Morgan Hannah Press 2011. History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce 1799-1962, 2004. 
and the first complete transcription of the Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard 1813-1869, 2007/2015 online:

His most recent work includes Register of Patients at Naval Hospital Washington DC 1814 With The Names of American Wounded From The Battle of Bladensburg 2018,
The last three works were all published by the Naval History and Heritage Command. John served on active duty in the United States Navy, including Viet Nam service. He received his BA and MA in History from San Francisco State University. He can be reached at sharpjg@yahoo.com


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