(Member: Potomac Lodge No. 5)
(From the Archives highlights interesting stories of past D.C. Freemasons and other hidden historical gems found in archives of the Grand Lodge of D.C. - ed.)
On the evening of Christmas Day 1776, General George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the frigid Delaware River enroute to Trenton, New Jersey. Colonial spies had informed Washington that an army of Hessian mercenaries, who were supporting the British, were garrisoned in the city, but unprepared for a colonial attack.
The following morning, the fledgling army scored a small but decisive victory against the Hessians in what is now known as the Battle of Trenton. Among the 800 Hessian mercenaries captured as a result of that victory was Karl “Charles” Fierer, the first man to lead a Masonic lodge in what is now the District of Columbia.
And that’s not even the most interesting part of the story…
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To spur more support to the American cause, Washington and the Continental Congress enacted a plan to encourage Hessian mercenaries to defect. Fierer was part of the first group to accept the offer as he had grown an appreciation for America while serving several months as prisoner of war in Dumfries, Virginia. There he befriended Washington’s Aide De Camp, Colonel Greyson, and received a rare personal audience with Washington to accept an offer to fight for the Continentals. Impressed by Fierer’s zeal, Washington personally wrote to the President of the Continental Congress recommending his appointment. His request was accepted and Ferier joined Pulaski’s Calvary Legion as a Captain and fought in the Battle of Savannah.
Fierer then accepted a new post in the Virginia Calvary, where he was promoted to the rank of major. This turned out to be a short stint, as he sustained a significant injury during battle that incapacitated him from further service. He was soon discharged, and by November 1781, he made his way back to Germany to seek medical treatment. Unfortunately, when he arrived, Fierer discovered that he had been labeled a traitor and defector. The Prince of Hesse-Cassel seized his property and deprived him of all rights to his titles and estates.
Still ill, and now destitute, Fierer made his way back to the United States and eventually to Georgetown. There he set up the first print shop and printed the District’s first newspaper, The Times and the Patowmack Packet. He associated himself personally and professionally with prominent businessmen, landowners, and civic leaders, and in 1789, Fierer and two other businessmen submitted a petition to the Grand Lodge of Maryland to form Lodge No. 9, which after a period of inactivity, eventually became Potomac Lodge No.5.
Unfortunately, Fierer’s health deteriorated and his print business proved unsuccessful. He returned to Dumfries, VA, where he had once been held as a prisoner of war, and set up another print shop before passing away in 1794. He was buried by Masons and members of the Society of the Cincinnati (a fraternity composed of officers who had served under Washington). Among Ferier’s personal effects were a simple masonic apron and two land warrants for two thousand acres.
Fierer: The Printer and Freemason
Much of what we know about Fierer can be found in his personal letters and his newspaper, The Times and the Patowmack Packet. Information about his masonic career is scant. It is believed that he was raised a Master Mason in Virginia during his time there as a P.O.W, and his Masonic connection could be one of the reasons he was able to receive a personal audience with Washington.
His writings and work in The Times and the Patowmack Packet (TPP) provide us a profound insight into his character and his dedication to ideals of Freemasonry and America. He is a staunch advocate for free speech, art, music, science, literature, rule of law, and education. In fact, in his second edition of the TPP, Fierer makes his declaration to these principles. A picture of the female personification of Law, sitting on a chair with a lion, holds a paper with the inscription “We are governed by our Laws only” (a comment against rule by a monarch), while she speaks to the personifications of Liberty, Literature, Art, and Music. Behind her are the scales of justice on a column. The text below the picture says: “Let it be impressed upon your minds, let it be instilled into your children, that the liberty of the Press is the Palladium for all the civil, political, and religious Rights of Freemen. ------ Junius.”
Masonicly, Fierer broke away from European customs by publishing Lodge No. 9’s meeting notices, and even documented Masonic events like an early Feast of St. John and the funeral of a lodge member – John Cormie – complete with a rare, published masonic funeral song:
We may never know exactly what kind of impact Fierer had as Master of Lodge No. 9, since its minutes have been lost. But based on his work in The Times and the Patowmack Packet, it’s clear that he espoused the same virtues and values that Masons today are taught all around the world, and he’s a great example of what Freemasonry still looks like in the District: a diverse and international collection of good men, from various socio-economic backgrounds, coming together to make good men better.