A six-and-a-half-foot-tall Hercules who wielded a six-foot-long broadsword, Peter Francisco was arguably the most remarkable soldier of the Revolutionary War.
By Joseph Gustaitis
By Joseph Gustaitis
It is somewhat surprising that Hollywood has never made a movie based on the life of Peter Francisco. His story would seem to have all the ingredients for box-office success–mystery, romance, and swashbuckling action. Perhaps the problem is in casting the role; it would require a swarthy, Mediterranean actor who is also the size of a house and has a light tenor singing voice.
If such a film were made, one can imagine the opening scene: in the foreground a wooden pier juts out into a misty harbor, where the stillness is broken only by the cries of a few gulls. Gradually, the sound of splashing oars becomes audible. A longboat emerges from the fog; then, as the scene brightens, the silhouette of the merchantman from which it came appears in the distance. The boat pulls alongside the dock; sailors’ rough voices mutter unintelligibly as the form of a small person is lifted from the bobbing craft and set on the pier.
A shout is heard and the boat quickly departs. The bewildered castaway turns toward the camera. He is a young boy, no more than four or five years old, dressed in a once-fine suit that now is dirty and worn. On his shoes expensive silver buckles spell out the initials “P.F.”
At daybreak the pier begins to come to life. Waterfront residents gather curiously around the waif, asking questions. Unable to speak their language, he simply repeats the words “Pedro Francisco.” Eventually a woman comes along, takes the child by the hand, and leads him away, saying “I’ll take him to the poorhouse. They’ll know what to do with him.”
This scenario, though a bit romanticized, is roughly what happened at City Point (now a part of Hopewell), Virginia, on June 23, 1765. The boy later grew up–and up–to become the most remarkable fighting man of the Revolutionary War, a giant of a soldier of whom General George Washington is reputed to have said: “Without him we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the War, and with it our freedom. He was truly a One-Man Army.”
Soon after young Pedro Francisco was taken to the Prince George County poorhouse, his plight came to the attention of Anthony Winston, a local judge and uncle to Virginia firebrand Patrick Henry. Winston took the lad in and taught him to speak English.
Once the boy could communicate with his new guardian, he recounted what he remembered of his past, but it wasn’t much. He had lived in a mansion near the ocean, he said. His mother spoke what he thought was French; his father spoke another language–what, he couldn’t say. One day, when Pedro and his younger sister were playing in the garden, rough men seized them. The girl fought and got away, but Pedro was bound, blindfolded, gagged, and carried to a ship. After what seemed an endless voyage, he was put ashore at the City Point dock.
Winston never learned anything more about the boy’s past, but later investigators have been more successful in piecing together what appears to be a likely, if partial, solution to the Peter Francisco mystery. In 1971, Virginia researcher John E. Manahan, reporting on studies he had carried out while teaching overseas, argued convincingly that Francisco’s original home had been at Porto Judeu, on Terceira Island in the Portuguese-held Azores, and that he was the same Pedro Francisco born there on July 9, 1760.
Why Francisco was abducted remains a mystery. Manahan theorized that the child had been kidnapped by sailors who intended to sell him in the New World as an indentured servant, but the researcher offered no explanation of why they abandoned their captive instead. An Azorean legend has it that the Francisco family, fearful of political enemies, engineered Pedro’s abduction as a means of protecting him from some grisly form of reprisal planned against his parents. While this may be true, evidence is lacking. But that Peter Francisco was a Portuguese (which he himself suspected) seems almost certain, and Portuguese-Americans have eagerly accepted him as an illustrious forebear.
Whether or not the sailors in fact intended to sell the boy into indentured servitude, that more or less became his fate. Rather than provide Peter with formal schooling, Judge Winston put him to work doing chores around his plantation, a 3,600-acre estate in Buckingham County, Virginia, known as “Hunting Tower.”
In adulthood Peter was destined to attain the then-prodigious height of six-feet-six-inches–nearly a foot taller than the average man at the time–and weigh at least 260 pounds. Already of surpassing stature by his early teens, the youth was instructed in the brawny trade of blacksmithing–an obvious calling for a person of his size and amazing strength. It was the latter rather than his height that got him noticed.
In March 1775, when he was not yet fifteen, Francisco went along with Judge Winston to Richmond for a meeting of the Virginia Convention. Tempers flared as delegates hotly debated the colony’s relationship with Great Britain.Young Peter contributed to the excitement when he broke up one tavern dispute by lifting the combatants into the air and banging them together until they ceased their argument.
It was during this convention that the lad stood outside St. John’s Church and heard through the window the renowned speech by Patrick Henry that ended: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Peter, as the story goes, was ready right there to take up arms against the British oppressors, but Judge Winston prevailed upon him to wait: though large enough to go to war, he was not quite old enough. In 1776 Winston relented, and at the age of sixteen Peter enlisted with the 10th Virginia regiment as a private.
Although Francisco was not at Bunker Hill or Saratoga, in many other respects his military career closely followed the course of the War of Independence. After a stay of several months in New Jersey following his enlistment, Francisco received his first taste of action in September 1777 at Brandywine Creek in neighboring Pennsylvania, where General Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, attempted to halt the advance toward Philadelphia of some 12,500 British troops under the command of General William Howe.
Outflanked by Howe, the Americans suffered a defeat in the ensuing battle, and Washington’s army was forced into a disorderly retreat. The regiment of which Francisco was a member held the line at a narrow defile called Sandy Hollow Gap for a crucial forty-five minutes, allowing the rest of the force to withdraw and preventing an all-out rout. The young soldier suffered a gunshot wound to his leg during this hard-fought rear-guard action.
While convalescing in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Peter encountered the Marquis de Lafayette, who as a twenty-year-old major general in Washington’s Army also had been wounded in the fray. Their vast differences in rank notwithstanding, the two young men recuperated together and reportedly became friends.
By October, Francisco was well again and rejoined his regiment in time for the Battle of Germantown, five miles north of Philadelphia. Although the British eventually forced the Americans to retreat, this fight nevertheless restored the Continentals’ morale, for they had almost held the day and thus now knew that the British were vulnerable.
Francisco was with the troops at Fort Mifflin on Port Island in the Delaware River from late October to mid-November. This post was abandoned under ferocious British shelling, forcing the defenders into the wintry hell of Valley Forge, where Francisco was hospitalized for two of those agonizing months.
For the next three years, Francisco followed his commanders through a succession of engagements. In several instances he performed exploits of such an extraordinary and courageous nature that by war’s end he became generally recognized as “the most famous private soldier of the Revolutionary War.”
Francisco fought at Monmouth (near present-day Freehold, New Jersey) on June 28, 1778, where a musket ball tore into his right thigh, leaving a wound that nagged him for the rest of his life.
On July 15-16, 1779 the young Goliath took part in the daring surprise attack led by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne on Stony Point, the British Army’s stronghold on the Hudson River, north of New York City. The American assault columns were spearheaded by two twenty-man commando units known as “forlorn hopes”; Francisco was in the northern one, commanded by a Lieutenant Gibbon. Gibbon’s unit sustained so many casualties that only he, Francisco, and one other man reached their objective, but the advance party was right behind them, and the Americans captured the fort.
During the attack Francisco suffered his third wound of the war, a nine-inch gash in the stomach, but that didn’t stop him from killing three enemy grenadiers and capturing the enemy’s flag. After recuperating in Fishkill, New York, the wounded warrior bided his time with the troops in various locations until December 1779, when his three-year tour of duty expired and he returned to Virginia.
Francisco’s journey southward coincided with a turn in the same direction by the war itself. In early 1778 the British decided to move their heaviest offensive activities into the South, partly because they expected to receive the backing of the many Loyalists they believed resided in the region. When Peter learned of the enemy’s intentions, he joined the Virginia militia.
British strategy called for the capture of Savannah and the securing of Georgia, to be followed by a move north into South Carolina. Congress selected General Horatio Gates, the unpleasant intriguer whose victory at Saratoga in 1777 had puffed up his reputation, as the man to check the Redcoats’ advance in the South. The ensuing operations, known as the “Camden Campaign,” were an American fiasco, and Francisco was there to experience the unfortunate episode.
The first major clash in the South between the Continentals and the British Army came at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. The outcome, an utter rout, was labeled by nineteenth-century historian John Fiske as “the most disastrous defeat ever inflicted on an American army,” but nonetheless here Francisco achieved one of his most shining moments. Overtaken and surrounded by the enemy during the panicked American retreat, the lad speared a British cavalryman with a bayonet, hoisted him from his horse, and then, climbing onto the steed himself, escaped through the enemy line by pretending to be a Tory sympathizer. Catching up with his fleeing comrades, he gave the mount to his colonel, thereby saving the exhausted officer’s life.
Next, seeing that one of two American cannon was being left behind, Peter–as the story has it–crouched beneath the 1,100-pound gun, lifted it from its carriage and onto his shoulder, and carried it off the field to prevent its falling into enemy hands. Some historians have questioned whether such a feat is possible, but during the American bicentennial celebrations of 1975-76 the U.S. Postal Service saw no reason to doubt it and issued a commemorative stamp showing the hulking Peter Francisco performing this stupendous deed. No wonder that, by the time of this battle, Peter had acquired the reputation as the strongest man in America.
Francisco again returned to Virginia after the Camden debacle, but not for long. When he learned that Captain Thomas Watkins was raising a cavalry troop, he got himself a horse and returned to action. Watkins’s unit was assigned to the command of Colonel William Washington and was soon involved in the crucial confrontation at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781.
The Continentals were now under the command of Nathanael Greene, who, unlike Gates, proved worthy of the confidence placed in him. Greene’s actions in the South were instrumental in bringing the war to a victorious conclusion. Technically, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a British victory, for Greene’s soldiers retreated after a hard-fought contest; but it was a Pyrrhic one–the losses suffered by the British, now under the command of Lord Cornwallis, were so grave that his army was effectively wrecked. Later Cornwallis wrote that the “Americans fought like demons” in what was one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
At Guilford Courthouse Francisco once again gave a most astonishing performance. As Benson Lossing reported in his 1850 Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Francisco, “a brave Virginian, cut down eleven men in succession with his broadsword. One of the guards pinned Francisco’s leg to his horse with a bayonet. Forbearing to strike, he assisted the assailant to draw his bayonet forth, when, with terrible force, he brought down his broadsword and cleft the poor fellow’s head to his shoulders!”1
Despite his latest wound, Francisco did not leave the battle, and in one final assault against the British he killed two more of the enemy before receiving a bayonet thrust “in his right thigh the whole length of the bayonet, entering above the knee and coming out at the socket of his hip.” As his comrades retreated, the fallen cavalryman was left for dead on the field. A Quaker named Robinson is said to have taken Francisco to his home and cared for him until he rallied.
After this fray, Francisco again limped home to Virginia. Having suffered five wounds for his country’s cause, Peter could easily have been excused from further service at this late date in the war, but his military career was not quite over. He volunteered as a scout to monitor the Virginia operations of Banastre Tarleton and his horsemen. While out on a mission, Peter stopped off at the inn of one Ben Ward. Nine of Tarleton’s troopers surrounded the tavern and announced Peter’s arrest. One of the soldiers further demanded that Francisco surrender his silver shoe buckles; in a scene worthy of a Hollywood script-writer, Francisco told him, in effect, to “take them yourself.” As the cavalryman bent to do just that, Peter snatched his captor’s saber and struck him a blow on the head. The wounded trooper fired a pistol, grazing Peter in the side for his sixth wound of the war; Francisco at the same moment cut the soldier’s hand nearly off. Another cavalryman aimed a musket at the American, but when it misfired Peter wrenched it from the soldier’s grasp, knocked him from the saddle, and escaped on his horse.
With this feat of derring-do, Francisco’s career of terrorizing British troops ended. He was granted, however, the supreme satisfaction of being present when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
Peter then returned to Richmond in the company of Lafayette. There is an unverifiable story that as the two were strolling in front of St. John’s Church, a young lady who was leaving the building tripped and was caught by the strapping young veteran. And that was how Francisco first encountered Susannah Anderson, the woman he would marry.
Before giving any thought to marriage, however, Peter sought the education he had earlier been denied. The story of his determination to rise above his humble status is as inspiring as the tales of his battlefield achievements. He went to school, sat his hulking form down next to the children, and within three years was reading the classics.
At the same time that Peter was pursuing learning, he worked as a blacksmith. During this time a diarist named Samuel Shepard observed him at work and recorded that he “never before saw muscles as great and developed in so young a man, or boy, he is still a boy . . . his great hands, long broad the fingers square, the thumbs heavy and larger in the nail than the usual great toe. His feet are as exceptional for length and thickness as is his whole body. His shoulders like some old statue, like a figure of Michelangelo’s imagination like his Moses but not like David. His jaw is long, heavy, the nose powerful, the slant [of his] forehead partly concealed by uncombed black hair of a shaggy aspect. His voice was light, surprising me as if a bull should bellow in a whimper.” Other contemporary accounts emphasize Francisco’s gentle nature and note that his “prominent traits of character for temperance, good temper, and charity were no less striking.”
With his marriage to Susannah in December 1784, Peter became a member of the landed gentry, a part he played well. He displayed a taste for bright-colored waistcoats, high hats, and silk stockings. He acquired a reputation for his hunting and fishing outings and his house parties, at which he would display his fine voice, described by one visitor as having “a power, depth, and sweetness of tone, with wonderful potency. His pathetic earnestness is irresistible.”
Peter and Susannah had a son and a daughter before she died in 1790. Catherine Brooke became Peter’s second wife in 1794, and two years after her death in 1821 (they had three sons and one daughter) he married Mary Grymes West, the widow of Major West, a Virginia planter.
Many of the stories told about Peter Francisco in this period of his life are awestruck recountings of his strength. He seems to have acquired a Paul Bunyan-like status, and it is impossible to tell which of the tales about him are true. It may well be that they all are. He may really have amused guests by holding two 160-pound men at arm’s length above his head, and actually have rescued a cow and her calf from a bog by picking one up under each arm and simultaneously carrying them out of the mud.
Not surprisingly, Francisco folklore includes stories of arrogant tough guys foolish enough to test his strength. One husky chap reportedly traveled all the way from Kentucky for this purpose. Finally goaded into action, the gentle giant threw the challenger over a four-foot fence onto the public road. The badly shaken visitor said that he would leave satisfied if Peter could dispose of his horse in the same fashion; whereupon Francisco handily lifted the steed over the rails. The embarrassed Kentuckian headed for home, enjoined by his good-natured host to “call again when you are passing.”
As Francisco grew older and rich in renown, honors and rewards came his way. In 1819, Congress granted him a monthly pension. Five years later, when the Marquis de Lafayette made a triumphal return to the United States, the celebrated visitor made a point of visiting his old hospital mate. And, in 1825 Francisco was named sergeant-at-arms of the Virginia legislature.
Peter Francisco passed away, apparently from appendicitis, on January 16, 1831. The House of Delegates adjourned and paid him the honor of a public funeral at which the Right Reverend R. C. Moore took note of Peter’s “degree of bodily strength superior to that of any man of modern times . . . exerted in defense of the country which gave him [a home].”
The passage of this American Hercules from mysterious waif to war hero to country squire, and from the Azores to the Virginia countryside, is surely one the most intriguing and unusual stories to be found in the early annals of the United States. Hollywood, take note.
New York writer Joseph Gustaitis is a frequent contributor to American History magazine.
1The weapon of which Lossing spoke was a specially-made six-foot broadsword with a five-foot blade that had been delivered to Francisco shortly before the battle on order from General Washington.
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