On the morning of June 23, 1765, a ship dropped anchor in the James River at City Point, now a part of Hopewell, Virginia. A longboat was lowered to the water, and two sailors rowed it to the wharf, where they deposited a young boy. The sailors left, and the ship immediately slipped back down the river. Thus Peter Francisco arrived in the New World.
Found sitting on the dock, the boy appeared to be 5 years old and large for his age; later research seems to indicate that he was a few weeks short of 5. Olive-skinned, with black hair and dark eyes, he had a brave bearing and an engaging manner despite his predicament. He spoke a foreign gibberish — what might have been Portuguese mixed with French, or Spanish — and kept repeating the name ‘Pedro Francisco.’
His soiled suit was of the very best quality, with fine lace collar and cuffs, and on his shoes were silver buckles bearing the initials ‘P.F.’ Peter Francisco, as he was promptly called by the English colonists who found him, would grow up to become the strongest and the most remarkable private soldier of the American Revolution, a man whose legendary exploits are remembered even today.
For the moment, however, the boy had all the needs of any other orphan. City Point’s town fathers found an unused bed in a dock warehouse, housewives arranged for him to be well fed and the old watchman on the wharf guarded him at night. As the story of Peter Francisco’s mystifying appearance spread, Judge Anthony Winston, an uncle of famed orator Patrick Henry, investigated. He liked the boy and took him, as an indentured servant, to his sprawling plantation on the old Lynchburg?Richmond stage road.
Attempts at unraveling the mystery of Francisco’s origins, passage and arrival in America have led historical researchers to laudable efforts but uncertain results. Robert McKee of Tennessee studied Spanish Court records and learned of a small boy whose father, ‘the head of the House of Francisco, was in severe disfavor with the King?and a secret order had been given that one of the Francisco children be killed to atone for the father’s guilt.’ The boy suddenly disappeared, but the deed was not done and the father apparently had to do his own atoning. McKee’s research seems to be at the root of the often-cited theory that young Pedro’s own parents arranged his kidnapping and transportation to Britain’s American Colonies for his own safety.
Far more plausible are the results of painstaking studies conducted in 1960 by John E. Manahan of the University of Virginia. Manahan spent seven months researching in the islands of Graciosa, São Jorge and Terceira in the Portuguese Azores. His efforts paid off on Terceira, where he uncovered in the seaside town of Porto Judeu the birth record, family history and even the parental home of a Pedro Francisco, who some have suggested was the very same boy whom the Colonists found at City Point and called Peter Francisco.
After learning some English, Francisco explained to his new friends that he recalled living in a mansion by the sea. His father was a shadowy figure in his mind, but he remembered a little sister and a beautiful mother whom he loved. Although he was never able to recall the name of his native country, he did retain some memories of what likely were the last moments of his life at home.
He was playing with his sister in the garden of his parents’ home when two sailors lured the children to the garden gate with cakes or toys. Opening the gate, the men seized both children. The girl managed to escape, but the kidnappers threw a blanket over Francisco and carried him off to their waiting ship.
Azorean historian Pedro de Merelim deemed the kidnapping a routine atrocity, likely the work of Algerian corsairs. ‘We all know how they infested these islands,’ he wrote in 1978, ‘and ravaged their peoples.’
In America, Francisco thrived under Judge Winston’s patronage. He had a keen mind and, although technically illiterate, he came to understand the Colonists’ struggle against the mother country. He developed muscles of steel while working in the fields and the blacksmith shop. By age 15, Francisco was 6 foot 6 in a time when the average man was at least a head shorter, and he weighed 260 pounds.
Winston loved like a son the young giant who could do the work of three men, and planned to adopt him formally. In the spring of 1775, he took Francisco with him to Richmond for a meeting of the Virginia Convention in St. John’s Church. Francisco was outside listening through an open window when, on March 23, Patrick Henry delivered his impassioned speech that ended in the declaration, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’
Francisco wanted to enlist in the militia immediately, but Judge Winston made him promise to wait one more year. Finally, in December 1776, Winston released him and gave him permission to join the army. Francisco, then 16, enlisted as a private in the 10th Virginia Regiment under Colonel Hugh Woodson and was sent to Middlebrook, N.J., for his basic training.
Assigned to General George Washington’s Continental Army, Francisco received his baptism of fire at the Battle of Brandywine on Thursday, September 11, 1777. There, along the little creek south of Philadelphia, Washington tried to stem the advance of an army led by Lt. Gens. Sir William Howe and Lord Charles Cornwallis. With a circular flanking movement, Howe surprised the Americans, who had expected a frontal assault. The Continentals fought desperately but were routed by Cornwallis’ regulars.
Francisco’s regiment and other units were rushed onto the field late in the day, in an effort to halt the British advance and protect the American rear. The 10th Virginia took position at Sandy Hollow Gap, a narrow defile flanked by woods, where its mission was to block Redcoats pursuing the fleeing Continentals. Standing their ground valiantly, the Virginians and detachments of the Pennsylvania line held the gap long enough to enable Washington to turn the rout into an orderly retreat. This was the fifth time that Howe had beaten him, but once again Washington had saved his army.
During the fighting Francisco took a British musket ball in his leg, the first of many wounds he would suffer. He was taken to a makeshift hospital at a Moravian community north of Philadelphia and treated near Maj. Gen. Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, who also had suffered a leg wound in his combat debut that same day. While recuperating, the 16-year-old Portuguese and the 19-year-old French volunteer struck up a conversation. They would become lifelong friends.Francisco’s wound healed quickly, and he rejoined his regiment just in time to take part in the Battle of Germantown on October 4. There, the Continentals tried vainly to hold their forts protecting the lower Delaware River. A British counterattack forced a disorderly American retreat, but the gallant Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene held fast. Francisco was in the thick of the action as Greene opened his lines to let other Continentals retreat, and then closed ranks to give them a chance to reorganize.
From October to November, Francisco was on duty at Fort Mifflin on Mud Island on the Delaware while British ships bombarded the position. He was one of the exhausted survivors who abandoned the island on November 16. Shortly afterward, he and the rest of Washington’s oft-defeated army wintered at Valley Forge, enduring the nightmare of hunger, bitter cold and exposure that was the lot of the Colonial soldier there. Like many, he became ill and spent two bitter winter months in the hospital.When his tour of duty expired, Francisco reenlisted and subsequently took part in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse on June 28, 1778. There, after an initial collapse of his original offensive plans, Washington rallied his retreating units, which showed the results of their drilling at Valley Forge under Maj. Gen. Baron Wilhelm von Steuben’s tutelage by fighting Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton’s Redcoats to an exhausting standoff. Francisco was wounded again when a musket ball hit him in the right thigh. As a result, he was in pain for the rest of his life, but that disability did not shake his zest for soldiering.
The following year, Francisco was chosen as one of 20 soldiers in a ‘forlorn hope’ handpicked by Washington for Maj. Gen. ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne’s assault on the British fort atop Stony Point on the Hudson River. Moving out at 11:30 p.m. on July 15, 1779, the men had to clear the way for Wayne’s light infantry by cutting a path through the undergrowth with axes, then scramble up the cliff. Francisco was the second man to reach the top, and as he advanced into the fort, fierce fighting ensued. Of the 20 members of the forlorn hope, 17 were killed or wounded, the latter including Francisco, who received a 9-inch bayonet slash across his abdomen but killed his adversary and two other Redcoats. In spite of having suffered his third wound of the war, he joined in a charge to the fort flagstaff, and was the first to seize it. He then lay there, spent, while the Redcoats surrendered themselves along with their ammunition and provisions. In the morning, Francisco delivered the flag to Lt. Col. Francois Louis Teissedre de Fleury, a French army engineer fighting for the Americans.
News of the victory at Stony Point spread swiftly through the Colonies, as did Francisco’s fame. Captain William Evans, who had served with him at Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth, reported that the young patriot ‘distinguished himself by numerous acts of bravery and intrepidity’ at Stony Point, and added that ‘his name was reiterated throughout the whole army.’
Francisco recuperated, served out his second army hitch and returned to Virginia. He soon enlisted a third time, however, and joined a Virginia militia regiment commanded by Colonel William Mayo.
At that point the British had changed their strategy and launched a massive invasion of the South. Francisco’s regiment marched southward with a hastily assembled force led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates to a confrontation with Lord Cornwallis’ army at Camden, S.C., on the moonless, sultry night of Tuesday, August 15, 1780.
Cornwallis struck first, and he never had such an easy task during the war. At dawn on the 16th, the Redcoats fired a volley and charged with bayonets. Thousands of Virginia and North Carolina militiamen, many of whom had never before seen action, tossed away their muskets and fled. Among them was the incompetent General Gates, who galloped off on the fastest horse he could find.
The indomitable Francisco tried vainly to rally the running, screaming men around him, but he too was forced to retreat through the pine woods. Catching sight of a British grenadier raising his musket to bayonet Colonel Mayo, Peter wheeled around and shot the Redcoat. Then one of British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s cavalry troopers spotted the two fugitives and charged. Colonel Mayo continued on, but Francisco stood his ground. The green-coated cavalryman raised his sword and ordered Francisco to throw down his musket, but the young militiaman merely stepped aside. As the horseman wheeled to cut him down, the boy sidestepped, then swiftly bayoneted the trooper, toppling him from his saddle.
Mounting the horse, Francisco impersonated a Tory as he yelled: ‘Huzzah, my lads! Let’s go after the rebels!’ As he rode through the advancing British line, he spotted Mayo trudging along on foot, the prisoner of a British officer. Francisco rode up and cut the Redcoat down. Alighting from the captured steed, Francisco urged his regimental colonel to ride it to safety.
Mayo never forgot the young soldier’s gallantry. Years later he presented Francisco with his small dress sword and promised to bequeath him 1,000 acres in Kentucky. That sword is preserved by the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.
After the colonel had departed, Francisco performed one of the most legendary acts of his remarkable life. Amid the retreating Continentals, he spotted an abandoned small fieldpiece. The attached artillery horse had been killed. Unwilling to have the British capture it, Francisco reportedly ran to it, loosened the gun carriage, lifted the 1,100-pound cannon onto his back and staggered with it toward a group of Continentals. Exhausted, he felt entitled to sit under a tree, but he had barely regained his breath when one of Tarleton’s troopers burst through the pines and reared above him menacingly. He gave Francisco a choice: surrender or die.
Declaring that his musket was unloaded, Francisco meekly presented it to the trooper. As his would-be captor reached for it, however, the big but agile lad suddenly twirled it around and thrust its bayonet home. He then climbed on the dying man’s horse and galloped off. He was promptly set upon by more of Tarleton’s cavalrymen, but once again he rose in the stirrups and impersonated a Tory, crying: ‘Huzzah, my brave boys! We’ve conquered the rebels!’ Once again, the ruse allowed him to ride off through the enemy troop.
After the debacle at Camden, Francisco returned to Virginia. There, he learned that Captain Thomas Watkins was recruiting a cavalry troop in Prince Edward County. It was to be assigned to Colonel William Washington’s light dragoons. Francisco found a good horse and hurried to reenlist.
At this point the herculean young veteran began complaining that the sword he had been using was more like a toothpick than an effective weapon. General Washington heard of his predicament and gave special orders for a suitable broadsword to be forged for him. Six feet long and with a 5-foot blade, the new sword was delivered to Francisco on March 13, 1781 — two days before the most sensational day of his fighting career and one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution.
Early on the bright, crisp afternoon of Tuesday, March 15, Cornwallis’ columns marched through wooded defiles to meet General Greene’s at Guilford Court House in North Carolina. As the British infantry moved up the wooded slope around the courthouse and through a clearing, the first and second American lines opened fire, driving them back in disorder. The Redcoats re-formed, hurled themselves back up the slope, breached the heart of Greene’s front line and shouted triumphantly as they swept forward.
Just then an American bugler sounded the charge and Colonel Washington’s cavalrymen thundered down the slope. With fearless Peter Francisco in the lead, they crashed into the British ranks and rode roughshod over them. Swinging his great sword, Francisco personally felled 11 Redcoats.
One British guardsman managed to pin Peter’s leg to his horse with a bayonet. ‘Forbearing to strike,’ said a contemporary account, ‘he assisted the assailant to draw forth his bayonet, when, with terrible force, he brought down his broadsword and cleft the poor fellow’s head to his shoulders!’
Francisco’s fourth injury of the war did not deter him from soldiering on. He had charged at one of the British defensive squares, his son Dr. B.M. Francisco wrote decades later, when an upward-thrust bayonet impaled ‘his right thigh the whole length of the bayonet, entering above the knee and coming out at the socket of his hip.’ Doubling up with pain, he wheeled out of the action, clinging to his mount in desperation. He rode a short distance before tumbling, unconscious, to the ground — and was thus spared the sight of Greene’s withdrawal, leaving Cornwallis the nominal victor.
Francisco was found lying beside four corpses by a kindly Quaker named Robinson who was scouting the field for survivors. The man took Francisco home and nursed him back to health. It took six to eight weeks for the young warrior’s wounds to heal. Meanwhile, his heroism at Guilford Court House was the talk of the southern Continental Army. Colonel Washington was so impressed that he offered the Portuguese patriot a commission, but Francisco declined because of his lack of education. Greene had a handsome razor case made for the hero as ‘a tribute to his moral worth and valor.’ That case is preserved in the Guilford Court House National Military Park museum in Greensboro, N.C. Eventually a monument to Peter Francisco was erected on the battlefield itself.
Francisco walked back to Virginia, regaining his strength as he went. Meanwhile, the war had engulfed his home state, as Cornwallis crossed the border into Virginia. Tarleton’s hated dragoons were raiding army posts and settlements, and Francisco was given a special assignment as a scout — a great honor for a private soldier.One day, while cantering around the countryside, he stopped at Ben Ward’s Tavern in the Nottoway County village of Amelia to take a break. He was sitting quietly in the inn yard with a mug of ale when nine of Tarleton’s troopers suddenly galloped up along the road and surrounded him. Francisco stood up quietly, knowing that it was futile to resist.
Eight of the dragoons went into the tavern. The remaining trooper, who was also a paymaster, approached Francisco with saber drawn. ‘Give up instantly all that you possess of value,’ he said, ‘or prepare to die!’ He demanded the big silver buckles on Francisco’s shoes.
‘They were a present to me from a valued friend,’ Francisco protested. ‘Give them into your hands, I never will. You have the power; take them if you think fit.’Tucking his saber under his arm, hilt first, the trooper bent to snatch the buckles. Peter took a step backward, grabbed the saber and slashed the man’s head and neck. Although mortally wounded, the cavalryman drew a pistol and fired at Francisco, grazing his side. It was his sixth wound of the war, but in the fray that ensued as the other eight troopers came running out of the tavern, the young hero netted one wounded dragoon galloping off to his troop, seven dragoons running helter-skelter for their lives, and eight horses for himself.
Again Francisco’s exploits resounded throughout the Continental Army, and he became known by a number of sobriquets, such as the ‘Giant of Virginia’ and the ‘Hercules of the Revolution.’ ‘Without him, we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom,’ George Washington said. ‘He was truly a one-man army.’
The skirmish at Ward’s Tavern marked the end of Francisco’s fighting career. He was in the lines with his friend, Lafayette, to watch the surrender of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. They returned to Richmond together.
Following Britain’s acknowledgment of American independence and the end of hostilities in 1783, Francisco made it a priority to acquire an education as he reentered civilian life. His bulk, battle scars and age notwithstanding, he applied for a place in John McGraw’s private school and was accepted. Within three years, he was reading the classics. He became an avid reader and assembled his own library.
Francisco married — three times — became prosperous, acquired property, raised children and served on juries. The fame of Francisco’s combat prowess slowly gave way to the legacy of a quiet-spoken, kind-hearted giant who shelled corn for the poor and habitually left the table to take food to old servants.
Many stories, some of which are undoubtedly apocryphal, were told of him. There was the time he rescued a cow and her calf from the mud, carrying one under each arm. Another time, angered by a carpenter’s shoddy work, he reportedly picked the carpenter up by the neck and trousers and threw him on to the roof of a barn.
Among the best tales concerns a husky Kentucky backwoodsman named Pamphlett who rode all the way to the Francisco plantation to show the genial giant a thing or two. The war hero allowed Pamphlett his fun, then picked him up and tossed him over a 4-foot fence onto the road. But of course the Kentuckian then needed his horse. No problem — over the fence went the quadruped as well.
Peter Francisco was appointed sergeant-at-arms in the Virginia Legislature in 1825. His acquaintances there included such distinguished contemporaries as Chief Justice John Marshall and Henry Clay, the senator and Whig Party leader.
In January 1831, Francisco developed an abdominal ailment — probably appendicitis. He died in Richmond on Sunday, January 16, at the age of 70. The Virginia House of Delegates adjourned in respect for the patriot who was ‘no common man’ and ‘whose striking example of bravery?and exploits have scarcely ever been excelled.’An impressive funeral was conducted by the Right Rev. Channing Moore, Episcopal bishop of Virginia, in the House of Delegates Hall at the state capitol on January 18, and the funeral procession comprised the governor, legislators, citizens and units of the light infantry, artillery, dragoons and the Public Guard.
Peter Francisco was buried with military honors in Richmond’s Shockoe Cemetery, where his tombstone describes him simply as ‘a soldier of revolutionary fame.’ Years later, the ‘liberty tree’ representing Virginia at Golden Gate State Park in San Francisco, Calif., was nourished by soil taken from Francisco’s grave. (Thirteen liberty trees, one for each of the 13 original American Colonies, were planted by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution just before the turn of the 20th century.)Some years after his death, Peter Francisco’s famous broadsword was presented by his daughter, Mrs. Edward Pescud of Petersburg, Va., to the Virginia Historical Society. Sadly, the weapon has since disappeared.
In North Carolina, a granite column marking the spot where the hero felled 11 British soldiers was unveiled at the Guilford Court House National Military Park in 1904. A diorama in the museum there depicts Colonel William Washington’s cavalry charge, with Francisco in the forefront. Since 1953 at least three states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Virginia — have officially designated March 15, the anniversary of the Battle of Guilford Court House, as Peter Francisco Day.
The Portuguese Continental Union of the United States created in 1957 a silver, gold and enamel Peter Francisco Award. Candidates for the prestigious medal are persons or organizations that contribute to the promotion of Luso-American relations and the preservation of Portuguese heritage and culture. The medal bears the motto of Prince Henry the Navigator, the famed Portuguese explorer: ‘Talent De Bien Faire’ (the desire to do well). The first recipient of the award was President John F. Kennedy.
At City Point, on the James River, a historical marker was also erected on the spot where a robust little boy about 5 years old wearing shoes with silver buckles and the initials ‘P.F.’ was first found on June 23, 1765.
This article was written by Michael D. Hull and originally published in the July/August 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!