Revolutionary War Historical Article

Peter Francisco, Giant of the American Revolution

by Donald N. Moran

Historian Fred J. Cook wrote "Wars are fought for the most part by anonymous men who emerge from obscurity, briefly bear the conflict's burden, and then return to heir unrecorded ways.  Yet  every now and then one of them achieves fame in his own right."  This is the story of such a soldier.  Today his heroic feats have been recognized and several states have enacted a Peter Francisco Day.

Francisco was a legend in his own time. His extraordinary feats were exaggerated around the camp fires of the soldiers who were fighting the Revolutionary War.  As incredible as some of these stories may have been,  many are supported by historical records and writings by respected historians.

Francisco¹s story starts out quite differently than the common soldiers of his time. He was a foundling.  It is believed he was the son of an aristocratic Portuguese family that lived in the Canary Islands.  The theory of his arrival in North America as a four year old boy is the result of his parents being involved in some political intrigue and who spirited him away to protect him.

In June of 1765 he was found on the wharf at City Point (now Hopewell) Virginia by some dock workers.  His dress was that of a nobleman's child.  His little coat was expensive linen trimmed in fine lace. His shoe buckles were silver, each forming a letter - - "P" and "F".  He did not speak a word of English, but what sounded like a mixture of Portuguese, French and    Spanish.  He was big for his age, with black hair and striking eyes.

He was taken to the Prince George poorhouse to   be cared for.  His strange story soon was the talk of Tidewater, Virginia.  Judge Anthony Winston, Patrick Henry¹s uncle, became curious and took personal charge of the abandoned boy.  He took him to his farm near New Stone in Buckingham County.  It was there that Peter grew up.

After he mastered English, he told Judge Winston several vague recollections that he had, which included his name, of which he was absolutely sure.  He  described a comfortable home, beautiful garden and some minor memories that made his noble origins seem quite probable.  But, owing to his youth, he could not recall enough family information  to permit the  Judge to  track  down    his parents. In lieu thereof, the Judge decided to raise the boy and provide for him.  As a result Peter enjoyed the local status of being the prominent Judge¹s ward and frequently accompanied the Judge on his travels around Virginia, including  the 1775 Virginia Convention. Judge Winston was the delegate from Buckingham County.   On March 23rd, 1775,  Peter heard  Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. Like most who heard the fiery speech, Peter adopted the cause of American Independence and was filled with the spirit of patriotism.  Peter was only fourteen years old!

Peter reached his adult height and weight at age fourteen - - he stood at least six foot six and weighed in at 260 pounds.  This at a time when most American men averaged around five foot six.   Major Caleb Gibbs of General George Washington¹s personal guard, the Commander-in-Chief's Guard wanted all the guards to be tall and the same height.  He decided on 5 foot 10 inches, as that was the tallest that could be a requirement and yet find one  hundred and fifty men to fill the ranks!  Peter  was  a foot taller and one hundred pounds heavier than the average American.  Francisco was a giant in his time.

Young Peter was anxious to enlist in the Army, but the prudent Judge insisted that he was still too young and to wait at least a year.  He complied with the Judge¹s request, but as soon as he turned 15 he enlisted in the 10th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line.

On September 11th, 1777, General Washington attempted to prevent British General Sir William Howe from capturing the fledging nation¹s capitol, Philadelphia. The site of the battle was a small creek named Brandywine.   Howe outflanked the American line and drove them back toward Philadelphia.  The 10th Virginia and a few other Regiments were detailed to serve as the rear guard.  To accomplish this very   dangerous  assignment the 10th took up a position in Sandy Hollow.  Howe¹s British Regulars had been pursuing the beaten Americans without encountering a great deal of resistance, until they came up against the 10th.

The ensuing battle raged for 45   minutes with casualties being exceptionally high. Two of those Americans who were wounded were the young Marquis de LaFayette who distinguished himself during that engagement, and  Private Peter Francisco. Both men were treated by some Quakers and it appears that they established a friendship that was to endure for a lifetime.

Peter¹s wound appears to have been slight, as he was in  action again on October 4th, 1777 at the Battle of Germantown. Francisco¹s next action was the defense of Fort Mifflen which defended the approach by ship to Philadelphia.  The British attack on this fort was one of the fiercest of the war.  The Fort had to fall in order for the British to capture the American capitol.  General Howe attacked it from both land and sea.  The Royal Navy reduced the earthen and wood fort to ruins, but it took from October 15th to November 16th - a full month.  During that time the 450 man garrison inflicted horrible damage on their attackers.  HMS   Augusta (64-guns) and HMS Merlin (16-guns) ran aground and  were destroyed.  The British pressed the attack and by Mid-November had reduced the Fort to rubble.  The Americans lost an estimated 250 men.  Those few that survived escaped in the middle of the night to Fort Mercer - - among them was young Peter Francisco.

The 10th Virginia then wintered at Valley Forge. It    is safe to assume that Peter suffered through that terrible winter with the rest of Washington¹s army.   With the coming of Spring 1778, greatly influenced by the Victory at Saratoga (October 1777) and the promise of France entering the war, General Howe decided that he could not successfully defend Philadelphia and New York City.  With New York being the better port, he chose to evacuate Philadelphia.   He further decided that the majority of his army would march across New Jersey to New York. He ordered   General Charles, Lord Cornwallis to take charge of that retreat.  

General George Washington was not about to let that opportunity pass him by.  He marched from Valley Forge and intercepted the rear guard of the retreating British Army at Monmouth Court House, New Jersey. The ensuing battle was one of the most fierce fought during the entire war.  This battle left the Americans in possession of the battlefield.  Cornwallis sized up his situation and decided to break off the action and escaped only by sneaking away in the middle of the night.

Private Peter Francisco was severely wounded during the battle.  The wound was to cause him pain for the rest of his life.  Although already wounded twice, the sixteen year old re-enlisted!

The War in the north was pretty much a stalemate by the summer  of  1779. Washington ordered General "Mad" Anthony Wayne to make an attempt at capturing the strongly defended fortifications at Stony Point, New York.  Peter was selected to lead the attack with a twenty man 'forlorn hope'.  Their assignment was to cut through the two rows of abatis with axes. The 'forlorn hope' was led by Lt. Gibbon, who was the first over the British wall, Peter was second. Seventeen of the twenty were either killed or wounded, among them, Peter Francisco.  He received a nine inch stomach wound, but is credited with killing his adversary and two others.

Captain William Evans, who was there, wrote: "Francisco was the second man who entered the fort and distinguished himself in numerous acts of bravery and intrepidly - - in a charge which was ordered to be made around the flagstaff, he killed three British grenadiers and was the first man who laid hold of the flagstaff and being badly wounded laid on it that night and in the morning delivered it to Colonel Fleury. These circumstances brought Mr. Francisco into great notice and his name was reiterated throughout the whole army." As soon as he was well enough to again take to the field he reenlisted in Colonel William Mayo¹s Virginia Militia Regiment.

The South, which until this time had been spared the harsh realities of the war, suddenly found itself under severe attack by the British.  The British invaded with  a fury they never could imagine. In quick succession Savannah and Charleston fell, with great loss of men and equipment.  What elements of the Continental Army were stationed in the South were lost when Charleston was captured.

Congress reacted by appointing Major General Horatio Gates, who was considered the victor of  Saratoga, to command a newly raised army to drive the British out of the Carolinas.   The army that Gates commanded was comprised mostly of untried militia, poorly equipped and in need of everything, including food.  Gates insisted his command numbered 7,000 effectives.  However, his   Adjutant General, Otho Williams, a competent officer, said the command actually numbered 3,052. For reasons that have been lost to history, Gates chose to ignore the revised numbers and attacked General Cornwallis' much superior force.

Never was a better opportunity presented to the British for a complete victory.  An event that foretold the coming disaster occurred on the night of August 15th, 1780. The British Cavalry leader, Banastre Tarleton, known for his cruelty, surprised the American advance force consisting of Armand's Legion.  The surprise was complete and the Legion was almost annihilated.  The survivors fell back to a position held by the American First Brigade.  This night action completely disrupted the American preparations for the forthcoming battle at Camden.

At dawn the full force of Lord Cornwallis' army  fell on the left flank of the American position.  Peter Francisco, with the Virginia militia, was stationed there. Few of the Virginia Militia had ever seen action, with the majority being untried recruits.  The results were predictable.  The militia broke under the first crushing blow of British regulars and fled from the battle field.

In their headlong flight, they burst through the line of the Continentals throwing it into disorder.  General Gates, seeing this, and that the Battle was all but lost, turned his horse and raced to the rear.  He did not stop until he was 60 miles away and was harshly criticized for this action, which bordered on cowardice.

Peter Francisco and a hand-full of veterans tried to stem the tide, but to no avail. The situation was  hopeless.   Peter observed that a small field piece which had been placed between the Virginia and North Carolina militia line had been abandoned. Using his herculean strength he moved the 1,100 pound cannon to a position being held by a group of Continentals.  This extraordinary act was commemorated during the bicentennial by the issuance by the Post Office of a stamp, depicted here.


Peter realized there was nothing else he could contribute to the battle and retired to a nearby stand of trees to recover from his excursion with the cannon. After a few minutes two of Tarleton's cavalrymen approached him.  He held his empty musket up, side wise, a gesture of surrender.  As one of the cavalrymen reached for it, he swung it around, with all his might, knocking the cavalryman from his saddle, and in a  split second  thrust his bayonet into the other cavalryman.  He then picked up one of the cavalryman¹s swords, mounted his horse and galloped away.

He covered a short distance and encountered his own Colonel, William Mayo, then a prisoner being escorted by an officer and guard.   He charged cutting down both red coats, then presented his captured horse to the Colonel.  Both then escaped. Colonel Mayo never forgot the incident, and it is from him we learned the details.

After the war, Colonel Mayo presented Peter with a dress sword, which is now in storage at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.   Perhaps Peter learned from his efforts to save Colonel Mayo, that his height made him an excellent  target as an infantryman, but his great reach gave him a definite advantage  as a cavalryman. He enlisted in a troop of cavalry commanded by Captain Thomas Watkins of Price Edward County, Virginia.  Legend says that he was given a five foot long sabre (the average cavalry sabre was under three foot long)  by General Washington himself. Unfortunately we have been unable to substantiate this story, and there is no reference to Peter Francisco  in any of the records kept by General Washington.

Captain Watkins' troop joined Major General Nathaneal Greene¹s command in the Carolina. Greene, Washington's favorite General, was sent to relieve Gates as commander of the Southern Army.  Greene's tactics were to harass Lord Cornwallis' forces, but avoid a major engagement.  Greene assigned Watkins¹ troop to Colonel William Washington's  Regiment of light dragoons.  Colonel Washington was George Washington's cousin.

Cornwallis was encountering stiff resistance in the South.  He lost one of his best officers, Patrick Ferguson and many of his loyalist troops at the Battle of Kings Mountain.   At Cowpens, he lost the majority of his cavalry, under Banastre Tarleton.  Colonel William Washington's cavalry, including Peter Francisco,  played an important role in the outcome at Cowpens.

With Lord Cornwallis thus weakened, and most of his cavalry destroyed, General Greene decided to stand and  fight.  He picked good ground and waited.  On the 15th of March 1781,  their armies met at Guilford Courthouse.

General Greene elected to use the successful tactics employed by General Daniel Morgan at Cowpens.  He deployed two North Carolina Brigades of Militia in his front rank.  Their orders were to deliver two well-aimed volleys then retreat.   The second rank, three hundred yards back, consisted of two Virginia Brigades. Their orders were to inflict as much  punishment as they could on the attacking British and than retreat. His third and final line was his Continentals.  To protect his  flanks, Greene stationed the  Delaware Regiment of the Continentals on the right flank with Colonel  William Washington Light Dragoons,  including Peter Francisco.   The famed Virginia Rifles supported Light Horse Harry Lee's Cavalry on the left flank. Unfortunately, Greene's deployment,   although similar to Morgan's, was spaced too far apart.

By early afternoon Lord Cornwallis had deployed his entire army in the line of battle and started the  attack.  The first and second American lines performed well, and did as ordered. They inflicted great damage to the attacking British.  The British then reformed and drove straight for the American center.   At a critical moment, William Washington's dragoons charged the British flank.  The effect on the British was terrible. Washington's dragoons were among them slashing with their sabres.  Peter Francisco is credited with dispatching eleven Grenadiers single handed.  Benson J. Lossing, an early  historian, wrote that a British infantryman "pinned Francisco¹s leg to his   horse with a bayonet.  Francisco assisted his assailant to draw the bayonet forth, then, with a terrible force brought down his sword and cleft the poor fellow's head from his shoulders."

As Cornwallis reeled from the attack, William Washington saw another opportunity and launched another charge, this time in hopes of capturing Cornwallis  himself. The British infantry drove them off with great loss.  For a second time that day Francisco was wounded.  Another bayonet was thrust into his leg and ripped upward to the hip.  Bleeding profusely, he turned his horse and retreated to safety, where he passed out from the wound and fell from his horse.

Francisco lay on the field, bleeding to death, when a Quaker named Robinson, who was searching the field for the wounded found him, barely alive.  He took him back to his farm, where he eventually recovered.

His herculean efforts at Guilford Court House did not go unnoticed.  Colonel Washington urged him to accept a commission.  General Greene presented him with an engraved razor case, inscribed: "Peter Francisco, New Stone, Buckingham County, Va, a tribute to his moral worth and valor. From his comrade in arms, Nathanael Greene". This razor case is on display at the museum at Guilford Courthouse.

As soon as he recovered. Francisco volunteered again.  This time as a scout. At Ward's Tavern in Nottoway County, he was surprised by nine of Tarleton's dragoons and taken prisoner.  After disarming him, Tarleton¹s men left one man to guard him while the rest entered the tavern to quench their thirst. Francisco wrenched the sword from the dragoon and struck him dead.  Another dragoon, hearing the commotion came out to see what was going on.  He fired his pistol, striking  Francisco in his side, his sixth wound.  Francisco sprang at him with the captured  sabre killing him instantly.  From here on there are a number of accounts of what occurred.  Some claim   Francisco killed all nine  British dragoons.  But regardless, he managed to escape. His name appears on the rolls of those who fought at  Yorktown.

After the war he married Susannah Anderson. She brought with her the estate of Locust Grove, near Richmond, Virginia where Francisco lived out his life.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette made his now famous tour of America.  Peter Francisco escorted him on the Virginia portion of the tour.

Francisco was widowed twice, and in 1831  he  became ill with an intestinal ailment, which no doubt was  appendicitis.   In the  January 18th, 1831 issue of the Richmond Enquirer a eulogy was  published: "Died on Sunday in this city, after a lingering indisposition,  Peter Francisco, Esq. the Sergeant-at-Arms of the house of Delegates and a Revolutionary Soldier, celebrated for his undaunted courage and brilliant feats."

He was buried with full military and Masonic honors at the Shockoe Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

In the 1890's the Daughters of the American Revolution planted thirteen 'Liberty Trees' in San Francisco¹s Golden Gate Park.  Each tree had soil from a Revolutionary War Soldier¹s grave placed there to nourish it.  For Virginia the earth was from Peter Francisco¹s grave.

Since 1953, March 15th has been officially recognized in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Virginia as Peter Francisco Day.   He is the only enlisted man from the Revolutionary War to be so honored, and rightfully so.

The Society of the Descendants of Peter Francisco was founded a few years ago and is open to his descendants and "Friends" (individuals who are interested in the Society and approved by the Board of Directors).

Information on the Society of the Descendants of Peter Francisco can be found on their web site:  http://www.geocities.com/sdpf2000/militaryservice.html.

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