Peter Francisco: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction

Engraving of Peter Francisco fighting the cavalry of Banastre Tarleton in Virginia, July 1781. Source: Library of Congress
Engraving of Peter Francisco fighting the cavalry of Banastre Tarleton in Virginia, July 1781. Source: Library of Congress

Dear Mr. History:

I’ve heard that no private soldier did more to enable the rebel victory in the American Revolution than Peter Francisco.  Do the facts support the myth?  Just how much impact could one man have on an entire war?  Sincerely, Kentucky 1777

Dear Kentucky: 

Great question!  Portuguese by birth and orphaned in Virginia in 1765, standing six and a half feet tall and reportedly the possessor of amazing strength that he applied in multiple battles, Peter Francisco has been called “the Hercules of the American Revolution,” a “one man army,” “the Virginia Giant,” and even the “greatest soldier in American history.”  But it would be a stretch to credit him with such impact because, as you seem to suspect, the legends about Francisco are based on fact but include a healthy dose of myth.

Let’s separate the fact from the myth.  Francisco and his heirs applied several times for pensions from the State of Virginia and the Federal government.  Affidavits to his service and bravery from at least six officers who served with him accompanied the applications.  Here’s a summary of what I can determine is Francisco’s true Revolutionary War service, based on five of those applications.

Francisco enlisted in the 10th Virginia Regiment in late 1776 (the date is unclear).  His first action was at the battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania, in September 1777, followed quickly by the battle of Germantown in October.  Then he helped defend Fort Mifflin on Mud Island on the Delaware River in November, 1777.  He wintered with the Continental Army at Valley Forge and fought at Monmouth, New Jersey, in June, 1778, where he was wounded by a musket ball in his right thigh.  After recovering, in July 1779, Francisco helped storm the British fortress at Stony Point, New York with the Corps of Light Infantry under Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne and suffered his second wound, a bayonet slash on his abdomen.  He recovered, and returned to Virginia after his enlistment ended in the winter of 1779.

Apparently restless, sometime in 1780 Francisco joined a Prince Edward County militia regiment commanded by Col. William Mayo.  The regiment fought at the battle of Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780, where Francisco probably saved his colonel’s life when with a single shot he “put a ball and three buckshot,” as he remembered, into a British soldier who was about to bayonet Mayo.[1]  Francisco returned to Virginia but was apparently still restless, because he joined a militia cavalry company under Capt. Thomas Watkins that was later attached to the Continental cavalry commanded by Col. William Washington.  At the battle of Guilford Court House, North Carolina, in March, 1781, Col. Washington’s cavalry charged into the British lines.  Francisco suffered his third wound – a deep bayonet cut into his thigh, but fought ferociously.  Lt. John Woodson was in the same unit as Francisco and recalled, “when leaving the Battle ground he was very Bloody also was his Sword from point to hilt.”[2]

Francisco was returning home after the battle when he “fell in accidentally,” as he wrote, with a patrol of enemy cavalry from Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s Legion at Benjamin Ward’s tavern.  Francisco was unarmed but when the British troopers confronted him, he seized one of their own swords, killed one of them, and “wounded and drove off the others.”  “This is the last favor I ever did the British,” Francisco wrote.[3]  It appears that this is where his Revolutionary service finally ended, and he returned home.

Now we get to the myth, and here’s why I use that term; Francisco is reputed to have had almost super-human strength and great influence in multiple battles, but the veracity of many of these stories is questionable.  Beyond his own statements and the affidavits in his pension applications, very few first-hand accounts of his actions exist.  Myth is often based on grains of fact, and there is no doubt that he fought bravely and earned a great reputation; his compatriot John Nichols stated that Francisco’s services “were individually equal to six or eight of the best soldiers of the army.”[4]  But the true nature and extent of his heroics is not clear.  In the years after the Revolution Francisco’s story became the subject for multiple newspaper articles and paragraphs in early histories.  Francisco himself also probably did a fair amount of story-telling, and that’s OK; tall tales are a soldier’s right.  Give me enough time and you’ll hear how I, Mr. History, personally helped win conflicts all the way back to the Trojan War.  You know that horse thing? That was my idea.  But I digress – the Francisco stories were so popular that in 1828 the early Revolutionary historian Alexander Garden wrote that he “scarcely ever met a man in Virginia who had not some miraculous tale to tell of Peter Francisco.”[5]  Later generations repeated the tales.[6]  All this telling and re-telling usually leads to embellishment, which makes great folklore but poor history.  As evidence of how his story has grown into legend, here’s a sampling of Francisco tales that don’t match documentation.

Francisco’s first regiment, the 10th Virginia, stood firm against a British advance at the battle of Brandywine.  According to lore, Francisco inspired other soldiers in the ranks to hold their line, led a counter-charge, and suffered a leg wound.  His actions, it’s said, bought the Continentals enough time to successfully withdraw.  But Francisco did not claim that he led a charge, suffered a wound, or anything extraordinary in the pension applications I have on hand.[7]  One would think that such heroism would register with his company commander at the battle, Capt. Hugh Woodson, but neither did Woodson mention such acts in the affidavit he filed on Francisco’s service.[8]  The origin of this story is a mystery.

Another story is that at the battle of Stony Point, Francisco was assigned to one of the two “Forlorn Hopes” that led the attack, that he was the second man over the fort’s wall, suffered a bayonet wound, engaged in a bayonet fight with multiple redcoats around the flagstaff, killed up to three of them while wounded, captured the British colors, and collapsed clutching the flag until the morning.  Not all of these stirring images are based on reliable primary sources.  Parts of the story are true; the muster rolls of Francisco’s regiment verify that he was assigned to the Light Infantry, and Francisco claimed that he was he was part of a Forlorn Hope in another affidavit.[9]  He also described his nine-inch bayonet wound to his abdomen in at least two pension applications.[10]  But he probably was not the second man over the fort’s wall or the captor of the British colors.  In their multiple accounts written soon after the battle, neither Gen. Wayne nor Col. Christian Febiger, commander of the Virginia troops, wrote anything about Francisco.[11]  Lt. Col. Francois-Louis de Fleury, a French volunteer who led the advance guard, recorded the names of the first five soldiers over the fort’s inner wall and none of them were Francisco.[12]  Gen. Wayne credited De Fleury with capturing the fort’s colors.[13]  In 1828 Lt. William Evans described Francisco’s fight at the fort’s flagstaff,[14] but his statement is questionable; according to 1779 muster rolls, at the time of the battle Evans wasn’t assigned to the Light Infantry or at Stony Point – he was on duty with his regiment, the 6th Virginia.[15] Unless primary documentation surfaces that confirms Evans’s presence at the battle, his account of Francisco at Stony Point is hearsay.  There are six accounts of the battle by American officers from Francisco’s column and multiple recollections by British defenders; none of them mention Francisco, or any six-foot giant cutting his way to the flagstaff.

U.S. stamp honoring Peter Francisco, 1975.
U.S. stamp honoring Peter Francisco, 1975.

One of the most fantastic tales regards Francisco at the battle of Camden in August, 1780.  It is said that as the American troops withdrew, Francisco saw them abandoning an artillery piece and wrenched the gun (usually claimed to have weighed 1,100 pounds), from its carriage and carried it to a wagon so it could be saved.  Another version of the same story is that Francisco pushed the entire gun carriage to safety.  I’ve never found primary documentation of either version, and until some surfaces, this story appears more myth than fact.

The story of Francisco’s fight at the battle of Guilford Court House is also muddled.  The legend says that Francisco led the charge of Col. William Washington’s cavalry and personally killed 11 British soldiers.  As I’ve noted above, an officer of his regiment verified that Francisco fought heroically.  But Francisco never said in either of his pension affidavits that he led the charge, and as far as his death-dealing, in his 1820 pension application he said only that that he “was seen to kill two men, besides making many other panes which were doubtless fatal to others.”[16]  In his 1829 application, he upped the count to four redcoats.[17]  Whatever the reasons for the differing versions of the story, it appears doubtful that Francisco led the cavalry charge at Guilford Court House or dispatched nearly a dozen enemy soldiers.

Part of the legend about Francisco’s impact probably stems from stories that he came to General Washington’s notice.  Many popular histories of Francisco’s life state that Washington supposedly said, “Without [Francisco] we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom.”  But this quote’s origin and veracity are mysteries.  Histories containing this quote do not cite a primary source for it.  There are no references to Francisco in any of Washington’s correspondence, and researchers at the Mount Vernon library have never been able to confirm that Washington made the statement.[18]

Another legend is that Francisco so impressed Washington that the general ordered a special five-foot long broadsword made for him in the early months of 1781.  There is no documentation for this act.  It seems unlikely that such a transaction could have taken place, since at that time Washington was camped outside New York City and Francisco was over 500 miles away in the Carolinas.  It is doubtful that the general would have ordered such a sword made in the first place, and even less likely that he could have ordered it and had it delivered without any mention of Francisco in his correspondence or account books.  Researchers at the Mount Vernon Library have never been able to confirm this story.[19]

Other stories claim that Washington offered Francisco an officer’s commission, but that the private turned it down because of his illiteracy.  Such an offer would certainly have been extraordinary from Washington, if not improbable.  Again, there is no record of this exchange.

Once we view these stories as more myth than fact, it becomes apparent that the Patriot cause did not succeed or fail because of Peter Francisco’s service.  However, private soldiers are the strength of any army, and they can have tremendous impact on the course of wars when their actions have exponential effects.

For example, it was most likely a private soldier – either Crown or Colonial  – who fired the shot at Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, that opened hostilities.  It’s tough to have much more impact than by beginning an entire war.

It was also a private soldier (or a group of them) that shot and killed the excellent king’s infantry leader Major Patrick Ferguson at the battle of King’s Mountain in October, 1780 – a death that possibly influenced the course of the war in the South.

My favorite example of major impact from private soldiers is the patrol of three New York militiamen  – John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams – who stopped British Major John Andre when he was returning from plotting with the American traitor Benedict Arnold to capture the key post of West Point.  Oh sure, some say that they considered robbing Andre and letting him go, but let’s not quibble over details.  The point is that these three soldiers did their duty and probably prevented the redcoat capture of West Point.  In contrast to Francisco’s conspicuous absence, Washington’s correspondence contains multiple references to the trio.  The general wrote to the President of Congress, “their conduct merits our warmest esteem . . .  the public will do well to make them a handsome gratuity. They have prevented in all probability our suffering one of the severest strokes that could have been meditated against us.”  Congress provided each man an annual pension of 200 dollars as well as a silver medal.[20]  That’s an example of how Washington rewarded worthy private soldiers.

But none of this means that Peter Francisco was not a true hero.  His documented battle record, multiple enlistments and wounds by themselves inspire amazement.  Francisco wrote that he “never felt satisfied, nor thought he did a good day’s work, but by drawing British blood,” and lived his words.[21]  And researchers at the National Archives believe that Francisco may also have served again as a private in the 5th Infantry Regiment during the War of 1812.[22]  The guy had legendary persistence, that’s for sure.  All of this earns him automatic and permanent membership in my bad-ass hero’s club.

Though I can’t say that Peter Francisco did more than any other private to enable the Rebel victory, or that he was some kind of one-man army or the Incredible Hulk of the Revolution; his true service was much more meaningful than any feat of strength, charge-leading, or death-dealing.  Francisco is as an example of the strength of the American soldier; those that volunteer, fight, suffer wounds, and return to fight again, when others may not.  Private soldiers have always faced the greatest dangers, carried the heaviest loads, and borne the brunt of every war, since the dawn of wars, and they probably always will.  All of the Revolution’s private troops– American, British, Loyalist, Hessian, and French – can stand well enough on their true abilities and sacrifices, without us making them into superheroes.  I think they’d like it better that way.

 


[1] “Letter of Peter Francisco to the General Assembly,” November 11, 1820, in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 13. No. 4, Apr. 1905, p. 217.

[2] Affidavit of John Woodson, Peter Francisco Pension File, W11021, National Archives, accessed through Fold3.com.

[3] Francisco to the General Assembly, 1820.

[4] Letter from John Nichols accompanying Francisco’s petition to the Virginia General Assembly, Nov 30 1828, copy in Peter Francisco, the Portuguese Patriot, Moon, William A., Colonial Publishers, 1980, Appendix X.

[5] Alexander Garden, Anecdotes of the American Revolution, Second Series, A.E. Miller, printer, Charleston 1828, p. 209

[6] The Legend and Life of Peter Francisco: Fame, Fortune, and the Deprivation of America’s Original Citizen Soldier, Master’s Thesis by Wesley Joiner, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, p. 4.

[7] Francisco to the General Assembly, 1820, and “Petition of Peter Francisco,” read before Congress, January 17, 1829, copy in the Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 35, Baltimore, 1829, p. 340.

[8] Certificate of Capt. Hugh Woodson, Peter Francisco Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants, Library of Virginia, accessed via: http://image.lva.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/GetRev.pl?dir=0802/F0057&card=4 Document Images

[9] Muster Roll of Capt. Shelton’s Company, 6th Virginia Regiment, July 1779, National Archives, accessed via Fold3.com.  The 10th Virginia was reorganized as the 6th Virginia in September 1778; Francisco affidavit for the pension application of Ansolem Bailey, S37702, January 8, 1830, accessed via www.southerncampaigns.org.

[10] Francisco to the General Assembly, 1820, and Petition of Peter Francisco, read before Congress, January 17, 1829.

[11] General Wayne to General Washington, July 17, 1779, copy in Johnston, Henry P., The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, Midnight, July 15, 1779, New York, White & Co., 1900, pp. 161-164; Col. Febiger’s Account of the Attack, copy in The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, pp. 181-187.

[12] Lt. Col. De Fleury to Gen. Wayne, July 21 1779, copy in Dawson, Henry B., The Assault on Stony Point by General Anthony Wayne, July 16 1779, Prepared for the New York Historical Society and Read at its Regular Meeting, April 1, 1862, New York, 1863, reprint, General Books, p.35.

[13] Wayne to Washington, July 17, 1779.

[14] Cited in Joiner, The Legend and Life of Peter Francisco, p. 19.

[15] Muster Roll of Col. John Green’s Company of the 6th Virginia Regiment, July 1779, National Archives, accessed via Fold3.com.

[16] Francisco to the General Assembly, 1820.

[17] Petition of Peter Francisco, read before Congress, January 17, 1829.

[18] E-mail from the Mt. Vernon Library to author, May 14, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Washington to the President of Congress, October 7, 1780, Writings of George Washington. Vol. 20, accessed via http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/

[21] Francisco to the General Assembly, 1820.

[22] National Archives Letter to Lola Ashcraft, July 6, 1929, Francisco Pension File, W11021, National Archives, accessed via Fold3.com.

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9 Comments

  • Hero worship, I believe, suffers from the kind of inflation that made Continental currency worthless. It seems to be an American trait. But in this article, a “hero’s” stature has been so well-researched that Francisco’s failure as the American Achilles doesn’t diminish his courage, perseverance and sacrifice. I compare Francisco’s record with that of Austin Dabney’s (previous entry) where the historical documentation was skimpy at best. Dabney may have been a hero but I wouldn’t use the word in the absence of more evidence. It’s too bad that Revolutionary War soldiers weren’t awarded medals for valor, except in limited circumstances. Perhaps then, figures like Francisco and Dabney would have even greater standing. I think of the citizen-soldier as heroic. There were many more reasons to leave the service than remain (hunger, disease, lack of pay, the elements and, of course, massed muskets and bayonets) as we’re reminded by the likes of Joseph Plumb Martin’s journal and the wartime experience of John Allison reported by his great-great-great grandson in “The War Man: The True Story of a Citizen-Soldier Who Fought from Quebec to Yorktown” by Robert A. Mayers. I recall reading a ‘Tweet’ by a descendant of Francisco and read the article link. As such, I’m very glad that Mr. History took this question on and colored in many details of this very unusual man.

    • Mr. History,

      Thanks for digging so his deep into the available documentation about Francisco. While I never felt that all of the stories about him could be factual, but given the sketchy records of the period and that he was in the thick of the fighting at so many battles, I suspect that the real truth is somewhere between what you’ve been able to document and the wildest myths. Whatever the truth really is it in no way diminishes his valor and patriotic spirit, and I bet that there wasn’t a man on either side who didn’t wish that Ole Pedro was next to him when the action started. I’ve known bits and pieces about him for 30 years and have always thought that a movie about his incredible life should have been made. Don’t you think a mid 1980’s Arnold Schwartzenegger would have made a great Francisco? There would’ve even been a reason for the accent…..

      Kentucky1777

  • Great observations Steven! The concept of “what makes a hero,” has captivated people for centuries. Personally, I prefer to count those like you mentioned – Joseph Plumb Martin and John Allison, and Francisco and John Glover (to go back to an earlier post) as heroes for their dedication, service and sacrifice.

  • I agree with your thoughts on Francisco, Lance. And there’s definitely a great action movie in there. A mid-80’s Schwartzenegger would be a great choice as an actor, but I don’t know how I could reconcile his Austrian accent with Francisco’s Portuguese. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what a Portuguese accent sounds like, so let’s just go with Schwartzenegger anyhow.

  • James Franco, the actor, is of Portuguese descent. He’d have to bulk up and grow. He’s only 5’10”.

  • Legend has it that, although physically intimidating/imposing, Peter Francisco was FAR too “mild-mannered” to be portrayed by Schwarzenegger — unless/until he was “cleaving redcoats” (“from brow to breastbone” according to Gen. Washington) with his 6-foot broadsword or “subdueing nine of Tarleton’s feared Dragoons in hand-to-hand combat” (and stealing off with their horses). You didn’t want to “make him mad”. And he probably had little “Portuguese” accent, since he was raised from age 6 in Southside Virginia, where little or no Portuguese was spoken. Although strong enough to portray the “strongest man in Virginia”, Schwarzeneggar would be totally “out of character” (not “humble” enough).

  • Thanks for making Peter Francisco a human being, Mike! I was away when this article originally published, so I am so happy to now read your well-documented and unbiased account here. A bad-ass guy, for sure, but not the super hero who won the war for The Cause. Thank you for writing it and re-posting it, Sir!

  • Thanks John! Reading the accounts of what a hard-fought battle Brandywine was for both sides, I thought it good to refute the myth that Francisco nearly singlehandedly helped prevent an American disaster. I think that to give so much credit to one soldier based on folklore detracts from the confirmed exploits of other soldiers. Both armies at Brandywine had no shortage of true heroes. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Dear Doctor , Thank you Sir for the time & research on your Peter Francisco paper. It has been a long time since my family has ever contacted any writer about Peter Francisco. My family is the direct descendants of Polly Francisco , his first and most beloved daughter. because Susan died several years after their son was born Without a doubt your hard work surpasses Benson Lossing & Fred Cooks research put together times seventy. Had the spinster twins not published their Romance Novel about Francisco in 1929 things would be different today. They scripted that half fantasy under the guise of a children’s book because they were paid by some one in the Wilson family to soften a lot of ugly things everyone knew about them in Buckingham county way back when ago. However even at that time the twins had no clue , Peter & 1st wife Susan started the veterans charity group with support of the folks of Buckingham . The Sword of Peace were also the folks that Petitioned Congress in force to pass the veterans support acts for the widows and orphans of the Revolution thru the 1830s. Additionally , all the women with Pollys blood started the UDC in Richmond after the Civil War to do the same for the widows & orphans & disabled veterans. The next generation once again kicked the US Congress’s ass & publicly shamed them thru the DAR until they provided WWI vets the same help the for their families by law . Miss Alice Lee Whitley Jones when she was National President of the UDC & DAR Officer extended the fund raising to help support widows & orphans of the Vietnam foot soldiers. She like you , was a great researcher & historian as she was taught to be from childhood by her mother and five aunts . I have really enjoyed all of your work and much continued success. In parting , as for the six foot sword Francisco showed up with when he registered with the Va 10th , [ never issued no paper work ] one must ask themselves , where would a six foot three built a rock fifteen year old and already accomplished blacksmith get such a sword ?

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