by D.H.T. Shippey & Michael Burns

Like an ancient Greek myth, the story of the Giant of Virginia begins with a mysterious appearance. In 1765, on the docks of City Point, Virginia, a five-year-old child is found wandering alone. He has a swarthy complexion, wears fine clothing, and has silver shoe buckles with the initials P & F on them. He is able to communicate his name, Pedro Francisco, but little else. There were not many options in colonial America for dealing with an unusual case like this, as a result the boy was sent to the poorhouse. The displaced boy, now called Peter by those around him, did not stay in the poorhouse for long. Judge Anthony Winston took the boy as a servant on his plantation. It is hard to say how long Peter would have been allowed to stay at the poorhouse or even what options would have been available to him if Winston had not acquired him. Strangely, becoming a slave led him to new opportunities.  Historians have argued for years about whether he was truly a slave, just a servant, or perhaps adopted family for the Judge, but the facts are these: Judge Winston listed Peter Francisco as a slave in his records, and he was sent to work rather than school. There is evidence that he was treated better than an average slave, but his work around the 3,600 acre plantation was serious labor and not optional.

     As the boy learned to speak English he told his master what he remembered from his time before appearing on the docks. He had lived in a mansion by the ocean, he said. His mother spoke what he thought was French; his father spoke another language– but what, he couldn't say with any certainty.

One day, while he and his younger sister were playing in the garden, rough men had seized them. The girl fought and got away, but Pedro was bound, blindfolded, gagged, and carried to a ship. After what seemed to be an endless voyage, he was left alone on the City Point dock. This ended his recollections and was the only link to his past he would ever possess.

     Peter grew quickly. The boy’s unusual height and strength led Judge Winston to apprentice him as a blacksmith. By the age of 14 he was six-foot-six-inches and 240 pounds. The hard work of smithing seemed to forge him as much as the metal he struck. He gained a reputation for his surprising strength and was undoubtably highly valued by his master.

      By the year 1775 America was on fire. The years of protest over rights, taxes and rule of the colonies had become its own sort of forge. The Second Virginia Convention was meeting to discuss what could be done to prevent the loss of liberty. One of the representatives that would be speaking at the Convention was Patrick Henry, who happened to be the nephew of Judge Winston. Why the Judge chose to take Peter with him to the Convention we don’t know, but we know he stood outside the windows of St. John’s church in Richmond with several hundred others listening to the debates. It was there that Peter heard Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech.

He decided then that he wanted to join the forces assembling to defend liberty. Strange when one considers how little liberty he himself had known. Stories say in a tavern that night two men began arguing politics and 15-year-old Peter told them to stop. When they didn’t he picked them up and smacked them together until they agreed. When they got home Judge Winston told him he would not yet part with his servant and that the age of enrollment was sixteen. Peter waited.

       Peter Francisco joined the 10th Virginia Regiment as a private soldier in December of 1776. The new soldier stood a foot taller than the average man and now weighed in at 260 lbs. He soon gained notoriety among his fellow soldiers. He fought with distinction at some smaller skirmishes before finding himself at the battle of Brandywine.             



   For the Americans, Brandywine was a disaster. The American army was trying to prevent the British from taking Philadelphia, but soon found themselves in a disastrous retreat. In the middle of the chaos, Francisco spied a massive log that would make an excellent shield for sharpshooters and retreating troops. Without hesitation  this giant  lifted the log and carried it through sheets of gunfire onto the field. He dropped the log just as he took a British musket ball to the leg. Apparently all of this occurred before General Washington’s eyes. Francisco’s regiment held the line at a narrow point called Sandy Hollow Gap for a crucial forty-five minutes, allowing the rest of the soldiers to escape and preventing a complete rout. Later, Peter found himself in the hospital. Fortunately the bullet had passed through his leg and had not lodged in it, which was far more dangerous. In the bed beside him was an officer wounded in the battle, a French volunteer, the marquis de Lafayette. The two men became instant friends as they recovered together, and Lafayette wanted to know what he could do for this brave fighter for liberty. Francisco said what he really needed was a proper sized sword since the short swords of the day were really too small for a man of his size.


    Francisco continued to be noticed for conspicuous bravery and bold fighting in the thick of things at the battle of Germantown. He served at Fort Mifflin on Mud Island on the Delaware while British ships bombarded the position and was one of the exhausted survivors who abandoned the island on November 16. He and the rest of Washington's battered army marched to Valley Forge, enduring the brutal hunger and bitter cold of that famous camp. Francisco became ill, like so many, and spent two months in the hospital. Still, as his tour of duty expired, Francisco reenlisted. Never one to shirk from battle, he was in the fight at Monmouth Courthouse when he was again shot, this time in the right thigh.  He was left with a wound that would cause him pain the rest of his days.

        The first soldiers to charge into a fortified position were known as the “forlorn hope” because their chances of survival were all but nought.  Ironically, a commander had to put his best troops into this suicidal attack if they were to have any possibility of success. When General Anthony Wayne laid plans to attack the British fort atop Stony Point beside the Hudson River, Washington chose 20 men for the job.  Among them was the now famous Peter Francisco. The daring nighttime raid was set.  The forlorn hope was charged with cutting a path through the fortifications, climbing the cliffs and entering the fort.  Second to reach wall of the fort, Francisco advanced into musket fire and hand to hand combat.  He killed two British soldiers before a third managed to thrust his bayonet into Francisco’s stomach, tearing a nine inch gash across his body. Francisco wasn’t ready to die just yet and turned the blade around, killing the redcoat. He lurched on, joining a charge on the fort’s flag. He was the first to reach it, tearing down the enemy colors just before before he collapsed from blood loss. Out of the 20 chosen men of the forlorn hope, 17 were killed or wounded, but their valor was rewarded with success.

     The news of the Patriot victory travelled quickly through the newly formed states, as did news of the heroic figure Peter Francisco. It took some time to recuperate from this wound, but Francisco did and served out his 2nd enlistment before returning home to Virginia. He had been shot twice, slashed, and stricken with disease in the service of Liberty, all the while performing feats of bravery and strength that were making him a legend in his own time.  But Peter Francisco wasn’t done fighting yet.

       Giant Part II, Peter Francisco gets his sword.                   

For past articles go to