For Giant Pt 1 click here

Giant part 2

by D.H.T. Shippey & Michael Burns

When we last left Peter Francisco, his fame as a heroic figure had been secured. He provided cover for sharp shooters at the battle of Brandywine creek and was wounded in the process. He fought at Germantown and Fort Mifflin. He survived camp illness at Valley Forge. He fought at Monmouth Courthouse and was wounded again, and again slashing his way with the first raiders into the fort at Stoney Point. Francisco’s 2nd term of service had expired, and he was going home to Virginia. All that had been asked of Francisco he had done--and then some. Now was Francisco’s time to enjoy the Liberty he had been fighting for.

The war, however, was not finished with him.

   In 1778 the British had developed a new strategy. The strategy in the North had bogged down since the Battle of Saratoga in late 1777. Boston had been lost early in the war and holding Philadelphia was costing money without bringing the British any closer to victory. New York was successfully pacified but the countryside around it was a danger zone with rebellious civilians, militias and robbers raging their own battles. So the new goal was to split the South from the North and use the Loyalists they believed would rally to the British flag to secure the Southern Colonies. What resulted was almost a civil war, with Loyalist American militias fighting Patriot American militias in battles and skirmishes that often pitted neighbor against neighbor. When Peter Francisco understood what the British were doing, he left his home again and joined the Virginia militia.

    The first major battle in the Southern campaign was the battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. Meeting the British forces at Camden, the overconfident and under-skilled General Horatio Gates severely misjudged the abilities of his largely untrained militia troops. In spite of superior numbers, Gates’ troops suffered a horrendous defeat that sent them scrambling in panic from the field. In the middle of the smoke and carnage, Peter Francisco appeared again. With the Continentals partially surrounded and trying to flee, a British soldier took aim at Francisco’s exhausted commanding officer, Colonel Mayo. Francisco shot the soldier first. It seems that the rest of his Comrades continued their frenzied retreat while Francisco turned to fight. A dragoon charged toward the Virginia giant, but before he could strike Francisco impaled the rider with a bayonet and lifted him clean off his horse. He grabbed the reigns and leapt into the saddle, riding through the enemy lines.  He pretended to be a Tory, yelling as if encouraging them to catch the rebels. Once he had caught up with his fellow soldiers and found Colonel Mayo, he dismounted and lifted the officer up into the saddle. Mayo ever after gave credit to Francisco for saving his life. Soon after it is said that Francisco saw a retreating cannon stuck with a broken carriage. Unwilling to let the cannon fall into enemy hands he lifted the nearly 1,100 lb. cannon himself and placed it in a wagon to be safely evacuated. While hard to believe such a feat, by this time Francisco had become a legend referred to as the “strongest man in the army.” 

After Camden the army was in complete disarray, and it seems Gates himself rode off, abandoning his soldiers to their fate. He would never lead an army in battle again. Meanwhile, Peter Francisco had now found a horse and joined Captain Thomas Watkins’ new cavalry troops under Colonel William Washington.

   Somewhere in this time it is believed that Francisco got his legendary sword. Generally, swords were carried only by officers and dragoons (cavalry), though exceptions can be found. It would make sense for Francisco, now serving as one of William Washington’s mounted troops, to carry a sword. Some say that it was given to him by his friend Lafayette, while others say it came from General Washington at Lafayette’s request. Still others have theorized that Francisco himself might have made it at his forge. Whatever the case, the storied sword was described as both a saber and a claymore, with a blade five feet long and a foot-long handle. This makes us think of a William Wallace style two-handed sword (ala Braveheart).  Given the time period, it is more likely to refer to a basket hilt blade, probably even curved like a regular horseman’s saber. Whether it was truly six feet of sword is hard to say, but those who saw it believed it so.

      The Continental army was now under the command of General Nathaniel Green, who seemed to understand his troops and the nature of the war in the South far better than his predecessor. He had forced British General Cornwallis to chase him around the South, exhausting the British troops and their supplies. Now Cornwallis had to demand supplies at the point of a bayonet from the citizens and farmers he had previously hoped would support the British efforts. After the British defeat at Cowpens, Cornwallis was looking for any opportunity to destroy Green and his army. When he heard that Green was camped near Guilford Courthouse, he believed he saw his chance.



       The battle at Guilford Courthouse is officially a victory for the British because they gained the field at the end of the day. The cost of the victory, however, was so great that, in the words of Parliament's Charles Fox, "Another such victory would ruin the British Army!" With 500 of his almost 2,000 troops listed as casualties, Cornwallis limped away from this battle down a road that would end at Yorktown. Reflecting on Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis wrote that the Americans, “Fought like demons.” One of the biggest of those demons came with an extra large sword.  

    Some histories place the number of British troops cut down by Peter Francisco at Guilford Courthouse as high as eleven. In a part of the battlefield called “the meadow,” Francisco began to cut a swath through the Grenadiers on Cornwallis‘ flank. One Grenadier managed to thrust his bayonet into Peter’s left leg above the knee so that it stuck out at his hip joint. Apparently Francisco grabbed the bayonet at the base, while it was still attached to the musket the Grenadier was holding, and drew it back out of his leg. Then, according to historian Benson J. Lossing, Francisco “With a terrible force brought down his sword and cleft the poor fellow's head from his shoulders.” He rode on and killed two additional soldiers. As the rest of the troops retreated from the field Francisco tried to follow, but with blood flowing from his wound he passed out and fell from his saddle. There he was left for dead with such a grievous wound that there was no hope for him. Yet once more Francisco managed to cheat death. He was found after the battle, barely alive, by a Quaker named Robinson. Robinson took the giant back to his farm where he watched over and cared for him until he finally recovered. Based on his amazing performance on the field and his flawless conduct as a soldier, Colonel Washington offered him a commission as an officer. Francisco had to refuse because he could neither read or write. 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."

    Peter Francisco was back home in Virginia but still anxious to serve. He volunteered as a scout and spy against Tarleton’s still active Cavalry troops. At this time there was an incident at Ward Tavern in Nottoway County. There are two versions of the events which transpired--which one is true is difficult to establish. One story says Francisco was surprised by nine of Tarleton's dragoons and taken prisoner.  After they disarmed him, Tarleton’s men left one man to guard him while the rest entered the tavern. Francisco grabbed 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.  Francisco sprang at him with the captured sword, killing him instantly. The other dragoons came out only to be slain.
The other story says the nine troopers surrounded the tavern and announced Peter's arrest. One of the soldiers, seeing Francisco’s silver shoe buckles, demanded that Francisco surrender them. Francisco told him, “Take them yourself.” As the horse soldier bent to do so, Peter snatched the saber from his captor and struck on the head. The wounded man fired his pistol, grazing Peter’s side. Francisco swung the blade and cut the soldier's hand nearly off. Another dragoon aimed a musket at the Giant, but it misfired. Peter knocked it aside, pulled him from the saddle, and escaped on his horse. From our standpoint, either story seems to be possible. Perhaps a combination of the two is closest to the truth. The man himself claimed to have, “Dispatched three and scared the other six off.” Peter Francisco is listed among those who were at the Siege of Yorktown which, with the above story, ends his adventures in the Revolution. At this time Peter Francisco was 21 years old.

       After the war Peter sent himself to school. Still not a man of means able to hire tutors, he entered the public school and would sit his giant frame down next to the children of the town to recite his lessons. He was said to be reading the classics within two years. He married three times, widowed twice, he was father to three sons and one daughter. Francisco became a citizen of renown, known for wearing brightly colored clothing, fishing, hunting, hosting great parties and oddly enough, praised for his beautiful tenor singing voice. Stories about his strength and exploits continued to grow throughout his life. In 1824, his old friend the Marquis de Lafayette made his now famous tour of America, and Peter was his escort throughout Virginia. 

In the January 18th, 1831 issue of the Richmond Enquirer this 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."

  Research has led us to believe that Peter Francisco was born at Porto Judeu in the Azores Islands, and the language he spoke when found on the docks as a boy was Portuguese.

Today, March 15th is officially recognized in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Virginia as Peter Francisco Day. He is the only private soldier from the Revolutionary War to be so honored.

“I scarcely even met a man in Virginia who had not some miraculous tale to tell of Peter Francisco.”  Alexander Garden -Lighthorse Harry Lee’s Legion.

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