The Virginia Hercules: The Story of Peter Francisco

He has been called many things:  The Virginia Giant, Giant of the Revolution, and even on occasion, the Virginia Hercules.  He has been called the greatest American soldier to have ever lived.  Who was this giant among men and what is his story?

In 1765, a small boy was found wandering the docks at City Point, Virginia.  He looked to be about five years old and did not speak English, only Portuguese.  It has been said that he uttered a name over and over, “Pedro Francisco”.  When no parents could be found, the people took him to Prince George County Poorhouse where he became known as Peter Francisco.  Upon being taken in, it was noted that the clothing he was wearing was made of quality fabric.

As his communication skills developed, Pedro told the people at the poorhouse that he had once lived in a mansion located near the ocean with his mother who spoke French and his father who spoke a different language, one that he did not know.  He told them that he and his sister had been victims of kidnapping.  He was unable to escape, but his sister managed to get away.  He was tied up and taken aboard a ship.  Many historians believe that Pedro was taken either for ransom or possibly to be sold as an indentured servant in North America.  For some reason, they were not able to do either in the case of Pedro.

It is believed that he was born on July 9, 1760 at Porto Judeu on an island called Terceira which is located in the Azores where a legend about the Francisco family has been told.  The legend says that the family was entangled in political turmoil and had many political enemies.  Some believe that it was this political climate that led to Peter’s abduction.  Some believe that his family, fearing the harm their political enemies could have inflicted on their son, may have even orchestrated his abduction to protect him accident and death.

After a stay in the poorhouse, Peter was taken in by a judge in Buckingham County, Virginia by the name of Anthony Winston who was also the uncle to Patrick Henry.  While living with the Winston family, he was tutored by them.  Finally, when he became old enough to work, he was very large, six foot six inches tall and weighed about 260 pounds.  Because of his large size, he was apprenticed out to a blacksmith.

As so typical of youth, Peter became caught up in the revolutionary thought for independence.  He was standing outside St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia and heard the famous speech given by Judge Winston’s nephew, Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech.  In 1777, when he was only 16, Peter joined the 10th Virginia Regiment.  It didn’t take long for him to stand out.  He size and his strength gained him much attention.  He earned a reputation and fought with distinction at a number of battles and skirmishes under the direction of Colonel Morgan.  One of those battles in which he made a name for himself was the Battle of Brandywine.

He was later transferred to a regiment commanded by Colonel Mayo of Powhatan for a short period of time but eventually returned to fight with his regiment in the Battle of Germantown.

He was seen at Fort Mifflin on Port Island in the Delaware River.  Following a series of skirmishes, he was hospitalized at Valley Forge.  While being hospitalized, he shared a room with none other than the Marquis de Lafayette who was age 20 at the time.  The two became friends.

Francisco’s large stature made the standard-size sword too short for him.  Recognizing this problem, Lafayette made a request of General George Washington to have a special sword made for Francisco.  Washington granted this request and ordered that a special sword, five feet long, be crafted for this giant among the troops.

As fighting raged for three years, Francisco became legendary.  It has been said that he was the most well-known private soldier of the American Revolution.   On June 28, 1778, American patriots found themselves enthralled in battle at Monmouth Court House, New Jersey.  In the heat of the exchange of gun fire, Francisco felt a musket ball tear through his body as a musket ball literally tore through his right thigh.

Without ever fully recovering from his wound at Monmouth Court House, the Virginia Giant continued to be a force to be reckoned with.  He fought in the Battle of Cowpens and was a part of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s attack on a British fort along the Hudson River called Stony Point.  It was here that the legend grew to epic proportions.  During the attack on the fort, Fransisco was slashed in his stomach causing a nine-inch gash.  Still, he did not give up.  With fierce tenacity, he continued to fight.  Three grenadiers perished at the hands of this patriot.  Francisco also raised the morale and spirit of his fellow patriots when he captured the flag of their enemy.

The patriots, including Francisco, fought hard at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina.  But it wasn’t his fighting at this battle that added to the legend of the giant.  As the patriots began to leave the region, Peter realized that a valuable cannon, mired in the mud, was being left behind.  To prevent this valuable piece of weaponry from falling into the hands of the British, the Virginia Giant picked it up, all 1,100 pounds of it, and hoisted it to his shoulder and personally carried it to a secure location.

The young man got wind of the movement of Colonel Watkins through the Carolinas.  He rushed to join him.  The troops engaged the enemy at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.  In this battle Francisco was credited with killing eleven men though his own personal account of the battle says that he killed two men, including one who bayonetted him in the thigh.

To recover from his wounds, he was sent to Buckingham.  While there, he did not cease his efforts toward independence.  Francisco volunteered to spy on troops in the area under the command of Tarleton. And still, the legend grew.  By his own account, Francisco claimed to have defeated an 11-member band of Tarleton’s Raiders and the killing of three of them.  He takes credit for single-handedly escaping with their horses.

The fame of this giant continued to grow.  It is told that outside a tavern one night, a group of Tarleton’s men surrounded the patriot giant and ordered his arrest.  They demanded that he turn over his silver shoe buckles to them.  In his defiant attitude, he told them if they wanted them to take them themselves.  As they reached to take the silver buckles, Francisco was said to have struck one of the Brits’s heads with his saber causing the British soldier’s pistol to discharge.  Francisco’s side was pierced by the bullet.  He then nearly cut off the hand of his enemy but another redcoat took aim with his musket at Francisco.  But as luck would have it, the musket misfired.  Francisco seized the opportunity and used his brute strength to take the musket from the enemy.  He then knocked his opponent off his horse and stole the mount to use for his escape.  Though details and numbers of different accounts of this incident varies, the event became known as Francisco’s Flight.

In 1781, when General Washington faced off with Lord Charles Cornwallis at the defining battle of Yorktown, Francisco was there.  Though he did not take part in the exchange of fire, he was there at the end to bear witness to the World Turned Upside Down.

Peter Francisco, found on the docks as a child, grew up to be one of America’s patriots, a giant among men.

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Photo 1:  Peter Franscisco fights with a British Soldier during the American Revolution

Photo 2: President George Washington

Photo 3: Portrait of Peter Franscisco

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