Legend or Myth: Who is the Virginia Giant?
I have longed been intrigued by the legend of the “Virginia Giant” so let us break it down who he was and his role in history.
Peter Francisco (born Pedro Francisco; July 7, 1760 – January 16, 1831) known variously as the “India”, the “Giant of the Revolution” and occasionally the “Virginia Hercules”, was a Portuguese-born American patriot and soldier in the American Revolutionary War. 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.
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.”
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. 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.” 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, as reported said by Mr. Peter Francisco (born Pedro Francisco; July 7, 1760 – January 16, 1831) known variously as the “India”, the “Giant of the Revolution” and occasionally the “Virginia Hercules”, was a Portuguese-born American patriot and soldier in the American Revolutionary War.
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.” Later generations repeated the tales. 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. 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. 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. He also described his nine-inch bayonet wound to his abdomen in at least two pension applications. 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. 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.
Gen. Wayne credited De Fleury with capturing the fort’s colors. In 1828 Lt. William Evans described Francisco’s fight at the fort’s flagstaff, 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. 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.
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. There has 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.” In his 1829 application, he upped the count to four redcoats. 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.
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, either.
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. 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. 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. 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. You my assured that I think they’d like it better that way.