‘One-man army’ of the Revolution 

By Karen Zautyk

Have you ever heard of Peter Francisco?

Thank you. I hadn’t either.

But if you too answered “no,” you, like me, must not be familiar with all Revolutionary War history. Or be of Portuguese descent.

I recently made Francisco’s acquaintance thanks to a wonderful series, “The American Revolution,” televised on AHC (American Heroes Channel). From it, I learned a great deal — including the fact that I didn’t know as much about our fight for liberty as I thought I did.

Peter Francisco was notable for two reasons: his courage as a soldier, and his size. At a time when the average man stood 5-foot-8, he was 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 and weighed a reported 260 lbs., earning him such nicknames  as the “Virginia Giant” and the “American Hercules.” (The broadsword he carried in battle was also a foot taller than most of the soldiers around him.)

There is little documentation of his early childhood, but it is believed that he was born Pedro Francisco in the Portuguese Azores on July 9, 1760. A birth certificate thought to be his has been uncovered there.

According to online bios, at age 5, he was found wandering on the docks of City Point, Va. — how he got there is a mystery — and was brought to the Prince George County poorhouse.  A Virginia judge, an uncle of Patrick Henry, took him into his family, raised and educated him. He eventually was apprenticed as a blacksmith. And in 1776, at age 16, he enlisted in a Virginia regiment to fight the Redcoats.

Francisco went on to distinguish himself in numerous engagements throughout the Colonies, including the 1778 Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. He suffered through the brutal winter at Valley Forge. His resume also includes action at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, Fort Mifflin, Cowpens, Stony Point on the Hudson River, Guilford Courthouse, along with numerous skirmishes.

Tales of his courage in all these abound, but the incident which inscribed his name in legend occurred in August 1780 at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina.  There, the British routed the American forces, but not Peter Francisco’s initiative.

As recounted in an a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Revolution, “It is said that as the American troops withdrew, Francisco saw them abandoning an artillery piece [it was mired in mud] 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.”

Alas, the historian who wrote the  article is a skeptic, for he continues: “I’ve never found primary documentation of either version, and until some surfaces, this story appears to be more myth than fact.”

To which I say: Fie on historians and their “primary documentation.”

The account of the Virginia Giant hoisting the cannon on his shoulder was valid enough for the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp to mark the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. That’s the illustration that accompanies this column.

There is much more to the Peter Francisco story, and several biographies have been written about him. There is even a Society of the Descendants of Peter Francisco (he fathered six children).

Francisco died in Richmond, Va., in January 1831, at the age of 71.

Of appendicitis.

This, after surviving bayonet and musket-ball wounds during his military career.

After I watched the AHC documentary and decided I wanted to write about this hero, of whom I was completely in the dark, I called Kearny Mayor Alberto and asked, “Have you ever heard of Peter Francisco?”

And Santos responded, “Of course. And so, I’m sure, has the entire Portuguese community.”

Talk about feeling “Duh.” Well, at least I know about him now.

I also learned that there is a Peter Francisco Park, with a monument to the hero,  just east of Penn Station in the Ironbound section of Newark.

It is now on my list of must-sees.

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