A One Man Army

Conflict: Revolutionary War

1814 engraving of Peter Francisco fighting Tarleton's Raiders

1814 engraving of Peter Francisco fighting Tarleton’s Raiders

Before there was the legend of the mighty Paul Bunyan, there was Peter Francisco. But unlike the Bunyan of tall-tale fame, Peter Francisco really existed, though it’s hard to tell which of his great feats of strength and bravery are true and which are exaggerated.

In 1765, at five years old, Peter was abandoned at the docks at City Point, Virginia, after having been kidnapped from his wealthy Portuguese family in the Azores islands. All the young boy could communicate about himself was his name (Pedro Francisco), so he was eventually taken in by a wealthy judge who put Peter to work on his plantation then, when it became apparent that Peter was going to be rather large, apprenticed him to the blacksmith. By age 15, Peter was 6 foot 6 and weighed about 260 pounds. In 1776, at age 16, Peter joined the Continental Army; then when his three-year enlistment was up, he joined the Virginia Militia.

From Peter Francisco’s Revolutionary War pension file

From Peter Francisco’s Revolutionary War pension file

There are three stories most commonly told about Peter’s time in the war. The first is about the Battle of Stony Point, where Peter was chosen as part of an elite group of 20 soldiers who were to attack the British fort. Seventeen of his fellow soldiers died in the attempt, but Peter managed to capture the British flag, despite being wounded in the stomach. Another of Peter’s famous feats occurred during the Battle of Camden. Peter saw that a 1,100-pound cannon had been abandoned because the horses pulling it had been killed. So he hefted the enormous cannon up on his shoulder and carried it to safety. The third famous story about Peter happened after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. A group of British called Tarleton’s Raiders came upon Peter outside a tavern. When one of them tried to take Peter’s silver shoe buckles, Peter grabbed the man’s saber, hit him on the head with it, and then nearly cut off the man’s hand when he went for his gun. Peter then defeated the other men and escaped with eight of their horses.

An 1891 newspaper article mentioning Peter Francisco. It mistakenly says he was Irish.

An 1891 newspaper article mentioning Peter Francisco. It mistakenly says he was Irish.

Over the course of the war, Peter fought in many battles and was wounded at least 6 times. Supposedly, George Washington himself had a 6-foot broadsword made for Peter since normal-sized swords were too small for him. Washington also allegedly said about Peter that “without him we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the War, and with it our freedom. He was truly a One Man Army.” After the war, Peter returned to blacksmithing then, upon his marriage, became a gentleman farmer. Peter married three times and had six children. He died in 1831, at the ripe old age of 71.

Read more about Peter Francisco here, here, or here. Or search for records concerning him, including his pension file, in Fold3’s collections.