The Battle of Camden, South Carolina, was hopelessly lost on August 15, 1780. General Horatio Gates proved he really wasn't the Hero of Saratoga, as despite outnumbering the British 3,700 to 2,100, he would lose so poorly that he fled the battlefield and rode 60 miles before stopping. American losses were gruesome: 900 dead, 1,000 taken prisoner. The daring Banastre Tarleton led the British cavalry to break up the colonial infantry and send men fleeing.
Into this mess waded American Peter Francisco, a giant of a man -- 6-foot-6, 20 years old and easily 260 pounds -- who refused to go down without a fight. He saw a colonial cannon on the ground, got under it and lifted the half-ton piece of iron, trying to salvage something for his side that day.
But one does not get far when carrying such a heavy load. He set it down as two British cavalrymen approached and held his empty musket up, in a gesture of surrender. When they got near enough, he swung his musket around and knocked a rider off his horse. He then thrust his bayonet into the other soldier, grabbed the man's sword, hopped on a horse and rode to safety.
Francisco was part of a Virginia militia regiment that day, headed by Colonel William Mayo. He saw the colonel being taken prisoner. He caught up with his commander, who had being led away by an officer and an enlisted man. Francisco charged at the redcoats, cutting them down. He then presented his colonel the horse and off they escaped, to battle the British another day. Cornwallis headed the British at Camden. Francisco would be there 14 months later when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
However, Francisco's heroics were far from over. He would fight the British again and again, including a heroic day for Francisco at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, which is now celebrated by four states as Peter Francisco Day.
He was easily the best known enlisted man in the Continental Army. He was not an officer, nor a sergeant. He was just a big man who fought hard and refused to die, no matter how many times they shot or stabbed him. He was wounded at least six times, including a nine-inch gash in his stomach.
General Washington said of him, “Without him, we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom. He was truly a one-man army.”
Francisco befriended Lafayette when they both were recovering from wounds.
After the war, ever grateful for his rescue from the battlefield at Camden, Colonel Mayo gave Francisco his sword.
In gratitude for his heroics at Guilford Courthouse, 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."
Francisco simply was the American Hercules.
Peter Francisco was Portuguese, having been born in Porto Judeu, Terceira Island, in the Azores sometime in 1760. At age 4, pirate or gypsies kidnapped him and he wound up in Virginia, where he was taken to the Prince George County Poorhouse. Judge Anthony Winston took him in. The boy spoke no English, but it was soon discovered he spoke Portuguese and wore fine clothes. As he learned English, he revealed a childhood to a wealthy family. He lived in a mansion and his mother spoke French. Judge Winston raised Peter. Given the lad's size, the judge apprenticed him as a blacksmith.
Judge Winston was the delegate from Buckingham County at the 1775 Virginia Convention. He took Francisco with him to Richmond, where the judge's nephew, Patrick Henry, gave a speech on March 23, 1775. Yes, Francisco was among those few chosen by history who heard Patrick Henry say, "Give me liberty or give me death," which fired up the 15-year-old giant.
He enlisted at 16, joining the 10th Virginia Regiment in 1776. He was a foot taller than the rest of the soldiers and was quickly known for his size and strength. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine in September, under then-Colonel Daniel Morgan. Francisco was wounded in the battle and some Quakers, who were adamantly anti-war, nevertheless took him in to nurse his wounds. That's where he met a fellow wounded soldier, the Marquis de LaFayette. They became lifelong friends.
Once he was able to fight again, Private Francisco joined Colonel Mayo's regiment before returning to his home unit, Morgan's regiment, just in time for the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. He was one of the 450 men who held off the British for a month at Fort Mifflen -- and one of the few to escape when the siege ended on November 16, 1777, and the British turned it into ashes.
Francisco never gave up and he continued to fight in many skirmishes and was laid up for two weeks at Valley Forge following one skirmish. On June 28, 1778, he fought at Monmouth Court House, New Jersey, where a musket ball tore through his right thigh. He never quite recovered from that wound. Despite the wound, he re-enlisted.
He saw action in the summer of 1779 in one of the most spectacular battles of the Revolutionary War: Stony Point. The British had erected what they thought was an impregnable fortress. Colonel Anthony Wayne thought otherwise. On July 16, 1779, he led a raid that took over the fortress, earning the title Mad Anthony Wayne in honor of his derring do. They had to first cross a swamp and then scale a 300-foot stone wall.
Peter Francisco was the second man over the British wall, after a lieutenant named Gibbon. Francisco received a nine-inch gash to the gut, but was credited with killing three British soldiers. Wayne's raiders used their bayonets only, not firing a shot in the 45-minute battle for fear of alarming the rest of the garrison. Eyewitness Captain William Evans wrote: "Francisco was the second man who entered the fort and distinguished himself in numerous acts of bravery and intrepidly - - in a charge which was ordered to be made around the flagstaff, he killed three British grenadiers and was the first man who laid hold of the flagstaff and being badly wounded laid on it that night and in the morning delivered it to Colonel Fleury. These circumstances brought Mr. Francisco into great notice and his name was reiterated throughout the whole army."
Stony Point would be where the French and American armies staged themselves before traveling by boat to Yorktown. But that is getting ahead of the story.
The American victories in the north pushed Cornwallis and the action south in 1780. Francisco followed the action.
The brash and cruel Tarleton led the British to many a victory. Washington had simply sent the wrong man in to lead the American forces. General Gates was not a coward, he simply was a poor manager. Replacing Gate with General Greene turned the war back in the American favor. Yes, at Camden, easily half of Gates's troops were poorly trained and inexperienced, but General Morgan used that same mix of militia enlistees and veteran regulars to win the decisive Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, which turned the war around. Banastre Tarleton would be the one hightailing it from the battleground that day.
Francisco of course was at Cowpens. You had better believe Morgan was happy to have his Hercules there. But his greatest moment would come at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, in which Cornwallis gained a Pyrrhic victory over the American forces. The British lost more men, but General Greene retreated, a good move.
At Guilford Courthouse, Francisco was part of Lieutenant General William Washington's dragoons (the general being a second cousin of George Washington and quite a capable officer in his own right). The dragoons charged the British flank, slashing the British with their sabers. Francisco is credited with dispatching eleven British troops single handed. A British infantryman pinned Francisco¹s leg to his horse with a bayonet. Francisco assisted his assailant to draw the bayonet forth, and then brought his sword down, parting the attacker's head from his shoulders.
Considering 93 British soldiers died that day and Francisco killed 11 of them, one can see why the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia and Maryland now celebrate March 15 as Peter Francisco Day.
But he barely survived that day. Once again a Quaker came to his aid and nursed him back from death. The stab was deep and the Americans sent him home to nurse his wounds. Francisco did some spying. And he got in a fight with 11 of Tarleton's men, killing three of them and escaping with their horses. He was the man they could not kill.
Only 21 when the war ended, Francisco finally went to school, learning to read and write with little children. This he started a tradition of soldiers getting their education after serving their country.
In 1784, he married Susannah Anderson of Cumberland County, Virginia, whose parents were wealthy and socially prominent plantation owners. However, she died in 1790, leaving behind their son and their daughter. He married a relative of hers and they had four more children. His second wife died in 1821, and two years later at 63 he married for the third and last time.
However, he was impoverished by this time. The state of Virginia granted him a pension for his heroics. In 1828, the Virginia Legislature gave him a job as a sergeant at arms. Finally, a promotion for the patriotic private! He died at 70 on January 16, 1831, of appendicitis. But his memory lives on. The Society of the Descendants of Peter Francisco formed a few years ago and is pushing to have Hercules recognized by having every state name March 15 Peter Francisco Day. Why not?