Wineka column: Hercules of the Revolution

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 15, 2011

SALISBURY — Travis Bowman sometimes gets lost in his character.
But give him a break. Like Peter Francisco, he is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and in the plus 200-pound range.
Bowman also is a seventh-generation ancestor of the great warrior, the author of a self-published book about this “Hercules of the American Revolution” and producer of a DVD documentary on Francisco’s life.
Dressed in Colonial garb and wielding a 6-foot-long broadsword, Bowman mesmerizes audiences, such as the one Tuesday night at the Rowan History Club, with the Francisco story, which he tells in first person.
But how is it we hardly ever hear of this man, Francisco, described once by George Washington as a one-man army?
“Without him,” Washington said, “we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom.”
Five monuments have been erected to Francisco, including one at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. At least three states have Peter Francisco Days. In 1975, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative 18-cent stamp in his honor as one of the contributors to the cause of freedom.
The stamp said, “Peter Francisco: Fighter Extraordinary.”
A noteworthy painting was done of Francisco’s escape from Tarleton’s Raiders. Francisco was good friends with Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, probably the most famous Frenchman to support the American cause in the Revolution. It was Lafayette who asked Washington to commission the making of a huge broadsword for Francisco, also known as the “Virginia Giant.”
The Francisco story is peppered with his feats of strength, survival of gunshot and bayonet wounds and the beating of overwhelming odds.
And he was 6-6 in height, when the average Colonial man was 5-6.
While he was legendary in his day and may be the most famous private in American military history, Francisco’s name — for most of us — has somehow passed into the storage bins of history. Bowman’s frequent appearances as an actor impersonating his ancestor are partly aimed at correcting that.
“He’s probably the most famous unknown founding father,” Bowman says, knowing how contradictory that statement is.
Bowman, 38, is a sales and marketing consultant by day and lives in Davidson. He made his first appearance as Hercules of the American Revolution in 2008.
Bowman tells his story, as Francisco, up to the point where he is presumed dead on the Guilford Courthouse battlefield. If you want to know more, he teases, you need to buy his book, which he sells, along with the DVD, for $20 each.
Francisco actually lived to the age of 71, dying of appendicitis in 1831. He was married three times, had 12 children who called him “Dad,” Bowman says, and his farmhouse, Locust Grove, is a historic private residence today outside of Buckingham, Va.
It’s difficult to give a capsule summary of Francisco’s life. The Society of the Descendants of Peter Francisco tries with its website to give a straightforward account.
As with other researchers, Bowman believes Francisco was part of a well-to-do family in the Azores when he was kidnapped, possibly for ransom, and taken by ship to the Colonies.
James Durrell of Petersburg, Va., wrote this eyewitness account of the boy’s arrival on a wharf at City Point, Va. (now Hopewell) on June 23, 1765:
“… a foreign ship sailed up the James River, dropped anchor opposite the dock and lowered a kingboat to the water with two sailors in it. Then a boy of about 5 years was handed down and rowed to the wharf, where he was deposited and abandoned. The boat returned, quickly, to its ship. The ship weighed anchor at once, sailed back down the James River and was never heard from again.”
The child could not speak English and kept repeating his name as “Pedro Francisco,” which became Peter Francisco.
Who Francisco’s captors were and why they would abandon him as described remain a mystery. He personally never knew where he was from, though historians later determined with some confidence that he was of Portuguese descent.
The clothing he wore when first landing in Virginia suggested Francisco had been from an aristocratic family.
Judge Anthony Winston soon took the young boy to his plantation, where Bowman contends he was a slave into his teen years. The society says he was an indentured servant, who joined the Continental Army in December 1776.
With others, Francisco heroically held ground during the Battle of Brandywine, giving Washington time for an orderly retreat. At this battle, he was wounded in the leg and ended up recuperating for a couple of weeks with Lafayette.
In June 1778, a musket ball tore through his right thigh as he battled in Monmouth, N.J.
In 1779, Washington handpicked an elite force of 20 men, including Francisco, to storm the Hudson River fortress at Stony Point. The men had to clear a path with axes through two heavy rows of abates, climb a stone cliff and rush the fort.
Francisco was second over the wall and received a 9-inch wound in the stomach. Capt. William Evans reported later that Francisco distinguished himself by numerous acts of bravery during that assault:
“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 Col. Fleury.
“These circumstances brought Mr. Francisco great notice, and his name was reiterated throughout the whole army.”
Of the 20 men in Washington’s “commando” raid, 17 were killed or wounded.
Some time after the Battle of Camden, Colonel Mayo presented Francisco with his dress sword for having saved the colonel’s life. In this battle, Francisco shot a grenadier who tried to stick Mayo with a bayonet. He also supposedly sidestepped two sword attacks by British soldiers on horses and lifted one of the cavalrymen out of his saddle by bayonet.
It also was at the Camden battle where Francisco is said to have picked up a 1,100-pound cannon and carried it away from the British — the scene depicted on the 1975 commemorative stamp.
When Cornwallis had his artillery fire grape shot into the center of the fight at Guilford Courthouse, Francisco was seriously wounded and left for dead on the battlefield.
A Quaker gentleman named Robinson found him, took Francisco to his house and nursed him to recovery. His dramatic escape from Tarleton’s Raiders came in 1781.
The Society of Descendants of Peter Francisco say he “performed deeds without parallel” during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. It adds:
“He cut down 11 men with his broadsword; had his leg pinned to a horse by the bayonet of a guardsman — but as the soldier turned and fled, Peter made a blow with his sword and managed to cleft the fellow’s head down to his shoulder before he fell.”
Bowman says the Virginia Hercules suffered six serious wounds during the war. He thinks Francisco was never made an officer because he could not read or write during the Revolution.
Bowman’s book about Francisco is a novel, which uses what’s known about Francisco’s life as its framework. His own 6-foot sword was fashioned by a man in Chapel Hill who once had been a craftsman in Colonial Williamsburg.
The fate of the original broadsword is unknown.
Maybe the Hercules of the American Revolution took it with him.

Peter Francisco
Born: circa 1760 in the Azores, off the coast of Portugal
Found: At age 5 on the docks of City Point (now Hopewell), Va.
Early life: Worked 11 years as an indentured servant or slave in the fields and blacksmith shop of Hunting Tower Plantation in Buckingham County, Va.
Size: 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 260 pounds by age 15
Nicknames: “Virginia Giant,” “Virginia Hercules”
Revolutionary War: Enlisted in 10th Virginia Regiment, Continental Army, December 1776. Reenlisted three years later in Virginia Militia under Col. Mayo.
Notable battles: Brandywine, Stony Point, Camden and Guilford Courthouse
Notable encounters: Escaped from Tarleton’s Raiders, wounding two men and making off with eight British horses.
Notable feat of strength: At Battle of Camden, not wanting an important artillery piece to fall into British hands, Francisco loosened an 1,100-pound cannon, shouldered it and carried it to a carriage for safe transport to American lines.
Witness to history: Heard Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech; and was on hand for Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Va., in 1781.
Legacy: Because of their strong Portuguese communities, New Bedford, Mass., has a monument to him in Peter Francisco Square, and Newark, N.J., has a Peter Francisco Park.
Died: Jan. 16, 1871. Buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Va.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or