Independence Day for most of us means fireworks, family and friends gathered around the grill, and a birthday celebration for the greatest nation on earth, but I like to take a little bit of time every July 4th to think about some of the men and women who are mostly forgotten these days, but who fought, served, and sacrificed in order that our nation be free. As you enjoy the festivities today, why not raise a glass and toast one or more of these forgotten figures of American history?
I’d never heard of Peter Francisco until I moved to central Virginia, though he was a literal and figurative giant of the Continental Army. Born in Portugal, Peter was orphaned at an early age and found on the docks of City Point, Virginia in 1765 by a cousin of Patrick Henry’s named Anthony Winston, who took in the young boy. By the time Francisco was 16, he was already well over six feet tall and broadly muscled, and the young man joined the 10th Virginia Regiment in 1776 in fine fighting shape. Over the course of the war, Francisco would become a favorite of luminaries like George Washington and Layfayette, as well as the rank-and-file of the Continental Army in which he served.
Francisco’s exploits as the American Hercules were legendary, from the Battle of Monmouth and the taking of Stony Point in the north to the Battle of Guilford Court House in the south. Repeatedly injured in battle, Francisco, who was known to wield a six-foot broadsword in combat, nevertheless served in one capacity or another until the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. One of his last exploits took place not far from his home in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1781, when he was nearly captured by British cavalry led by the notorious Banastre Tarleton. From the American Battlefields Trust:
The story goes that during the attempt by Tarleton’s men to capture the “Virginia Giant” where they had him pinned down in a tavern he claimed to have killed or mortally wounded at least three of eleven of Tarleton’s men. During the standoff he came out of the tavern to face nine captors. Adding insult to injury they ordered him to hand over the buckles of his shoes which were made of silver. If they wanted them Francisco said they would have to take them themselves. As they began to steal his buckles Francisco subdued one soldier grabbing his sword and striking him on the head. A fierce brawl broke out. In the fracas Francisco nearly severed off the hand of the soldier whose sword he had managed to secure. Pistol shots were discharged at the hulking American one bullet glancing off his side. Another Redcoat took aim at him with his musket only to have it misfire. In that instant the Virginia Giant seized the musket from the soldier who shot at him, clutched his opponent throwing him off his horse, and made good his getaway.
After the war, Francisco ran a store in Buckingham County for many years, slowly sinking into poverty. In the late 1820’s, he was appointed Sergeant-at-Arms of the Virginia state senate, a position that he held until he died in 1831, buried with full military honors.
For generations, Francisco was especially beloved by Americans of Portuguese descent, and four states declared March 15th (the anniversary of the Battle of Guilford Court House) as Peter Francisco Day, though it’s little celebrated or even acknowledged these days. The Virginia Giant has slipped into obscurity, his exploits and heroism largely lost to the mists of time.
Not much is known about the birth and upbringing of Georgia frontierswoman Nancy Hart, but her exploits during the War of Independence are bit easier for historians to corroborate. Hart was a strong woman, around six feet tall, and was said to be an excellent shot with a rifle despite being cross-eyed. During the war, she served as a spy for the Continentals, and on occasion would enter nearby British camps disguised as a man to collect information. As the National Women’s History Museum details, Hart also engaged in a one-woman fight against Tories in Georgia.
The British frequently stopped at the Hart house, keeping an eye on the patriotic woman. In one instance, Hart’s daughter noticed a Tory spying through a hole in the wall. Hart was making soap and threw a boiling ladle-full through the crack, scalding the spy. She and her daughter then tied him up and turned him over to the Patriots.
Hart’s most famous act involved five or six British soldiers, who killed her last turkey and demanded that she cook it for them. She devised a plan to get the soldiers drunk on her corn liquor, take their guns and hold them captive. Hart sent her daughter Sukey to get some water and to use a hidden conch shell to alert neighbors of the British presence. While the soldiers ate and drank, Hart began sneaking their guns out through a hole in the wall. Caught holding the third gun, she drew it and threatened to shoot. When a soldier rushed at her, she killed him and wounded another; the rest surrendered.
After the war, Hart eventually moved to Henderson, Kentucky, where she passed away decades after the war at the age of 93. While there are several landmarks in Georgia named after Hart, for the most part few Americans are aware of the frontierswoman who waged her own campaign of liberty and independence.
Born into slavery in Andover, Massachusetts in the 1740’s, Poor purchased his freedom when he was 22-years old. It’s not known if he was present during the battles of Lexington and Concord, but by May of 1775 Poor was one of thousands of citizen soldiers surrounding the British troops hunkered down inside the city of Boston. In June of that year Poor’s regiment was one of several ordered to defend Breed’s Hill just across the river from Boston in Charleston, and on June 17th Poor found himself facing fierce fire from the Redcoats at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Poor’s gallantry and bravery that day was acknowledged by all who witnessed it, including Col. William Prescott, who lauded Poor afterwards in a letter to the Massachusetts General Court.
To the Honorable General Court of the Massachusetts Bay: The subscribers beg leave to report to your Honorable House (which we do in justice to the character of so brave a man), that, under our own observation, we declare that a negro man, called Salem Poor, of Col. Frye’s regiment, Capt. Ames’ company, in the late battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We would beg leave to say, in the person of this said negro, centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress.”
Poor was briefly discharged from the militia in 1775 when Washington ordered an end to the recruitment of black soldiers, but rejoined the Continental Army shortly after Washington rescinded his order a few months later and urged the recruitment of any American willing to fight. Poor was at Valley Forge, as well as the Battle of Monmouth, ultimately leaving the army in 1780 and returning to civilian life before his death in 1803. Like many of the forgotten heroes of the War of Independence, Poor died destitute, and his grave has never been found.
While Bissell fought for freedom during the War of Independence, his greatest exploits came not in battle, but in spycraft. Bissell is the only spy of the Revolutionary War that received a personal commendation by George Washington, due to Bissell’s important work detailing British troop strength and movements in New York City in 1781. At the time, Washington was intent on striking at the British in New York, before events dictated that he move his forces south to catch Cornwallis’ army in a pincher move on the Yorktown peninsula in Virginia.
Still, when Bissell entered New York City posing as a Tory and took the step of joining a Loyalist regiment, he had no idea that the war would soon be heading south. While he was under cover, he also took some extraordinary steps to keep him from fighting his fellow patriots. From the Journal of the American Revolution:
Bissell pointed out “that he never bore arms against America, having been confined in the hospital or employed in the Quarter Master’s department the whole time.” There is no evidence of the latter, but the Legion’s muster of November, 1781 does record that he was confined in the hospital.
The Legion was part of the expedition to Connecticut under General Arnold that led to the burning of New London and the storming of Fort Griswold on September 6; for Bissell not to have participated, and therefore served against his country, he must have gone into the hospital within two weeks of his enlistment or been assigned to some sort of detached duty.
He served constantly thereafter with the Legion garrisoning of posts around New York City, first at Ireland Heights, then Fresh Meadows, Harlem Lane and finally being ordered to Staten Island on May 27, 1782. Here he served at the Flag Staff post until deserting back to the Continental Army on the night of September 26, 1782. Four others, including two sergeants, deserted from the Legion at the same time.
On June 8th of 1783, General Washington ordered that Bissell be awarded the “badge of merit,” becoming just the third Continental soldier to receive the honor.
Bissell once again served in the army during the Quasi-War with France in 1800, and quietly passed away at the age of 70 in western New York in 1824.
There are literally thousands of stories like these to be found in our American history; ordinary men and women who rose to the occasion and fought for liberty and independence before fading into obscurity. As we celebrate today the words of the founding fathers who crafted the Declaration of Independence, let us also remember and honor the men and women like Peter Francisco, Nancy Hart, Salem Poor, and Daniel Bissell who helped turn words on a piece of paper into a truly independent nation.