Richard Thomas Zarvona (1833-1875)

Richard Thomas was well known in the social circles of southern Maryland and northern Virginia. A scion of a family of Maryland landed gentry, he was the son of Richard Thomas, Sr., former speaker of the House of Delegates, former president of the Maryland Senate, and brother of governor James Thomas of Maryland.

Born on October 27, 1833, Richard, Jr., was the eldest of three sons. All three fought for the Confederacy: Richard, Jr., in the episode of St. Nicholas, and both George and James William in Company A, Second Maryland Regiment, CSA (George as captain, James William as first sergeant). The latter two fought in Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. George was twice wounded: shot in the face at Cold Harbor and grievously injured at Gettysburg.

All three grew up under the sheltering maples of Mattapany, the family plantation on the south shore of the Patuxent River, five miles from its mouth and abreast of Solomons Island on the opposite side. The mansion, a long, stately building of brick, stood on level ground above a fifty foot bluff at the river's edge, with three hundred feet of grassy park extending from the veranda. (The mansion is now the official residence of the Commander, Naval Air Warfare Center, Aircraft Division, U.S. Naval Air Station, Patuxent.) Mattapany enjoyed a long history of entertaining the gentry of southern Maryland. In colonial days, the lord proprietor of Maryland often vacationed there in summertime, accompanied by a retinue of servants. Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore, came riding from St. Inigoes to court the beautiful daughter of the house, and the wedding that followed was remembered as a grand affair in the annals of St. Mary's County. In the Revolution, the ancestors of the Thomas brother stood in the Maryland line in the charge at the battle of Long Island.

Of the three Thomas brother, Richard, Jr., was the most spirited and daring. Even as a boy among the hard-riding, hard-drinking young blades of the county, he gained a reputation for his near reckless courage and dash. An excellent sailor, marksman, hunter, and skilled horseman, he reveled in the sports that excited the young gentry of southern Maryland.

In early life, he was sent to Charlotte Hall Academy, a military boarding school, and to a similar institution at Oxford in Talbot County. At age sixteen, he sought (with his political connections assured) and won an appointment to West Point. More interested in the martial arts than in the prescribed studies of the academy, his academic performance was not outstanding. He stood 55th in a class of 71 in his first-class year (39th in mathematics, 59th in French, 50th in English studies), and he accumulated 189 demerits for the year. He resigned from the military academy on October 21, 1851.

His spirit of adventure carried him far. Family legend has it that he engaged for a considerable time in government surveys of California and other western territories, and that subsequently he went to China and joined forces with those protecting coastal shipping from the depredations of local pirates. Although no records exist of his Italian service, he reportedly joined the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi to fight for the freedom of a people oppressed by foreign rule. An exuberant and militant idealism drove him to undertake revolutionary adventures more characteristic of a soldier of fortune.

Richard (as determined by later correspondence) certainly witnessed the red-shirted battalions of Garibaldi as they triumphantly entered Naples in September 1860. He probably played some part in the rout of the remnant Bourbon army in the Volturno a month later and accompanied Victor Emmanuel on the latter's entry into Naples. Shortly thereafter, Richard Thomas returned to the United States.

How he initially became interested in Garibaldi could be easily explained. When the great liberator in 1849 retreated through central Italy, pursued by the armies of France, Austria, Spain, and Naples, he eventually found sanctuary by escape to America. During his stay in the United States, the press worldwide glorified him for his past exploits in the defense of freedom in Uruguay in 1834-36 and, after his return to Italy in 1854, for his defense of Italy against Austrain invasion. Richard Thomas, with his head in the clouds of romantic adventure, could only have been stimulated by these stirring accounts of military achievement in the face of nearly insurmountable odds for a crusading cause.

Unexplained was the fascination of Richard Thomas for the Zouaves. These were certain segments of the regular French army, first formed in Algeria in 1831 from a tribe of Berbers (Zouaves) dwelling in the mountains of the Jerjura range. The Zouaves gained a reputation for their strict discipline, fighting capabilities, and oriental uniforms consisting of red, flared-out pantaloons, blue doublet, crimson cap with gold tassel, white gaiters, and scimitar like saber.

Richard Thomas on his return to the United States in early 1861 soon exhibited his utter obsession with the Zouaves. Interestingly, Thomas spoke fluent French on his arrival. Such fluency did not coincide with his rather poor showing in the one-year study of the language at West Point and could only be attributed to continuous use of the language during his stay in Europe. Furthermore, a certain fluency in Italian could be expected from his reported association with the forces of Garibaldi; but he never evidenced any command of the Italian language after his return to the United States. These links to the French stood in contrast to the avowed animosity of Garibaldi toward France and its allies. Finally, family legend held that Richard Thomas fell in love with a French girl, who died. He mourned her loss so deeply that he took her name as his own and chose to be called Richard Thomas Zarvona. The evidence would suggest that, sometime during his stay in Europe, he served with the Zouaves and brought back with him a romantic notion that he sought to translate into reality in service to the Confederacy. (The National Archives and the Service Archives of the Ministry of Defense of France were neither able to confirm or deny his service with the Zouaves.)

On April 26, 1861, Zarvona addressed a letter to a cousin in which he outlined his plans for serving the Confederacy:

To avoid the fatigue of a private's life—which I admit I am little prepared for, I wrote for information as to means necessary to pursue a commission on the staff either as engineer or topographical engineer. Is it possible to get either of these [or] armed ship of Maryland or any Southern State, private armed vessel bearing the Confederate flag? . . . I probably would be better afloat. If Maryland raises navy, will not someone be willing to fit out a small, strong and swift propeller [vessel] carrying two (or even one) 10 or 11 inch guns up the patent carriage? . . . As for men I believe that I can get 150 in one day, . . . revolvers (I can get them in the North), cutlasses, knives, and about two dozen carbines . . . (quoted from the manuscript scrapbook compiled by Armstrong Thomas, The Thomas Brothers of Mattapany, 1963. Document is in the Library of Congress. All further quotations cited as Thomas in this chapter refer to undated newspaper clippings and journal entries in this scrapbook.).

In May 1861, he formed the nucleus of what he hoped would be a Confederate Zouave regiment. Fifty men began training under his direction on the shores of the Coan River near the mouth of the Potomac. In this encampment he learned from information surreptitiously exchanged from both sides of the river about the movements of U.S.S. Pawnee and the supply runs of the steamer St. Nicholas. The opportunity that their movements presented for the seizure of both vessels by ruse and attack was perceived by the wily Richard Thomas Zarvona, just as it had been seen by Commander Hillins and Lieutenant Lewis. There was one difference, however: Richard Thomas had in hand a quickly formulated and defined plan for accomplishing the mission.

Accompanied by his friend and kindred spirit, George W. Alexander, a former engineer in the U.S. Navy, Zarvona went to Richmond to tender his services to Governor John Letcher.

Governor Letcher saw before him a young gentleman dressed in the height of fashion, a slender figure with a boyish face. Others described Zarvona as "fragile in form, with sharp irregular features, sharp indentations in his cheeks, blue eyes, aquiline nose and closely shaved in the head and face. There was a deep-seated melancholy about the man . . . He seemed downcast . . . in the extreme . . . He seemed to be extremely gentle and spoke in a low, weak voice . . . Some years ago he formed a tender attachment but . . . the object of his regard expired in his arms while endeavoring [sic] to revive her from drowning. Ever since . . . he [was] said to be erratic and gloomy" (Samuel Phillips Day's Down South). Another reported that he wore a scar across his cheek, testimony to his frontline combat at some point in his career. Some observers saw him as short but slender, others as tall and thin. But the unusual appearance he presented impressed everyone.

Letcher at first viewed Zarvona as an eccentric but revised his opinion as the latter presented his plan, a few days later, for the seizure of Pawnee from the decks of St. Nicholas. Letcher, before he reached a decision, invited Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury to join in a discussion of the plan.

Maury had served as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, where as a naval lieutenant he performed his work so well that Simon Newcomb, the astronomer, declared that "the institution bode fair to take a high place in science." Then Maury turned his attention to studying ocean winds and currents. On April 26, 1861, Maury left his post and joined the cause of the Confederacy with the rank of commodore.

In the meeting that occurred in the governor's office following Zarvona's initial contact, the plan unfolded. Zarvona proposed to go to Baltimore, enlist the services of a dozen or more adventurous young men, whom he could recruit from the ranks of southern sympathizers ready to undertake a bold mission against the North. They would board the St. Nicholas as passengers, and at a proper moment in the Potomac River and on a given signal, seize the vessel from her officers and crew, assume command under Zarvona, and steam into the Coan River to gather up reinforcements from Confederate units, including Zarvona's Zouaves, before proceeding alongside Pawnee to effect her capture by ruse. Those present at the meeting arrived at the conclusion that the plan was feasible.

Governor Letcher called upon the secretary of the navy to furnish pistols, ammunition, and cutlasses for the party boarding U.S.S. Pawnee.  He also prevailed on L.P. Walker, secretary of war, to order General Holmes at Fredericksburg to send a force of six hundred men drawn from the Tennessee regiment to the Coan River to support the operation and to transport the needed arms.

Walker agreed, reluctantly, under the stipulation that the troops were not to engage in the seizure of the civilian vessel, St. Nicholas, an operation he still considered harebrained.

Governor Letcher presented Zarvona with an advance of one thousand dollars to be used in procuring arms in Baltimore and possibly for encouraging a few young adventurers to join in a bold strike at the foes of the Confederacy. At the same time, he promised Zarvona the rank of colonel (Alexander and George, the rank of captain) if the plan succeeded, and told Zarvona to use the title in recruitment.

Zarvona, accompanied by Alexander, set out for Baltimore, traveling the usual route: by furtively crossing the Potomac, traversing the peninsula to the Patuxent, and (as an apparent farm worker) boarding Mary Washington for passage up the Bay. In Baltimore, the two let it be known in certain covert circles that they were seeking men for a bold but rewarding enterprise for the Southern cause.

One of the men, George W. Watts, late lieutenant, CSA, recruited by Zarvona, recounted his enlistment:

We were all strong Southern sympathizers, and one day the information was quietly circulated among those true to the cause that a Colonel Thomas, who had served in foreign wars, was planning a desperate expedition. I nosed around and got wind of what was up, Well, Sir, at first I was mighty disappointed with the Colonel. He looked like one of them slick floorwalkers in a department store. I think the other men felt the same way that I did, but pretty soon we found we were all fooled. Believe me, Sir, that man had the quickest brain I ever ran across, and his eyes were just as quick. Eyes? Why, when that man looked at you [they looked right through you]. It didn't take us long to learn who was boss around there. So we got all our plans ready ("Last Survivor of a Gallant Band," Evening Sun, August 27, 1910).

On the evening of June 28, 1861, the men engaged by Zarvona boarded St. Nicholas in Baltimore. They arrived at the wharf one by one or in pairs at intervals, passing themselves of as harvest hands in search of employment in the fields of southern Maryland. They paid their fares and were duly searched for contraband, as required by military authorities, who found nothing.

Among a total of nearly sixty passengers coming aboard St. Nicholas just before departure was a very stylishly dressed young lady, speaking only broken English with a marked French accent. Her brother (a fierce-looking bearded man) accompanied her, so she said, and helped translate her wishes. Her name was Madame LaForte, she said, and she had a number of large trunks to take with her, in order to establish her millinery business in Washington. Entranced by her smile, the purser assigned her to a commodious stateroom off the main deck and had deckhands haul her trunks to her cabin.

When the steamer departed, the lady emerged from her stateroom and flirted shamelessly with the most attractive males among the passengers and ship's officers. Captain Jacob Kirwan, who prided himself on his knowledge of French, tried out his vocabulary on the lady, who proved herself a native of France with a voluble stream of coquettish language that quite overwhelmed him. Fluent French gushed from her lips. She radiated charm. A veil covered her eyes and cheeks but not her reddened lips. She tossed her fan about and cocked her head at an angle toward any gentleman who occupied her attention at the moment. With her bearded brother at her arm, she meandered from saloon to dance hall, flirting as she went with the ship's officers. Captain Kirwan was disturbed. "I didn't like the appearance of that French woman at all," he said later. "She sat next to me at table and so close that our legs touched. I thought she looked mighty queer" (Day). She swished about the deck, waving a large fan like a Spanish dancer. "That young woman behaved so scandalously that all the other women on the boat were in a terrible state over it," said George Watts. One crew member, utterly mesmerized by the lady, leaned over to kiss her and straightened up abruptly with the mark if a hand slap on his cheek.

For some reason, which the crew did not understand, most of the passengers elected to wander about the decks on into the night as the steamer plowed her way south toward the Potomac. About midnight, the steamer rounded Point Lookout and sidled alongside the dock just inside the spit of land at the point. Coming aboard were several men including an elderly gentleman, all seeking passage to Washington.

George Watts, a member of the recruits boarding in Baltimore, was upset:

Among [the passengers] I counted my 15 comrades. We all kept separated, however, and didn't let anyone know we knew each other. But what worried me a lot was I couldn't find the colonel or anyone that looked like him. I could see the failure of the whole expedition, and also I could see myself behind bars at Fort McHenry, and the picture didn't look a bit good for me. I was on deck a-wondering where it was all going to end and whether I'd be hung as a Rebel spy when someone touched me on the arm. I whirled around like somebody had stuck a knife in me and saw Alexander [the bearded brother]. He grinned at the way he had scared me and said, "You're wanted in the second cabin." I hurried below decks [to the second cabin] and nearly had a fit when I found all our boys gathered around that frisky French lady. She looked at me when I came in, and, Lord, I knew those eyes in a minute! It was the Colonel. Then he shed his bonnet, wig, and dress and stepped forth clad in a brilliant new Zouave uniform. In a jiffy the "French" lady's three big trunks were dragged out and opened. One was filled with cutlasses, another with Colt revolvers, and the third with carbines. Each man buckled on a sword and pistol and grabbed a gun, and then the Colonel told us what to do ("Last Survivor . . . ").

The colonel and two men proceeded to the captain's cabin and confronted Kirwan, who, when apprised of the force seizing his ship, readily surrendered. George Watts, former sailor in the U.S. Navy, and John Frazier, a Baltimore pilot who had been briefed on Zarvona's plans, entered the pilothouse and placed a pistol at the head of the black quartermaster at the wheel. He gave in meekly enough, and Frazier, with Watts as quartermaster, wheeled the steamer about and pointed her bow for the mouth of the Coan River on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Elsewhere on St. Nicholas, the crew and passengers were informed of the capture of the vessel by Confederate men and assured of kind treatment when the steamer reached its immediate destination in the Coan River.

When Colonel Zarvona appeared on deck in full Zouave uniform and gave the signal for the capture of the vessel, the elderly gentleman who had boarded at Point Lookout shed his white wig and cane and emerged as Commander George N. Hollins, CSN. He had been ordered to board St. Nicholas with a few additional recruits to help insure the success of Zarvona's mission.

In the early morning hours of June 29, 1861, St. Nicholas docked on the Coan River and took aboard some thirty well-armed soldiers led by Captain Lewis. The large unit of the Tennessee regiment supposedly dispatched by General Holmes under orders of the secretary of war had been delayed, administratively or logistically. Not too far away was the small encampment of Zouaves still under training by Zarvona. From the decks of St. Nicholas trooped the passengers and crew taken captive the preceding night.

The passengers were permitted to leave with all their possessions. Many started off to seek conveyance by carriage or cart and boat to their homes. Several had missed their breakfast aboard the steamer and found it in a neighboring farmhouse. Upon asking how they should pay, they received a particularly hospitable reply, "Gentlemen, recollect that you are in Virginia!"

With a force of well-armed men aboard the captured prize, Zarvona prepared to undertake the next and more critical phase of his adventure. The climactic news came with frustrating suddenness. U.S.S. Pawnee had eluded his grasp and had left her station on the Potomac to proceed to Washington. Her skipper, Lieutenant Ward, had been killed by a rebel sharpshooter the day before in an artillery exchange with Confederate batteries off Point Mathias, and the vessel had returned to the Washington Navy Yard for the funeral.

How Zarvona learned of these tidings is not clear. Some reports indicated that Commander (later Commodore) Hollins had gathered the information before boarding St. Nicholas at Point Lookout. One account stated that Hollins learned of the event from newspapers at Coan. Still other accounts place St. Nicholas steaming fruitlessly up the Potomac in search of Pawnee before the news reached Zarvona on board from intelligence operations on shore. However the critical information reached Zarvona, he reacted, first with an explosion of frustration, and second with a resolve to make the most of the capture of St. Nicholas before the federal authorities learned of her seizure.

St. Nicholas, now manned entirely by men loyal to the Confederacy and commanded by Zarvona and Hollins, headed for the Chesapeake Bay, bent on a raid to compensate for the lost opportunity.

A large brig, the Monticello, bringing thirty-five thousand bags of coffee from Brazil to Baltimore, hove into view. St. Nicholas ranged alongside and confiscated it in the name of the Confederacy. A boarding party was placed aboard it in command of Lieutenant Rimms, who set sail for Fredericksburg, where coffee was in short supply and hard to obtain. In less than a hour, St. Nicholas, still in the Bay, captured and boarded a schooner, Mary Pierce, ten days out of Boston, bound for Washington and laden with ice. A prize crew, Lieutenant Robert D. Minor, CSN, in charge, took her to Fredericksburg where the hospitals welcomed the ice.

During these operations, both Hollins and Zarvona grew apprehensive about the dwindling bunker of coal. St. Nicholas had steamed about her limit without replenishment since leaving Baltimore, and Hollins readied the engineers to burn cabin furniture or any combustible if the fuel ran low. Fate took a hand.

The schooner Margaret, coming out of the Potomac into the Bay, fell in the sights of Zarvona and Hollins aboard St. Nicholas. She was loaded with coal, bound from Alexandria to New York. A crew member from the schooner later wrote about the event:

On Saturday, the 29th of June, we passed Smith Point, at the mouth of the Potomac. We saw the steamer St. Nicholas come out of a river on the Virginia shore, called Cone [sic] River. She passed us, and paid no attention to us, we thinking all the while it was rather strange for her to be sailing down the Bay, as it was out of her course. Her object, as we soon found out, was to seize the brig Monticello, and the schooner Mary Pierce, which were bound up the Bay, as we were going out. In a few minutes, the St. Nicholas headed up the Bay again; she came up and passed us; then turned again and bore down on us; Captain Hollins hailed us, and asked what schooner it was. We told him the schooner Margaret. He then inquired what it was loaded with, and we told him. He then sung [sic] out that we were a prize to the Southern Confederacy. The St. Nicholas was then run close alongside; then about twenty-five armed men jumped on board and drove all hands on board the steamer . . . They then took the schooner in tow, and took us up the Rappahannock river as far as the depth of the water would permit. That night they came along-side, and coaled the St. Nicholas from our cargo. Next morning we started for Fredericksburg (Thomas).

Lieutenant Thorburn, part of the Virginia contingent on board St. Nicholas, commanded the prize crew.

Hollins and Zarvona, fearful that news of the capture of St. Nicholas and the sailing vessels would bring the power of the Union naval vessels on the Potomac around their heels, had decided to high-tail it up the Rappahannock. With the coal schooner in two (and Mary Pierce, which they overtook), they proceeded to Fredericksburg.

In line with the policy of the Confederate government with respect to fair treatment for the people of Baltimore (whom they hoped to entice), at Fredericksburg the St. Nicholas was first processed in the Richmond District Court in Admiralty and was put up for sale for $18,924.17. The proceeds went to her original owners. She was purchased, in effect, by the Confederate Navy and became the C.S.S. Rappahannock (she was burned in the evacuation of Fredericksburg in April 1862 to prevent her capture by Union forces). The flag at her staff when she was seized was the first American flag captured in the War between the States.

In Fredericksburg, Zarvona and his men received the enthusiastic welcome of a city greatly excited and overjoyed by their exploits. A ball was given in their honor, and Zarvona to the utter devastation and delight of those present appeared in the hoops and skirts of the lady milliner from Paris.

In Richmond, also, Zarvona was feted and idolized. Governor Letcher, with the hearty approval of the Virginia legislature, commissioned the hero as Colonel Richard Thomas Zarvona, thereby officially recognizing not only his rank but also his chosen name. George Alexander was simultaneously commissioned captain. Zarvona was the hero of the day; more parties were held in his honor.

When he appeared in uniform, as he often did, he presented a dramatic illusion of oriental splendor: blue (not the red of the original Zouaves) pantaloons, embroidered vest, white gaiters, crimson cloth cap with gold tassel, and a light, beautifully crafted sword.

"What a strange looking man he was," extolled one British observer, "as he walked into the dining room in his Zouave costume and red cap on his closely shaven head! The tassel hung low down on his shoulders, his neck was bare and scraggy, and his manner silent, reserved, and gloomy. Poor man!" (Thomas).

On the Fourth of July, lavishly celebrated in Richmond, the Zouave units of Zarvona paraded with great flair, among other troops, through the streets. They fired twelve rounds on Capitol Square, eleven being in honor of the Confederate states, and one for the legislature of Maryland. The guard, as they were called, was accompanied by a brass band, which enthused the audience by playing the Marseillaise, as Zarvona, treated with great respect, looked on from the capitol steps.

One amusing incident was duly but belatedly reported in the press:

At the Spottswood House, surrounded by his friends, they insisted on seeing him in his female costume as he appeared on St. Nicholas. To gratify them he left the room, promising to return promptly, provided the company was not enlarged, as the joke was to be strictly private. Unfortunately, the circle was shortly after disturbed by the entrance of a strange lady, for whom, however, room was made and to whom a seat was tendered with customary Virginia gallantry. The rest of the company broke into knots, leaving the stranger to herself, and discussed in whispers the propriety of keeping the Colonel out, until a favorable opportunity presented itself. Suddenly their embarrassment was relieved by the action of the lady, who, lifting her skirts to a modest height, displayed a solder's uniform and end of cutlass. The effect was astonishing. (Thomas)

Vast numbers of the citizens of Richmond called to pay their respects, and Zarvona's room at the Executive Mansion, where he was a guest, was often crowded with visitors clamoring to see him. He swept about in great style, his Zouave uniform flashing red and blue among the gray.

By now, accounts of his adventure had reached the northern press, which denounced him roundly as a traitor and spy. But on the Union army, the effect was sobering. The skill with which Zarvona had pursued his objectives and the imaginative boldness, even audacity, of his attack caused fear that he would try again—with equal success.

Telegrams went out from local naval commanders to the secretary of the navy in Washington. Stated one: "A man of notoriously bad character . . . has formed a plan for the capture, during the present week, of one of the steamboats plying between Baltimore and the Patuxent River, either by putting his men on board the boat at Baltimore, or at Millstone Landing . . . Small vessels are constantly plying between that position and the Rappahannock and Coan Rivers, chiefly to the latter, where a Tennessee regiment is posted" (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies).

Their fears were well founded. Richard Thomas Zarvona was a restless man, even more depressed and restive than usual in the social adulation of Richmond society. He planned for the next venture.

Given the success of the last mission, he decided to undertake the seizure of another steamboat out of Baltimore. In this instance, the warnings of federal authorities gleaned from intelligence agents on both sides of the Potomac and in Baltimore were remarkably accurate and continued to come in. U.S.S. Pocahontas in the Potomac reported on July 9 " . . . that a pungy had come over from Coan River and landed crews of the three vessels captured by the St. Nicholas. The crews proceeded by land to Millstone Landing [on the Patuxent} . . . and the pungy went up the Chesapeake Bay. She was manned by well-armed men, variously estimated from eighteen to thirty . . . The overland men arrived safely and had taken passage in the steamer Mary Washington for Baltimore . . . The notorious Thomas went up in disguise, the idea of him and the armed party . . . is to capture the next steamer from Baltimore, which will be the George Weems" (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies).

These observations were generally correct, except that Zarvona, after gaining the permission of Governor Letcher for another venture, cast about for options on how to proceed. Governor Letcher, at the time, believed that Zarvona also considered going to New York to procure arms incident to seizing some vessel with which to go to sea and raid the shipping lanes for the Confederacy. In either contingency, Zarvona faced the immediate problem of how to proceed.

He could transport a force of armed men directly up the Bay aboard the pungy he now owned, the Georgeanna, and effect the capture of a steamer in Baltimore. However, alerted as the Union forces must be to his possible movements, interception seemed not only possible but probable. Alternatively, he could adopt some form of disguise or civilian camouflage and with his men (unarmed to avoid detection by search) travel by steamer from Patuxent or another landing on the steamer route to Baltimore, and thus escape scrutiny on the Bay. The latter plan entailed the procurement of weapons in Baltimore to arm his comrades. To Zarvona, the second choice seemed the more feasible. He decided to land from the pungy with a few trusted and able men and board the steamer for Baltimore.

His decision was star-crossed from the start. A number of events occurred simultaneously, which he could not have anticipated.

First, on July 8, Union troops commandeered the steamer Chester at her Light Street wharf, put her passengers ashore before sailing, and moved her to Fort McHenry. There, two twenty-two pound guns, a company of artillery and infantry, and a squad of police were put aboard, prior to her dispatch, to search for the vessel in which Zarvona was reportedly embarked. Chester sailed down the Bay but returned after midnight, having failed to contact the boat under suspicion, and steamed about six miles up the Patuxent to Millstone Landing. In spite of her failure to intercept the boat, her captain did learn that the pungy had been there in the morning and had debarked about thirty men, some armed.

Second, the steamer George Weems was taken over by federal troops in Baltimore and not permitted to leave her slip. The purpose was to pre-pre-empt any attempt by Zarvona to capture her.

Third, Lieutenant Thomas Carmichael and a small detachment of men departed for Fair Haven on a tug under orders from Provost Marshal Kenly of the military police in Baltimore to arrest a man there by the name of Neill Green, who was charged with engaging in the riots of April 19 in Baltimore. (On that day occurred the first real bloodshed of the Civil War, when the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, in changing from one train station to another, bore the attack of a mob on Pratt Street.) Thirst for revenge among Union forces ran strong. Carmichael and his men arrived at Fair Haven, arrested Green, and arranged to return with him and his wife to Baltimore aboard the steamer Mary Washington on July 8.

Fourth, an unexpected coincidence of passengers boarding Mary Washington at Fair Haven occurred. The coincidence concerned Edward Case, master of Margaret, which had been seized by Zarvona aboard St. Nicholas. Case narrated what occurred after his schooner was towed to Fredericksburg by St. Nicholas:

We were out on the cars [train] for Richmond . . . and were taken direct to jail . . . After going to the Mayor's office and obtaining a permit to pass out of Virginia, the whole of us—thirty eight in number [the crews of all three sailing vessels seized by St. Nicholas, plus the original crew of the steamer itself]—were permitted to depart . . . We were taken back again to Fredericksburg . . . At 1 o'clock Friday morning, 5th July, we were put on board a boat and . . . landed sown river at a place called Mahassen [Monaskon on the Northern Neck?]; we staid [sic] and slept in a barn there. The people here were kind to us . . . On Saturday [July 6] we started and walked twenty-three miles before we could reach the banks of the Potomac, at the head of the Cone [sic] River. Captain [Jacob] Kirwan, the late Captain of the St. Nicholas, got a wagon and drove four miles, where he managed to [contact] a schooner that would take us across the following morning. We walked the next morning for the boat, which was of the Confederate Army, and named the Georgeanna, owned by Colonel Thomas; Col. T. was on board with a crew of about twelve in number. We sailed for Point Lookout, on the Maryland shore, and landed about 5 o'clock on Sunday [July 7]. Directly we landed she [the schooner] started and sailed up the Chesapeake Bay. We . . . walk[ed] the 30 miles to Millstone Wharf on the Patuxent River, to meet the steamer Mary Washington. We reached there about 6 o'clock in the morning, Monday [July 8]. The captain of the Mary Washington [Mason Loke Weems] . . . gave us all a passage to Baltimore, and furnished us all with a splendid dinner. At Millstone Wharf who should come aboard but Col. Thomas, the same man who seized the steamer St. Nicholas (Thomas).

Among other passengers and crew members of Mary Washington were some individuals who knew Zarvona well. Southern sympathizers and admirers of the Confederate hero, they quietly warned him that he was in danger and urged him to flee while he had the chance. He laughed them off.

The steamer, after clearing the Patuxent mouth, turned to the western shore for a scheduled landing at Fair Haven, a resort south of Annapolis established by the Weems line. Boarding at Fair Haven were Lieutenant Carmichael, John Horner, and a few police, along with their prisoner, Neill Green.

Captain Kirwan and the original crews of St. Nicholas and the captured sailing vessels very quickly tipped off the police. Zarvona was spotted but not immediately arrested in order to avoid a possible armed confrontation on board. But Zarvona grew increasingly uneasy as the steamer approached Baltimore:

Before we arrived at North Point [Patapsco mouth], Colonel Thomas imagined that somebody was on the lookout for him, and endeavored to lower the quarter boat of the steamer, but he was caught in the act by the officers, and stopped. He drew a pistol, and the officers drew their revolvers; they told him they would take him dead or alive. He called out for his "boys," and by that the officers found out who the rebels were that were with him (Thomas).

In the meantime, Carmichael had approached Captain Mason Locke Weems and ordered him to take Mary Washington alongside the wharf at Fort McHenry, so that federal troops could be brought aboard to seize the rebels. The order had become common knowledge very quickly. Zarvona demanded to know by what authority the Mary Washington was being directed to Fort McHenry. Carmichael replied that the diversion was under police orders.

In the commotion that the armed confrontation caused among the passengers (some of whom stepped forward to shield the rebels, others to remonstrate with them), the police officers, better armed than the rebels, persuaded those rebels whom they had in sight to surrender. A number of witnesses were summarily arrested, including John L. Hebb (who had exhibited friendliness for Zarvona), a Dr. Edward Johnson, a Colonel Forbes, and lighthouse keeper James Tongue (these witnesses were released shortly afterward); other witnesses were detained. In the excitement, women went screaming from the saloon and retreated into the ladies' cabin.

When Mary Washington tied up to the dock at Fort McHenry, one of the police officers reported immediately to General Banks in command, who in turn ordered a detachment of Massachusetts infantry on board. The suspects (and the witnesses) were rounded up and marched off to prison.

But Zarvona had disappeared, vanishing into thin air. Some conjectured that he had jumped overboard, but then countered that he would have been seen in the attempt. After an hour and a half of searching the vessel from hold to hurricane deck, the police were prepared to release the vessel and allow Captain Weems to proceed to Baltimore Harbor. Then they found him. He had been stuffed into a bureau in the ladies' cabin. Among the female passengers were several who found the colonel irresistible. Removing the bottoms from the drawers in the bureau, they had fitted the slender chap in place. But one of the ladies tipped off the police. And the immaculately dressed "French lady spy." as he was known throughout the land, was a sad spectacle as he was dragged, cramped and drenched with perspiration, off to prison.

Zarvona was placed in close confinement in Fort McHenry. In his baggage, the police found his Zouave uniform, some letters confirming his mission of depredation on Chesapeake shipping, his commission in the volunteer forces of Virginia, and the letter of credit for one thousand dollars drawn up by B. H. Maury and Company of Richmond on a prominent Baltimore bank. These were subsequently used as evidence against him.

His capture sparked a furor of excitement in the press, both North and South. In the North, newspapers denounced Zarvona as a traitor and treacherous spy, but beneath the rancor the journalists divulged a grudging admiration for the plucky soldier of fortune, the "French lady spy." In the South, the press rhapsodized over the colonel, portrayed him romantically as the hero of the hour, and demanded his release by exchange from Union confinement.

Zarvona's imprisonment was a blight on the reputation of the government for decent treatment of those incarcerated in wartime. Union authorities refused to accept him as a prison of war. Instead, they chose to perceive his as a civilian accused of major crimes, or, indeed as someone held under capital charges by the Department of State rather than the War Department.

He was held in solitary confinement at Fort McHenry, allowed to cross the yard only for sanitary reasons under armed guard, and locked up at night in a partially underground cell. Under their refusals to accept him as a prisoner of war, both Major General Nathaniel Banks and his replacement, Major General John A. Dix, holding jurisdiction over him in Baltimore, rejected his demand for release on parole. Behind their rejections was the vengeance of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, determined to reflect the wrath of the North in his punishment of Zarvona. Talk of hanging him circulated in official circles. Furthermore, witnesses against him (some former crew members of St. Nicholas and others) were confined for more than a year in Fort McHenry, awaiting a trial that failed to take place.

Zarvona's health deteriorated under the stress of confinement. Somewhat physically frail, he suffered increasingly from nervous debility. Even Major General John A. Dix, a hard-nosed patriot exercising military authority with an iron hand, was moved to address General McClellan on Zarvona's behalf, citing the fact that "his nervous system is much broken by confinement and want of active occupation and he has made earnest appeals to me for the privilege of walking about the garrison within the walls on his parole of honor not to attempt to escape" (Earp, "The Amazing Colonel Zarvona"). The request was ignored.

On December 2, 1861, Zarvona was transferred by steamboat under heavy guard headed by Major D.P. DeWitt to Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor at the Narrows. The move accompanied a further refusal of Major General Dix to consider transferring Zarvona to the list of prisoners of war, his rejection being a response to an inquiry from the secretary of war. At Fort Lafayette, surveillance of his every move continued; his correspondence was intercepted and read. Some letters of his attracted more than usual attention:

Fort Lafayette
February 25, 1862

Box received. Box inclosed for Mr. H. delivered. Your letters not received. Have you signed in language?


Fort Lafayette
February 26, 1862

See to-day's Herald, column 6, pages 1 and 2. Please inform me if any books or letters from France for me addressed to care of J. have arrived.


(Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies)

A day later, Adjutant General L. Thomas addressed a report to Lieutenant Colonel Martin Burke, commander of Fort Lafayette:

I have been informed that Thomas, the French lady, imprisoned at Fort Lafayette, has a cipher by which his correspondence with a Mrs. Norris and others in Baltimore passes without suspicion. For instance, his quotation of a line of poetry will in some way convey a request for acids, files, or anything he may desire and which will be conveyed to him under the case of a breast-pin or something apparently harmless. He is a desperate man and very restless under his confinement, and designs escaping if he can. My informant was lately released from Fort Lafayette . . . where he says he became acquainted with the above facts (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies).

Lieutenant Colonel Burke transmitted papers to the adjutant general of the army that purported to support the allegation of "secret writing." Stated Burke, "His peculiarity in writing has been noticed here for some time" (Thomas).

In April, Zarvona's mother pleaded in a series of letters to Lieutenant Colonel Burke to permit her to visit her son in prison. At one point, it seemed that her pleas were winning a favorable response. At the last moment, however, her requests were refused. On April 22, Burke received the following report:

At half past 9 o'clock last night Richard Thomas Zarvona, the French lady, a prisoner in close confinement at this post, informed the sergeant of the guard that he wanted to go to the water closet. The sergeant sent him out attended by a member of the guard; when he reached the water closet (which is situated at the sea wall) instead of entering it he jumped overboard [into stormy waters] and attempted to escape by swimming to the Long Island shore. The guard immediately gave the alarm, when the barge belonging to post was manned and he was recaptured before the had succeeded in getting but a short distance. To prevent a reoccurrence of this, I have had a police tub placed in his room (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies).

According to one source, Zarvona, unable to swim, had attached a belt of tin cans to his waist to keep him afloat. His efforts failed, and his confinement became more stringent than ever: he was not permitted to leave his casemate cell under any; circumstance and was constantly guarded by a sergeant known for his harshness (or three tough privates when the sergeant had to leave temporarily. Another request by Zarvona's mother to visit her son was at first summarily refused. Then the refusal was rescinded, and Mrs. Richard Thomas visited Fort Lafayette:

When he [Zarvona] came in [to the commander's office] she did not recognize him at first he was so changed. He looked so tall and was very thin and emaciated and had hardly strength to speak. His hand which you know was short and plump is now long and bony. He held her hand all the time. She asked him how he was. He said he was as well as could be expected shut up without light or air, his cell partly under water, with a place about the size of a dollar to admit the light; on cloudy days he could not see to walk about his room . . . (Correspondence from Captain George Thomas to General T. J. [Stonewall] Jackson, November 18, 1862, in which Thomas pleaded with Jackson to intercede; in Thomas).

Zarvona continued to languish in solitary confinement. Aroused by the stories reaching him about the colonel's condition, Governor Letcher of Virginia undertook to address a letter to President Abraham Lincoln himself:

Executive Department Richmond, Virginia

January 2, 1863


On the 19th of April, 1861, the convention of the Commonwealth of Virginia . . . passed "An ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States . . . " Against this Confederacy, the Government of the United States declare war. In the prosecution of this purpose, Col. Richard Thomas Zarvona . . . was arrested . . . and is now confined at Fort Lafayette. Right of a prisoner of war is denied [even] holding as he did the military commission. If he is regarded in any other light, [he is] entitled to a speedy and a public trial . . . Notwithstanding this express clause he has now been confined for eighteen months . . . Why Colonel Zarvona has not been exchanged . . . it is for the Government of the United States to explain . . . It is proper under all the circumstances of this case that I should inform you distinctly of the course that I have taken and the policy I intend to pursue. From these prisoners [those expressly captured in pursuance of the policy] I have taken two of the officers [a captain and a lieutenant] and five privates] . . . to be kept in the penitentiary in solitary confinement. All of them there to remain until Colonel Zarvona is properly exchanged under suitable agreement of discharged and permitted to return to this city (various official sources and Thomas).

In Washington, this letter, in spite of diminishing interest in Zarvona as the war mounted in intensity on many fronts, stirred a response. The threat of Letcher to reciprocate in double for the treatment of Zarvona had to be taken seriously. Under orders to investigate the condition of Zarvona's health, Dr. W.H. Studley, surgeon, U.S. Army, reported that "his health [was] generally good . . . social and rational." Others who saw Zarvona disagreed and privately concluded that the surgeon's report was a deliberate lie.

In Richmond, the military hostages held by Letcher suffered also. On February 5, 1863, the addressed a letter to Washington:

Penitentiary of Virginia

Your petitioners are prisoners of war confined in the penitentiary of this city. We are held as hostages for one Colonel Thomas . . . We have been prisoners for more than three months, one and half of which has been in this loathsome place where we have suffered extremely . . . rooms small . . . diet same as convicts . . . There are seven of us held for the release of one man. We should think our government ought to make the exchange without hesitation. Four officers among us are very gallant men, too . . . We have written several letters to Secretary Stanton . . . received no reply . . . Governor Letcher has long since notified our government of his readiness to exchange us . . . (Thomas).

Wives, relatives, and friends of the hostages, as well as detained witnesses, deluged the War Department and the State Department with petitions. A Mrs. C.A. Wilson wrote to Secretary of State Seward on January 3, 1863:

Please excuse me, but necessity compels me to call to your attention once more to the case of Charles Wilson, my husband, now in prison to await the trial of Thomas, the rebel. He is witness against him, and has been in prison in Baltimore since July last. Wilson was a hand on board of the schooner Margaret, of Boston, when taken by Thomas . . . For God's sake, let my husband come home (Thomas).

While the correspondence mounted, the U.S. Senate, moved by appeals from its constituents, resolved that the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia be instructed "to inquire for the purpose of extending such relief as the circumstances may require into the case of Mr. Thomas of Maryland . . ." (Resolution of U.S. Senate, January 28, 1863).

The pressure to release Zarvona mounted. By mid-March, the secretaries of war and state had concluded that his continued confinement would serve no purpose except to induce reprisal from Virginia. Lieutenant Colonel Martin Burke, apprised of these developments, approached Zarvona. Burke wrote to the adjutant general in Washington:

I wrote to you some days since in regard to a parole for R. T. Zarvona (the French Lady). He now desires to say that if released he will leave the country and give his parole of honor not to return to the United States or the Confederate States during the war, and that he will not take part in the rebellion. He says he will do this because his health is destroyed by the confinement he has undergone (from the official records quoted in Earp, "The Amazing Colonel Zarvona").

On April 11, 1863, the army commissioner general of prisoners at Fort Monroe, Virginia, notified the authorities in New York that Secretary of War Stanton had authorized the exchange of Zarvona. The military commands in Washington and Fort Monroe were notified that Zarvona left Fort Lafayette on April 16.

Zarvona reached Richmond on May 6, 1863, "his nervous system completely broken down." Greeted by family and friends, and Governor Letcher, he had difficulty regaining his poise and composure. Nevertheless, Zarvona proposed that he be given command of the United Maryland line, even though he was obviously unfit for duty and such an appointment would violate the terms of his parole. General Bradley T. Johnson instead received the appointment. Zarvona broken in body and spirit, departed for France.

The three Thomas brothers, at the close of the war, found themselves in financial duress. Union forces had occupied Mattapany and confiscated anything that could be removed—cattle, horses, farm equipment, furniture, and produce. James William worked as a civil engineer on the transcontinental railway system, but returned to St. Mary's County and died in 1901. George returned to Mattapany, farmed, and conducted a school in the mansion for his own neighboring children. He died much respected as a scholar, orator, and genial host at the manor.

Zarvona returned to St. Mary's in 1870 but left the country again. Back again in 1872, he faced the grim task of coping not only with failing health but near financial disaster.

In 1873, he penned a rather disconnected account of his status and misfortunes. It appeared that he had gone abroad the second time to invest in some sort of enterprise to insure himself with an income for the rest of his life. After waiting for two years—with considerable loss of time and money—for the project to bear fruit, he came to the conclusion that his venture would not succeed. The nature of the venture was not clear. At that point, he realized that he would be entirely without money and considered seeking some sort of temporary employment to defray expenses on his return to the States. In addition to his financial troubles, he was beset by health problems that stood in the way of active efforts to relieve his difficulties. Particularly poignant were his references to Mattapany, where he had lived for a short time, having been left the estate by his mother, and then its subdivision under suit by his brother, James William.

Zarvona lived his last few years in anguish over the state of his health and his fortunes. He never lost the feeling that he had been abandoned by those closest to him, his gallantry forgotten in the larger events of the war.

Zarvona died on March 17, 1875. He was buried at Deep Falls, the family estate near Chaptico in St. Mary's County, where he had lived with the family of James William for a short time before his death.

The shadow of Zarvona lingering over the site would have been surprised and gratified by the accolades pouring in to commemorate his life. Among them was a memorial written by John Letcher ex-governor of Virginia:

Colonel Zarvona was a most . . . extraordinary man [with] a fine intellect, . . . good conversationalist, and a most pleasant and agreeable gentleman . . . If any man has ever lived of whom it must be said "he was insensible to fear," Zarvona was undoubtedly that man. He . . . sought the most hazardous undertaking, and fearlessly exposed himself to the most formidable dangers. And yet modesty, candor, and sincerity, . . . gentleness, kindness, [and] tenderness were predominant traits in his character. He was a sincere and devoted friend, a true and tried citizen, and a patriotic and gallant soldier. He was somewhat eccentric, but his eccentricities did not render him disagreeable; on the contrary, tended rather to inspire regard for and excite interest in him . . . I became very much attached to him, and appreciated him most highly for his integrity and his intellect, for his coolness, his courage, for his public and private virtues, and for the possession of all those qualities that make up the man (Thomas).

From David C. Holly's The Chesapeake Corsair.