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February, 2003

Richard Zarvona Thomas, Part I

Linda Davis Reno


Richard Thomas was born in 1833 to one of the wealthiest, most influential families in not only in St. Mary’s County but in the entire state of Maryland. 

His uncle was James Thomas who served as Governor of Maryland from 1826-1832 and his grandfather was William Thomas who served as a Lieutenant in the Continental Army and later as a Major in the famous Maryland Line; was Judge of the Orphan's Court of St. Mary’s County from 1797-1800; Chief Judge of the County Court, 1800-1802; Member of the General Assembly, 1791-1796 and 1802-1813; and President of the Maryland Senate, 1806-1813. 

His father, also named Richard Thomas, served a number of terms in the Maryland Legislature and at the time of his death, was the President of the Maryland State Senate.  Richard Thomas, Sr. was born June 20, 1797 at “Delabrooke” and died October 30, 1849 at “Mattapany”.  His obituary follows. 

“St. Mary’s Beacon”, November 1, 1849:  Death of Richard Thomas.  We deeply regret to announce the death of Hon. Richard Thomas of this county, who died at his residence on Tuesday last.  Mr. T., we understand, seemed to be in excellent health in the morning, and started to ride over his farm; he had left the house, however, but a short time when he was found by one of his servants lying in the road, speechless, having apparently been taken suddenly ill and fallen from his horse.  He was immediately conveyed to his house, but survived only a few hours. Mr. Thomas was a courteous, high-toned and talented gentleman, and by his social virtues and his public usefulness had become endeared to the people of St. Mary's and won for himself an enviable distinction throughout the state.  He had repeatedly served in the Legislature, and for several years was President of the State Senate--a station which he filled with distinguished ability.  For some time previous to his death, Mr. T. was looked to as one among those most likely to succeed to the vacancy in the U.S. Senate occasioned by the resignation of the Hon. Reverdy Johnson.  He is gone, however--and having died at a period when his experience and matured judgement had qualifed him for greater usefulness, his death may be truly regarded as a public loss.  The remains of Mr. Thomas will be interred today at "Deep Falls", the residence of the widow of the late Ex-Governor James Thomas. 

The younger Richard Thomas, the subject of this story, was nicknamed Dick by the family.  It is thought that at the time of his father’s death, he was attending Oxford, a military academy in Talbot County.   

He was admitted to West Point on July 1, 1850 at the age of 16 years, 8 months.  Obviously he wasn’t happy there.  According to their records, in June of 1851, Dick was ranked 39th in mathematics, 59th in French, and 50th in English studies out a class of 71.  He did, however, place 7th in the number of demerits received, having received 189, falling just 11 short of being declared “deficient in conduct, and recommended by the Academic Board to the War Department for discharge.” 

On June 24th of that year, Dick was granted an absence for “the benefit of his health.”  He was scheduled to return to West Point on August 28th but instead sent a letter (dated August 25th) asking for an additional leave of 12 months.  He enclosed a letter from a physician in Baltimore who recommended that he take “a sea voyage” for the restoration of his health.  A medical board was appointed and examined Dick in Washington, D.C. on September 19th.   

On September 29th, a letter was sent to Dick stating that the medical board “cannot find any good and sufficient reason arising from the present state of your health (bodily and mental) which would warrant it in recommending the leave asked for by you.”  He was directed to return to West Point “with as little delay as practicable.” 

As of October 13th, Dick had still not returned to West Point.  There is a letter in the files, in his handwriting, dated October 21st from Baltimore that reads “Sir, I received your communication informing me that the leave asked for by me could not be granted.  As I do not think it would be well to go back to West Point so long a time after the class has commenced, I respectfully offer my resignation.”  His resignation was accepted, despite the fact that no letter from his guardian accompanied it, which was normally required. 

Some time prior to March of 1852 Dick tried to return to West Point!  The file contains a letter dated March 20th of that year stating “The Secretary (of War) has requested that you will report the grounds on which the Academic Board decided that Richard Thomas of Maryland, late a Cadet, ought not to be permitted to return to the Military Academy.”  The response was that the unanimous decision of the Board was based on the history of the case of Cadet Thomas.  No other details were provided. 

There are a number of stories about what he did after he left West Point.  Some say that he went to China and fought as a mercenary.  Others say that he went to Italy and fought with Garabaldi.  Yet others say that he went to California where he worked as a surveyor for the government. Whatever he did, he was back in St. Mary’s County at the time of the 1860 census living with his mother at “Mattapany”.  His occupation was listed as engineer.  Was this an assumed title?  West Point was a part of the Corps of Engineers, but surely one year of studies did not entitle one to carry that title! 

I have not been able to locate a portrait or picture of Dick Thomas, but in my mind’s eye I envision him to be about 5’5 to 5’7, slightly built, blonde, and very fair skinned.  This description would fit with the next important turn in life he was to experience.   

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the War of the Rebellion, or as we sometimes call it in St. Mary’s County, the Invasion of the North, the Union Army occupied St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, and Prince George’s counties in an effort to protect Washington, D.C.  There have been a number of studies trying to determine whether or not Maryland would have seceded from the Union had she been given the opportunity.  In my opinion, she would have, but it was a little hard to make that decision when most of the Legislature was either locked up, replaced, or had guns at their heads when it came time to vote. 

There have been many arguments about the causes of the so-called Civil War.  Some say it was about slavery and others that it was about States’ rights. Maryland, more than any other state, found that, when it came down to it, they had none.  Yes, slavery was an issue and had been for many, many years prior to Mr. Lincoln’s election, but it was not the primary issue.    

The fact of the matter is that at least 95% of the population in St. Mary’s County didn’t own slaves, so why would they care?  What they cared about, more than anything else, was intrusion and suppression.  Many of the men, and not just the younger ones, fled to Virginia and enlisted, sometimes using an alias. When the Union forces began drafting local men, some went into hiding while others, with the help of local physicians, were declared unfit for duty.    

By the time of the beginning of the Civil War, Dick Thomas was calling himself “Zarvona”.  In later years, he legally changed his name to Richard Thomas Zarvona.  In June of 1861, he went to Richmond where he met with Governor Letcher and was commissioned a Colonel and formed his own company of men called Zarvona Zouaves.  Shortly thereafter, Governor Letcher introduced Dick to George H. Hollins, a Marylander by birth, who had resigned his commission after serving 46 years in the U.S. Navy and who was now offering his services to the South. 

Together, Dick and Hollins devised a plan to capture a passenger ship named the “St. Nicholas” and to use it to capture the “Pawnee”, a Union gunboat.  They knew that the “St. Nicholas” provided supplies to various Union boats and would not be suspected. The Confederate Navy was all but nonexistent at this time and these vessels were badly needed. Governor Letcher was so enthused about this plan that he gave them $1,000 to put it into effect.

The plan called for a Dick and his recruits to board the ship (some say they boarded disguised  as workmen and others saying that they boarded en masse calling themselves New York Zouaves).  The plan called for George Hollins to board at Point Lookout and at that point they would then take over the ship. Hollins gave Dick the cash they’d received from Gov. Letcher and instructed him to go to Baltimore, buy weapons and to gather members for the raiding party. 

The “St. Nicholas” left Baltimore on the evening of June 28, 1861.  There were over 60 passengers on board including 16 men who had been recruited by Dick. But where was Dick? George Watts, one of the recruits, was quoted as saying “What worried me a lot was I couldn’t find the Colonel or anyone who looked like him.  I could see the future of the whole expedition as also I could see myself behind bars in Ft. McHenry, and the picture didn’t look a bit good to me.”  It was going to be a long ride to Point Lookout.

  During the trip, a passenger by the name of Madame LaForce flitted about, flirting with some of the young Union officers.  George Watts would later say “(She) was a mighty pretty young woman, stylishly dressed, flirting outrageously with some of the young officers.  She talked with a strong French accent and carried a fan which she used 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.” 

Descriptions by others who were on board state that she was petite, wore a hoop skirt, and had a veil over her face, exposing only her bright red lips. 

Shortly after their departure from Baltimore, Madame LaForce excused herself from the group of young Union officers surrounding her, telling them that she was tired and must retire.  Perhaps she needed to sort through the three different trunks of the finest French hats for the ladies of Washington (as they had been described).  To the dismay of the Union officers, she remained in her cabin for the remainder of the trip. 

When the ship arrived at Point Lookout, George Hollins came aboard, as planned.  After they had headed upriver, the signal was given and all hell broke loose. Under the “finest French hats for the ladies of Washington” were cutlasses, carbine rifles, and Colt revolvers, which supplemented the weapons brought on board already. 

  Of course, Madame LaForce was actually Dick Thomas who now made his entrance.  From the various descriptions, this must have been a sight, not to mention an extreme embarrassment to the young Union officers.  Dick, who typically kept his head shaved anyway, appeared, resplendent in a bright red Zouave uniform, with a revolver in each hand. 

Needless to say, the “St. Nicholas” was captured and a legend was born.

Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War, by Eric Mills
The French Lady” by John D. and Linda C. Pelzer from Civil War Times.
The Thomas Brothers, by Armstrong Thomas
Official Records of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY

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