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Richard Zarvona Thomas, Part I
Linda Davis Reno
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Needless to say, the “St. Nicholas” was captured and a legend was born.
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