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May, 2003

Richard Zarvona Thomas, Part II

Linda Davis Reno


Dick Thomas and his compatriots quickly took command of the "St. Nicholas" which was now placed under the command of George Hollins. The Union soldiers and the ship's crew were locked in the hold. The passengers, said to be mostly Southerners, stated that they were well treated. "The ladies were told by the commander that they were in the hands of Southern gentlemen and would be treated as his own sisters." Captain Hollins added, "Although it was Sunday, the ladies amused themselves by making Confederate flags out of the Yankee flags I had captured."

The plan was to take the "St. Nicholas" to the Coan River in Virginia but the plan was altered when one of the men happened to pick up a Baltimore newspaper found on board that included a notice of the funeral of James Harmon Ward. The article happened to mention that the "Pawnee", the original target of the operation, as well as most of the Potomac flotilla was then anchored at Washington to allow the crews to attend the funeral. For this reason, it was decided that it would be in their best interest to stay away from the Potomac River and instead head toward the Rappahannock River by way of the Chesapeake Bay.

As luck would have it, while enroute they encountered three more ships that made the detour more than worthwhile. These included the "Monticello" loaded with 3,500 bags of coffee; the "Mary Pierce", with 200 tons of ice; and the "Margaret", loaded with 270 tons of coal. The value of the cargoes captured was estimated at a value of $375,000 (a huge sum for that day).

Dick and the other men became instant celebrities. An article appearing in the Richmond Enquirer stated, "We wanted coffee, ice, and coal and we wanted the steamer and vessels and the country is loudly praising the bold officers and brave men who have supplied the market. They have done splendidly."

There was considerable celebration on the arrival of the "fleet" in Fredericksburg, where a cannon was added to the side-wheeler (St. Nicholas) and it was rechristened the "C.S.S. Rappahannock." The gaiety spilled over to Richmond where Dick was the guest of honor at many parties and, at one ball, even asked to display his famous disguise. The crowd grew impatient for Zarvona's return until a fetching young thing lifted "her" skirts to reveal boots and the tip of a cutlass!

As a result of this military action, Dick received a commission as Colonel. The document read:

THE COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA TO RICHARD THOMAS ZARVONA, greeting: Know you that from special trust and confidence reposed in your fidelity, courage and good conduct our governor in pursuance of the authority vested in him by an ordinance of the convention of the State of Virginia doth commission you a colonel in the active volunteer forces of the State to rank as such from the 1st day of July, 1861. In testimony whereof I have hereunto signed my name as governor and caused the seal of the Commonwealth to be affixed this 2d day of July 1861. JOHN LETCHER.

Dick was not one to rest on his laurels and his next target was the capture of the "Columbia", a sister ship of the "St. Nicholas" which was then lying in the port of Baltimore. On July 8, 1861, Dick and four of his men boarded the "Mary Washington" to put the new plan into effect, but Dick's luck had run out in a big way. Aboard this ship was the captain of the St. Nicholas, who was on his way home after being released by the Confederate authorities! Dick's men were taken prisoner, but he managed to disappear. An intensive search followed and after almost two hours Dick is said to have been found "unarmed, his small body squeezed into the crowded confines of a bureau drawer."

Dick was imprisoned at Ft. McHenry. Although he was confined on a charge of piracy, he was indicted by a Maryland federal grand jury for treason. He was held as a criminal defendant, not a prisoner of war, despite the fact that he carried his written commission when seized. Further, the case was considered of such importance that six witnesses to the taking of the vessels were imprisoned along with Dick so as to be available to testify against him!

These witnesses were still being held in late 1862 when Mrs. C. A. Wilson, the wife of one of them directly petitioned Secretary of State William H. Seward. Her letter reads, in part, "Wilson was a hand on board the schooner "Margaret" when taken by Thomas. Please let him come home or please let me know why not. My three children have been sick for some time and two at present lie at the point of death, and myself in a state of destitution, and have I might say no aid at all. It depends on you whether we live or die. For God's sake let my husband come home."

Escape was always on Dick's mind and Union officials knew it. In July 1861, Major General N.P. Banks described him as "a dangerous and desperate man," who might attempt escape."

It's obvious that the Thomas family was using its wide array of political and personal contacts to obtain Dick's release. Several weeks later, General John Adams Dix wrote to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, referring to Dick as "the celebrated Thomas or Colonel Zarvona, commonly known as the French lady. He is of one of the first families in Maryland; is rich, intelligent and resolute. 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. There is no doubt it would be sacredly respected. I have not thought proper to extend the indulgence to him, though I think his health requires it, without your direction." The answer was no.

By December 3, 1861 Dick was transferred to Fort Lafayette in the middle of New York Harbor. Within a few weeks, he was being closely watched by his Union captors for what appeared to be "secret ciphers" in his correspondence. Although the full story may never be known, I can't help but believe that Dick was, in fact, sending and receiving "secret ciphers." From the official records:

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. Please thank little Mary and give her my love, and my love to you also. Affectionately, RICHARD.

ADJUTANT-GENERAL'S OFFICE, February 27, 1862. [Adjt. Gen. L. THOMAS.] DEAR SIR: 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 seems to have been confined under a misapprehension and where he says he became acquainted with the above fact. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, E. D. TOWNSEND.

Perhaps, because of these suspicions, Dick appears to have been imprisoned elsewhere for a short time. Unless the "house of detention" was a part of the prison complex at Ft. Lafayette, the following letter is really quite humorous. Dick gets an "A" for effort:

APRIL 9, 1862. Major-General DIX and Hon. Mr. PIERREPONT. SIRS: Presuming that you have no idea where I am I inform you that I am at the house of detention. I am subject to additional inconveniences and am very unwell. I request you to return me to my former prison. You will oblige me by allowing me to go unattended, and I will report myself this day to the lieutenant commanding, Wood. Respectfully, ZARVONA.

On the night of April 21, 1862, Dick asked for, and was granted permission to use the water closet located on the wall of the fort. Although he could not swim, he threw himself into the sea and headed for Long Island, but he was soon recaptured. I find it hard to believe that someone who could not swim would just throw himself in the water unless he knew there was help waiting. On the other hand, remember that for the duration of his imprisonment, Dick was kept in solitary confinement and under the worst of conditions. His cell was described as dark, filled with water, with only a small hole for light. On cloudy days, he could not even see to walk around his cell.

After the botched escape attempt, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally intervened and revoked Mrs. Thomas's pass to visit her son and ordered that Dick be held in even closer confinement.

Dick's mother was obviously worried about her son and she wrote to Union officials repeatedly to get any news of him that they might be willing to provide:

BALTIMORE, April 3, 1862. Colonel BURKE. SIR: I have written to Colonel Wood, also Lieutenant Wood, to know how my son, Colonel Zarvona, is situated. My letters have not been noticed by either Colonel or Lieutenant Wood. Excuse a mother's anxiety in requesting you to inform me of the situation of my son; also the state of his health. Knowing the active mind that my son has I fear much the effect of solitary confinement on his mind. Direct Mrs. R. Thomas, care of St. George W. Teackle, corner of Courtland and Lexington streets, Baltimore, Md. Yours, respectfully, MRS. R. THOMAS. P. S.--Please let me know if he received my several letters dated March, &c., a suit of clothes, &c., sent by Adams Express March 22, 1862.

Throughout the war, there were exchanges of prisoners, but since the Union did not consider Dick to be a prisoner of war, he was not included. His family vigorously pursued efforts to have his status changed to allow for his exchange.

In November 1862, his brother George Thomas wrote directly to his own commanding officer, Stonewall Jackson, asking permission for a third brother, Sgt. James William Thomas to visit President Jefferson Davis "relative to the case of our brother, Colonel Zarvona, now for more than sixteen months an inmate of a Northern prison, and subject to more maltreatment and cruel hardship than one could deem possible as coming from a people claiming Christianity and civilization. I have seen Mr. Davis several times upon the subject but have never been able to get anything more satisfactory than a formal demand on the part of our agents under the cartel for the exchange of prisoners for the release of my brother. This demand was made about the latter part of August last. I immediately notified my friends in Maryland of the fact, requesting them to bring what influence they could to bear upon the Government at Washington."

He enclosed a note from a cousin containing a description of "Dick" provided by his mother on her visit to Fort Lafayette: "When he came in 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 cell was described as 'without light or air' and partly under water."

Pressure on Union officials increased as time passed. It was now 20 months without trial and four of the witnesses against Dick were also still imprisoned! There were originally six, but one had escaped and the other one had been released. Unfortunately, Mrs. C. A. Wilson appears to have not been successful in having her husband released.

JUDGE-ADVOCATE GENERAL'S OFFICE, March 18, 1863. SECRETARY OF WAR: Charles Wilson and three others committed as witnesses against one Col. Thomas Zarvona, charged with having committed piracy, have been in confinement at Fort McHenry since July 1861. There were originally six of them, but one was released by General Dix and one escaped. The remaining four have been imprisoned for about twenty months without any pay or allowance except their daily rations. One of them, Charles Wilson, states that he has a wife and children in New York without support from any one, suffering all the miseries of poverty; so much so that one of his children perished the last winter for want of medical aid. In the meanwhile Thomas Zarvona, though long since indicted and still confined, has not been tried. The cause of this delay is stated to be the continued ill health of Chief Justice Taney, and in consequence there seems to be no prospect of an early trial of the case.

Why were they waiting for Taney if, indeed, he was all that ill? It is obvious, at least to me, that Maryland officials were being used for the Union's dirty work. Remember that Maryland was being occupied by Federal troops from the beginning. A Maryland grand jury indicted Dick and now it was intended that Roger Brooke Taney, a native of Calvert County, and the Chief Justice of the United States himself conduct Dick's trial! There must have been a reason behind this. Undoubtedly, the Taney family and the Thomas family knew each other as Roger Brooke Taney's wife was the great-granddaughter of Philip Key and Susanna Gardiner, also of Chaptico. These families traveled in the same social circles. Was this simply another example of attempting, one way or the other, to pound Maryland citizens, one way or the other, into submission?

Perhaps Mr. Taney was to be further "tested" as the Republicans had been incensed with the Dred Scott decision and then when the war came, Mr. Taney had ruled against the President's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus (albeit in vain). It is well known that Mr. Lincoln considered Mr. Taney to be an arch foe. Whatever the real reason, Dick remained in prison.

The Judge Advocate General finally wrote to Stanton on March 18, 1863: "(M)eanwhile 'Thomas Zarvona', though long since indicted and still confined, has not been tried. The cause of this delay is stated to be the continued ill health of Chief Justice Taney, and in consequence there seems to be no prospect of an early trial of the case. The imprisonment of a witness for so long a period of time and under such circumstances is without a precedent and should not be long permitted. The same letter mildly pointed out that 'Zarvona', held in military custody, really was 'beyond the reach of civil process'."

Powerful political influences were also being brought into play as the United States Senate unanimously adopted the following resolution on January 28, 1863: "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 [Zarvona], of Maryland, now a prisoner of war at Fort Lafayette, who it is represented has been confined in a dungeon of that fortress since June last and is now hopelessly insane by reason of his sufferings."

The U.S. Army apparently did not agree with Dick's mental status. On February 2, Dr. W. H. Studley, Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Army, submitted the following report:

FORT LAFAYETTE, February 2, 1863. Col. M. BURKE: In obedience to your orders I have this day examined Col. Richard Thomas Zarvona, C. S. Army, and find that his health is generally good; according to his own admission that it is better than when he entered the fort. In reference to his mental condition I find him social and rational, but somewhat eccentric in some of his ideas, and yet no more so than in thousands who may be said to be born with a certain turn of character. Therefore in my opinion I should deem his peculiarities perfectly consistent with sanity of mind. Respectfully, yours, W. H. STUDLEY, M.D., Acting Assistant Surgeon, U. S. Army.

Now, I'm not sure who was exactly insane at this point, but I cannot make myself believe that Dick would have said his health was better than when he entered the fort! This statement would, in fact, be contradicted at the time of his release (see below).

About this same time, Governor Letcher wrote directly to President Lincoln. In his letter (in which, incidentally, he credited Zarvona, not George Hollins, with planning and executing the expedition by which the vessels were captured), he noted that he saw no reason to treat "Zarvona" other than as a prisoner of war to be exchanged in the normal course.

But Letcher went even further. He challenged Lincoln by advising him that if Dick were not considered to be a prisoner of war, then his right to a speedy trial, under the provisions of the U.S. constitution, had been violated. The clincher was when Letcher informed Lincoln that he had ordered that seven Union officers and soldiers from regiments "of the usurped government of Virginia" each be held in solitary confinement pending their exchange for Dick or his release and return to Richmond.

These Union prisoners, being held at the orders of Governor Letcher, even made their own plea:

PENITENTIARY OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, February 5, 1863. Hon. G. W. DUNLAP. SIR: Your petitioners are prisoners of war confined in the penitentiary of this city. We are held as hostages for one Colonel Thomas, who we understand is confined in Baltimore or some other place. We have been prisoners more than three months, one and a half of which has been in this loathsome place where we have suffered extremely. We were brought to this place on the 31st of December last, since which time we have been kept in close confinement. Our rooms are very small and of course not very comfortable. Our diet is the same as the convicts. We were captured by General John B. Floyd, commanding the Virginia State Line, in consequence of which we are deprived of the cartel for the exchange of prisoners between the two Governments. There are seven of us held for the release of one man. We should think our Government ought to make the exchange without hesitation. It would certainly be to their advantage to get seven men in place of one. There are four officers among us and very gallant ones, too, at that, viz, Captain Damron, of Western Virginia State Guards; Lieutenant Damron, Western Virginia State Guards; Isaac Goble, first lieutenant Thirty-ninth Regiment Kentucky Volunteers; David V. Auxier, second lieutenant Thirty-ninth Regiment Kentucky Volunteers. The privates are Samuel Pack, Virginia State Guards; William S. Dils, Lawrence County, Ohio, and John W. Howe, Johnson County, Ky. Goble and Auxier are residents of Johnson County, Ky.

We have written several letters to Secretary Stanton upon the subject but have received no reply; we therefore concluded to write to you as our representative, imploring you to aid us in our present suffering condition. The whole matter is at the discretion of our Government. Governor Letcher has long since notified our Government of his readiness to exchange us.

Capt. Thomas Damron, W. S. Dils and S. Pack request that you show this letter to Hon. Kellian V. Whaley, of Virginia, for perusal, request that he aid you in our release. Please write to my father, and Nathaniel Auxier, Johnson County, Penceville Post-Office, Ky., and acquaint him of my situation and you will greatly oblige his son David V. Auxier. Please write us as soon as possible and let us know whether we will be exchanged or not. Very respectfully, your obedient servants,








The involvement of the U.S. Senate, the communication from Governor Letcher to President Lincoln and the letter from the Union soldiers being held by the Confederates must have turned the tide. In less the six weeks, the following documents were written:

FORT LAFAYETTE, New York Harbor, March 24, 1863. Brig. Gen. L. THOMAS, Adjutant-General, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C. SIR: I wrote you some days since in regard to a parole for R. T. Zarvona (the French lady). He now desires me 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. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, MARTIN BURKE, Lieutenant-Colonel Third Artillery, Commanding Post.

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF VIRGINIA,Fort Monroe, Va., April 4, 1863. Col. W. HOFFMAN, Commissary-General of Prisoners. COLONEL: Inclosed I have the honor to send to you a copy of communication from Hon. G. V. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Will you please have all the persons referred to and who may be confined at Fort Lafayette sent to Fort Delaware to be ready for delivery to me at the same time with the Confederate officers now on their way here? If there are any others referred to in the letter of Mr. Fox who are confined in other places please have them sent to me in time for same delivery with those above mentioned. The Secretary of War has authorized me to exchange Zarvona. Will you also please have him sent from Fort Lafayette to Fort Delaware at the same time with the rest? I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant, WM. H. LUDLOW, Lieutenant-Colonel and Agent for Exchange of Prisoners.

Dick finally left Fort Lafayette on April 16, reaching Richmond on May 6, where temporary living quarters in the Executive Mansion were made available to him and shortly thereafter he left for Europe. My guess would be that he probably returned about the time of his mother's death on April 3, 1870.

After their mother's death, the brothers had apparently tried to divide the estate of their parents among themselves, but had been unsuccessful.

On February 14, 1873, Dick filed suit against his brothers for his share of "Mattapany" stating that the parties involved could not agree among themselves on how it should be divided. The court appointed a commission who made their report on May 20, 1873.

The brothers obviously drew lots. George Thomas got Lot #1 which, in addition to acreage, included the dwelling house. R. T. Zarvona was assigned Lot #2 which included a barn, tenement house, and acreage. James William Thomas was assigned Lot #3 which included acreage only. Each of the three lots was appraised at equal value.

Dick Thomas died on March 17, 1875. Surprisingly, the "Beacon" only had one brief entry, which reads: "Died. During the night of the 17th ult., Col. R. T. Zarvona, at the residence of his brother, J. Wm. Thomas."

Governor Letcher wrote a tribute to Dick a few days after his death. He and Dick had maintained contact during his imprisonment and then afterwards. He described Dick as "a most interesting and extraordinary man. He possessed a very fine intellect, was highly cultivated, and had acquired a fund of valuable and useful general information. He was a good conversationalist and a most agreeable gentleman. As an officer, he was as brave as the bravest, sagacious, intrepid, and daring almost to rashness."

His tribute continued by saying, "If any man has ever lived of whom it might be said, 'He was insensible to fear,' Zarvona was undoubtedly that man. He universally sought the most hazardous undertakings and fearlessly exposed himself to the most formidable dangers. And yet modesty, candor, and sincerity were marked characteristics of his nature. Gentleness, kindness, and tenderness were his predominant traits. He was a sincere and devoted friend, a true citizen, and a patriotic and gallant soldier. He was somewhat eccentric, but that tended rather to inspire regard for and excite interest in him."

Governor Letcher also provided us with the reason for Dick's change of name. "After the capture of the St. Nicholas, the Northern people became increasingly bitter toward Zarvona, and he requested me by legislative act to have his name changed from Richard Thomas to Richard Thomas Zarvona, which was done and he was commissioned colonel as Richard Thomas Zarvona."

Dick was laid to rest at "Deep Falls," where his parents are also buried. According to Jerry Fitzgerald (whose wife is a descendant of George Thomas), Dick's red Zouave cap with blue tassel is preserved in the Confederate Room of the Maryland Historical Society, while the flag of the "St. Nicholas" is supposed to have been presented by Mrs. Jefferson Davis to the Louisiana Historical Society.

My special thanks to Cynthia Buck-Thompson and Carolyn Billups of the Colonel Richard Thomas Zarvona Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy; Sheila Biles of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; and to Jerry Fitzgerald for their generous support and sharing of information in the preparation of this article.


"The French Lady Could Fight" by Virgil Carrington Jones

"The French Lady" by John D. and Linda C. Pelzer

"Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War" by Eric Mills

"Zarvona" by Gerald Fitzgerald

"Col. Richard Thomas Zarvona" from "Confederate Veteran" Official U.S. Government Documents





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