Issue: February 2009
FROM THE EDITOR : The Lady was a Zoave

By Tim Sayles

I've always loved a good Civil War tale, and if you throw in piracy on the high seas and a bit of cross-dressing, I'll follow you anywhere—in a narrative sense, I mean. That said, you shouldn't be surprised when I tell you that when writer Eric Mills pitched his article on rebel raiders of the Bay during the Civil War, he had me at "the French lady who was actually a man."

That man, Richard Thomas Zarvona of Southern Maryland, is only one of the Confederate sea wolves we read about in Mills's splendid story in this issue, "Rebel Raiders of the Chesapeake" [page 45], but he is certainly the most intriguing. Born Richard Thomas Jr., he was the son of the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and the nephew of Maryland Governor James Thomas. He was only 20 or so when the war broke out, but by then he already had a few years of soldiering under his belt. After a less than stellar plebe year at West Point, Thomas struck out on his own military path, first fighting pirates in China and then joining Giuseppe Garibaldi's revolutionary army in Italy. It was during the latter adventure, Mills says, that he added the name Zarvona—though other versions of his story (and there are more than a few) say it had been the name of a young woman Thomas had loved and lost in France.

Whatever the case, Zarvona returned to the U.S. just in time to join the Confederate cause, not an uncommon choice for Southern Marylanders. His initial plan had been to form a volunteer Zoave regiment (think baggy pants and a fez), but that never panned out. Instead he joined forces with a Confederate Navy officer, Captain George Hollins—who had been hatching a plot to capture a Baltimore-to-Washington passenger steamer, the St. Nicholas, and then use it to capture a Union gunboat, the U.S.S. Pawnee, on the Potomac River.

And how to smuggle the necessary weapons aboard the St. Nicholas? Why, in a young French lady's steamer trunks, of course! Zarvona played the flirtatious coquette all the way from Baltimore to the mouth of the Potomac, Mills writes, passing out the smuggled weapons to the 16 other undercover hijackers onboard. Then, when the time was right, Mills writes, "The flirtatious French lady went to her cabin . . . and emerged as Richard Thomas Zarvona, in billowing Zoave trousers. He and his fellow hijackers . . . stormed the wheelhouse and quickly commandeered the vessel."

Then it was on to Phase Two, capturing the Pawnee. Little did they know, however, that—No, I've said too much already. Suffice it to say that Zarvona, Hollins and company used the harmless-looking St. Nicholas to commit several more acts of piracy on the Bay, before high-tailing it to safety in Virginia, where they were hailed as heroes. The rest I'll leave for you to discover on your own. After all, if you've come this far, chances are I had you at "the French lady who was actually a man."