Discovered and submitted for your pleasure: A curious tale from the historically seismic year of 1861 — you might say "Pirates of the Caribbean" transported to the Civil War and the Chesapeake Bay. If the Coen brothers turn down the opportunity to turn this into a movie starring Johnny Depp, someone else should grab it. This is a story for the big screen: a 150-year-old true yarn about a flamboyant lad from Southern Maryland who dressed like a woman for the Southern cause.
Summary: Cross-dressing rich boy, inspired by Garibaldi, leads platoon of rebels in pantaloons to capture steamboat for the Confederacy.
Setting: Maryland, several weeks after the first blood of the Civil War.
Lead character: Zarvona. His real name is Richard Thomas, born in 1833, scion to a family of landed gentry, son of a prominent politician from Southern Maryland. He and his two brothers grow up on a plantation on the banks of the Patuxent River.
Background: According to the late steamboat historian, David C. Holly, in "The Chesapeake Corsair," Mr. Thomas was an excellent sailor, marksman, athlete and horseman. "Even among the hard-riding, hard-drinking young blades of the county [St. Mary's], he gained a reputation for his near reckless courage and dash," Mr. Holly wrote.
Richard Thomas longs for adventure. So, as a teenager, he heads off to California and other Western territories at the end of the Mexican War and after the discovery of gold to help with government land surveys. He ends up in Europe and travels to Italy to join the revolutionary army of Giuseppe Garibaldi in the 1850s.
After his adventures with the red shirts, Mr. Thomas returns to the United States in 1861. Somewhere along the way, he takes the name Zarvona and becomes enchanted by Zouaves, those segments of the French army inspired by a tribe of Berbers and noted for their splashy uniforms — short blue jackets, red pantaloons, white gaiters and usually a fez with a gold tassel for the head.
In America, civil war is about to break out. Zarvona has developed a plan to form his own militia, the Zarvona Zouaves, for the Confederacy. He raises 50 men and starts training them on the shores of the Coan River near the mouth of the Potomac.
What he really wants is command of a Confederate naval vessel. Zarvona wants to takes his Zouaves to do battle with the Union on the Chesapeake. He apparently has little trouble persuading people to follow him and go along with his schemes. "That man had the quickest brain I ever ran across, and his eyes were just as quick," one of his recruits later told a Baltimore newspaper.
Zarvona is described in various accounts as tall and thin, with a boyish face, striking blue eyes and a combat scar on his cheek. People find him odd, eccentric, confident and bold. Does that sound like Jack Sparrow, or what?
Zarvona's plan is to take a group of Zouaves to Baltimore — incognito, of course — board a steamboat, capture it for the Confederacy, rig it with guns and use it to capture a Union naval vessel or two.
And that's what Zarvona does, on the evening of June 28, 1861. Zarvona's men, posing as harvest hands looking for work in Southern Maryland, board the steamboat St. Nicholas. Their leader boards as a French woman — in hoop skirt and wig — by the name of Madame LaForte. She has a number of trunks with her, said to be supplies for the establishment of a millinery business in Washington.
As Madame LaForte, Zarvona is not content to sit in her stateroom away from the other 60 passengers. Instead, "the French lady" roams about the decks, flirting with "the most attractive males among the passengers and ship's officers," including the captain, Jacob Kirwan.
Zarvona's French woman "swishes about the deck, waving a large fan like a Spanish dancer."
At some point during the night, Zarvona's men gather in the French lady's stateroom and pull from her trunks revolvers, carbines and swords. They capture the St. Nicholas and, traversing the bay, capture other vessels, including a schooner bearing coffee from Brazil and another bearing coal for the St. Nicholas's engines.
Zarvona turns the steamboat over to the Confederacy in Virginia, and he's feted as a hero at a ball in Richmond. On request, he dresses as "the French lady" at least two more times, but he wears his colorful Zouaves uniform when he and his men march in Richmond's Fourth of July parade.
Zarvona's plans for a repeat performance — the capture of another steamboat out of Baltimore — are foiled by Union spies. He ends up in the brig at Fort McHenry, charged with piracy, and he spends the rest of the Civil War in a prison in New York, his spirit broken.
I realize that's a downer ending, and it's certainly not the one I'm proposing for the film version of "The French Lady." I'll leave the script to the Coen brothers. I say we give them first dibs.