Friday, June 3, 2022

Jack Jouett’s Ride to Save Thomas Jefferson

Jack Jouett's ride.

Jack Jouett was asleep when a commotion startled him awake.  His Excellency, the Governor would later recall that it was at the plantation home of his father, John Jouett, Sr. in Luisa County.  But most accounts have him stretched out on the lawn of the Cuckoo Tavern about eight miles away and halfway between Richmond and Charlottesville.  In either case, breathless word arrived that the White Coats were riding.  That could mean only one thing—the troopers of the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton—and only one mission—to swoop down upon the undefended legislature and Governor Thomas Jefferson who had fled to Charlottesville after the fall of Richmond.

In the summer of 1781 the Revolutionary War had come to Virginia which had largely escaped the fighting, except for Indian raids on it western frontier while the bulk of the campaigning had been conducted by George Washingtons Continental Army in the north and to the south where troops under Benjamin Lincoln, Horatio Gates and ultimately Nathaniel Green and Daniel Morgan contested Red Coat armies under Sir Henry Clinton and more recently Lord Cornwallis and large forces of Tories including Tarleton’s British Legion cavalry.

While the war in the north had see-sawed and settled into a kind of stalemate, things had gone mostly disastrously in the south.  Lincoln was trapped in Charleston, South Carolina and forced to surrender with 5000 troops.  Gates was humiliated in the worst field defeat of an American army until the Civil War at the Battle of Camden in August of 1780.  But under Green and Morgan back country militiamen defeated a large force of British and Tories at Kings Mountain and again at Cowpens.  The two armies fought a series of battles, almost all of which were technical British victories—they were left in control of the battlefields—but at the cost of disastrous losses and leaving the American army intact.  Green began pushing Cornwallis out of South Carolina into North Carolina. 

After a disastrous victory at Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington, North Carolina.  He determined that Green’s army was being kept in the field by supplies from Virginia.  Against the express opposition of his superior, Sir Henry Clinton, Cornwallis got support in London for an invasion of Virginia. 

A small force under turncoat Brigadier General Benedict Arnold was already doing some raiding in the Tidewater area.  He captured Richmond sending the Governor and legislature fleeing and then rampaged through the surrounding country. Washington dispatched his beloved Marquis de Lafayette to take command of defense in the Commonwealth in March.  Lafayette assembled 3,500 men, mostly militia, to face Arnold and reinforcements under Major General William Phillips.  Phillips fell ill and died at Petersburg and Arnold resumed command until Cornwallis arrived with more troops and took command in Virginia on May 20.

On June 1, Cornwallis learned from intercepted dispatches, that Jefferson and the Virginia government were at Charlottesville completely without any military protection.  He ordered the hated and ruthless Tarleton to make the dash to swoop up Jefferson and other prominent Revolutionary leaders in the legislature including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Benjamin Harrison V.

A still youthful Thomas Jefferson in 1786, six years after his term as Governor of Virginia by Mather Brown.

Jouett was then 27 years old and a mountain of a man by the standards of the day standing 6 foot four and weighing 220 pounds.  His Norman Huguenot ancestors included a Master of the Horse to King Louis XII and had immigrated to Rhode Island in 1687.  He was a third generation Virginian and his father owned property in Albemarle County where he was a neighbor of Jefferson and one of the signers of the Albemarle Declaration.  Jouett, the eldest son was a Captain in the 16th Regiment of the Virginia Militia.  Three other brothers also served in the Revolution and one was killed at the Battle of Brandywine.

So, Jouett, no Sunshine Patriot, knew what he had to do.  He called for his horse, which had to be a very substantial animal, pulled on his boots, and leapt into the saddle for a wild ride to Charlottesville.  It was a good thing that he was an excellent horseman because he had to stay ahead of or elude the fast moving Tarleton so had to avoid the main road and take overgrown back trails and sometimes go overland jumping fences and fording creeks.

Banastre Tarleton and his Tory raiders rode to capture Jefferson and the Virginia government.  Heroic portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Tarleton left Cornwallis’s camp on the North Anna River with 180 of his own cavalrymen and 70 mounted infantry of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers earlier on June 3.  He meant to move surreptitiously but as we have noted, his movements were detected.  But he was moving very fast and there was no hope that Lafayette could dispatch troops to catch him or protect the capital in exile.  In fact, his plan was to force march his troopers to cover the last 70 miles in just 24 hours.

Tarleton arrived at Louisa Court House, not far from which ever spot Jouett had been sleeping, at 11 pm the night of June 3.  He allowed his men and horses just three hours rest.   Early the next morning he encountered a baggage train destined for Green’s Army at Boswell’s Tavern   and paused to destroy it.  At dawn he captured the plantations of prominent Patriots around Castle Hill.  He captured and paroled some of them, not wanting to yet burden himself with prisoners.   Dr. Thomas Walker, father of a member of the Continental Congress, was said to have entertained Tarleton with an elaborate breakfast including gills of brandy in hopes of delaying him.  Although the Colonel was glad to eat, he was highly disciplined and did not let the meal deter him from resuming his ride.

Jowett’s route took him through a ford of the Rivanna River at the town of Milton. At about 4:30 in the morning of June 4, he crossed the ford and climbed the mountain on which Monticello sat. The early rising Jefferson was already in his garden when Jouett pounded up on his lathered horse.  The Governor’s guests, including several legislators, were quickly roused.  Jefferson refreshed the messenger with some fine Medira before Jouett saddled up on a fresh horse for the two mile dash to Charlottesville itself.

Monticello in Jefferson's life time.

While the news of the impending arrival of the British cavalry sent his household into a tizzy, Jefferson seemed unfazed.  He ordered an elaborate breakfast for himself and his guests and regaled them with his usually dazzling conversation even as their own consternation must have been on the rise.  Most of them scurried away as soon as it was polite to do so.  Massa Jefferson directed the slaves to gather and hide the valuables while he packed a light wardrobe and sorted his most important personal and state papers.  After about two hours a neighbor, Captain Christopher Hudson galloped up with news the Tarleton advance troops were in Charlottesville.  With that Jefferson dispatched his family to Enniscorthy, a friend’s estate about 14 miles away. 

He ordered a horse for himself to be made ready but continued to pack and secure his papers while keeping an eye on Charlottesville with his telescope.  Unfortunately, he did not keep close enough an eye.  Troopers under the command of Captain Kenneth McLeod appeared on the edge of his expansive lawn leaving just enough time to sling a portfolio over his shoulder, stuff his saddle bags, and leap into the saddle.  Luckily his getaway was unobserved by the troopers who arrived to find the slaves still busily securing the valuables.  But according to the account of one of his slaves made years later, the escape was so narrow that the Governor had to spend part of the day hiding in a hollow tree on Carter’s Mountain. 

Despite Tarleton’s fearsome reputation, aside from some looting Monticello was spared significant damage.

Meanwhile Jouett arrived in Charlottesville and went immediately to the Swan Tavern, which was one of his father’s businesses and the principal logging place of legislators in the town.  He roused the men, and others scattered in the town who quickly met and decided to adjourn the legislature to Staunton 35 miles further west and to reconvene there on June 7.

Also at the tavern was General Edward Stevens who was recovering there from serious wounds sustained at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.  Capturing a General Officer was always a plumb of war.  Jouett assisted Stevens in mounting a horse and left with him hoping to take him to shelter.  But Steven’s wounds did not allow the men to travel at the breakneck pace which Jouett had now been riding for hours.  A forward patrol of Tarleton’s cavalry caught up with them.  However, the troopers did not recognize Stevens, who was wearing the shabby clothing of a farmer as the general they had been told escaped from the Tavern.  Jouett, it turned out, was something of a fop and was resplendently decked out in an elaborate militia officers uniform including a scarlet coat and plumed hat.  They assumed that he was the General.  Jouett took off overland and they gave merry chase allowing the real General to slip away unharmed.  Jouett was able to lose his pursuers in his own familiar territory.

Thanks to Jowett’s ride, Jefferson and most of the legislature got away.  Just seven stragglers were nabbed and none of them were the high priority rebel leaders.  The government of Virginia continued to function, although Jefferson’s two year term expired.  William Flemming temporarily took the reins when the legislature reconvened in Staunton and Thomas Nelson Jr. took over.  When things died down, Jefferson was able to return to Monticello in what he believed would be a retirement from politics.

A grateful legislature resolved its thanks on June 15 and promised in the resolution to present Jouett with a brace of fine pistols and a sword.  Jouett got the pistols two years later, but it took 20 for him to receive the sword.

After the Tarleton raid and another which captured an arsenal from a Continental force under Baron von Stuben, Cornwallis consolidated his forces for operations in the tide water while Lafayette, 800 men under General Mad Anthony Wayne, and von Stuben’s force united into a more effective 5,000 man Army.  Clinton ordered Cornwallis to move down the Virginia Peninsula towards the Chesapeake Bay where Clinton planned to evacuate part of the army for a siege of New York City.  It was a fatal move, made against the advice of Benedict Arnold who advocated establishing a strong inland base from which the Army could maneuver.

Washington, of course, with French Admiral de Grasse was able to move his army along with a French Army under the Comte de Rochambeau to Virginia where he was able to lay siege to Cornwallis at Yorktown leading to the surrender of the whole army there on October 19, 1781, just four and a half months after Jefferson had been forced to flee.  That effectively ended major operations in the war while peace terms were hashed out in Paris.

Jouett picked up and joined the post-war flood of settlement into Kentucky, then still western Virginia counties.  He became a leading citizen and served in the Virginia Legislature and then in the Kentucky state legislature.  He settled first in Mercer and then Woodford Counties where he conducted various businesses, farmed, and dealt in cattle.  He hob-nobbed with the likes of rising stars Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and Henry Clay of Kentucky. 

The only known image of Jack Jouett was this silhouette  made by his son, the Kentucky painter of note years after the ride.  Perhaps if the two had not been so estranged over the son's career, we might have a real oil portrait.

He married Sallie Robbard and together they had twelve children including the famous painter Mathew Harris Jouett, with whom he had a difficult relationship since he disapproved of his son’s profession.  He was also the grandfather of James EdwardFighting Jim Jouett” who gained fame under Admiral Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War in which he was immortalized in Farragut’s famous order. “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton go ahead! Jouett full speed!”

All in all, it was quite a legacy, if one now largely forgotten.

Jack Jouett died at the home of a daughter on March 1, 1822 in Bath County, Kentucky at age of 68 and laid in an unmarked grave on Peel Creek Farm. 

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