The Little Known Ride of Jack Jouett

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Thanks largely to an 1860 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, most Americans have heard of the “midnight ride of Paul Revere.”  Although romanticized by Longfellow, Paul Revere is a figure in U.S. history who should rightfully be celebrated.  But was there a far more obscure ride that may have had a greater influence on American history than Revere’s?

By 1781, six years into the American Revolution, the British had overrun much of Virginia, the largest American colony, in an attempt to severely damage the Colonial war effort.  On the night of June 3, 1781, a twenty-six-year-old captain in the Virginia militia named Jack Jouett was at the Cuckoo Tavern about 40 miles from Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Virginia state legislature was assembled.  Jouett observed a group of about 250 mounted British soldiers that were led by a notorious and hated cavalry officer named Banastre Tarleton.

Jouett quickly realized Tarleton and his men were on the move towards Charlottesville to capture important Virginia leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.  He immediately took off on his horse to warn Jefferson and the others of the approaching danger. While Tarleton’s men took main roads towards Charlottesville, Jouett was forced to take difficult back roads through sometimes dense forest to avoid his own capture and arrive ahead of the British cavalry.  His only light was provided by a near-full moon.

After the brutal overnight ride, Jouett reached Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, before the British had.  Jefferson was there with other members of the assembly who were staying there as his guests.  Jefferson’s guests and family immediately left for safety. However, Jefferson did not realize the gravity of the situation and took his time before leaving.  Because of the delay, the capture of Thomas Jefferson was perhaps minutes away. British soldiers were on the grounds of Monticello just after Jefferson departed for a nearby home.  Although by most accounts very close, Jefferson was not captured.

jack jouett
The only known portrait of Jack Jouett as a silhouette by his son, Matthew Jouett.

Jack Jouett went on to warn other members of the Virginia legislature in Charlottesville that the British were near.  There was little for them to do but move to safety, as most of Virginia’s soldiers were with General George Washington and the Continental Army.  Because of Jouett’s warnings, Tarleton was unable to do too much damage.  He did capture some members of the legislature who were unable to escape and commandeer supplies meant for American soldiers, but these actions fell short of his goal of capturing the most influential leaders of Revolutionary Virginia.

Four signers of the Declaration of Independence avoided capture.  As well as author Thomas Jefferson, three additional signers of the Declaration, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Nelson, Jr., avoided capture by Tarleton.  Patrick Henry, perhaps best remembered in history for his famous 1775 “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech, also avoided falling into British hands.

What would have become of Jefferson and the others had they been captured?  Historians can only speculate because there is no evidence to know for sure what the British would have done with these men.  Immediate execution for treason against the British Crown, using them as bargaining chips in some manner, or imprisonment in the Tower of London were all possibilities.

Thankfully, none of these events occurred.  On October 19, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his forces to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the American Revolution.

Jack Jouett went on to settle in Kentucky, where he had twelve children, served in Kentucky’s legislature, and was a successful importer of livestock.  In recognition of his heroic act, the Virginia Assembly awarded Jouett a set of silver-mounted pistols and a jeweled sword.  Jack Jouett died on his Kentucky farm on March 1, 1822, one of the many unheralded American patriots who put themselves in harm’s way for the preservation of liberty.

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