It was the spring of 1781, and war had come to Virginia.
Many Virginians were fighting elsewhere with George Washington’s forces, weakening the ability of the state to resist British advances. King George’s troops, some of them commanded by defector Benedict Arnold, had earlier that winter conducted raids and fought skirmishes with Americans along the James River. In May, these soldiers hooked up with the forces of Lord Cornwallis, who had marched his men up from North Carolina. In less than six months, this army would surrender to the Americans and French at Yorktown, but for now, they faced only light resistance and moved handily throughout the eastern part of Virginia.
Driven that winter out of the state’s new capital, Richmond, the Virginia legislature had opted in the spring to meet in Charlottesville, believing themselves secure from the British in that western hamlet. Among these lawmakers were Gov. Thomas Jefferson, now in the last days of his term of office, as well as famous patriots like Patrick Henry and signers of the Declaration of Independence Richard Henry Lee and William Harrison. Among their number was also Daniel Boone of Kentucky, then considered a part of Virginia.
When Lord Cornwallis learned that the legislature had gathered in Charlottesville, he dispatched Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and 200 mounted troopers to ride west and capture these lawmakers. Though despised by colonial patriots for his harsh treatment of militia and civilians in the Carolinas—he was nicknamed “Bloody Ban”—Tarleton was a fine horseman and an aggressive commander. He pushed his men toward Charlottesville, riding much of the time at night to conceal their objective. On June 3, he paused for a few hours at the Louisa County Courthouse to give his men and horses a well-earned rest before advancing into Charlottesville the following day.
And it was on this night that one American would upend this British raid.
Virginia’s Paul Revere
Born in 1754 to John and Mourning Harris Jouett, Jack Jouett had grown up in Charlottesville, where his father operated the Swan Tavern. On this evening of June 3, he was almost 40 miles away in Louisa County at the Cuckoo Tavern, so named because of the clock in that establishment. Jouett had seen the arrival of the British dragoons, overheard talk in the tavern of their plans to proceed to Charlottesville, and decided on his own initiative to race through the hills to that town and alert the threatened legislators.
Mounted on his bay mare Sally, Jouett set out through the dark countryside. Fearing British troops, he took the back roads and trails with which he was well familiar. Just around dawn, his fast-paced horse brought him to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate. There, he roused the household and explained the dire situation to Jefferson, who, as legend has it, offered Jouett a glass of Madeira to help revive the weary rider before he set out for nearby Charlottesville.
In Charlottesville, Jouett spread the word, which included a visit to his father’s popular tavern. The legislators agreed to move south to Staunton, about 40 miles away. Though Daniel Boone and several other members of this body were captured by the British, most of the representatives packed in haste, fled the town, and escaped safely to Staunton.
A Near-Run Disaster
Jefferson himself came close to being taken prisoner as well.
Aided by his body servant, Jefferson slowly packed up important papers and personal items, reluctant to leave the home he’d designed and built for fear the British would burn it. Only when a neighbor who was an officer in the Virginia militia, Christopher Hudson, found him still on the premises and urged him to flee did Jefferson mount his horse, Caractacus, and ride into the forest. Like Tarleton, he was an excellent horseman, knew the terrain, and was confident of his ability to escape Tarleton’s raiders.
The British arrived at Monticello within minutes of his departure, with Jefferson still close enough to hear them and to observe through his telescope. He rode away, but his fears regarding the destruction of his home proved unjustified. Perhaps the British remembered the story of Jefferson’s kind treatment of several captured officers earlier in the war. The troops did threaten to shoot a slave, Martin Hemmings, unless he informed them of his master’s whereabouts, at which point the servant demonstrated his loyalty to Jefferson by replying, “Fire away, then.” Hemmings was left unharmed, and after a thorough search of the house and grounds, the British headed to Charlottesville.
As for Jack Jouett, he moved to Kentucky the year after his ride, where he married Sallie Robards, became a father to 12 children, established himself as a successful farmer, and served in the Kentucky legislature. He was a stout advocate for statehood and was undoubtedly pleased when in 1792 Kentucky became the second state to join the newly formed United States of America.
Though honors for his heroism on that night-long ride were belated, Jouett eventually received official recognition from the Virginia government for his exploit and was awarded a brace of fine pistols and a sword for his service.
The Power of One
Jack Jouett isn’t as famous as Paul Revere, in large part because of Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” with its well-known opening lines “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Yet Jouett’s bravery and boldness that June night and the following day may have helped save the American Revolution. At the time, the Americans had no sure hope of victory—far from it—and the capture of patriots like Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee might have brought disastrous consequences. At the least, such a triumph would have severely damaged American morale.
Jouett also deserves our esteem for demonstrating a particularly American trait: individual initiative. Unlike Paul Revere, who worked with a committee of others discerning and attempting to thwart British intentions, Jouett acted alone and spontaneously. No one commanded him to deliver his warning; he asked no one for advice as to what he should do. At great risk to himself, he saddled up that bay mare and set out on his self-imposed mission.
To put aside our fears, doubts, and self-interests in the pursuit of liberty and a righteous cause: That is Jack Jouett’s greatest lesson for us all.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.