Jack Jouett’s Ride


Soon after daybreak, the expedition reached Castle Hill, home of the celebrated Dr. Thomas Walker, the explorer, and nearby Belvoir, home of his son, John. “Some of the principal gentlemen of Virginia … were taken out of their beds,” Tarleton wrote. “Part were paroled … while others were carried off.” There was a “halt of half an hour” to refresh the horses, he added, after which the troops moved on toward Charlottesville.

Various legends have grown up around this halt at Castle Hill. The principal one says that Dr. Walker craftily offered Tarleton an elaborate breakfast, the consumption of which so delayed the Briton that Jack Jouett was able to beat him to Monticello and Charlottesville. Another legend has British dragoons stealing, one after the other, two breakfasts which had been prepared for their commander and Dr. Walker telling Tarleton that he would have to post a guard on the kitchen if he desired nourishment. This was done, the story continues, and the cook and attendant flunkies finally served the third breakfast to the Colonel intact. But by the time he had eaten it, Jefferson and most of the legislature had escaped. There are even some ridiculous references in one modern account to “potent mint juleps, Sally Lunn and waffles.”

If breakfast was consumed at Castle Hill by any Briton in the early morning of June 4, 1781, we may be reasonably sure that there was no such menu as this. Aside from the fact that juleps and other such sybaritic provender at so early an hour seem absurd under the circumstances, Tarleton would hardly have been stupid enough to fall into so obvious a trap. His own statement that he halted only half an hour at Castle Hill to rest his horses impresses one as far more authentic, although in his account he may have shortened the actual time somewhat in order not to appear lacking in zeal.

While Tarleton and his men were tarrying at Castle Hill, Jouett was riding through the dawn toward Monticello. His route took him to the Rivanna River ford at the hamlet of Milton. A few miles farther on. he made the ascent to Jefferson’s stately mansion, arriving at about 4:30 A.M., several hours ahead of the British; their relatively brief halt at the Walker estate cannot have been responsible for their failure to bag Jefferson and the other patriots.

On reaching Monticello, Jouett proceeded at once to rouse the sleeping occupants. Among them, besides Jefferson, were the Speakers and other members of the two houses of the General Assembly. Jefferson not only thanked Jouett for his timely warning: but is understood to have tendered a bracing glass or two of his best Madeira. Refreshed, the rider mounted his horse and rode the remaining two miles to Charlottesville, where he awakened dozens more of the snoring solons.

Jefferson and his guests had been far from panic-stricken by the tidings. They “breakfasted at leisure,” Jefferson afterward wrote; then the guests joined their colleagues in town. Jefferson, remaining behind at Monticello, made arrangements to send his wife and children to Enniscorthy, the Coles estate fourteen miles distant, via Blenheim, the Carter estate. He then spent nearly two hours securing his important papers.

Suddenly Captain Christopher Hudson, en route to join Lafayette’s forces, arrived at a gallop to say that British troopers were ascending the mountain to Monticello. Jefferson sent his family off at once in their carriage but was himself in no great hurry to depart. He tied his horse at a point on the road between Monticello and Carter’s Mountain, and through his telescope scanned the Charlottesville streets. Seeing no signs of unwonted activity, and hearing no approaching hoofbeats on the mountainside, he started back to Monticello for a few last-minute arrangements. He soon noticed, however, that he had dropped his light “walking sword,” and returned to pick it up. He focused his telescope for a final look toward the town and was startled to see British dragoons, in their green uniforms faced with white, and mounted infantrymen, wearing red, swarming in the streets.

Instantly Jefferson leaped upon his horse and plunged into the woods. The British were already at Monticello: he had made the narrowest sort of escape. He eluded Tarleton’s men, and joined his family later in the day for dinner at Blenheim.

Tarleton himself did not go to Monticello but remained in Charlottesville. He gave strict orders to Captain McLeod, commander of the detachment he was sending to capture Jefferson, not to damage the house in any way. An account handed down in the family, and accepted by Henry S. Randall, Jefferson’s mid-nineteenth-century biographer, has it that when the British suddenly hove into view on the mountaintop, Martin, Jefferson’s Negro body servant, was passing silver and other articles to Caesar, another slave, through a trap door in the wooden floor of the portico. As the dragoons burst upon the scene, Martin dropped the trap door, leaving Caesar in total darkness. He remained there, quiet and uncomplaining, until the raiders left some eighteen hours later. Apparently they need not have feared: except for the pilferage of a few articles in the cellar, McLeod’s men carried out their instructions.