Jack Jouett’s Ride
His feat was more daring than Paul Revere’s, but Virginia’s hero had, alas, no Longfellow
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
By contrast, the main body of General Cornwallis’ army, which Tarleton joined next day at Elk Hill, Jefferson’s plantation at Point of Fork (now Columbia), wrought devastation far and wide. Not content with burning the barns, destroying the crops, taking the horses and cattle, and cutting the throats of the young colts, Cornwallis even carried off thirty Negroes. He herded them in with other slaves who were suffering from smallpox and “putrid fever,” and most of them died.
In Charlottesville, meanwhile, the General Assembly was hurriedly taking its departure. The members had convened hastily on getting the word from Jouett that the British were coming and had adjourned at once, resolving to meet three days later at Staunton, forty miles to the west beyond the mountains.
Tarleton was so close on their heels that although Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and numerous others got away, seven assemblymen were taken. One who managed to escape was General Edward Stevens, who was recuperating from a wound received at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Randall relates that Stevens was plainly dressed and mounted on a shabby horse, whereas Jack Jouett, riding his thoroughbred, was dressed in “a scarlet coat and military hat and plume,” for he “had an eccentric custom of wearing such habiliments.” The British ignored Stevens, thinking he was a person of no importance, and went alter Jouett, whose dress led them to believe him an officer of high rank. But the athletic, well-mounted Jouett was too fast for them, and made his getaway. General Stevens, meanwhile, had taken advantage of the diversion to disappear.
Thomas Jefferson’s political opponents inside and outside the state tried to make it appear that he had behaved in a cowardly fashion at the time of Tarleton’s raid. For many years thereafter his perennial enemies, the Federalists, sought to picture him as having fled ignominiously before the British. Tarleton himself wrote that Jefferson “provided for his personal safety with a precipitate retreat.”
All this was grossly unfair. If anything, Jefferson waited too long at Monticello after being warned by Jouett, with the result that he barely escaped capture. Certainly he is no more to be criticized than the legislators, who beat a more “precipitate retreat” than he. As a matter of fact, when a group of them—including Henry, Harrison, and John Tyler, Sr. stopped in a hut beyond Charlottesville, the old woman of the house proceeded to abuse them roundly for “running away.” But when she found that Henry was one of their number, she apologized.
What would have been the fate of such men as Jefferson, Henry, Harrison, Nelson, and Lee, if they had fallen into British hands? They would almost certainly have been carried off into captivity by Tarleton—just as he carried off several “gentlemen” taken at or near Castle Hill on the previous day; it is hardly conceivable that men of the stature of Jefferson, Henry, and the rest would have been paroled. Their capture would have been a serious blow to the morale of the Continentals, especially at a time when things were going rather badly for their cause. Incalculable, even catastrophic, results might have followed from such a coup.
The General Assembly of Virginia was deeply sensible of its debt to Jack Jouett, for a few days afterward, on June 15, it adopted the following resolution:
Resolved : That the executive be desired to present to Captain John Jouett an elegant sword and pair of pistols as a memorial of the high sense which the General Assembly entertain of his activity and enterprise in watching” the motions of the enemy’s cavalry on their late incursion to Charlottesville and conveying to the assembly timely information of their approach, whereby the designs of the enemy were frustrated and many valuable stores preserved.
Jouett was given the pistols in 1783, but it was twenty years before he received the “elegant sword.” By that time he had made quite a name for himself beyond the Alleghenies, in present-day Kentucky.
His career there started out badly. According to a story handed down in the family, he and his companions were moving westward through the Cumberland Gap and along Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road when they heard the cries of a woman coming from a lonely cabin. On investigating, they found a man beating his wife. Jouett went gallantly to the lady’s rescue and knocked her husband down. But the Virginian discovered at once that he who intervenes in such an intramural dispute incurs the wrath of both parties thereto: the lady reached for a longhandled frying pan and hit Jouett over the head so forcefully that the bottom of the pan was knocked out and the rim driven down around his neck. Not until he found a blacksmith, thirty-five miles down the road, was he able to disengage his head.