Jack Jouett’s Ride

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If you mean to be a historical figure, it is a good idea to get in touch with a leading literary figure—a Longfellow, a Homer, a Virgil. Paul Revere, Odysseus, Aeneas—they all took this precaution. Poor Captain Jack Jouett didn’t. And as a result this six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound giant from Virginia, who saved the leaders of the American Revolution from a disheartening and possibly disastrous reverse, has been left out of practically all the history books.

His forty-mile ride from Cuckoo Tavern to Monticello was one of the significant minor exploits of the struggle for independence. Unfortunately, it lacks a chronicler of adequate stature. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, God rest his bones, put Revere on the map. He even gave us the exact hour at which Paul reached Concord on his “midnight ride,” despite the fact that Revere himself says he was captured by the British before he got there. Jack Jouett’s far longer and more perilous nocturnal dash across the Virginia countryside sorely needs a rousing ballad, preferably accurate as to facts, but comparable in popular appeal to the famous “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Jouett’s epochal exploit took place on the night of June 3–4, 1781, when the fortunes of the American colonists appeared far from prosperous. The traitor Benedict Arnold, by that time a British general, had been raiding and pillaging along the James from the river’s mouth to Richmond, the Old Dominion’s capital. General Cornwallis had detached his “hunting leopard,” Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, with 180 dragoons and 70 mounted infantrymen, to make a surprise march to Charlottesville, where the Virginia legislature was meeting following its flight from Richmond. His object was to capture Thomas Jefferson, author of that seditious document, the Declaration of Independence, and now governor of Virginia; Patrick Henry, whose “Give me liberty or give me death!” had sounded the call to arms six years before; and these signers of the Declaration: Richard Henry Lee, whose resolutions introduced in the Continental Congress in 1776 had led to adoption of the Declaration; Benjamin Harrison, ancestor of two future Presidents; and Thomas Nelson, Jr., who had urged armed resistance to Great Britain in 1775 and had spent most of his fortune equipping soldiers for the Continental Army.

Tarleton’s raid was as secret as he knew how to make it. He planned to cover the last seventy miles in twenty-four hours—an eighteenth-century blitzkrieg—and to pounce on Jefferson and the assemblymen unexpectedly. Valuable stores also were to be seized.

The British—many of whom were riding blooded horses seized on Virginia plantations—reached Cuckoo Tavern, Louisa County, between nine and ten o’clock on the evening of June 3. Up to that point, their movements had been successfully masked.

Here Jouett enters the picture. This twenty-seven-year-old native of Albemarle County was a captain in the Virginia militia, as were his three brothers, one of whom had been killed at Brandywine. Before the Revolution, the John Jouetts, father and son, had signed the Albemarle Declaration, whereby 202 residents of the county renounced allegiance to King George. And during the war, records show, “Commissary” John Jouett, Sr., sold considerable beef and other needed supplies from his Louisa County farm to the quartermasters of the Continental Army.

Jack Jouett may have been at or near Cuckoo Tavern on the night of June 3 while attending to his father’s interests in that vicinity. At all events, Thomas Jefferson wrote years after, the young militiaman saw the British dragoons “pass his father’s house” in Louisa, and immediately suspected their object.

It was about ten o’clock. At once Captain Jouett leapt upon his thoroughbred, resolved to dash for Monticello and Charlottesville to warn the Assembly. He was forced to use a seldom-traveled route, for the British were on the main highway. Even the best roads of that era, with their ruts, mudholes, and thank-you-ma’ams, would be considered virtually impassable today; the difficulties that confronted this lone horseman on his all-night ride over backwoods byways can only be imagined.

The distance from Cuckoo Tavern to Charlottesville is about forty miles. The terrain, embracing parts of Louisa and Albemarle counties, is rolling and hilly. (It is in Louisa that the traveler from Tidewater first glimpses, on the far side of Albemarle, the soft contours of the Blue Ridge Mountains.) The moon was nearly full that night, but we do not know whether clouds obscured it. Even in bright moonlight, Jack Jouett was risking serious if not fatal injury in using this almost pathless route. As he rode through the woods and undergrowth of a virtual wilderness, his face was cruelly lashed and scarred.

Meanwhile Tarleton, by his own account, halted his troopers at 11 P.M. on a plantation near Louisa Courthouse. After resting for three hours, they set out again at 2 A.M. Not long thereafter they encountered a train of eleven wagons loaded with arms and clothing for Gen. Nathanael Greene’s Continenial troops in South Carolina. They burned the wagon train instead of taking it with them, Tarleton wrote, in order that no time might be lost.