Jack Jouett's Ride
From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
In 1781, Virginia felt the full force of the Revolutionary War. Beginning in January, troops led by Benedict Arnold conducted raids along the James River. By May, Arnold’s men and troops led by Maj. Gen. William Phillips had joined a larger British force under Lord Cornwallis that had moved into Virginia from the south. This invading army would scatter the Virginia government and create turmoil through a swath of the state – before ultimately surrendering to the combined French and American forces at Yorktown on October 19. Within the turmoil of invasion, a heroic action by a young Virginian thwarted the British capture of Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson, and members of the Virginia Assembly. The hero in this instance was John “Jack” Jouett, Jr., a 26-year-old resident of the small town of Charlottesville near Jefferson’s Monticello.
Jack Jouett was a captain in the 6th regiment of the Virginia militia. His older brother, Matthew, had been killed at the Battle of Brandywine, and his two younger brothers also were militiamen. His father John Jouett, Sr., served as a “commissary” supplying the Continental Army with beef from his farm in Louisa County. As the Jouett family lived in Charlottesville, ownership of this farm could explain why Jack Jouett happened to be in Louisa on the evening of June 3.
Tarleton did not remain long in Charlottesville. He managed to catch seven legislators, but most of the assemblymen escaped across the Blue Ridge Mountains to the town of Staunton. Meanwhile, believing his term as governor had expired, Jefferson escorted his family to safety at their farm, Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, and remained there until the middle of the summer. When the members of the General Assembly reconvened in Staunton, they immediately voted Jack Jouett a pair of pistols and a sword as symbols of gratitude, but a proposal was put forward for an inquiry into Jefferson’s actions. The inquiry ultimately was dropped, yet Jefferson insisted on appearing before the lawmakers in December to respond to charges of mishandling his duties and abandoning leadership at a critical moment. He reported that he had believed it understood that he was leaving office and that he had discussed with other legislators the advantages of Gen. Thomas Nelson, a commander of the state militia, being appointed governor. Jefferson recognized that he was “unprepared … for the command of armies” and that given the critical conditions, “the union of the civil and military power in the same hands, at this time would greatly facilitate military measures.” (Nelson in fact had been named Jefferson’s successor later in June, and he effectively led both Virginia’s civil government and military forces through the end of the war.)
Though Jefferson succeeded in justifying his actions to the legislature, the events surrounding the British invasion of Virginia would haunt him. In subsequent national elections, political opponents would accuse him of incompetence, negligence, and even cowardice in his handling of the governorship during the events of 78. Through the rest of his life Jefferson wrestled with the stings of these accusations, and he worked to ensure that his actions were accurately represented in the history of the American Revolution. As for Jack Jouett, he had to wait a few years to receive the promised pistols and sword. And though sometimes referred to as the “Paul Revere of the South,” Jouett never gained the widespread fame granted Revere by Longfellow’s poem.
Original author: Gaye Wilson; Orginally published from Monticello Newsletter, 17:(Winter 2006)
Britton, R.H. "Tarleton and Jouett (and Jefferson’s escape): The Revolutionary War comes to Charlottesville." Albemarle. (April/May 1995): 59-69.