This Day in History: Jack Jouett’s midnight ride to save Thomas Jefferson

On this day in 1781, a brave American makes a daring trip in the middle of the night. Can you hear the echoes of Paul Revere?!

Jack Jouett was the son of a tavern owner. His goal was to warn Virginian assemblymen that Bloody Banastre Tarleton was headed their way. His actions saved many—including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry—from capture by the British.

At this point in the Revolution, Virginia was not doing well. It had been ignored for much of the war, but it was now feeling the sting of British attacks. Jefferson was Governor of the state at this time. It was not his best work. He felt unprepared to handle the military aspects of his governorship, and he decided to refuse a third year as Governor. Instead, he recommended that General Thomas Nelson be appointed. Technically, Jefferson’s term ended on June 2; however, Nelson did not take office until June 12.

Virginia was a state with no executive, at least for a few days.

Mere weeks before, the Virginia assembly had fled Richmond and convened in Charlottesville. Unfortunately, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis learned where the assembly was. He sent the infamous Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to seize the colonial government.

Tarleton set off with 250 men. He moved quickly, hoping to take the assemblymen off guard. He might have made it, except that Jouett saw him on the evening of June 3, passing near Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County. Jouett quickly deduced where Tarleton was headed and why. His father owned a Tavern in Charlottesville, and the Assemblymen had been frequenting that Tavern.

Jouett also knew that it was up to him to warn the Virginia leadership. He followed Tarleton for about an hour before he got lucky. He must have been wondering how he would get around Tarleton’s men without being seen? A little before midnight, Tarleton gave his men a 3-hour break. Jouett was able to get around Tarleton, taking off down back trails and side roads. He arrived at Monticello around daybreak on June 4 to deliver his warning to Jefferson. Then he continued on to Charlottesville.

Interestingly, Jefferson was in much less of a rush than Jouett. He dispatched his family, but he did not rush out himself. He gathered his papers and even had a breakfast prepared for the assemblymen who were there. Finally, another man arrived at Monticello with a second warning. The British were very close, already invading Charlottesville. Jefferson mounted his horse and got away in the nick of time.

Jouett’s warning had given most of the assemblymen time to get away. Tarleton was able to capture only a few of them. The Virginia Assembly later voted to provide Jouett with “an elegant sword and pair of pistols in memorial” of his brave night’s work.

P.S. The attached silhouette is the only known likeness of Jouett. And the painting is of “Bloody Tarleton.”

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