The June evening was warm. John “Jack” Jouett Jr. was an imposing figure in his day. Standing at 6’4”, he was young and handsome, a captain in the Virginia Militia. He and his unit were camped out on the lawn in front of the Cuckoo Tavern. Most of the Virginia Militia was deployed to the north with George Washington. They had been left behind as security for the Virginia legislature that had been meeting in nearby Charlottesville.
Late that night, they were surprised by the sudden arrival of White Coats, British Dragoons, led by none other than Lieutenant Colonel Banastre, ‘the Butcher,” Tarleton. It was no secret that the British would love to capture a figure such as Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry. One can only imagine the public relations victory such a capture would be, and what a devastating blow it would be to the Patriot cause.
Facing a trained and determined force of 180 dragoons and 70 mounted cavalry, Jack Jouett knew he had to warn Jefferson, Henry, and the legislature. But what could one man do on such short notice? Tarleton was not a man to take lightly.
Jack knew the main road to Charlottesville would have scouts in addition to being the path taken by Tarleton, so he would have to take another route. The backwoods of Virginia were crisscrossed with Indian trails and back roads, but the going was treacherous even in daylight. Just before midnight on June 3, 1781, Jack Jouett left on a mission that few would ever attempt.
Jouett rode as a man possessed, barely evading capture on at least two occasions. Jack’s horse was said to be “the best bred and fleetest of foot of any nag in seven counties.” She needed to be-- Jack, Jefferson, indeed the new nation, depended on her.
As one writer related in a Scribner’s article published in June, 1928:
"The unfrequented pathway over which this horseman set out on his all-night journey can only be imagined. His progress was greatly impeded by matted undergrowth, tangled bush, overhanging vines and gullies ... his face was cruelly lashed by tree limbs as he rode forward and scars said to have remained the rest of his life were the result of lacerations sustained from these low hanging branches."
The next scene in the story was retold in an article published in 1934 by the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
“By breakfast time Tarleton had reached Dr. Walkers in Albemarle County. Here he decided to take breakfast. It is thought that Mrs. Walker had been informed by Jack Jouett Jr. that he was on his way to warn Governor Jefferson and the Legislature for the British general had to wait some time for his breakfast. His troops were given the first and second breakfasts prepared.
General Tarleton became impatient, and made an investigation. He was told he would have to place the kitchen under guard, if he wanted breakfast, which he did. But he had been delayed for some time; time enough for Governor Jefferson and the Legislature to be warned.
On Jack Jouett Jr.'s way to Monticello he passed through the village of Milton at dawn, and shouted, "The British are coming." Some thought he was joking, as he was known to be a great joker. A few minutes later, the rider arrived at Monticello, and warned the Governor of Virginia, who quickly gave the rider a glass of madeira to brace him up, for his trip to warn the Legislature.”
Having been warned by Jouett, Jefferson sent his family to Blenheim, the home of Colonel Edward Carter. I have been to Monticello a few times, and they talk about this event during the tour. Jefferson told his man servant to fly a particular flag as long as the British were there. As he departed, before he crested the hill he looked back at his house only to see that flag being raised. It was a narrow escape indeed.
Jouett arrived in Charlottesville and warned the legislators; however, seven of them delayed their departure and were captured. Imagine the turn of events that might have occurred had Tarleton been successful!
Captain Jouett was awarded a “Brace of silver mounted pistols and a jeweled sword” in honor of his heroism by the Virginia legislature.
The Times-Dispatch declared Jouett’s ride has “never been equaled in history.” Indeed. This 40-mile ride, on a very dark night, through rough and treacherous terrain, on a mission that most certainly saved the lives of Jefferson and Henry and the revolution should be something we’d find in the history books. Were you aware of this amazing feat?
Longfellow made Paul Revere a household name, but, in reality, he never completed his ride. He was not alone and he traveled on a main, public road. They were short of their destination when detained by a British patrol. William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott, the two who were with Revere, escaped, but Revere was detained and his horse taken. Revere returned to Lexington on foot. It was half the distance covered by Jouett, and on a night with a bright moon to light the way.
And what became of this hero? After the war ended, Jack married his long time sweetheart from Virginia, and the couple settled in Kentucky where they had twelve children. Jack served a number of years in the Kentucky legislature before he died On March 1, 1822. Amazingly, his grave site is unknown.