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Jack Jouett’s Ride

July 2024
10min read

His feat was more daring than Paul Revere’s, but Virginia’s hero had, alas, no Longfellow

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.


Soon after daybreak, the expedition reached Castle Hill, home of the celebrated Dr. Thomas Walker, the explorer, and nearby Belvoir, home of his son, John. “Some of the principal gentlemen of Virginia … were taken out of their beds,” Tarleton wrote. “Part were paroled … while others were carried off.” There was a “halt of half an hour” to refresh the horses, he added, after which the troops moved on toward Charlottesville.

Various legends have grown up around this halt at Castle Hill. The principal one says that Dr. Walker craftily offered Tarleton an elaborate breakfast, the consumption of which so delayed the Briton that Jack Jouett was able to beat him to Monticello and Charlottesville. Another legend has British dragoons stealing, one after the other, two breakfasts which had been prepared for their commander and Dr. Walker telling Tarleton that he would have to post a guard on the kitchen if he desired nourishment. This was done, the story continues, and the cook and attendant flunkies finally served the third breakfast to the Colonel intact. But by the time he had eaten it, Jefferson and most of the legislature had escaped. There are even some ridiculous references in one modern account to “potent mint juleps, Sally Lunn and waffles.”

If breakfast was consumed at Castle Hill by any Briton in the early morning of June 4, 1781, we may be reasonably sure that there was no such menu as this. Aside from the fact that juleps and other such sybaritic provender at so early an hour seem absurd under the circumstances, Tarleton would hardly have been stupid enough to fall into so obvious a trap. His own statement that he halted only half an hour at Castle Hill to rest his horses impresses one as far more authentic, although in his account he may have shortened the actual time somewhat in order not to appear lacking in zeal.

While Tarleton and his men were tarrying at Castle Hill, Jouett was riding through the dawn toward Monticello. His route took him to the Rivanna River ford at the hamlet of Milton. A few miles farther on. he made the ascent to Jefferson’s stately mansion, arriving at about 4:30 A.M., several hours ahead of the British; their relatively brief halt at the Walker estate cannot have been responsible for their failure to bag Jefferson and the other patriots.

On reaching Monticello, Jouett proceeded at once to rouse the sleeping occupants. Among them, besides Jefferson, were the Speakers and other members of the two houses of the General Assembly. Jefferson not only thanked Jouett for his timely warning: but is understood to have tendered a bracing glass or two of his best Madeira. Refreshed, the rider mounted his horse and rode the remaining two miles to Charlottesville, where he awakened dozens more of the snoring solons.

Jefferson and his guests had been far from panic-stricken by the tidings. They “breakfasted at leisure,” Jefferson afterward wrote; then the guests joined their colleagues in town. Jefferson, remaining behind at Monticello, made arrangements to send his wife and children to Enniscorthy, the Coles estate fourteen miles distant, via Blenheim, the Carter estate. He then spent nearly two hours securing his important papers.

Suddenly Captain Christopher Hudson, en route to join Lafayette’s forces, arrived at a gallop to say that British troopers were ascending the mountain to Monticello. Jefferson sent his family off at once in their carriage but was himself in no great hurry to depart. He tied his horse at a point on the road between Monticello and Carter’s Mountain, and through his telescope scanned the Charlottesville streets. Seeing no signs of unwonted activity, and hearing no approaching hoofbeats on the mountainside, he started back to Monticello for a few last-minute arrangements. He soon noticed, however, that he had dropped his light “walking sword,” and returned to pick it up. He focused his telescope for a final look toward the town and was startled to see British dragoons, in their green uniforms faced with white, and mounted infantrymen, wearing red, swarming in the streets.

Instantly Jefferson leaped upon his horse and plunged into the woods. The British were already at Monticello: he had made the narrowest sort of escape. He eluded Tarleton’s men, and joined his family later in the day for dinner at Blenheim.

Tarleton himself did not go to Monticello but remained in Charlottesville. He gave strict orders to Captain McLeod, commander of the detachment he was sending to capture Jefferson, not to damage the house in any way. An account handed down in the family, and accepted by Henry S. Randall, Jefferson’s mid-nineteenth-century biographer, has it that when the British suddenly hove into view on the mountaintop, Martin, Jefferson’s Negro body servant, was passing silver and other articles to Caesar, another slave, through a trap door in the wooden floor of the portico. As the dragoons burst upon the scene, Martin dropped the trap door, leaving Caesar in total darkness. He remained there, quiet and uncomplaining, until the raiders left some eighteen hours later. Apparently they need not have feared: except for the pilferage of a few articles in the cellar, McLeod’s men carried out their instructions.

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.

Undiscouraged, Jouett settled down in Mercer County and entered politics. He helped Kentucky break off from Virginia and become a sovereign state, served four terms in the new legislature, pioneered livestock breeding in Woodford County—in the bluegrass where today great racing stables raise swift colts for the Derby—and in his later years was the friend of Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and the great families of his adopted slate. Among his numerous children was one of America’s most noted portrait painters, Matthew Harris Jouett (“I sent Matthew to college to make a gentleman of him,” said old Jack, “and he has turned out to be nothing but a damned sign painter”). And among Matthew’s children was James Edward “Fighting Jim” Jouett, a distinguished naval officer, who seems to have shared his grandfather’s fate in being forgotten by history. What Admiral Farragut reportedly said at the Battle of Mobile Bay was: “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton go ahead! Jouett full speed!” Alas, it is usually remembered by the average schoolboy as “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

By the time “Fighting Jim’s” hour of glory struck, his grandfather was of course long since dead. And by the world forgotten: he was buried in the family cemetery at his Bath County farm, Peeled Oak, but the grave was unmarked, and it took a twentieth-century researcher, the late Mrs. Joel M. Cochran of Charlottesville, Virginia, to find the spot where the old Revolutionary hero was laid to rest.

Yes, Jack Jouett’s ride from Cuckoo Tavern to Monticello cries out for a ballad that will seize the fancy of the American people. The hoofbeats of his steed, toiling and sweating through the warm June night across forty miles of Virginia countryside, come echoing down the years. Jack Jouett gave some of America’s greatest patriots a timely warning in one of the Revolution’s dark hours, but his valorous deed has been well-nigh forgotten. He deserves a kinder fate.

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