They call him the Paul Revere of the South. His ride isn’t so well remembered, but it was every bit as daring.
By June 1781, late in the Revolutionary War, the British army had overrun much of Virginia. Patriot-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold had pillaged his way up the James River to Richmond, forcing Governor Thomas Jefferson and the legislature to flee west to Charlottesville. Lord Cornwallis ordered Col. Banastre Tarleton to lead a surprise raid on Charlottesville to capture Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and other assemblymen. “Bloody Ban” set out with about 250 mounted troops to nab the unsuspecting Virginians.
On the night of June 3, Captain Jack Jouett of the Virginia militia was at the Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County (asleep on the lawn, according to some accounts) when the passing cavalry awakened him. Guessing what they were up to, 27-year-old Jouett leaped on his horse and galloped off toward Charlottesville, about 40 miles away. The British were on the main road, so the six-foot-four Jouett had to take trails through the hilly backwoods, a near-full moon his only light to guide him through the underbrush.
He arrived at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, in the early hours of June 4. After rousing the occupants and accepting a glass of Madeira from the grateful governor, he dashed on to nearby Charlottesville. Jefferson took his time leaving Monticello. He “breakfasted at leisure” with his guests, he later recalled, then collected important papers. When he looked through a telescope and saw British troops swarming the streets of Charlottesville, he jumped on a horse and plunged into the woods.
Jack Jouett, meanwhile, had spread the alarm in town, enabling most of the legislators to get away. Tarleton’s raid was foiled, and the Patriots dodged what would have been a serious blow.