The Midnight Ride You Missed in History Class

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The following is a tale that some have called one of the most daring rides in history. While Paul Revere’s midnight ride is better known thanks to the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jack Jouett’s midnight ride was absolutely more difficult. Jouett’s story is not only a story of being in the right place at the right time but also a story of taking action.

We can’t will ourselves into situations like Jouett’s, where we are in the right place at the right time. But if and when we do find ourselves in those circumstances, we must make sure we have sufficiently prepared ourselves so that we don’t just sit by idly, afraid that we might fail if we try. Jack Jouett’s experience is a refreshing example of someone with great determination who was ready to act when it mattered most.

The Backstory

Jack Jouett was a captain in the Virginia militia stationed in the Charlottesville area. On the night of June 3, 1781, Jouett was sleeping soundly on the lawn in front of the Cuckoo Tavern. Sometime late that night, the rustle of horsemen drew him out of his slumber. He awoke to find a hefty unit of White Coats: a notorious regiment of British Dragoons led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Right time, right place.

Quick Thinking

Jouett was an astute son of a gun, and he quickly anticipated the intentions of the White Coats. Jouett knew that Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and a slew of other notorious rebels were meeting just 40 miles up the road in Charlottesville at the Virginia General Assembly. At the time, Virginia hadn’t seen much in the way of battle, so most of the able-bodied men were up north with General George Washington. The remaining men in Virginia only added up to a small militia who were not sufficiently equipped to put up a fight against the White Coats.

Jouett knew that if he didn’t take charge and outpace the White Coats to the General Assembly, Tarleton and his men would have an easy victory in Charlottesville. The ride would be extremely risky and very likely impossible.

When Paul Revere mounted his horse in Boston headed toward Lexington, he had roughly 10-12 miles ahead of him on established roads. Jouett had to ride four-times the distance of Revere and he had to do it on rough, Virginia back roads! Assuming Tarleton had advance scouts on the main road to Charlottesville, Jouett couldn’t risk taking the main road at any point of his ride. His only option was to try and beat the White Coats to Charlottesville through the dark, overgrown Virginia backwoods.

In a quote by Virginia Dabney, the difficult obstacles that lay before Jouett were described in eye-opening detail:

“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.”

Photo Finish

Though seemingly insurmountable obstacles lay before Jouett, his determination edged him out over the White Coats. He made it to Jefferson’s Monticello home just as the dawn light painted the Virginia landscape. By the time Jefferson and the few Virginia legislators staying at his home made it out, the White Coats weren’t far behind. Once Jouett had alerted Jefferson, he mounted his horse again—bruised, bloody, and exhausted—and rode into Charlottesville to alert the rest of the Virginia Assemblymen.

In 1926, 145 years later, Stuart G. Gibbony, President of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, laid to rest any qualms about the significance of Jouett’s historic ride to Charlottesville:

“But for captain Jack Jouett’s heroic ride, there would have been no Yorktown and the Revolutionists would have been only unsuccessful rebels.”

Jouett was truly a man of honor who was motivated by a cause greater than himself. When opportunity came knocking, he gave it everything he had.

Sometimes we have the choice to ride through metaphorical, overgrown backwoods or to go back to sleep. If we choose the road less traveled, and do it for a cause greater than ourselves, we can know that it’s at least worth it to try and possibly fail than to never try at all. I hope we can all take a page from Jouett’s book and live with a little more determination and a little less fear of failure.

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Written by Braden Thompson