Jouett's poet: Kranish brings British invasion to life

news-tjsflight-bookcover-iKranish spent five weeks researching his book in Charlottesville.

Everyone knows what Thomas Jefferson did to make July 4 famous, but it's what he did–- and didn't do–- five years after penning his famous Declaration that would haunt him. And now the controversial events of his Virginia governorship spring to life in a new book by a veteran journalist.

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, published in February by Oxford University Press, gives dramatic form to the chaos and calamity that followed the 1781 British invasion of Virginia by none other than the Revolution's most infamous traitor.

"It stems from one nugget of information," says author Michael Kranish, "that Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia with 1,600 men and 27 ships and caused Jefferson to flee Richmond. Here's one of the most reviled men going after one of the most revered men."

If Jefferson's retreat from Richmond has dropped from common knowledge, perhaps the same could be said of the burning of Norfolk. Here, Kranish reveals that the British got blamed but that the flames were set mostly by patriots, fearful that their port city might serve as a British base.

Likewise, Charlottesvillians may know that Jefferson slipped out of his house as British Colonel Banastre Tarleton approached. But how much do they know about the quick-riding militiaman named Jack Jouett who notified Governor Jefferson of the advancing army. Perhaps not as much as they know about the Boston silversmith who allegedly looked for lantern light in a church.

"If Jack Jouett had a poet as Paul Revere had his Longfellow," says Kranish, "the ride of Jack Jouett would be among the best known in history."

These and other stories are assembled in a book that reads as much like an action thriller as a popular history book. And that's okay with the author, whose 20 years in a Washington newspaper bureau have given him a sense of what the public wants to read.

"I am writing this as a narrative; I am not writing this as a historical argument," says Kranish.

Kranish found that his 2003 stories about the military career of U.S. Senator John Kerry (later transformed into a biography) whetted his appetite to pore through British naval records to find sailors' tales of invading Virginia. As part of a multi-year effort, a five-week fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies gave him the money and breathing room from his reporting duties to research the book.

"People said this is a story that needs to be told," says Kranish. He ought to know. After all, his employer is the Boston Globe, newspaper for the city that popularized so much Revolutionary history: the Boston Massacre, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, etc.

What Kranish realized was that events in Virginia were every bit as dramatic. And more controversial, as Jefferson's post-war years would be hounded by charges that he displayed cowardice and unpreparedness as the British took over the former colony.

"I don't believe Jefferson was a coward," says Kranish. "He did take flight though, and that's the word he used."

Kranish reveals how Jefferson's wartime leadership was hindered by a penny-pinching legislature that declined to fully equip an 18th-century strategic fort over the James River. On the other hand, Jefferson delayed calling out the militia when Arnold's armada sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. And Jefferson's naivete further bit him badly when, for economic development reasons, he pushed for the creation of the prison barracks for the thousands of Hessian soldiers in Charlottesville. Not only did the Germans escape in large numbers, but they would be groomed to fight again.

[Correction: In the fifth paragraph from the end, the word "pore" was misspelled; it has been corrected in this online archived edition.]

1 comment

Bring on the bard - it's time that Jouett had his poet too.

W.S. Merwin, newly named Poet Laureate; first official poem " The Ride of Jack Jouett. "