This piece originally appeared on Monticello.org on May 24, 2017. Click here to see more.
The first clue that this was not going to be an ordinary day at Monticello was the two armed Redcoats cutting through the garden. Were they looking for Jefferson hiding in a bed of kale or among the sunflowers? As I got closer to the Monticello West Lawn I could smell a stew cooking at a campfire and hear the crackle of musket fire. American and British soldiers—reenactors that is—were camped among the trees, waiting for the show to begin.
In June,1781, exactly 235 Junes ago, Jack Jouett came thundering up to Monticello after an all-night ride. Jouett had been lounging at the Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County the night before. There he had spied a troop of Dragoons, the marauding British cavalry who roamed dragonlike through the Virginia countryside. He correctly surmised they were on their way to capture Governor Thomas Jefferson, a prime military target, so he left immediately on a hair-raising ride through the wild back roads to give warning. His heroics are not well known, but his actions saved Jefferson.
Over the years, Monticello has occasionally recreated Jouett’s ride, but this was the first time they mounted a full dramatic reenactment. I came to see how this could be put on. I love to walk through the elegant rooms of Monticello, but could we get a sense of the blood, sweat, and fear that came when the war reached the mountain?
To warm up the crowd, some of the reenactors trained the modern-day children in attendance. The kids marched, wheeled about, and learned to affix bayonets, made from bamboo stalks. A two-year old scampered off (“a deserter!” shouted the captain), but the rest held ranks and marched impressively towards the assembled crowd of parents and grandparents. We ran. And then they all shouted “Huzzahs!” for Governor Jefferson.
The kids did far better than the real Virginia militia in 1781, assembled at Secretary’s Ford over the Rivanna River, between Jefferson’s house and Charlottesville. They were quickly scattered by the marauding Dragoons, who then made their way unchecked up Monticello Mountain.
It was time for the show. In front of the house, Bill Barker—the Colonial Williamsburg interpreter who has played Jefferson admirably for a quarter century—stepped into role as the older Jefferson, reminiscing about his narrow escape. And as he told the story to the crowd, the events unfolded before his eyes—and ours—on Monticello’s West Lawn, as if replaying a dream.
Jack Jouett, his face scarred by branches that slapped him during the ride, galloped up. “You must flee!” he shouted from his horse. The younger Jefferson—played by Steven Edenbo, who portrays him in Philadelphia—came out on the porch. “Do I know you?” he asked serenely and, in true Jefferson fashion, offered him a glass of Madeira.
The two men discussed the situation. Jefferson looked down on the town, far below Monticello, with his telescope, spied the invading British, and asked his enslaved butler, Martin Hemings, to gather his important state documents. He made plans with his wife, Martha. Finally, he left the scene. And just in time, for up came the British Captain MacLeod (a reenactor riding a sleek thoroughbred) with five dragoons riding behind him, swords flashing, on their mission to capture Jefferson.
Then came the most interesting twist in the drama—Hemings gave a monologue about whether to help protect Monticello or actually join the British. The British, after all, were promising freedom to slaves who deserted rebel masters. Although we don’t have a record of Hemings' feelings, this touches on themes that recent scholars have emphasized. Did slaves stand more of a chance with the British than with the Americans, who were offering them no freedom? But if they cast their lot with the British, would the promises be kept? How to survive the war?
Captain MacLeod screamed for Jefferson and pointed his gun at Hemings’ chest. “Fire if you must,” Hemings said calmly. After some soul-searching, he had chosen to stay and protect Monticello, for it was his home, too. He refused to give any clues as to where Jefferson had gone.
Barker, the older Jefferson, closed the performance. “History will show they never got me!” he shouted triumphantly. Sure enough, the actual Jefferson escaped down the trails of Monticello, taking back roads through the woods to safety. This escape by the skin of his teeth allowed him to continue his work and, long after independence was won, become president.
The performers made themselves available and gave talks in character to groups throughout the day. I wondered how others in the crowd experienced things and chatted with a few people near me. “It was a very realistic portrayal,” Steve Bancroft, a guest from Rochester, New York, told me about Martin Hemings, whose talk he attended afterwards. “I learned about how the whole system of slavery worked.” The actor who played Hemings, Adam Canaday, said he was challenged by the role of the enslaved butler, who took a stand for Jefferson but also worried about his own family. “He was fierce but he understood his limitations,” Canaday said to me. “Sometimes it’s not whose you are, but who you are.”
For a day, we all got to glimpse the drama and emotions of war. The Revolution was more than the glittering words in the Declaration of Independence; it was the acts of thousands of courageous Americans, Jouetts and Hemingses. The day at Monticello ended like Jefferson’s escape so many Junes ago: they pulled it off.