Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

A Hair-Breadth Escape

On that troubled January second, 1781, when the legislature hastened to adjourn it had taken a very important step. All the country north of the Ohio River which then belonged to Virginia was given to the United States, on but one condition. It was that all the states should agree to what were called "The Articles of Confederation," and thus become, instead of thirteen small countries, one larger country of thirteen parts.

In June, Jefferson's term of office expired, but so great was the trouble and confusion that the legislature had failed to attend to its duty of naming a new governor. Meeting now in one small city, only to learn that the enemy was apt to come; adjourning to meet in another and another, trying to keep in advance of the redcoats, the members were kept too busy keeping alive and together to do much else. So Virginia was without a governor for a time, and Thomas Jefferson continued to act as head of the government, until the next chief should be appointed.

On the fourth of June the owner of Monticello, wakeful in the early hours of the morning, heard the clatter of hoofs coming furiously toward the house. Dressing hastily, he hurried to the door in time to see a neighbor come 'galloping up the hill.

"Mr. Jouitte!" called Mr. Jefferson. "What has happened?"

"The British are only twenty miles away, Governor," the visitor replied. "I was at the tavern in Louisa last night at midnight when two hundred and fifty of them galloped into town. They're under that devil Tarleton, and of course they are on their way to seize the legislature and you."

"Thank you, Mr. Jouitte. You are on your way to warn the members of the legislature? Some of the members are here now."

Jouitte mounted his horse and reined it around.

"Yes, I'm off. Better hide everything of value," he called back and, touching spurs to his horse, disappeared down the road on the way to Charlottesville.

Jefferson walked quietly into the house and rang the bell.

Breakfast that morning was early, but not too early for the visiting legislators when they heard the reason for it. Still, everybody talked cheerfully and ate heartily, even joking a little about the need of once more outwitting the enemy. After the meal, the guests, whose horses had been brought around, rode swiftly away to make the best of their escape from Charlottesville to the back country while yet there was time.

While Mrs. Jefferson and her servants were hurrying preparations for flight, her husband busied himself in collecting his most valuable papers.

"Caesar, you and Martin gather up the silver and all the other valuables you can lay hands on and hide them under the floor of the portico. Take up a plank," he directed.

The papers took a long time to look over, but Jefferson made a thorough search among them, took out and tied together the most important, and placed them in the waiting carriage. As he turned back toward the door he heard a shout.

"Oh, Governor! Wait a minute!"

It was an officer of the state militia, his uniform covered with dust, his horse reeking with foam and sweat as he strained up the slope.

"The British cavalry," he called out, "coming up the mountain!"

"What! They've not reached Charlottesville yet!"

"Tarleton's on his way there. He's sent a troop to take you in on the way. Hurry!"

Pulling his horse about on its haunches, the officer galloped swiftly away. Jefferson hurried into the house. The other members of the family were bundled into the carriage and sent briskly down the road toward Colonel Coles's home, fifteen good miles away.

Taking his telescope under his arm and buckling on a short walking sword, Jefferson, after looking about to see that every last paper he needed had been put in safety and that Martin and Caesar were busily storing away the family valuables, walked out of the house and took a trail through the woods.

At the spot where this trail wound its way to join the road, he found his horse standing with the bridle over a limb. Taking the rein over his arm he stopped a moment to listen.

"Cavalry ought to make some sound," he thought. "Hum! Nothing to be heard! I suppose they're some distance away yet. I'll just go up to the rock there on the mountain-side and take a look at the valley."

He kneeled down, rested the glass on the rock and placed his eye to it. A low exclamation of astonishment came from his lips as he looked. The little town was swarming with redcoats.

To hurry down to the patient horse, mount and ride along the road that led toward Colonel Coles's home was the work of but a few minutes. The troopers of the "hunting leopard" were not to have the joy of capturing Thomas Jefferson.

Meanwhile, Martin and Caesar were hard at work packing the heavy silverware into the floor of the veranda. Martin was kneeling, a pile of valuables beside him, handing them one at a time down into the narrow opening where Caesar packed them snugly away.

"Dat's de las'," he announced, sitting back on his heels and stretching his arms high above his head, as Caesar took a small jewel box. A shriek from the doorway behind startled him.

"Oh, mah Lawd! Heah dey-all is!"

With a single movement the ready Martin pushed the loosened plank down over Caesar and sprang to his feet. Up to the slope came the British, their captain at their head.

"Halt!" came the order. The ranks of the troop came to a stand. The officers dismounted. Martin waited, perspiring with fear, and trying hard to be brave as he stood rigid on the plank above the crouching Caesar.

"Where is Mr. Jefferson?" asked the officer. "Tell him Captain McLeod is here and wishes to speak with him."

Martin swallowed and managed to bow politely.

"Yes, suh, Cap'n. Marse Jefferson he ain' at home, sub. I'se sho sorry, suh! Will you walk right in, suh? Dis way?"

"Humph! Well, yes. I'll just take a look. Show me over the house."

Leaving his men posted about the outside, Captain McLeod, whom Colonel Tarleton had sent to seize Thomas Jefferson and take possession of Monticello, went through the house with Martin. When they came to the library the officer looked down at the books and papers that had been left here and there, showing the work that had just been done.

"Valuable collection!" he muttered turning about. "Here, give me the key!"

He closed the door and turned the key in the lock, took it out and handed it to the wondering negro.

"Take that key," he said. "And if anybody tries to get into the library or asks for the key, say that I've got it. No harm shall come to Mr. Jefferson's property if I can help it."

For eighteen hours, while the soldiers were at Monticello, the brave Caesar, cramped and sweltering in the narrow hole, scarcely dared to move. At last, with no harm done save the drinking of some wine in the cellar by the thirsty soldiers, the troop rode away. When the last clank of metal against metal told him they had gone, the black head of the faithful Caesar rose stiffly from his hiding place. Martin, on the watch, hurried to help him.

"Yo's sho stiff in de laigs, Caesar!" he said. "Jes' set down."

"Stiff! Ise turned to wood! But golly! Dey didn't ketch de fambly!"

At Elk Hill, Jefferson's plantation down the James, the enemy was not so kindly as Captain McLeod had been, for crops were destroyed, barns and fences burned, slaves carried away to a worse slavery, cattle and sheep taken, horses stolen, and the throats of colts too young for use cut. Ten days of the soldiery there completely wrecked that fine estate.

However, it was not to be much longer that Lord Cornwallis was to go his way unchecked. October, 1781, found him at Yorktown, hemmed in between the French fleet, the French army, and the Americans under Washington, where he was forced to surrender his whole army as prisoners of war.

Virginia was free from the invader, and the closing scenes of the Revolution were at hand.