In 1781, five years after the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia when the traitor Benedict Arnold invaded the state.
As Arnold led an armada of British ships up the James River, Jefferson strolled in the garden of his house in the capital of Richmond. Jefferson had no idea that the man he once hailed as a “fine Sailor” was leading an enemy force of 1,600 men into the state.
This is the story of the invasion that forced Jefferson to take flight from Richmond and ultimately from his mountaintop home of Monticello. A gripping narrative of clashing armies and private turmoil, Flight from Monticello relies on a variety of previously untapped sources, including diaries and the logs of British warships.
Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War
A “superb narrative of [Jefferson’s] turbulent wartime years.” -- The Wall Street Journal
"A brilliantly narrated account of the British invasion and Jefferson’s problematic response to it." One of the top 10 books of 2010 --Wilson Quarterly
“Kranish based this book on impressive research at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and a wide immersion in published primary and secondary works. As a journalist, he knows how to tell a good story....Crisply written and well documented, this book is popular history at its best and will appeal to a wide readership. Highly recommended.” --Library Journal, starred review
An “evenhanded, careful account...Students of Jefferson's life will want to read it.” -- Newsweek
“This is edge-of-your-seat history, meticulously researched and laid out, but written with such high drama and cinematic clarity that even well-known events of America’s Revolutionary War are made to seem suspenseful—as if this time their outcomes might be different.” -- Foreword Magazine
"No great figures are now without multiple biographies, so why not slice up their lives into smaller subjects? Since that seems to be the current way, we're lucky to have a serious slice like [Flight From Monticello ]... Fluid prose makes the book readable; solid research makes it dependable." --PublishersWeekly
"The story of this seldom-told episode of our early history is dramatically told by Michael Kranish...Even people with broad knowledge of the Revolutionary period will gain from his diligent research, analytical insight and sparkling prose...Flight from Monticello is a worthwhile read." -- Washington Times
“Jefferson’s governorship forms the focus of Michael Kranish’s excellent book. Written by a veteran political journalist at the Washington bureau of the Boston Globe making his first foray into the American Revolution, it is all the more remarkable an achievement.” - Virginia Magazine of History and Biography(review by R. B. Bernstein, author of “Thomas Jefferson.”)
“A riveting, nearly hour-by-hour, account of the events that led up to and the subsequent flight of Jefferson — first from Richmond and then from his mountaintop home.” - Charlottesville Daily Progress
“A work of popular history that’s hard to put down.” - Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Kranish’s research shines [and] reveals considerable fresh material.” - Norfolk Virginia-Pilot
“This is a compelling book about a period of Jefferson’s life that was unfamiliar to me. You will get more out of reading about this lesser-known part of Jefferson’s life than you would by reading yet another full biography. If you want to understand Jefferson, then you want to read this book.” - 1776 Magazine
"Thomas Jefferson's wartime conduct as governor of Virginia haunted him down the decades, and Michael Kranish has now brought this critical episode in American history to vivid life. Anyone interested in the Revolutionary War, in Jefferson, or in the formation of political character will find Kranish's book both delightful and instructive."--Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion
"My admiration for Flight from Monticello knows no bounds. Michael Kranish, one of America's best reporters, draws a brilliant portrait of Thomas Jefferson in turmoil. His analysis of Jefferson's strategic blunders is pioneering. Only Dumas Malone equals Kranish in dissecting Jefferson the Virginian. Highly recommended!"--Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, and The Great Deluge
"Michael Kranish has written a vivid and compelling account, with wonderful illustrative and often unfamiliar anecdotes, including descriptions of Benedict Arnold's wearing a British general's uniform and riding along the Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, and Jefferson's last-minute escape from Banastre Tarleton's troops. Flight from Monticello is an exciting account of a little-known but important chapter of revolutionary history."--Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, director International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, professor at the University of Virginia, fellow of the Royal Historical Society
Excerpt from Flight from Monticello
It is late December of 1780. Benedict Arnold has defected to the British. He proposes to head an invasion force to the south and is given permission to leave New York harbor with 1,600 men. Thomas Jefferson, who once was one of Arnold’s greatest supporters, is the reluctant governor of Virginia and unaware that an invasion force is underway. He is woefully unprepared to meet the challenge. If Arnold captures Virginia, the revolutionary supply line to the south would be severed and all might be lost. This excerpt is an adaption from Part Three: Invasion, and picks up the story as Arnold sails into a winter storm.
A northwestern gale blew furiously into Benedict Arnold’s fleet as it headed south from New York. The winds picked up on Christmas Eve, the sea foaming with whitecaps. Then the skies darkened and the rains came, pounding the British ships for the next two days in a soaking deluge. Visibility diminished almost completely as wafts of mist rose from the sea to meet the clouds.
The sloop-of-war Swift and the armed brigantine Rambler heaved in the swells, suffering under the weight of cannons and troops. Ships were driven by the winds to shallow water near the coast. Rain pelted the sailors’ faces as they climbed the rigging and tied up sails to avoid being swept away. The rudders on some ships proved useless. As waves crashed onto the decks, Arnold and the other commanders ordered the men to lighten the ships. Sailors raced to unshackle the heavy cannons, working in small groups to heave many of their most prized armaments into the sea. The Sally, bristling with weaponry, was swamped with water and came close to sinking.
To venture on deck was to risk sliding into the abyss. The ropes were sodden, the planks slicked, making it nearly impossible to maintain footing. A sailor tackling a winter gale could quickly find his jacket drenched and then frozen to his back, his hands numb, his eyes perpetually blinking away the moisture. Many of the men had experienced such danger before and knew how quickly frostbite could take hold, leading to the loss of sensation in their hands or feet. But they also knew how men were lost at sea for failing to deal immediately with the threat of a ship overburdened by winter.
The situation was especially desperate on board the ship that carried a hundred of the finest horses that Arnold could assemble. The tightly packed animals were panicked by the howling winds and rain, the lightning and thunder. They could not be contained as the boat rocked in the sea and water swamped the deck. The boat itself was “very bad, infamously provided and totally unfit for service.” As the storm raged, the horses’ caretakers finally were forced to let more than forty of the animals go overboard, desperate to save weight and prevent the ship’s sinking. “The very Skippers were fearful of sailing, and it required every exertion of the Quarter-Masters to oblige them to weigh anchor, and, at sea, the utmost industry and labor could barely keep them from foundering,” wrote John Graves Simcoe, the commander of the Queen’s Rangers. Four ships, including one with four hundred men, became separated from the main fleet, not to be seen again for a week. For days, it was feared the vessels had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. On the day after Christmas, the fleet “was so scattered by a gale” that those aboard a ship carrying a Hessian corps found themselves adrift, with no other vessels in sight. In an effort to keep details of the mission secret, the officers in charge had not been told of their precise destination. Instead, they had been given a sealed letter, to be opened only in the event that the ships were separated. Now, after two days without seeing another ship, the Hessian officer ordered this “letter of rendezvous” to be opened and the destination revealed: the Cape of Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake.
The storm had one beneficial effect for the British: it hid the fleet from anyone who might have spied them from land. Arnold was determined to push on, believing that the British could win the war if they captured Virginia. He took comfort that many of his men were Loyalists, including a corps of Virginians, underscoring the British view that Virginia was deeply divided about the revolution more than four years after the Declaration of Independence. Arnold was sure that thousands more would defect to the British as he sailed up the James River.
The Virginia coast had attracted seafarers, pirates, and plunderers since the earliest days of British exploration. From the Atlantic Ocean, the capes of Virginia seemed like two great gates, inviting vessels to enter the state’s network of riverine highways. The settlers of Jamestown went through this opening as if pulled into a vortex; many other ships followed. The Indians living along the riverbanks could do nothing to stop these great British ships, and the settlers began to establish a series of villages and forts along the inland waterways, wary that the Spanish would come through the same waters and take Virginia for themselves.
The waterways were Virginia’s strength and weakness. They stretched across the state from the Atlantic to the Appalachians, forming a necklace, with Jamestown, Richmond, Petersburg, and other towns and cities strung like beads across it. During the Revolution, the British often blockaded the Capes with their massive ships, while the Virginians were barely able to construct a handful of poorly equipped vessels.
Two years earlier, Virginia had as many as sixty-nine armed vessels, although many were poorly equipped and lightly manned. Many were captured, destroyed, or badly damaged during the British raid. Later that year, when Jefferson became governor, his administration calculated that the state had only twelve serviceable warships, with a combined eighty-eight guns and 343 naval personnel. 4 The navy received only two vessels in 1779 and 1780, neither of them warships; one was a packet boat that served as a messenger service and the other was intended to carry supplies to the prisoners at Charleston.
Jefferson had been urged by aides to place ships at the Capes to prevent a seaborne invasion. But Jefferson believed this was impossible, given the state of what he called “our miserable navy.” The British seemed to capture American ships at will, while the Americans rarely caught a British vessel. “A British prize would be a more rare phenomenon than a comet, because the one has been seen but the other has not,” Jefferson wrote.
On December 29, 1780, Arnold’s fleet assembled at Cape Henry, passing the Chesapeake Bay estuary at 4:00 p.m. and anchoring that evening at Lynnhaven Bay. At nine o’clock the next morning the fleet set sail and reached Hampton Roads, at the mouth of the James River, and proceeded to Newport News, where Arnold anchored in the evening. Despite a howling wind, Arnold gave a prearranged signal for commanding officers to leave their ships and row aboard small craft to the sloop-of-war Charon. There Arnold laid out the battle plan: a swift strike against an unwitting enemy. The larger ships, carrying the artillery and cavalry corps, would provide an armed escort. Most of the men were transferred to open sloops and boats, where they huddled on crowded decks, bundled up against the wind. Each man was given five days’ rations: salted meat, biscuits, and plenty of rum. The food and drink were expected to last until they had reached the capital, Richmond.
James Barron of the Virginia navy was aboard the Liberty in Chesapeake Bay on December 30 when he saw a stunning sight. A fleet of twenty-seven ships had slipped through the Capes of Virginia, heading straight for Willoughby Point near Norfolk. Neither Barron, though the ablest sailor in Virginia, nor the Liberty was any match for what now loomed before them.
Barron could not be sure of the fleet’s origin, but he thought it unsafe to venture too close to inspect the ships. Instead, he came about and headed for Hampton, where he planned to find a messenger to warn Virginia’s leaders. The message wound its way through the tortuous relay system of the time as horsemen galloped through the night to get the precious document into the hands of Governor Jefferson in Richmond.
Finally, at dawn on New Year’s Eve, a weary rider ascended Shockoe Hill, reaching the governor’s townhouse at 8:00 a.m. He found Jefferson strolling in the garden, and gave him the message, which the governor digested in his usual calm way.
The news should have set off alarms across Virginia. But, frustratingly, the origin of the vessels was unclear. Was this the British invasion Jefferson feared? Or was it the French reinforcements he had been expecting? He could not be certain, and so he did not order military action. False alarms were a regular occurrence; calling up the militia at every possible threat would result in waste and recriminations. William Tatham, a friend and soldier who visited him at the time, wrote that “as other intelligence led [Jefferson] to suppose they were nothing more than a foraging Party, unless he had farther information to justify the measure, he should not disturb the Country by calling out the Militia.”
At 8:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Arnold ordered three hundred men to land at Newport News, and commenced a march inland. Striding through the dense woods in utter darkness, the British found a house “from which we took a rebel prisoner as our guide,” as one British officer wrote. The Virginian was hauled off by the invaders “amidst the deep lamentations and cries of his disconsolate wife and children.” As the prisoner led the way to the small settlement of Hampton, the British became concerned that anyone who saw them would notify the militia. The solution was to take prisoner every Virginian they encountered. “We continued during our march to examine all the houses, and take into custody all those we found therein, to prevent their alarming the country, which, though absolutely necessary and unavoidable, was distressing beyond measure to those unfortunate inhabitants,” who were “too much alarmed even to speak,” a British officer wrote.
At midnight precisely on New Year’s Eve, the British arrived at Hampton, where they walked down the streets for two hours and went door to door, “taking out of their bed the principal inhabitants.” The soldiers then marched away from Hampton “without committing any other outrages than those that are ever unavoidable with such a body of men, in an enemy’s town in the dead of night.” Arnold became enraged when some townspeople tried to stop him from seizing a ship that he viewed as his “prize.” If the locals did not “immediately desist” firing at the British, Arnold wrote to the Virginians on shore, then “I shall be under the necessity of landing and burning the Village.” Word spread up the James River that Arnold and his men were terrorizing the citizenry and seemed intent on seizing plunder all the way to Richmond.
At 10:00 a.m. on January 2, Jefferson finally received confirmation that a British invasion was under way. It was two days after Arnold’s arrival. Yet Jefferson was still wary of calling out the full militia. Instead, he called for a quarter to a half of the militia from nearby counties to assemble. He hoped to muster 4,600 men, nearly three times Arnold’s number. Unfortunately, the orders were sent to the counties not by messengers but by local legislators, whose speed varied greatly, depending on age and constitution.
Jefferson’s letters now had the proper air of alarm. “I have this moment received confirmation of the arrival of a hostile fleet consisting of 19 ships, and two brigs and two sloops and schooners, the advance of a fleet were yesterday morning in Warrasqueak and just getting into motion up the river with a favorable wind and tide,” Jefferson informed Benjamin Harrison, urging the Speaker of the House to turn out militiamen. He told Harrison that Arnold’s destination appeared to be “up James River.” The phrase must have chilled Harrison, whose plantation, Berkeley, was located twenty-five miles east of Richmond, directly on Arnold’s route to the capital.
Jefferson did not blame himself for failing to prepare for invasion. The failure, he wrote, lay with others in not warning him. “From a fatal inattention to the giving us due notice of the arrival of a hostile force, two days were completely lost in calling together the Militia,” Jefferson complained, without any hint that he was at least partially responsible for the lack of preparation.
James Fairlee, a militiaman near Williamsburg, watched Arnold’s fleet weigh anchor and head up the James River. Fairlee counted the ships, marveling at the vessels “very full of Troops” and a ship that seemed filled with horses. There were nine ships at the front, followed by perhaps another twenty. Nelson’s militia force, by comparison, was poorly equipped and had only 176 men, including officers, he wrote. Then Fairlee hastily added a postscript. It would be helpful “to procure a Spy-Glass,” he wrote, “as we have not one in all our Army.”