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Flight from Monticello

Michael Kranish is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Boston Globe . He is the co-author of the New York Times 9780195374629bestseller John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography and recently wrote Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, which is a sweeping narrative of clashing armies–of spies, intrigue, desperate moments, and harrowing battles.  In the original article below we learn a little about the research that went into Flight From Monticello

This entry is based on a talk delivered on Feb. 3, 2010, to kickoff the book tour for Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War (Note – a video link to the Library of Congress talk is expected to be posted shortly).

A few years ago, while reading a history of the Revolutionary War, I came across a fleeting reference to a stunning series of events: the traitor Benedict Arnold commanded a British fleet of 27 ships, carrying 1,600 men, on an invasion of Virginia, forcing Governor Thomas Jefferson to flee the capital of Virginia. Eventually, he was forced to take flight from Monticello. This was in 1781, nearly five years after Jefferson had authored the Declaration of Independence.

I was filled with questions. Why was Arnold given this mission? Why was Jefferson so unprepared? How did it impact Jefferson? Jefferson wrote that he was haunted by these events until nearly the day that he died, writing that they had inflicted a wound upon his soul that would only be cured by the “all healing grave.” Yet Jefferson went on to serve as president for two terms, so I wondered how these desperate days, when he was literally tested by fire, shaped the man that he became.

After determining that there had not been a book focused primarily on Arnold’s invasion and Jefferson’s flight, I began exploring the possibility of authoring one. In recent years, we have learned much about Jefferson as the “American Sphinx,” as Joseph Ellis called him, and about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. But this period, often called the darkest days of Jefferson’s life, seemed relatively little explored. The more I learned, the more I thought this period presented another side of Jefferson, quite different from the man we so often think of mostly as the shy, quiet author of the Declaration. The Jefferson I was learning about was a vulnerable and tormented figure, reluctantly at war but determinedly riding on horseback around Richmond as the British invaded, directing papers and arms to be hidden, and ferrying his frail wife and children to hiding places along the James River.

My first stop in investigating these events was, fittingly, in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. I came on so many days to read the Papers of Thomas Jefferson that I eventually bought a set for myself. I also went in search of the papers of Benedict Arnold but I found that the volume dedicated to his correspondence stopped with a letter he wrote around the time he became a turncoat. Heading over to the Manuscript Reading Room in the Madison Building, I found what I wanted: some of the letters that Arnold wrote to superiors about the invasion of Virginia. Arnold described sailing from New York to Virginia in a “hard gale,” with one half of the cavalry horses lost at sea.

My research led me to many other libraries, including ones at the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, the Library of Virginia and Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg, and the Jefferson Library at Monticello, where I was a fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies and spent invaluable time living in a cottage near Jefferson’s home.

Eventually, I was able to review the ship’s logs kept by officers of Arnold’s invasion fleet. Putting on my cap as an investigative reporter, I created a database of the ships and the names of officers who served on them, and cross-referenced those with lists of journals written by British and Hessian officers throughout the Revolutionary War. This enabled me to find several key journals that filled in the story of the invasion. Similarly, I looked through hundreds of pension records in which ordinary soldiers often gave details of particular battles.

Another valuable source was a diary kept by a Hessian officer, Johann Ewald, which was not translated and published until the 1970s. Ewald often stood alongside Arnold during the invasion of the Virginia, providing an unvarnished view about what happened. For example, Arnold wrote his superiors that there were many Loyalists in Virginia, who with “great joy” were eager to join the British. Arnold said 400 residents of Portsmouth pledged an oath of loyalty to the king.

But Ewald was also there, and he described the scene this way: As the Virginians promised loyalty, some made “wry faces, as though they would choke on it.”

With such sources in hand, I assembled a chronology of the events of the invasion. Reading through all of Jefferson’s correspondence, I became convinced that it was far too simplistic to consider Jefferson as acting cowardly during this time, as his harshest critics charged. Clearly, as he acknowledged, he was unprepared to be a military leader, and he often proved ineffectual. He waited too long to react to Arnold’s invasion and he vacated the governorship at one of the state’s darkest hours. But he also remained on the scene in Richmond as many others fled. Over the course of the invasion, Jefferson’s letters reveal a far more complex picture than just a man on the run. In the early days, he writes that there is little he can do to force militiamen to respond to his call. But eventually, as the state faces the very real threat of being overrun by the British, he becomes fed up with mutinous militiamen.

“Go and take them out of their Beds, singly and without Noise,” Jefferson wrote. If they were not found the first time, Jefferson continued, “go again and again so that they may never be able to remain in quiet at home.”

This is hardly the quiet Jefferson at his writing table, or the tinkerer at Monticello. This is Jefferson at war, and therein lies a larger story that helps explain the man, and president, that he eventually became.

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Recent Comments

  1. John R. Maass, Ph.D.

    The author seems here to be confused as to why Jefferson fled Monticello. He states above: “After determining that there had not been a book focused primarily on Arnold’s invasion and Jefferson’s flight…” This implies that TJ fled his mountain top home due to Arnold’s invasion of Va. He did not; rather, he fled from Cornwallis, who invaded VA from May 1781 until his surrender at Yorktown in October of that year. One of the weaknesses of the book, in my opinion, is that so much of the detail is devoted to Armold, while very little is given to the Cornwallis invasion, which was much larger, more destructive (esp. to TJ personally), and had greater significance to the outcome of the war.

  2. [...] is an article from a talk given by the author, on the OUP [...]

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