I’ve been on a Thomas Jefferson kick lately. There’s so much to learn and try to understand about this fascinating, enigmatic, and contradictory man. I just finished reading Flight from Monticello by Michael Kranish and really, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Kranish tells a story that was almost entirely unknown to me: the story of Jefferson as the wartime governor of Virginia. In 1781, the British, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, mounted a major invasion of the state, and one objective was clear: Get Thomas Jefferson. How Jefferson escaped, how and why the British overran the state, and how they were stopped at Yorktown make for truly delightful reading.
This is a book worth savoring for its many untold stories. One of the most astonishing concerned the aftermath of the stunning American victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. As a result of the victory, the Americans had taken prisoner over 5000 British and Hessian (German mercenary) troops. In those days, it was generally a tradition to “parole” prisoners of war on the condition that they promise never to take up arms in the conflict again. But after about 1000 prisoners were released to Canada, Congress realized that the chances of the British honoring such a ban were practically nil.
Congressional representatives from Virginia made an audacious proposal. They suggested that Virginia would build a sprawling prisoner-of-war camp near Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and others believed that housing thousands of enemy soldiers would result in a bonanza of federal money into the area. In addition, the soldiers would buy local goods, and craftsmen among the prisoners could be put to work on local plantations. Jefferson, a fine violinist who was ever restless about the lack of cultural peers in Virginia, also voiced the hope that some fine musicians among the Hessian officers might be willing to play with him.
The prisoners reached Charlottesville in January 1779 after a grueling winter march from their previous barracks in Boston. As one Hessian officer wrote, “Never have I seen men so discouraged and in such despair as ours, when, tired and worn out from the long trip and the hardships, they had to seek shelter in the woods like wild animals.” But before long, the crude, leaking shelters known as “Albemarle Barracks” became home to some 4000 men — making the encampment the largest “city” in Virginia, nearly twice as large as the capital at Williamsburg.
Jefferson was worried about the scandalous conditions, which soon prompted calls to move the barracks away from Charlottesville. He estimated that the POW camp was pumping about $30,000 a week into the local economy (well over $300,000 a week in current dollars). As spring arrived, conditions improved, mostly due to the efforts of the prisoners themselves, who fixed up the barracks, planted gardens, began to raise livestock, and constructed their own store, coffeehouse, church, tavern complete with a billiard table, and a theater with a sign reading “Who would have expected all this here?” A number of the German prisoners simply walked away from the prison to intermarry with local girls or move out west to begin new lives.
Meanwhile, thanks in part to Jefferson’s lobbying, the officers were permitted to rent some of the best homes in Charlottesville for their lodging. Jefferson soon became close with Brigadier General William Phillips, a stout and ruthless artillerist, and Baron Frederick von Riedesel, the Hessian commander. Riedesel was even joined at the mountainside estate of Colle by his three daughters and his statuesesque wife, who shocked Charlottesville society by riding her horse astride.
Music formed the foundation of friendship between Jefferson and the Hessians. Before long, just as Jefferson had dreamed, he was playing duets with a Hessian violinist, while Mrs. Jefferson played the pianoforte and the Baroness led dances. Apparently, Jefferson saw nothing disturbing in forming close friendships with officers who had led brutal charges against American soldiers. He also apparently thought nothing of the intimacy with which the British and Hessians were coming to know the rivers and roads around Charlottesville, even allowing Phillips and Riedesel to leave Charlottesville to travel to Berkeley Springs, 134 miles further into the interior of the state, to visit a health resort.
In the summer of 1779, Jefferson became governor of wartime Virginia and had to leave Charlottesville for the seat of government in Williamsburg. Not long after taking office, he received a furious letter from George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, demanding to know why hundreds of British and Hessian prisoners were simply packing their bags and walking away from the lightly-guarded camp in Charlottesville. Though embarrassed, Jefferson was convinced Phillips and Riedesel knew nothing of the escapes.
Later in the year, the two officers were exchanged for American prisoners. Riedesel and his family ended up in Canada, where the Baron served as a senior military official. As for Phillips, Jefferson looked forward to socializing with him again in times of peace. And Phillips would indeed return to Virginia: as commanding officer of a force of 4500 with orders to invade the state and take Thomas Jefferson prisoner.
Albemarle Barracks was belatedly closed by Governor Jefferson in the fall of 1780, as the state lay open to invasion. The remaining prisoners were marching north to Fort Frederick, Maryland, where they were held until the end of war. As in Charlottesville, a number of the Hessians remained behind and settled in the United States.
Flight from Monticello tells a story that is complex, fascinating, and at times even funny. This is a must-read book for any history lover!