Well, there is no shortage of amateur historians who have shown that the events told in the poem are not true. And their implication is that Paul Revere has gotten a lot of credit for something he didn’t do. A couple years back, the historian David Hackett Fischer looked into the matter in depth. He found that Revere’s actions on the night of April 18 – 19, 1775 were even more heroic than the poem and were crucial to the success of the revolution.
Revere was not one of the thinkers behind the independence movement; he was a man of action, a doer. He was an artisan, or as he would call himself a mechanic. And he lead a committee of mechanics whose purpose was to watch British movements, gain intelligence, and act as “expresses,” good horsemen, fast riders who carried messages to the various. various militia leaders and Committees of Correspondence in the independence movement.
At the time the poem describes, acts of rebellion against British rule were becoming more common. General Thomas Gage, the British commander in the colonies, was under pressure from London to shut them down. Despite his own spy network, Gage could not get the goods on anybody sufficient make arrests. But the orders from London were insistent: Move quickly and decisively; arrest the ring leaders; disarm their followers; impose martial law if necessary.
Now Paul Revere had already got on the bad side of General Gage. In December 1774, Gage had gotten wind of a cache of arms that was being held in Portsmouth and sent troops there to seize it. They got there and found nothing. Who had warned them? Gage’s spies report back: Paul Revere.
Gage gets a report of arms being stored in the town of Concord. He develops a plan to send 800 troops to seize it. April 8, 1775 Gage finds out that the Concord men know about his plan. How? Again, the report comes back: Paul Revere.
April 16, the General learns that Lexington has been warned about his plan to march there and arrest Hancock and Adams and again he hears the name: Paul Revere.
General Gage began to realize that he could not make a move without Revere finding out about it and spreading the warning. He knew that he had to stop the expresses if this latest plan was to succeed. He ordered the exits to Boston sealed and sent patrols out to arrest any horsemen they encountered, but to keep a special watch for Paul Revere.
So, how were the Whigs to get messages out of Boston with the exits blocked and soldiers patrolling the roads? Revere and the Whig leaders worked out a plan of triple redundancy: They would use the usual expresses, but also special messengers who would follow clandestine routes. And they devised a system of lantern signals from Boston that could be seen across the Charles river by compatriots in Charlestown. The lanterns were to be hung in the tower of Old North Church, clearly visible across the river. And the signal was literally one light if the British moved south out of town via Boston Neck, then north and west over the Concord road; and two if they took the shorter route, crossing the Charles River and picking up the more direct Lexington Road to Concord. Now in a small town like Boston at this time, you couldn’t really hide the actions of 800 soldiers and the British fleet. From the sounding of the boson’s pipes and the gathering of longboats, it was clear that they would be moving by sea. By the afternoon of April 18, people began to realize what was up and to spread the alarm by word of mouth. Eldridge Gerry sent a dispatch to Adams and Hancock in Lexington. The messenger got there a little before 8 PM and the militia posted a guard around the house and sent scouts to follow British movements.
Revere was also getting high quality intelligence from Dr. Joseph Warren, who had a source very close to General Gage. Warren told Revere that Gage’s plan was to dispatch forces that day (April 18) to capture Adams and Hancock at Lexington then move on to seize the stores at Concord. Warren sent three riders, Revere, William Dawes, and one unnamed other, to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock. Nothing more was heard about the unnamed rider. Dawes followed the land route and somehow managed to make it past the checkpoints.
Revere decided on the water route across the Charles River. He arranged for friends to climb the tower of Old North Church and hang two lanterns warning the Whigs on the opposite shore. Then he collected his gear and had other friends row him across the Bay to Charlestown. There the Whigs sent him out on a fast horse to Lexington. He managed to outrace one British patrol and arrived there a half hour before Dawes did.
Revere covered the 13 miles to Lexington in two hours where he delivered his warning to Hancock and Adams. But that does not give a true picture of Revere’s role in spreading the alarm. Revere knew the leaders of the movement and where to find them. Wherever he stopped on his ride to Lexington, he alerted the militia leaders who triggered their own alarm systems – cannon shots, musket shots, church bells. And he sent out other expresses who were in his network to spread the warning. In all, about 2,000 volunteers turned out over April 18 and 19, a large number of them called out by actions that Paul Revere set in motion. Dawes alerted people too, but they were one-offs – he didn’t jump start a network of warnings like Revere did.
The next mission was to warn Concord. Here Revere and Dawes were joined by Dr. Prescott. Revere convinced them that they should warn every house between Lexington and Concord they set out doing so by turns until they were captured by a British patrol. Dawes and Prescott managed to escape but Revere was held with other riders who had been captured that night.
Again, Revere displays fearlessness, audacity, and strategic thinking. With six pistols pointed at him, he addressed the officer in charge straight on.
Sergeant: “Sir, may I crave your name?”
Revere: “My name is Paul Revere.”
Sergeant: “What? The Paul Revere?”
Sergeant: “Are you an express?”
Revere: “Yes. Gentlemen, you have missed your aim.”
Soldier: “What of our aim? We are simply out searching for deserters.”
Revere: “I know better. I know what you are after and I have alarmed the country all the way up.”
Revere continued the verbal attack, telling all he knew of their plans and the problems they had faced on the march up. And he told them what he had been doing that night and that he had warned the militia; their lives would be at risk if they approached Lexington. That was Revere’s strategy: Keep the British away from Lexington, Hancock and Adams.
The patrol sent for their commander, Major Mitchell. Revere continued to confront the Major with the fact that a large force was already gathering at Lexington; his patrol was in extreme danger.
Mitchell decided to take the prisoners back to Lexington. His men formed a circle around the group of prisoners and Revere’s reins were taken from him. Revere asked if he could hold the reins himself. A British officer said “God damn you, sir, you are not to ride with reins I assure you.” Major Mitchell added “We are now going towards your friends and if you attempt to run or we are insulted, we will blow your brains out.” He appointed a sergeant to keep his pistol on Revere and carry out the order if necessary.
Revere shot back, “You may do as you please.”
About a half-mile from Lexington green they heard a gunshot. Mitchell confronted Revere for an explanation. Revere told him that it was a signal “to alarm the country.”
As they got closer to Lexington they heard the sound of the town bell. One of the other captives picked up on Revere’s bravado: “The bell’s a-ringing! The town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men.”
Mitchell was starting to get edgy. He ordered the captives to dismount and had his men cut the bridles and girths and run the horses off. Then the patrol headed to Cambridge to warn the main force that the element of surprise had been lost.
After his release Revere headed back to Lexington on foot to find Adams and Hancock still there. Apparently they had gotten a message that it was a false alarm, no need to get excited. Revere told them otherwise. Hancock considered himself a soldier and wanted to stay and fight. Revere persuaded him that he was more important to the cause as an intellectual leader and saw Adams and Hancock out of town.
On his return to Lexington, Hancock’s personal clerk ran up to Revere and said that a huge trunk of confidential papers had been left behind. The papers in it told of plans, named names, and would give General Gage all the evidence he needed to start making mass arrests. By this time, the militia had confronted the Redcoats on Lexington Common, the shot heard round the world had been fired, and a pitched battle was in progress. With bullets whizzing around their heads Revere and the clerk hauled the trunk across the common, out into the woods where they buried it. And that is the last Fischer tells us of Revere’s actions that day.
So, now about the poem: In 1860, as the Civil War was approaching, many writers were working to contribute to the Union cause. Longfellow wanted to write something also and was looking for an idea. One day, he went walking with his friend George Sumner. They passed the Old North Church and Sumner told Longfellow about Paul Revere’s ride. That was all Longfellow needed; he started work immediately. The poem was published in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1861 and had a galvanizing effect on the public, immediately stoking pro-Union sentiment.
The key to understanding the poem lies in the first and last verses. In 1860, if you mentioned April 18th 1775 to a person, it was like saying December 7th 1941 today. There were people alive who still remembered the event and many knew the stories as part of their family’s folklore. Longfellow’s grandfather Wadsworth had turned out with the volunteers on Concord green. So, from the first lines, Longfellow has grabbed his reader.
The last verse reveals the author’s purpose and delivers the call to action: This is the hour of darkness and peril and need. One man can make a difference. Waken and listen — hear the hurrying hoof beats of that steed and the midnight message. The poem was never meant to be factual. Really, Paul Revere’s Ride is the greatest recruiting advertisement ever written.
Post Script: In Fischer’s home town of Wayland, MA, the custom is to ring the town bell on April 19 at the hour that the town received the alarm. Children are included among the bell ringers so that the tradition will be understood and passed on. The town bell was made by Paul Revere.