Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Real Story of Paul Revere and His Midnight Ride

From The Paul Revere Album (1903)
“Listen my friends and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Or at least that’s how Longfellow’s poem begins its telling of the legend of the Revolutionary War hero.

The real truth is somewhat different.

Two riders set out from Boston that night, and were eventually joined by a third. The only catch is none of the three men completed their mission, not on horseback anyway..


Paul Revere was a Boston silversmith and sometime spy. He oftentimes carried secret messages between Boston, New York and Philadelphia. So it’s no surprise as the Battles of Lexington and Concord loomed before them that Bostonites recruited Paul Revere to spread word of the British advance.

On April 16th Dr. Joseph Warren dispatched Revere to Lexington to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock that the British would soon be on the move. Everyone surmised the target would be the ammunition depot at Concord.

Revere’s first ride to Lexington went off without a hitch. On the way back he visited Colonel William Conant in Charlestown, and let him know he would spread the warning when the British troops started to move. The signal he arranged was one if by land, and two if by sea. The signal light was to be hung from the steeple of old North Church.

From The Paul Revere Album (1903)
Two days later on April 18th some 700 troops under the command of Colonel Francis Smith left Boston Common headed towards Lexington and Concord. Their orders from General Gage were to seize and destroy all the ammunition, small arms, and artillery they found along the way.

General Gage assumed the rebels would turn and run at the sight of the Redcoats.

As soon as it was determined the British were headed for Concord, Revere headed to old North Church. He instructed Robert Newman, the sexton of North Church, to flash two lights (meaning the British were coming by boat).

Once the signal lights were lit Revere set off on his journey.

What most people don’t know is a second rider, William Dawes, a young shoemaker from Boston, was dispatched as a backup in case Revere did not get through. Dawes was sent by the land route where he passed through British troops on the Boston Neck.

Revere rowed across the Charles River where he met Colonel Conant and his waiting troops. After consulting with Conant, Revere borrowed a horse from Deacon John Larkin and began his ride towards Lexington some twelve miles away.

Just after 11:00 PM, Revere passed through a flat marshland known as Charlestown Common. Ahead of him Revere spotted a British patrol and quickly changed his course making his way towards Medford. “In Medford,” Revere wrote, “I awaked the captain of the minute men; and after that, I alarmed every house, till I got to Lexington.”

In Lexington Revere met up with the other rider, William Dawes, at the home of Reverend Jonas Clark. After grabbing food and refreshments, Revere and Dawes set off for Concord. Doctor Samuel Prescott joined them en route.

They stopped at each house they came to and woke the inhabitants shouting “the British are coming.”

From The Paul Revere Album (1903)
Midway to Concord the three riders encountered a British patrol. Prescott and Dawes managed to escape. Revere was captured and held prisoner for a short period of time. In his account of the incident Revere says, “I saw four of them [British soldiers], who rode up to me, with their pistols, in their hands, said [goddamn] you stop if you go an inch further, you are a dead man.”

When questioned, Revere spilled the beans telling the British he had been alerting the countryside to their coming. Hard as it is to believe the British released Revere, a self-confessed spy, less than an hour later.

After his release Revere made his way back through the fields to Reverend Clark’s house in Lexinton.

With the British just a few miles behind him, Revere found Adams and Hancock packed and ready to make their getaway. He helped Hancock’s secretary hide some of his papers, and made his break for it just as the first shots were being fired on Lexington Green.

Thus ends the “midnight ride of Paul Revere.” While he was not entirely successful, the venture was good enough to secure the silversmith his place in history.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History