Paul Revere and His Famous Midnight Ride
Listen my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Since Longfellow’s poem was published in 1861, generations of children have listened, and generations of historians have catalogued the poet’s errors.
Longfellow’s Revere starts by telling a friend that, if British troops march from Boston, he should hang a lantern from the city’s North Church tower as a signal: “One, if by land, and two, if by sea; / And I on the opposite shore will be.” So debunkers have also tended to start with the lantern, noting that the silversmith-patriot, far from waiting for the signal on the “opposite shore,” was in Boston arranging for a friend to send the signal. They have also proven beyond any doubt that Revere did not, as Longfellow had it, row himself alone across the Charles River. Nor was it Revere alone who spread “his cry of alarm” to “every Middlesex village and farm.” Revere didn’t even make it to Concord, where the recently roused patriots gathered to protect their munitions from the British. Other rowers and other riders, though largely forgotten, played key roles that night of April 18, 1775. In 1896, Helen More took it upon herself to tell the story of one of them:
Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why, should I ask? The reason is clear—
My name was Dawes and his Revere.
More’s task, of course was hopeless; Revere, not William Dawes, was permanently ensconced in the American imagination. But what of it? For Paul Revere fully deserved his place in history. He was not, to be sure, the solitary rider of Longfellow’s poem, but he was one of the organizers of a sophisticated intelligence network in and around Boston. As Revere recalled in a 1798 letter to Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society, he was, in the fall of 1774 and the spring of 1775, “one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed our selves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers.” When the British prepared to move, numerous sources let Revere know that “something serious” was up. They suspected the British would head toward Lexington in an effort to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both of whom were staying at the parsonage of Reverend Jonas Clark there, or toward Concord, where the patriots had stored arms and ammunition.
Revere had already told patriot leaders in Charlestown what the signal would be: “I agreed with a Col. Conant, and some other gentlemen, that if the British went out by water, we would show two lanthorns in the North Church steeple; and if by land, one.”
On the evening of April 18th, Revere “called upon a friend, and desired him to make the signals.” Then Revere met the two other friends who rowed him across the Charles, slipping by a British warship. In Charlestown, Conant and others had seen the signal and had “a very good horse” ready for Revere. He was spotted by two British officers but escaped and “alarmed almost every house, till I got to Lexington.”
Excerpt from We Hold These Truths, co-published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Aron, Paul. "John Adams." We Hold These Truths. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008. 175-176.