Paul Revere’s Other Riders

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Source: National Archives.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Source: National Archives.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Source: National Archives.

Myth:

“Alerted by signal lanterns, express riders Paul Revere and William Dawes eluded British patrols and spurred their horses toward Lexington along separate routes to warn Hancock and Adams.” – Created Equal: A History of the United States, a 2009 college textbook[1]

“When Revere and fellow patriot William Dawes saw two lights shine, they set off on horseback. Using two different routes out of Boston, they sounded the alert.” – Holt McDougal United State History, a 2012 middle school textbook [2]

Busted:

Neither Paul Revere nor William Dawes received news of the Regulars’ advance by signal lanterns. In his classic “Paul Revere’s Ride,” published in 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow exercised considerable poetic license with his legendary “One if by land, two if by sea” drama. Revere, “impatient to mount and ride,” pats his horse, gazes across the landscape, and stamps the earth, fretfully passing the time for sixteen lines until he finally spots two lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church. Twenty years ago David Hackett Fischer laid this tale to rest, but the take-away from Fischer’s meticulous deconstruction of the legend, in popular accounts and several modern textbooks, is merely that Revere did not ride alone: Dawes rode as well, they say, and some even mention Samuel Prescott. A lone rider has turned into two or three, but this dodges the issue. The Revere story is much broader, and stronger, than Longfellow’s tale or its modern modification.

***

Longfellow’s poem distorts the historical record on four counts. The first three, for history buffs, will be old news, but the fourth goes deeper, to the very heart of how we tell historical tales.

(1) Longfellow’s Revere worked both ends of the signal lantern ploy, which accounted for more than half the poem. Before crossing the Charles River, Revere told a “friend” how to work the signal; then, after arriving on the opposite shore, Revere supposedly waited to receive it. We do not know who actually received the signal on the opposite shore, but we do know it was not Paul Revere. After being dispatched by Joseph Warren, but before crossing the river, Revere arranged for two lanterns to be lit—so that someone else might see them in Charlestown and set off to warn other patriots. Someone else? Facts had to be altered to accommodate Longfellow’s yarn. There could be no other rider in “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

(2) To achieve maximum effect, Longfellow had Revere visit “every Middlesex village and farm.” Although some allowance can be made for hyperbole, Longfellow certainly knew that his protagonist never reached Concord, the shiretown (county seat) of Middlesex County, the destination of the British troops, and the “Middlesex village” most in need of warning. The real Revere tried and failed to get that far.

(3) In 130 lines, Longfellow said not a word about Revere’s detention by British officers, which, in Revere’s own contemporaneous rendition, was the main event.[3] That would have revealed a British presence in the vicinity of Lexington and Concord, so what need then for a messenger? For the story to work, all soldiers had to be stationed to the rear of Revere and his horse. “The Redcoats are coming” loses its dramatic effect if we know that some Redcoats have already arrived.

(4) If Longfellow’s poem had remained just a children’s story, such historical inaccuracies could be overlooked. But when fiction morphed into fact, the story of a lone rider waking up sleepy-eyed farmers turned history on its head and altered the very meaning of “revolution.” Except for two bit players—his horse and the friend who lit the lanterns—Longfellow’s Revere acted on his own, but in fact there were many others, and these people, like Revere, were true revolutionaries. David Hackett Fischer’s reconstruction of the event includes a very full cast of characters:

  • A stable boy, a hostler, and at least two other Bostonians who sent word to Revere that British soldiers were readying for an offensive.
  • Someone within General Gage’s closest circle (possibly his own wife, Margaret Kemble Gage) who informed Dr. Joseph Warren of the offensive.
  • Dr. Warren, who, on behalf of the Boston Committee, asked Revere to deliver a warning to Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
  • William Dawes, who carried the same message by a different route, also at the request of Joseph Warren.
  • Three different “friends” who engineered the clandestine lighting of the signal lanterns: John Pulling, Robert Newman, and Thomas Bernard.
  • Two boatmen who rowed Revere across the Charles River.
  • Colonel Conant and other patriots from Charlestown, who waited patiently to receive the lantern signal they had arranged with Revere two days earlier.
  • An unidentified messenger who was dispatched from Charlestown as soon as the signal from the lanterns was received. (Since we have no indication that this messenger ever reached either Lexington or Concord, the entire signal lantern subplot is never consummated.)
  • Richard Devens of Charlestown, who greeted Revere by the river’s shore and warned him that British officers were patrolling the road to Lexington and Concord.
  • Devens, Abraham Watson, Elbridge Gerry, Charles Lee, and Azor Orne, members of the Provincial Committee of Safety, who had already sent a note to Hancock in Lexington, warning him that British officers were headed his way.
  • An anonymous courier who successfully delivered this message at about 8:00 in the evening, three hours before Revere would mount his horse.
  • The innkeeper at the Black Horse Tavern in Menotomy (now Arlington), who later that night warned Gerry, Lee, and Orne that British troops had arrived, enabling them to escape out the back door.
  • Solomon Brown of Lexington, who warned William Munroe, a sergeant in the town militia, that British officers were headed toward Lexington, and who later tried to alert the people of Concord to the presence of the officers, but was soon captured.
  • Munroe and eight other militiamen, who stood guard through the night at the house of Jonas Clarke, the Lexington minister, where Adams and Hancock were staying.
  • Thirty other Lexington militiamen, who gathered at Buckman’s Tavern to deal with the crisis at 9:00 PM, two hours prior to Revere’s departure on his famous ride.
  • Elijah Sanderson and Jonathan Loring of the Lexington militia, who volunteered to keep a watch on the British officers.
  • Josiah Nelson, a farmer who resided on the road to Concord, who had his head slashed by the sword of one of the British officers, then alerted all his neighbors.
  • John Larkin of Charlestown, who lent Revere a horse that belonged to his father, Samuel.
  • Another unidentified messenger from Charlestown who set off at the same time as Revere, heading north. This rider reached Tewksbury, twenty-five miles from Boston, at about the time Revere himself was taken captive by the British officers.
  • Captain John Trull of Tewksbury, who, upon receiving news from the Charlestown rider, fired three shots from his bedroom window—a signal that lacked the finesse of the lanterns in Old North Church but that had a greater impact. The militia commander in Dracut, on the New Hampshire boundary, heard the shots and mustered his militia—several hours before the bloody dawn at Lexington.
  • Samuel Tufts of East Cambridge, who embarked on a ride of his own after his neighbor, Elizabeth Rand, told him she had spotted the British column.
  • Solomon Bowman, lieutenant of the Menotomy militia, who immediately mustered his town’s company after viewing the British soldiers.
  • Isaac Hull, captain of the Medford militia, who received word from Revere, then mustered his company.
  • Dr. Martin Herrick, who left Medford to alarm Stoneham, Reading, and Lynn. These towns, in turn, sent out their own riders; by dawn, the entire North Shore of Massachusetts Bay was aroused and in the process of mustering.
  • Another messenger from Medford, who headed east to Malden, and from there to Chelsea.
  • Yet another messenger from Medford, who journeyed to Woburn, and still another from Woburn to the parish above it, now Burlington, and so on, ad infinitum, until almost every “Middlesex village and farm” had been warned by a vast network of messengers and signals—all in the wee hours of the morning on April 19, 1775.
  • Finally, Samuel Prescott, a doctor from Concord, who managed to get the message to the people of his hometown that hundreds of British troops were coming their way to seize their military stores. Although Revere, Dawes, and Prescott had all been captured on the road between Lexington and Concord, Prescott alone staged a successful escape and completed the mission.[4]

Paul Revere was not so alone after all, and Dawes and Prescott were not his only fellow messengers. When the main British column approached Lexington, bells and signal shots echoed from front and rear. The entire countryside was aroused and ready. This wasn’t the work of one man but of an intricate web of patriotic activists who had been communicating with each other for months. Ever since the overthrow of British authority late in the summer of 1774, they had prepared for military confrontation. Anticipating just such an event as the British assault on Lexington and Concord, they had rehearsed their response. Each man within each town knew whom to contact and where to go once the time came—and now the time had come. The true story of the “Lexington alarm” is deeper and richer than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with his emphasis on individual heroics, led us to imagine.



[1] Jacqueline Jones, Peter H. Wood, Thomas Borstelmann, Elaine Tyler May, Vicki L. Ruiz, Created Equal: A History of the United States, vol. 1, Third Edition (Pearson Longman, 2009), 195.

[2] William Deverell and Deborah Gray White, Holt McDougal United State History: Beginnings to 1877 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 114. Another middle school text passes on the legend while technically avoiding  a falsehood: “As the troops set out, a signal sent by the Patriots appeared in the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church. Two men, Paul Revere and William Dawes, then rode through the night to warn the minutemen.” Students reading this passage will of course assume that the two sentences are causally linked and that Revere and Dawes, having seen the signals, set off on their mission­. James West Davidson and Michael B. Stoff, America: History of Our Nation (Prentice Hall, 2014), 153

[3] Three days after British Regulars marched on Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized the collection of firsthand reports from those who were participants or observers.Paul Revere came forward to tell what he knew.In his account, Revere devoted only one short sentence to his now-mythic ride. Additions were to come later. Nowhere in his statement did Revere mention the lantern signals from the Old North Church, a seemingly trivial detail. Instead, he featured a harrowing experience that Longfellow saw fit to overlook. After giving his message to Adams and Hancock, Revere and two others set out toward Concord to warn the people there—but he did not get very far before being captured by British officers. For most of his deposition, Revere talked of this capture, of how the officers had threatened to kill him five times, three times promising to “blow your brains out.” Though he had carried messages from town to town many times before, Revere had never encountered such serious danger.(Edmund S. Morgan, ed., Paul Revere’s Three Accounts of His Famous Ride (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1961).

[4] David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 90–112, 124–148.

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4 Comments

  • As usual, an enjoyable and informative entry from Mr. Raphael. Going off on a bit of a tangent that many have heard me address more than once, I’d like to say that the phrase, “But when fiction morphed into fact,” touches on something lost on many of today’s readers: with our drive to get a result that is as accurate as possible, we lose sight of the fact that 19th-century writers often did not have the same goal. Many of them strove not to tell the absolute truth of a story but, rather, to use a story to build up a character–a national myth–and a set of heroes for the new United States to match those of the ancient nations of Europe. For many of these writers, “history” became secondary to “his story.”

  • Mr. Raphael is 100% correct in his critique of Longfellow’s work on a factual basis. But, in defense of Longfellow, it must be noted that he was not intending to write a history of April 18-19, 1775. Instead, Longfellow, writing on the cusp of the Secession Crisis was attempting to use a dramatization of those events to draw Americans north and south back to their common Revolutionary past much as Lincoln would do in his First Inaugural a few months later. The fact that later generations took this Civil War poem to be an accurate historical exposition says more about them than its author.

    • I absolutely agree, Garrett. The problem lies with those who took a poem for history, not with Longfellow. Without “poetic license” there is no poetry. Without adherence to documentary evidence, there is no history. These are distinct endeavors.

  • Thank you (again), Ray Raphael for laying out ALL of the real details behind the midnight ride of that Patriot Paul Revere who had the greatest PR agent (Longfellow). I always think back to a John Wayne-Jimmy Stewart film I saw when I was little: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. The newspaper editor of the Old West tabloid said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

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