The biggest myth of Paul Revere’s ride may not be that Revere watched for the lantern signal from the North Church spire, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem described. Nor that he was a lone rider carrying Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning all the way from Boston to Concord. Nor even that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”
Instead, the biggest myth might be that Paul Revere’s ride was crucial to how the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775 turned out. Rural Massachusetts Patriots were already on alert, especially after they spotted British officers riding west through their towns. Other riders were spreading the same news. Hours passed between the first alarms and when the opposing forces actually engaged, giving Patriots time—more than enough time in some cases—to assemble in militia companies. The broad militia mobilization did not actually stop the British from returning to Boston. Thus, Revere’s warning might not have been necessary to how things worked out at the end of the day.
Let’s imagine that Revere wasn’t able to complete his ride—that as he traveled from Charlestown into Cambridge a British patrol succeeded in capturing him, as one nearly did. Then Revere would not have alerted Patriots in the towns along his route through Medford to Lexington. He would not have arrived in Lexington shortly after midnight with a warning for John Hancock and Samuel Adams. He would not have headed further west to Concord. How would subsequent events have been different?
Hancock and Adams would still have received Dr. Warren’s message because William Dawes arrived with it about half an hour after Revere. Dawes’s arrival would have prompted a general militia alert in town, as Revere’s did. Indeed, some militiamen were already active. “Early in the evening” Sgt. William Munroe had mustered an eight-man guard at the parsonage where Hancock and Adams were staying, having heard from a young local named Solomon Brown that there were “nine British officers on the road,” carrying arms.[i]
Furthermore, there were at least four hours between Dawes’s arrival and dawn. The Lexington militia and the people at the parsonage discussed the news from Boston at length. They sent messengers out to other communities. Brown and two other riders headed west to Concord (British officers stopped them). Other men rode east to confirm whether troops were coming along the road from Boston. Capt. John Parker had more than enough time to assemble his men. In fact, at some point between three and four o’clock he dismissed them to catch some sleep nearby.[ii]
In those hours, Hancock argued with Adams, the Rev. Jonas Clarke, his aunt, and his fiancée about whether he should leave Lexington or face the enemy. Eventually that crowd convinced Hancock to leave. Given the class lines of eighteenth-century society, it seems unlikely that the voice of a mechanic like Revere would have been crucial in that discussion. Eventually Hancock and his companions would still have rolled out of Lexington.
But let’s imagine that Hancock had insisted on staying in the Lexington parsonage, hunkered down with a militia guard. In that case, the British troops would have passed right through town on their way to Concord. That’s because Gen. Thomas Gage never ordered his officers to search for Hancock and Adams. Gage’s intelligence files and orders were entirely focused on the weapons that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had amassed in Concord and elsewhere.[iii] No British soldiers went near the parsonage. Revere’s original warning to Hancock and Adams was unnecessary.
Might Revere have had a bigger effect to the west? After he and Dawes delivered their messages at the parsonage, they decided to ride to Concord. Along the way, they met Dr. Samuel Prescott and started to alert more householders that the regulars were on the march. Let’s imagine that, if Revere never showed up, Dawes didn’t choose to go on. And Dr. Prescott, riding home from a visit with his fiancée, was stopped by British officers. In sum, let’s imagine that the news of regulars coming out of Boston never reached Concord.
Again, that may not have had a big effect because Concord was already on alert. Revere had brought militia colonel James Barrett a general warning from Boston a couple of days before. The Barretts were already moving the cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies from their farm to more remote hiding-places.
To be sure, the whole Concord militia didn’t assemble until Dr. Prescott rode into town around two o’clock in the morning. However, as at Lexington, there was a significant stretch of time between the first alert at Concord and when its militia company had to face the British troops. In fact, when those regulars arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, the Concord militia companies pulled back to Punkatasset Hill, a mile north of the town center, before moving to a field above the North Bridge.[iv]
Our public memory emphasizes the minutemen, ready at a minute’s notice to defend the countryside, but once those troops assembled they followed more typical military orders: “Hurry up and wait.” Two hours passed after the regulars’ arrival. Militiamen from other towns joined the Concord companies. Only when they saw smoke rising from the Concord town center did those Middlesex County companies move against the British companies beside the North Bridge. That clash produced the first deaths among the regulars, and more casualties among the provincials. And then the militia companies withdrew again to another high ground. The British force remained in Concord for another two hours.
Thus, in all there were six hours between when the British marched west out of Lexington and when they started their withdrawal east from Concord—plenty of time for locals to spread the word of the fatal shots on Lexington Common and for a significant number of militia companies to assemble and march. Only then, in the afternoon of 19 April, did the Massachusetts forces start their concerted attack on the British column.
It’s certainly true that without Revere’s early warning, especially along his route to Lexington, the alarm would not have spread as far and as fast as it did. But in the early afternoon the militiamen who engaged the British came from towns close to Lexington and Concord. They were probably close enough to hear the reports about the British officers on the roads and the killing on Lexington Common. In short, most of those companies would probably have mustered even without Revere. There would still have been enough militiamen to inflict significant damage on the tired British column as it returned east.
When those regulars got back into Lexington, they were very pleased to find their reinforcements under Col. Percy. He used field artillery to keep the provincials at a distance, allowing time for another stop. It was after 3:00 when Percy led the combined British forces east from Lexington again. During their march through Cambridge to Charlestown, they faced a wider array of Massachusetts companies, both in front and in the rear.
Would all of those militiamen have arrived in time for the fighting if Revere had been stopped early in his ride? Another messenger left Charlestown at the same time as Revere, headed north, and spread the news to the New Hampshire border by 2:30 A.M. However, Revere himself or men he talked to carried the alarm to other towns north of Cambridge.[v] It’s therefore difficult to say which militia companies would have been left out of the fight if Revere had been stopped.
The alert certainly reached Danvers, Beverly, and Lynn in Essex County in time for their companies to respond and for some of their men to set up an ambush in west Cambridge (now Arlington). Unfortunately for those overenthusiastic provincials, the British light infantry flanked their position and killed eleven men.[vi]
The British march through west Cambridge was the bloodiest for both sides, and it probably would have been easier for the regulars if their scouts had halted Revere seventeen hours before. However, while that afternoon fighting was a matter of life and death to men on both sides, it had only a limited effect on the strategic situation at the end of the day. By then the most crucial events of the day had already occurred.
If we take the long view, the outcome of the British march on 18-19 April would probably have been the same:
- The British troops would still have failed to destroy the Provincial Congress’s most important supplies in Concord. With most of those arms already moved, the British mission was a failure before it began.
- Somewhere along the march, miles inside unfriendly territory, the regulars would have encountered local militiamen. In the high tension that had prevailed in Massachusetts since the Powder Alarm of September 1774, that encounter would probably have led to shooting, followed by a sustained clash with significant numbers of casualties.
- The British troops would still have completed their withdrawal to Boston; it’s not clear the provincials ever really wanted to block that movement.
- In the evening of 19 April the much larger provincial forces would still have put British-occupied Boston under military siege to prevent any further march.
- Both sides would have felt that the other had started the violence and/or carried it out brutally and unfairly. The American cause would be energized by a sense of grievance, and Crown officials would see the provincials as fanatics—just as events really did turn out.
Paul Revere was undoubtedly brave, shrewd, and tenacious during his ride on 18-19 Apr 1775. His adventure makes a very dramatic story, even without Longfellow’s embellishments. That same drama may lead us into thinking that Revere must have been very important to the battle that followed. But larger movements of people were already under way, or would almost inevitably have occurred without him. When we step back and imagine the day without him, Paul Revere’s ride may not have changed events all that much.[Featured Image at Top: “Painting depicting the midnight ride of Paul Revere” – 1937. Artist A.L. Ripley. Source: National Archives]
[iii] Thomas Gage Papers, American Series, Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Gage’s draft and final orders for the march can be read in Allen French, General Gage’s Informers: New Material Upon Lexington and Concord, Benjamin Thompson as Loyalist and the Treachery of Benjamin Church, Jr. (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1932), 29-32.