As students we have all thrilled to the story of Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride through the Massachusetts countryside warning the colonists of the impending British Army.
It was a clear cool night on April 18, 1775.
Paul Revere, one has to say, wasn’t the only patriot who mounted his horse that night alerting the countryside. The other patriot was William Dawes. Dawes was to spread the word, going overland through the neck of Boston while Revere was taken by boat to Charlestown. As Revere said “two friends rowed me across the Charles River…they landed me on the Charlestown side….and went to get me a horse.”
The two men dispatched that night, Revere and Dawes, were selected by Joseph Warren, an American doctor prominent in the patriot’s cause. They were asked to sound the alarm that British troops in Boston were setting out to attack the towns of Lexington and Concord. The enemy’s mission: To arrest rebel leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams and confiscate weapons and gun powder the colonists had secretly stored.
Revere, the most experienced of the two men, had previously arranged with Robert Newman, the sexton of Boston’s Old North Church, to set out lanterns in the church belfry tower alerting them to the movement of the enemy. If the lantern showed once, the troops would march around by way of Boston Neck. If two lanterns showed, the troops would cross the Charles River.
It was strategic information the patriots needed.
Armed with the news, Revere and Dawes would then each ride his horse through the Middlesex villages spreading the alarm, warning the militia.
At least, that’s what we learned reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s much-celebrated poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
But the truth, my friends, the truth! How elusive it can be when embellished, shaped and bent by friends and enemies alike. Not that Longfellow was an enemy. To the contrary he was an admirer of Paul Revere’s heroic acts as a patriot. Understand that Longfellow was not a contemporary of Revere. Born in 1807, Longfellow wrote his poem 95 years after the event. A poem based on facts, fictions, hearsay and faded memories.
First, the signals Revere had arranged from the Old North Church were not for him. They were to alert patriots in Charlestown across the river of the exact route the Redcoats would take, “one if by land…two if by sea.” Before he left Boston that night Revere had been told that “…a number of soldiers were marching toward the bottom of the common….” to be transported across the river to Charlestown.
To set the record straight Revere knew all about this long before he got into his row-boat that night. Yes, the lanterns in the church tower were important for the patriots on the other side of the river…but not for Revere who already knew which route the British soldiers would take.
Yet, Longfellow’s poem tells a different story. It describes Revere waiting on the Charlestown side eager and waiting for the lanterns to appear. Quote: “Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride….on the opposite side walked Paul Revere….Then, impetuous, stamped the earth….but mostly he watched with eager search the belfry-tower of the Old North Church….a gleam of light…but lingers and gazes, till full on his sight, a second lamp in the belfry burns.”Unquote.
Revere wrote a letter in 1798 to the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society describing his midnight ride. Nothing in his letter indicates that he waited and watched to see the lanterns in the church tower.
And what happened to Charles Dawes, the other midnight rider? He also rode through the countryside warning the colonists of the oncoming British Regulars.
Was Longfellow misinformed…that only one rider, Paul Revere, spread the word? Or did that make his poem easier to understand: one man, one mission, one night.
While Longfellow’s poem is part of our national heritage, creating a national icon who personifies liberty…..it was obviously not written by an historian. If it had been written by an historian instead of a poet, we may never have had a story, despite its fictions and faded memories, that has inspired millions of people the world over. A story that says: one person can make a difference. –dv