Guide to Paul Revere's Ride
Before the Battles of Concord and Lexington occurred in April 1775, the American colonial militia was alerted to the approaching British army via a famous horse ride by patriot Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith and member of the clandestine Sons of Liberty political organization.
The ride took place during the night of April 18, 1775, just before the American Revolutionary War’s first battles. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which was then situated in Concord, was the target of a planned crackdown, as hinted at by British Army actions in the weeks prior.
When Robert Newman, the sexton of Boston’s North Church, employed a lantern signal to inform colonists in Charlestown of the British Army’s progress along the Charles River, Paul Revere and William Dawes got on horses to warn the Provincial Congress leaders.
On their 10-mile journey to Lexington to meet with fellow Sons of Liberty Samuel Adams and John Hancock, Revere and Dawes warned up to forty additional riders along the route. After that, Revere and Dawes traveled to Concord, joined by Samuel Prescott, another patriot and local physician. British soldiers arrested the three men in Lincoln. While Revere was sent back to Lexington and set free after interrogation, Prescott and Dawes managed to escape.
Revere’s journey was essential to the colonists’ success in subsequent skirmishes because it provided them with advance notice of the British Army’s plans.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress was meeting in Concord at the time of these events; Concord also happened to be the location of one of the larger caches of Patriot military supplies.
British Army activity on April 7, 1775, suggested the possibility of troop movements. Joseph Warren, a doctor and later one of the Founding Fathers, sent Paul Revere to warn the Massachusetts Provincial Congress of this potential action. Residents of Concord started moving military items from the town after getting this first warning.
A week later, on April 14, British Army General Gage received orders from the English Secretary of State for the Colonies, William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, to disarm the colonists — who were rumored to have hidden weapons in Concord, among other places — and imprison the rebel leaders, particularly Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
Legge allowed Gage a lot of latitude in his orders. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith was given instructions by General Gage to go from Boston to Concord “with utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy... all military stores… But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property.” Gage resisted giving written instructions to Smith for the arrest of Adams and Hancock because he was concerned that doing so might have incited a colonial revolt.
On the evening of April 18, 1775, between nine and ten o’clock in the evening, Joseph Warren informed Paul Revere and William Dawes that the King’s forces (known colloquially as “regulars” by the patriots) were preparing to board boats leaving Boston for Cambridge — and, by extension, the route to Lexington and Concord.
According to Warren’s information, capturing Adams and Hancock was likely to be the main goal of the British regulars’ activities later that night. Since the military supplies in Concord were secure, the men didn’t fear the British troops’ march there from a military perspective, but they did believe that the commanders in Lexington were oblivious to the possible risk of arrest that evening. William Dawes and Paul Revere were sent to warn them and inform the surrounding colonial militias of the British approach.
Before the Ride
Prior to April 18, Revere had given the North Church sexton Robert Newman instructions to use a lamp to convey a signal alerting Charlestown colonists to the movements of the British forces. One lamp in the steeple would indicate the British army’s selection of a land march, while two lanterns would indicate a journey “by water” across the Charles River, which is now often referred to as “one if by land, two if by sea.” (Two lamps were set in the steeple since the British ultimately decided to use the water route.)
To start off, Revere instructed the signal to be sent to Charlestown. He then maneuvered a rowboat across the Charles River, silently passing past the British cruiser HMS Somerset that was at anchor. At that time, night river crossings were prohibited, yet Revere managed to row to Charlestown and then rode a horse to Lexington while dodging a British patrol and afterward warning almost every home on his route.
Revere warned patriots as he rode through modern-day Somerville, Medford, and Arlington; many of them headed out on horseback to offer their own warnings to other colonists. By the night’s end, there were up to 40 patriots spreading the word of the British army’s advance across Middlesex County.
Because of the need for secrecy, the presence of British army patrols in the area, and the fact that the majority of Massachusetts colonists, who were primarily of English ancestry, still thought of themselves as British, Revere did not shout the famous phrase that would later be attributed to him (the cry of “The British are coming! The British are coming!”). According to the ride’s eyewitness stories and Revere’s own statements, Revere shouted instead that “The regulars are coming out!”
By his own writings, Revere barely escaped arrest in modern-day Somerville. Dawes arrived in Lexington a half-hour after Revere, who got there at approximately midnight. The two met with John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were staying the night with Hancock’s relatives (in what is now known as the Hancock-Clarke House), and the men spent time discussing potential next steps. They surmised that Concord was the major objective and that the troops who were approaching were too many to be used for a mere mission of apprehending two individuals. The men in Lexington sent riders to the towns nearby, and Samuel Prescott, a doctor who was in Lexington “returning from a lady friend’s home at the uncomfortable hour of 1 a.m.,” joined Revere and Dawes as they traveled on the road to Concord.
A British army patrol stopped Revere, Prescott, and Dawes in Lincoln at a roadblock before they made it there. In order to get away from the patrol and into the woods, Prescott had his horse leap over a wall. He was soon in Concord. Dawes also managed to flee, but he was unable to complete the ride to Concord because he fell off his horse a short time afterward.
At gunpoint, the British patrol apprehended Revere and interrogated him. He informed them of the British army’s march from Boston and warned them that a sizable group of patriot militia forces had collected in Lexington, posing a threat to the British army. Revere and the other prisoners arrested by the British were still being led east into Lexington when they heard a gunshot from about half a mile away. Revere said that the firing was intended to “alarm the country” when the British major pressed him for an explanation of the sound. The town bell started to ring loudly as the gang approached Lexington, and one of the prisoners shouted to the British officers: “The bell’s ringing! The town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men!”
The officers then opted to release the detainees and return to their leaders rather than continue their advance into Lexington. Revere’s horse was taken away by the British, who rode out to notify the oncoming troop column of the events. Revere proceeded on foot to the residence of Reverend Jonas Clarke, where Adams and Hancock were staying. Revere helped Hancock and his family make their escape from Lexington, carrying a trunk containing Hancock’s documents while the famous battle on Lexington Green took place.
The Poem by Longfellow
A number of cultural retellings of Revere’s famous ride have been made in remembrance of it, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” written in 1861, is perhaps the best-known of these.
Revere was celebrated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which was included in Tales of a Wayside Inn and first published in 1861, some 40 years after Revere’s death. The poem begins,
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year
Although there are historical inaccuracies in Longfellow’s poem, they are all intentional. Longfellow modified the facts for poetic effect after researching the actual events in books such as George Bancroft’s History of the United States.
“The Courtship of Miles Standish” and “The Song of Hiawatha” are two early poems in a series that he wrote in an effort to immortalize American legends. In the years following the publication of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Revere’s reputation increased substantially, proving that Longfellow was effective in making him a larger-than-life character.
In Massachusetts, portions of Revere’s route are now marked with commemorative signage. The route includes Broadway and Main Street in Somerville, Main Street in Charlestown, Medford Street to the heart of Arlington, Main Street and High Street in Medford, and Massachusetts Avenue from Lexington into Lincoln. Every year, Revere’s famous ride is reenacted by locals.
Although they weren’t the only riders — contrary to common belief — Revere and Dawes were the only two who received poetic recognition. Notably, the expedition also included Samuel Prescott and Israel Bissell, with Bissell ending up riding the longest distance of all.