- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
The “States service,” in which he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, was mostly garrison duty in charge of the artillery on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. One of the main command problems was to keep his men equipped by their parsimonious government. “Most of their blankets are woren out,” runs one of the colonel’s official reports: “They have received no pay … many have no shoes, and but one shirt.” He did go out on one fruitless expedition to drive the British from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1778, and wrote to Rachel : “It is very irksome to be separated from her whom I so tenderly love, and from my little Lambs” (of whom there were eight bleating for support), “but were I at home I should want to be here. It seems as if half Boston was here.”
The following summer brought another adventure, this time with a result that has occasionally fed the fires of debunking—namely, Revere’s court-martial for alleged disobedience and cowardice. But the facts are far from discreditable to him. In July of 1779 a Massachusetts force was sent to dislodge a British garrison at Castine, Maine (then a part of Massachusetts), near the mouth of the Penobscot. It included nineteen armed vessels and twenty transports, many captained by undisciplined privateersmen. There were about eighteen hundred militiamen from the bottom of the manpower barrel, and an “artillery train” of only seven guns, under Colonel Revere. The expedition seems to have been commanded by a committee of land and sea officers, and the ensuing catastrophe was predictable.
On the fourteenth of August, a British squadron of four warships arrived. The American fleet promptly scattered upriver, the captains beaching their craft and blowing up their stores. The troops, panicked at the loss of their transports, scrambled mutinously for safety. Revere was separated from his men in the confusion. He looked for them from a small boat on the river, and went aboard a surviving transport to stay overnight. Next day he cruised in search again, then camped ashore the second night. Finally, three days after the “battle,” he caught up with them in the vicinity of present-day Augusta. Characteristically, he supplied them with “what Money I could spare” and ordered them to march overland to Boston.
A tempest of faultfinding broke over the heads of all involved. Massachusetts army and navy officers fired accusations at one another with more zeal than they had displayed against the British. Revere was relieved of command at Castle Island on September 6 and sent home, accused of cowardice and insubordination. He himself sought the court-martial to clear his name. His defense was sturdy. Cowardice? “I never was in any Sharp Action, nor was any of the Artillery; but in what little I was, no one has dared say I flinched. … My particular business was to be where my cannon were.”
And disobedience? His orders had been effective “during the continuance of the Expedition.” “Surely no man will say that the Expedition was not discontinued, when all the shipping was either taken, or Burnt, the Artillery and Ordinance Stores, all destroyed. I then looked upon it that I was to do what I thought right.”
It was not until 1782 that the court finally convened. It acquitted Revere of the only two formal charges. One was that he had wrongfully refused to yield up a boat demanded by a general. Ironically, the officer in question was General Jeremiah Wadsworth, the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The other charge was disregard of orders on the retreat. Not only was Revere innocent of both, said the court, but with unconscious humor it awarded him “equal honor as the other officers in the same Expedition.” Little enough, but gratifying to a man always insistent on doing what he “thought right.”
Revere’s army career, all in all, had been utilitarian rather than romantic, like his French and Indian War service. As it happened, its most significant moments for his future had been in the spring of 1777, when he was briefly sent to the State Furnace at Titicut to learn something about the casting of cannon. His teacher was Colonel Lewis Ansart, born Louis de Maresquelle, a French foundryman who had come to Boston in 1776, aged thirty-four, as one of those foreign volunteers for liberty whose skills were indispensable to the provincial Americans.
In 1782, with the Revolution over and Revere approaching what was then considered old age (he would be fortyeight in December), he had to establish himself in a new line of work. He went on making silver, in new fashions. But Boston, badly hurt by a postwar depression in trade, could not offer a maker of luxuries enough work to sustain an enlarging clan of grandchildren and in-laws, all of whom Revere felt obligated to encourage and assist. For a while, he thought of turning merchant. He put a son in charge of the goldsmith’s shop, and opened a store handling fabrics, writing paper, sealing wax, playing cards, wallpaper, pencils, spectacles, pumice stones, fish lines, a little hardware. Around this time he wrote to his cousin Matthias Rivoire that he was trading “some to Holland,” and added, “I did intend to have gone wholly in to trade.” But he lacked enough capital. Still, he bragged a bit that he was “in middling circumstances and very well off for a tradesman,” having a wife and eight children alive, the eldest daughter married and the eldest son trained to Revere’s own profession.