- Historic Sites
The Man, the Myth, and the Midnight Ride
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Revere made the round trip to Philadelphia in just eleven days, a remarkable performance considering that any kind of harsh weather not only soaked and chilled riders, but often washed out ferry services and mired horses in dun-colored slop. Only someone capable of getting the most out of himself and his mount could make such good time. Revere had the needed skill and stamina, plus the discretion to keep his business to himself at wayside inns, and the intelligence to amplify on hastily written messages. He was, as Dr. Thomas Young described him in a letter to New Yorker John Lamb in May of 1774, “Steady, vigorous, sensible and persevering.”
The news that Revere carried that month was bitter. Britain struck back at Boston savagely after the Tea Party. Her port was to be closed, and thus her economic life destroyed, until the tea was paid for. The Massachusetts legislature was suspended. Violators of the king’s peace could be carried to London for trial, far from the help of sympathetic local justice. And five thousand troops,'almost one for every three Bostonians, would be quartered on the inhabitants to guarantee compliance. The implementation of these “Intolerable Acts” began to set the stage for Revere, Longfellow, and other legend makers.
By the start of spring in 1775, the situation had become swollen and ugly. Occupied Boston was being kept alive by food shipments from the outside. The colonies were planning to send delegates to a second Continental Congress to continue the work of the first one, held the preceding year, in propagandizing, petitioning, and planning economic retaliation. Throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere, provincial militiamen were quietly laying aside whatever supplies of war they could gather, obviously getting ready to replace words with weapons if that time came.
General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces (and now governor of Massachusetts) was an intelligent officer who underestimated neither realities nor his Yankee “subjects.” He knew that thousands of minutemen were around him, buzzing angrily whenever they got fresh news. He fortified the narrow neck of land linking Boston to the mainland to protect himself against their suddenly swarming down on the city. And he hoped to keep things further under control by quick raids to seize stock piles of munitions in provincial hands. The first week in April he sent out a private, John Howe, disguised as a local rustic looking for odd jobs, to walk to Worcester and back to spy out the land. Private Howe’s report was not cheering. The Tories were far outnumbered, he said. The locals were preparing for action. There were caches of supplies for the “rebels” at Worcester, forty-eight miles away, and at Concord, only sixteen miles out. And if Gage sent out an army, even of ten thousand, to get them, “not one … would get back alive.” Gage nonetheless planned some action—a quick sortie by some eight hundred men on the night of Tuesday, April 18, to seize or destroy the stores at Concord and get back to Boston before the next nightfall. It was to be a swift and top secret movement.
But there was no hope of concealment. It was impossible, in a small town, to disguise any break in the garrison’s routine, especially when sharp eyes watched every British move. Paul Revere was one of a thirty-member committee that was formed specially to observe the redcoats. They met at the Green Dragon, and swore on the Bible to keep their own doings dark (unaware that one member, Doctor Benjamin Church, was a turncoat and spy). By Saturday, when Gage began to get together the necessary small boats to carry his strike force across the Charles River, Revere and his friends knew generally what was afoot.
Here, legend and what might be called counterlegend must be precipitated out from fact. Longfellow has left generations with the impression that Revere alone aroused the countryside. On the other hand, demythologizers since his day have tried to downgrade the mission by “exposing” the fact that Revere did not get as far as Concord, but was captured by the British, while another rider went on with the news. The story as Revere told it, however, supports neither of these versions fully. Revere was actually sent only to Lexington, which he did reach before his interception. His basic mission that night was executed. But more surprising to most readers will be the fact than an early warning had been given two days before the famous ride, and by Revere himself.
Revere wrote the story three times. First there was a quick deposition of some fifteen hundred words, done in draft and then repolished. It was probably prepared soon after the event, at the request of Massachusetts authorities who were trying to pin the blame for the war’s opening blasts on the British. (It says something about Revere that, patriot though he was, he scrupulously stuck to what he had actually seen, and never claimed to know who fired the first shot at Lexington.) In 1798 he wrote an expanded and more sedate version for Jeremy Belknap, Corresponding Secretary of the young Massachusetts Historical Society. The later version differs only in small particulars from the first two. Revere’s memory held up well over nearly a quarter of a century, and piecing together elements of all three accounts—plus a few details from other memoirs—furnishes the truth.