“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.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863.
By George Yagi Jr.
FOR MANY, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere immediately conjures up images of a lone rider galloping through the night warning the countryside that the British were on the march. Despite this depiction, the legendary “midnight ride” was hardly a simple journey undertaken by a solitary messenger; it was a desperate mission with potentially fatal consequences for the famed Boston silversmith and the many other couriers who joined him on the night of April 18, 1775.
Crossing the Charles
For Revere, a 40-year-old father of seven, death was a real and constant threat that night. Nevertheless the task at hand was essential to the patriot cause: raise the alarm that almost nine hundred British regulars were marching on the the village of Concord to seize a stockpile of munitions and capture rebel ringleaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
With the Redcoats in Boston on high alert, it was near impossible for Revere to begin his famous journey undetected. After arranging the now-famous lantern signal at the Old North Church, he recalled:
“I then went Home, took my Boots and Surtout, and went to the North part of the Town, Where I had kept a Boat; two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset Man of War lay. It was then young flood, the Ship was winding, and the moon was Rising. They landed me on Charlestown side.”
Although Revere does not mention it, the crew of the 64-gun HMS Somerset had confiscated a sizeable flotilla of local boats and secured them to the side of the ship. British commanders hoped that doing so would prevent any unauthorized crossings of the river by rebels who might wish to spread word that the Redcoats were on the march. In addition, sentries were posted along the vessel’s rails to keep a sharp eye out for any Bostonians who might wish to make trouble. Although the moon was very bright that evening, Revere’s boat remained hidden in the shadows. Muffled oars ensured his silent journey.
A Dozen Miles in the Dark
Once on land, the danger only increased. Riding alone, Revere encountered “two Officers on Horse-back, standing under the shade of a Tree, in a narrow part of the roade.” He claimed they were so close that he was, “near enough to see their Holsters, and cockades.” One of the enemy attempted to cut off his escape, but was soon mired in a clay pit. The other was no match for Revere’s quick horse, which he had borrowed that evening from Deacon John Larkin.
Evading capture, Revere arrived in Lexington around midnight, successfully delivering his message of warning to Hancock and Adams who were staying at the home of Reverend Jonas Clarke. While there, Revere met with another rider, Williams Dawes. After a brief stay, the pair departed to continue the mission. They would later be joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott on the road to Concord.
Although Revere had managed to avoid the British patrols earlier, the final portion of his journey would nearly prove deadly. While his companions stopped at a farmhouse outside the town of Lincoln, Revere was spotted by the British. Revere recorded what happened after he shouted a warning to his comrades.
“Four of them… rode up to me, with their pistols in their hands, said God damn you stop. If you go an Inch further, you are a dead man.”
Revere and Prescott, who were forced into a pasture by the enemy riders, seized a fleeting chance and darted in opposite directions. Prescott managed to escape over a low stone wall, while Revere aimed “to the right towards a Wood, at the bottom of the Pasture, intending, when I gained that, to jump my horse and run afoot.”
As he approached the forest, six more soldiers appeared and Revere was forced to halt.
After a brief but civilized exchange with one of the officers who assured Revere that no harm would come to him, the conversation soon turned menacing. Revere later recalled how a Major Edward Mitchell, “Clap’d his Pistol to my head, and said he was going to ask me some questions, if I did not tell the truth, he would blow my brains out.”
He then ordered Revere back onto his horse and searched him for weapons. Fortunately, the Bostonian carried none, otherwise his journey might have ended with a bullet. While Revere remained in his saddle, Mitchell seized the reins and passed them to another officer. “We are now going to wards your friends,” Mitchell added angrily before departing. “If you attempt to run, or we are insulted, we will blow your Brains out.”
Once in the road, the soldiers formed a circle, with several other prisoners inside. Revere was kept in front. For the duration of a mile, the regulars hurled insults at the silversmith until Mitchell returned and ordered a sergeant to watch Revere, repeating the orders to fire if the prisoner “attempted to run, or any body insulted.”
As the party approached Lexington, the sound of a gunshot broke the early morning silence, followed by a volley of musketry, then the clanging of the town bell. Another prisoner, Jonathan Loring, began taunting the regulars.
“The bell’s a’ ringing!” he cried out. “The town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men!”
Unnerved, the British released their captives, only after cutting the bridles and girths of their horses, with the exception of Revere’s, which was taken by the sergeant who was guarding him. With his famous ride now over, Revere quickly made his way back into Lexington, and to the Buckman Tavern. While there he would begin a new mission. At dawn as the British soldiers and Minutemen met on Lexington Green, Revere found himself crossing between the two armies “with a Trunk of papers belonging to Mr. Hancock.” Carrying the precious cargo into the woods, Revere watched as the two armies stared each other down. Moments later, he witnessed the first shots of the American Revolution.
Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His latest book, The Struggle for North America, 1754-1758: Britannia’s Tarnished Laurels, explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr