In the fall of 1774 and the winter of 1775, I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers, and gaining every intelligence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon tavern. We were so careful that our meetings be kept secret that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible that they would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church and one or two more.
In the winter, towards the spring, we frequently took turns, two and two, to watch the soldiers by patrolling the streets all night. The Saturday night preceding the 19th of April, about 12 o’clock at night, the boats belonging to the transports were all launched and carried under the sterns of the men-of-war. We likewise found that the grenadiers and light infantry were all taken off duty.
Paul Revere, Letter to Dr. Jeremy Belknap, April 19, 1775
In the spring of 1775, the group of men gathered in the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, were particularly troubled by the presence of the man-of-war, Somerset, floating in Boston Harbor. The group was anticipating action, as were most of the residents of the Boston area. A good deal of powder and weaponry was stored in Concord, and it was assumed this would be one of the targets of a British raid. Two other targets were Samuel Adams and John Hancock, well-known to be leaders of the movement which has taken hold in the area, originally expressed by resistance to British policies of taxation, and eventually, outright defiance. As many of the residents of Massachusetts were firm supporters of the crown, the British army had as many sources as those fermenting rebellion.
The men gathered around the table that night were known as the Mechanics, an offshoot of the Sons of Liberty, who were known by the British to have organized resistance to the Stamp Act and likely the culprits behind the Boston Tea Party. One of the organizers was Paul Revere, the son of a Greek immigrant, a silversmith by trade, who also made a bit of money on the side as a self-taught dentist, as well as an engraver. His work as an engraver was particularly vexing to the British, as prints were finding their way through the colonies and inciting an air of revolution. Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre is still one of the archetypes of the American Revolution, though it was based by a drawing done by Bostonian artist Henry Pelham, engraved by a second man, and printed by a third. Revere’s genius lay in recognizing the value of propaganda – as the engraving plays quite loose with the facts – and getting the work turned out and in people’s hands.
The Sunday before, by desire of Dr. Warren, I had been to Lexington, to Mess. Hancock and Adams, who were at the Rev. Mr. Clark’s. I returned at Night thro Charlestown; there I agreed with a Col. Conant, & some other Gentlemen, in Charleston, that if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple; & if by Land, one, as a Signal; for we were aprehensive it would be dificult to Cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck … P.R.
The dry run for the ride of April 18 was two days earlier. It was becoming obvious that the British ships were preparing to disembark a large group of soldiers, with Lexington and Concord as their likely destination. Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the top two members of the Committee of Correspondence, sent Revere to warn the townspeople, and in particular Hancock and Madison, that a British raid was imminent.
On his return trip, once again under orders from Dr. Warren, Revere arranged for a signal to be placed in the Old North Church in the north end of Boston – one if by land, two if by sea, referring to the number of lanterns which would be hung in the bell tower.
Contrary to popular belief, the signal wasn’t to warn Revere or the group in Boston, but instead it was to alert the patriots in Charlestown, which lie on a thin neck of land, separated from Boston by the Charles River. As the contraband at Concord was hidden away, the priority was to warn Adams and Hancock.
Revere had been a rider for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for some time, and was under suspicion by the British. To be caught with the correspondences he frequently carried would mean arrest. That he was known to be privy to the secrets of what was then becoming an increasingly dangerous movement, meant that not only was he in danger whenever he mounted a horse and took off into the night, his family was as well. The British troops under the command of General Thomas Gage had been instructed to shut down defiance of the laws of the crown, and make an example of Boston. They had likely crossed the line from being tossed into a cell to dangling at the end of a rope, and everyone involved knew it.
About 10 o’clock, Dr. Warren sent in great haste for me and begged that I immediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement, and that it was thought they were the objects. When I got to Dr. Warren’s house, I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington–a Mr. William Daws … P.R.
William Dawes is one of the great, unsung heroes of American history. In order to ensure that word reached Lexington and Concord, Dr. Warren had already sent Dawes off by the time Revere arrived. Dawes took the longer land route. Unlike Revere, who had a shorter route and a faster horse, Dawes didn’t stop to warn people along the way of the British troop movement.
The sexton of the Old North Church was Robert Newman, who lived with his mother, who had also rented some of her rooms to British officers. That night Newman faked going to bed and slipped out into the night, were he met Thomas Bernard and vestryman John Pulling. The men climbed into the bell tower, with Bernard keeping an eye out for British patrols. When they saw that the British were loading into boats to cross by water, Newman and Pulling hung two lanterns in the belfry.
I then went home, took my boots and surtout, went to the north part of the town, where I had kept a boat; two friends rode me across the 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 in the Charlestown side. When I got into town, I met Colonel Conant and several others; they said they had seen our signals. I told them what was acting, and went to get me a horse; I got a horse off Deacon Larkin … P.R.
Living in Boston, Paul Revere likely wouldn’t have owned a horse. Even if he had, it would have done him little good as he couldn’t have transported it across the river. Deacon John Larkin, a merchant in Charlestown provided a fast horse named Brown Beauty. The horse was confiscated from Revere and no doubt became a part of the British calvary.
I set off upon a very good horse; it was then about eleven o’clock and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, I saw two men on horse back under a tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British Officers. One tried to get ahead of me, and the other to take me. I turned my horse very quick and galloped towards Charlestown Neck, and then pushed for the Medford road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to cut me off, got into a clay pond where Mr. Russell’s Tavern in now built. I got clear of him, and went through Medford, over the bridge and up to Menotomy. In Medford, I awaked the Captain of the minute men; and after that, I alarmed almost every house, till I got to Lexington. … P.R.
It’s often assumed, wrongly, that Revere rode through the countryside, ringing a bell and shouting “The British are coming!” In reality, the countryside was swarming with British patrols, so Revere was quite a bit more quiet in his warnings. His actual phrase, as he wrote later, was “the regulars are coming out.” Besides, since Revere as well as every citizen in Massachusetts were British, it would make no sense to say that the British were coming.
Another misconception is that Revere – and Dawes even for that matter, were the only ones spreading the word. In reality, as Revere continued towards Lexington, those whom he warned carried the warning in different directions. The result was that by the time Revere left Lexington for Concord, British soldiers along the road has already encountered other riders.
I found Messrs. Hancock and Adams at the Reverend Mr. Clarks; I told them my errand and enquired for Mr. Daws; they said he had not been there; I related the story of the two officers, and supposed that he must have been stopped, as he ought to have been there before me. After I had been there about a half an hour, Mr. Daws came; we refreshed ourselves, and set off for Concord. … P.R.
The Reverend John Hancock, who was the grandfather of the signer of the Declaration of Independence of the same name, had built what is now known as the Hancock-Clarke House in 1737. When his son, Quincy died, the seven year old John Hancock came to live with him for six years. In 1775 it was occupied by the Reverend Jonas Clarke, himself a determined ally of the colonial cause. Hancock and John Addams has been attending the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord, and were too tired to make it back to Boston, and so took hospitality with the Rev. Clark.
Upon receiving the news from Revere of the advancing British troops, the two decided that due to the size of the large force on the move, the ultimate destination must be Concord and the stores of powder and weapons there. So Dawes and Revere resumed their ride around midnight.
We were overtaken by a Dr. Prescott, whom we found to be a high Son of Liberty. I told of the ten officers that Mr. Devens met, and that it was probable we might be stopped before we got to Concord; for I suppose that after night they divided themselves, and that two of them fixed themselves in such passages as were most likely to stop any intelligence going to Concord. I likewise mentioned that had better alarm all the inhabitants till we got to Concord. The young doctor much approved of it and said he would stop with either of us, for the people between that and Concord knew him and would give the more credit to what we said.
Dr. Samuel Prescott was a young man, not quite twenty five years of age when he encountered Revere and Dawes on the road to Concord. He was returning from Lexington, where he had given a report on the hiding of the munitions, including two cannon to Groton. He also had stopped for a visit with his fiancee, and it’s sometimes said that the lateness of the hour was due to his amorous exertions.
We had got nearly half way. Mr. Daws and the doctor stopped to alarm the people of a house. I was about one hundred rods ahead when I saw two men in nearly the same situation as those officers were near Charlestown. I called for the doctor and Mr.Daws to come up. In an instant I was surrounded by four. They had placed themselves in a straight road that inclined each way; they had taken down a pair of bars on the north side of the road, and two of them were under a tree in the pasture. The doctor being foremost, he came up and we tried to get past them; but they being armed with pistols and swords, they forced us into the pasture. The doctor jumped his horse over a low stone wall and got to Concord … P.R.
According to a mix of fact and legend, Prescott cleared a nearby fence and headed into a nearby pasture, then through a swamp, emerging at Hartwell’s Tavern. According to one of their children, Mary, speaking years later, Prescott had roused the family and given the warning of the British advance. Old Ephraim Harwell then sent Viola, his slave down the road to awaken the even older Hartwell, Samuel. Mary took to the road and got word the the commander of the Minute Men in nearby Lincoln, who roused his troops and fatefully met the British later that morning at the North Bridge in Concord.
I observed a wood at a small distance and made for that. When I got there, out started six officers on horseback and ordered me to dismount. One of them, who appeared to have the command, examined me, where I came from and what my name was. I told him. He asked me if I was an express. I answered in the affirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston. I told him, and added that their troops had catched aground in passing the river, and that there would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the country all the way up. He immediately rode towards those who stopped us, when all five of them came down upon a full gallop. One of them, whom I afterwards found to be a Major Mitchel, of the 5th Regiment, clapped his pistol to my head, called me by name and told me he was going to ask me some questions, and if I did not give him true answers, he would blow my brains out. He then asked me similar questions to those above. He then ordered me to mount my horse, after searching me for arms. He then ordered them to advance and to lead me in front. When we had got about one mile, the major rode up to the officer that was leading me, and told him to give me to the sergeant. As soon as he took me, the major ordered him, if I attempted to run, or anybody insulted them, to blow my brains out.
We rode till we got near Lexington meeting-house, when the militia fired a volley of guns, which appeared to alarm them very much. The major inquired of me how far it was to Cambridge, and if there were any other road. After some consultation, the major rode up to the sergeant and asked if his horse was tired. He answered him he was- he was a sergeant of grenadiers and had a small horse. “Then,” said he, “take that man’s horse.” I dismounted, and the sergeant mounted my horse, when they all rode towards Lexington meeting-house … P.R.
Revere never says why he didn’t continue on his mission to Concord on foot. Perhaps he assumed that either Dawes or Prescott had made it through. Perhaps, knowing that the munitions were hidden and safe, he didn’t see the priority, particularly with British soldiers likely to be around the next turn.
Instead he returned to the Hancock-Clarke parsonage, where he helped Hancock and Adams make their escape.
In our way we passed through the militia. There were about fifty. When we had got about one hundred yards from the meeting-house, the British troops appeared on both sides of the meeting-house. In their front was an officer on horseback. They made a short halt; when I saw, and heard, a gun fired, which appeared to be a pistol. Then I could distinguish two guns, and then a continual roar of musketry; when we made off with the trunk … P.R.
The gun that Revere heard fired at sunrise, was the shot heard round the world, and the Battle of Lexington. More of a rout than a battle actually, as the British drove the militia from Lexington Common, leaving eight dead colonists and ten wounded.
The militia, as they weren’t members of the better trained Minutemen, had no intention of opposing the British. They were instead, hoping to simply make their presence known to the British, and then withdraw. In fact, the leader of the militia, Captain John Parker, had already given the order for the militia to disperse when the first shot was fired.
The militia had begun to gather long before Revere showed up in Lexington. A large patrol of twenty mounted redcoats has aroused the suspicion of the locals, and as a result, the Lexington militia had already begun to gather next to Lexington Common at Buckman’s Tavern.
Following the whipping delivered upon the militia at Lexington, the British then continued their march toward Concord, and according to all reports were rather well behaved, despite finding little of the munition that they had come for. Their search was cut short however, when faced with armed colonists at the Old North Bridge over the Concord River, who attacked and drove the British back to Concord.
By this time the fruits of the labors of Revere, Dawes and Prescott, as well as countless other riders who took to the roads to spread the word, was manifesting itself with a steady stream of armed patriots. Blood had been shed on both sides, and for the moment, the heat of battle was upon them. By the time the British began their march back to Boston, about 2,000 militia men were gathered and picking them off one by one along what is now known as Battle Road.
The 700 British soldiers had been up all night on cramped boats crossing the Charles River, dumped in waist high water to wade ashore, marched through the night to Lexington, fought one battle there, marched to Lexington and fought another battle there. Now exhausted, they were being picked off like fish in a barrel all along the nearly twenty mile march back to Boston.
One of the leaders of the colonials was Dr. Warren, who had left Boston behind Revere. His wig was nicked by a British musket ball, and upon seeing him, his mother begged him to never again get so close to the action. Warren’s reply was “Where danger is, dear mother,” he answered, “there must your son be. Now is no time for any of American’s children to shrink from any hazard. I will set her free or die.”
By the time the British reached safety, they were being pursued by more than 15,000 armed colonists, who surrounded Boston. Their ranks continued to swell over the following days, and the British never managed to break out by land again. The colonial force eventually became the beginning of the Continental Army, and despite losing their first battle just outside Boston at the Battle of Bunker Hill, they eventually drove the British back into the sea.
Prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren was offered the position of officer, which would have kept him for the most part out of harm’s way. Instead he chose to enlist as a private, and specifically asked to go where the fighting was likely to be. Near the end of the Battle, after holding off the British who came up the hill in successive waves, only to be continually driven back, the redcoats finally managed to breach the Colonial lines. Warren had remarked that “By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!” When the British finally overran his position, he was out of ammunition but continued to stand his ground until a musket ball crashed through his skull. It’s believe that a British officer recognized him and shot him intentionally. At any rate, the British certainly knew his corpse, as he was bayonetted until he could no longer be recognized, then according to British Captain Walter Laurie, who had been defeated at Old North Bridge, he “stuffed the scoundrel with another rebel into one hole, and there he and his seditious principles may remain.”
Ironically enough, the first case of identifying a body by the use of forensics came some months later, when Paul Revere identified Warren based on a tooth which he had installed in his jaw.
Robert Newman, the sexton of Old North was arrested and claimed the church keys were in the possession of Pulling, who by then was safe on Nantucket Island, where he waited till the coast was once again clear. Since the British couldn’t build a case against Newman, they were forced to release him.
Dr. Prescott left Concord and went on with his mission, warning the residents of Acton, and sending his Abel Prescott, his brother to warn Sudbury and Framingham. Thanks to the efforts of Prescott, Dawes and Revere, cannons were fired and bells rang out in the Massachusetts morning, calling what would eventually become the first American army to arms.
Ironically enough, the midnight ride was forgotten except for those who were privy to the details, until American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned “Paul Revere’s Ride,” in 1861. The poem, part fact and part fancy made no mention of Dawes, Prescott or any other riders, and as a result, it wasn’t till the twentieth century that the facts became known. Longfellow was in possession of many of the facts, but instead chose to disregard them, as his purpose wasn’t to report on history, but to create American legends – colorful, dramatic and easy to remember.
Revere’s obituary in fact, made no mention of his now-famous ride. Had an unknown person not taken that first, fateful shot on Lexington Green, in all probability, almost no one would have even heard of Paul Revere. History as often as not, is made by accident.
To read the entire text of Paul Revere’s letter to Dr. Jeremy Belknap, click here
Great read! Thank you for that. May recommend a book? “William Dawes, First Rider For Revolution.” Daniel Dawes (William Dawes Great Grandson to the 5th).