Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” (see below) is based on historic events, but it is more of a tale and not a historical account. Longfellow wrote the poem after taking a tour of Boston in 1860. He was a pacifist and abolitionist who wrote the poem to try and unify a divided nation on course for the Civil War. Historians have dissected the poem since 1860 and compared it to Revere’s account of the ride in his own words and other historic evidence.
The National Park Service points out several inaccuracies including the following:
- Revere knew the British route before he left Boston. Though two lanterns were held aloft in the Old North Church tower, Revere was not waiting on the Charlestown shore to see them. Instead, they were a fallback plan in case he could not get out of Boston.
- Revere was captured by patrolling British Regulars in Lincoln, just past Lexington, and never arrived in Concord.Revere did not ride alone that night. There was William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott. Revere was one of two riders to leave Boston (with Dawes), and one of many messengers spreading the alarm.
- The omission of other riders was a particularly sore point for some. Henry Ware Holland, a descendant of William Dawes, self-published a history in 1878 titled William Dawes and His Ride with Paul Revere. He sent a copy to Longfellow, who wryly remarked that it was “a very handsome book… in which he convicts me of high historic crimes and misdemeanors.”
Longfellow’s works may not have prevented the Civil War, but after the war ended and the nation was getting ready to celebrate its centennial, the poem had a renewed importance. The gratitude for Paul Revere led to the preservation of his family home, built in 1680, which is the oldest home in Boston.A statue of Revere was modeled in 1885 and is near the Old North Church.
The regulars are coming!
It’s unlikely the riders shouted, “The British are coming!” Many Americans living in the countryside still considered themselves British. The Regulars were known to be British soldiers.
From Boston to Concord
The mission: On the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere and William Dawes were dispatched by Joseph Warren to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington (and many others along the route) that British forces were heading their way.
Boston to Lexington is about 13 miles. Lexington to Concord is about 6.8 miles.
After warning Adams and Hancock, they met Dr. Samuel Prescott and continued on to Concord to warn the militia and to verify that the military stores had been properly dispersed and hidden away.
Outcome: Not all three riders made it to Concord but Prescott did, and the militia was able to prepare to meet the British in Lexington where the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired on the morning of April 19.
After a skirmish in Lexington the British forces faced a larger band of Minutemen in Concord. The American militia stopped the advance and forced the British to head back to Boston.
Paul Revere’s Ride
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Jan. 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly
Listen, my children, and you shall hearOf the midnight ride of Paul Revere,On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:Hardly a man is now aliveWho remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, — “If the British marchBy land or sea from the town to-night,Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-archOf the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light, —One if by land, and two if by sea;And I on the opposite shore will be,Ready to ride and spread the alarmThrough every Middlesex village and farm,For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said good-night, and with muffled oarSilently rowed to the Charlestown shore,Just as the moon rose over the bay,Where swinging wide at her moorings layThe Somersett, British man-of-war:A phantom ship, with each mast and sparAcross the moon, like a prison-bar,And a huge, black hulk, that was magnifiedBy its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and streetWanders and watches with eager ears,Till in the silence around him he hearsThe muster of men at the barrack-door,The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,And the measured tread of the grenadiersMarching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed to the tower of the church,Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,To the belfry-chamber overhead,And startled the pigeons from their perchOn the sombre rafters, that round him madeMasses and moving shapes of shade, —Up the light ladder, slender and tall,To the highest window in the wall,Where he paused to listen and look downA moment on the roofs of the town,And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the deadIn their night-encampment on the hill,Wrapped in silence so deep and still,That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,The watchful night-wind, as it wentCreeping along from tent to tent,And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”A moment only he feels the spellOf the place and the hour, the secret dreadOf the lonely belfry and the dead;For suddenly all his thoughts are bentOn a shadowy something far away,Where the river widens to meet the bay, —A line of black, that bends and floatsOn the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride,On the opposite shore walked Paul RevereNow he patted his horse’s side,Now gazed on the landscape far and near,Then impetuous stamped the earth,And turned and tightened his saddle-girth;But mostly he watched with eager searchThe belfry-tower of the old North Church,As it rose above the graves on the hill,Lonely, and spectral, and sombre, and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height,A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,But lingers and gazes, till full on his sightA second lamp in the belfry burns!
A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a sparkStruck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet:That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,The fate of a nation was riding that night;And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
It was twelve by the village-clock,When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.He heard the crowing of the cock,And the barking of the farmer’s dog,And felt the damp of the river-fog,That rises when the sun goes down.
It was one by the village-clock,When he rode into Lexington.He saw the gilded weathercockSwim in the moonlight as he passed,And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,Gaze at him with a spectral glare,As if they already stood aghastAt the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village-clock,When he came to the bridge in Concord town.He heard the bleating of the flock,And the twitter of birds among the trees,And felt the breath of the morning-breezeBlowing over the meadows brown.And one was safe and asleep in his bedWho at the bridge would be first to fall,Who that day would be lying dead,Pierced by a British musket-ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have readHow the British regulars fired and fled, —How the farmers gave them ball for ball,From behind each fence and farmyard-wall,Chasing the red-coats down the lane,Then crossing the fields to emerge againUnder the trees at the turn of the road,And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;And so through the night went his cry of alarmTo every Middlesex village and farm, —A cry of defiance, and not of fear, —A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,And a word that shall echo forevermore!For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,Through all our history, to the last,In the hour of darkness and peril and need,The people will waken and listen to hearThe hurrying hoof-beat of that steed,And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.
Sources: National Park Service, Smithsonian, paulreverehouse.org, The Atlantic, The National ArchivesImages from The National Archives and Wikimedia Commons
Source: Orange County Register