The Ride of Paul Revere


We were taught as children about the midnight ride of Paul Revere.  It was a great story for young children — fourth or fifth grade, perhaps.  That dashing silversmith — who, booted and spurred and with a heavy stride, did watch with eager search the belfry tower of the old North Church.  Except, while entertaining and exciting, our teachers taught us fiction, not history.  We were told, for example, that Paul Revere rode through the villages of Massachusetts shouting, “The British are coming!  The British are coming”  If Paul did shout that, it must have caused a laugh.  Everyone in Massachusetts was British.  It would have been akin to “We are coming!  We are coming!”  The other problem, of course, was that someone shouting such a thing in the early morning would have attracted the attention of British sentries.

Aside from the shouts of Paul Revere from atop a galloping horse tearing through the streets of Concord, Massachusetts, Revere’s courageous ride from Lexington to Concord made him a pivotal figure in the American Revolution.  The accounting of this amazing ride, according to some, is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The poem’s title, however, is simply “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1863).

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.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of 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 alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said, “Good night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war:
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon, like a prison-bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alleys and street
Wanders and watches with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers
Marching 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 perch
On the somber rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,—
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In 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 went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,—
A line of black, that bends and floats
On 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 Revere.
Now 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 search
The belfry-tower of the old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and somber 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 sight
A 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 spark
Struck 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.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders, that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

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 galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim 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 aghast
At 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 breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who 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 read,
How 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 again
Under 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 alarm
To 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 hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

It is a wondrous story — it simply isn’t true.  He didn’t shout about the British coming, and he didn’t ride through the streets of Concord.  He didn’t make it to Concord at all.  Nor was Paul Revere the only rider.  Two other riders included Samuel Prescott and William Dawes.  Of the three, only one of them succeeded in reaching Concord.  After leaving Lexington, British sentries detained and arrested Revere, Prescott, and Dawes.  While in custody, Prescott escaped and made it to Concord, where he warned residents to protect their weapons and ammunition.  Some historians claim that Dawes also escaped custody but never made it to Concord because he became lost in the dark of night.  The British released Revere but retained his borrowed horse, so Revere walked back to Lexington — thus missing the Battle of Lexington Green.

Paul Revere’s mission was not to warn residents of the approach of British military troops; his mission was to warn his cronies, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, that the British Army intended to arrest them.

A summary of Paul Revere

Sketch by Thomas Logan

Paul Revere’s father was a French Huguenot from Aquitaine who immigrated to the United States as a thirteen-year-old indentured servant.  His name was Apollo Rivoire, and he worked under John Coney, who in the early 1700s was Boston’s premier goldsmith and silversmith.  When Mr. Coney died in 1722, Apollo purchased his freedom for £40.  By then, Apollo was calling himself Paul Rivoire.  Mr. Rivoire was fortunate to catch the attention of Miss Deborah Hitchbourn, a daughter of one of Boston’s wealthiest leading families.  Paul and Deborah had eleven children, the second eldest of which was a son whom they named Paul.  When Paul Sr. died in 1754, most people in Boston pronounced his last name as “Rivear,” which prompted Paul Jr. to change the family’s last name to Revere.

Because of Deborah’s well-placed position in society, nearly everyone who was anyone in Boston knew about the Revere family.  Paul Revere replaced his father as the city’s “go-to” silversmith and printer.  In 1756, Paul joined a local militia unit and participated briefly in the French & Indian War as a lieutenant of artillery.  At the end of one year, he returned home and married Sarah Orne (d. 1773).  Of their eight children, only one survived Paul in 1818.

After Sarah’s death, Paul married Rachel Walker (d. 1813).  They also had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood.  Around this same time, Paul Revere became the ringleader of a group of men who participated in the infamous Boston Tea Party.  I’ve used the word infamous because the people involved in the Boston Tea Party were criminals acting in their own interests as part of a syndicate of smugglers.

The British government indeed imposed a series of taxes on the colonists — to help pay the expenses of the French & Indian War (1754-1763), most of which the Parliament repealed.  The Parliament’s tax on tea was not repealed, which the colonists consumed in copious amounts (around 1.2 million pounds annually).

The tea tax prompted certain individuals to smuggle Dutch Tea.  Smuggled tea was cheaper than regularly imported tea because it wasn’t taxed.  Smuggling became a side business for several Boston tradesmen and merchants, organized and led by such men as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere.  This criminal enterprise called itself The Sons of Liberty.  Thus, part of the reason for the Boston Tea Party was to destroy duty-free British tea, which was cheaper than illicit Dutch Tea.  Hancock, Adams, and Revere were losing money and resolved to do something about it — while disguising their activity as a patriotic protest of British taxes.

Thus, in addition to serving as a goldsmith-silversmith and printer, Paul Revere was also a smuggler — and useful to the “patriot cause” as a courier/messenger serving the interests of the so-called committees of correspondence in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  Note: the activities of the committees of correspondence were well known in England and frequently reported in London newspapers.  If Paul Revere thought his courier escapades were part of a clandestine operation, he was very much mistaken.

In any case, at the time of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere was in Watertown.  When British troops closed the roads into Boston, Revere was forced to find housing in the Watertown area; Rachel and his children eventually joined him there.  In Watertown, Revere petitioned the Continental Army for a military commission, but army officials turned down his request.  Paul Revere was useful to the “patriot cause” in Massachusetts because he was a skilled printer and a reliable courier.  He was also well-known as a loud-mouth, a hot-head, and a scruff.  Simply stated, Paul Revere wasn’t officer material.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow, born on 27 February, was the son of Stephen and Zilpah Wadsworth.  Stephen was a lawyer.  His mother’s father was Peleg Wadsworth, a general officer in the American Revolution and a member of Congress.  Zilpah Wadsworth was descended from Richard Warren (of Mayflower fame).  She named Henry after her brother, Henry Wadsworth, a Navy lieutenant who died three years earlier during the Battle of Tripoli.  Longfellow’s descendants included Mayflower pilgrims, including Richard Warren, William Brewster, and John and Priscilla Alden through their daughter Elizabeth Pabodie, the first child born in the Plymouth Colony.[1]

As a young man, Longfellow studied at Bowdoin College — and later taught there and at Harvard.  He was also multi-lingual, speaking several European languages.  In 1854, Longfellow retired from teaching to devote his time to writing.  He lived the remainder of his life in the Revolutionary War headquarters of George Washington in Cambridge.  It sounds like an idyllic life, but in reality, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had many tragedies in his life.[2]

His first wife, Mary Potter, died in 1835 following a miscarriage.  His second wife, Frances Appleton, died in 1861 from burns when her dress caught fire.  After her death, Longfellow entered a period when he could not write; he spent several years translating foreign literature into English.  Longfellow sired six children, one of whom was seriously wounded during the Civil War.

The Revere Poem

Longfellow loved his country and was deeply concerned that civil war was about to tear the nation apart.  There is not much within Longfellow’s poem that reflects what actually happened during the “midnight ride of Paul Revere.”  But Mr. Longfellow wasn’t attempting to write factual history.  In the poem, Revere was spreading the alarm to save the colonies from tyranny — but in writing it, Longfellow was spreading a warning to the United States about the horror of civil war.


[1] Longfellow’s poems were lyric, mythical, and popular among the American people.  His critics accuse him of imitating European styles and of writing “sentimental” poetry.

[2] Longfellow and I share the Aldens as our earliest American ancestors.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 Responses to The Ride of Paul Revere

  1. bunkerville says:

    A good read Mustang. .I enjoy reading primary sources.. this may be of interest

    [Jeremy Belknap].
    Dear Sir,
    Having a little leisure, I wish to fullfill my promise, of giving you some facts, and Anecdotes, prior to the Battle of Lexington, which I do not remember to have seen in any history of the American Revolution.
    In the year 1773 I was imployed by the Select men of the Town of Boston to carry the Account of the Destruction of the Tea to New-York; and afterwards, 1774, to Carry their dispatches to New-York and Philadelphia for Calling a Congress; and afterwards to Congress, several times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kidme37 says:

    Good read. I guess not a single thing they wasted my time in school with was even remotely true.


    • Mustang says:

      I look at your classroom experience as a series of “wasted opportunities” for your teachers to impart an understanding of our history. In all likelihood, they didn’t understand our history themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

    • kidme37 says:

      I suspect most just parrot textbooks.


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