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The British Are Coming (Sort Of)

Maybe Longfellow exaggerated the heroic story of Paul Revere. Can you blame him?
Writing 85 years after the fact, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow can't be blamed too much for getting a couple of things wrong in his poem, "Paul Revere's Ride." Brian Leigh Dunnigan explains how things really were.

For nearly a century and a half, American children have grown up with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s stirring tribute to the nighttime gallop that heralded the opening clash of the War for Independence. When my own daughter was eight or nine, the reading of “Paul Revere’s Ride” was a frequent bedtime ritual. One of her favorite toys was a plush horse equipped with a device that, when shaken vigorously, produced a respectable imitation of hoofbeats. Claire’s role in our nightly production was to provide sound effects whenever Longfellow mentioned the “hurrying hoof-beats” of Revere’s steed. Now about to enter high school, Claire easily recites the verses she enjoyed hearing over and over again.

How accurately does the poem represent the historical events on which it is based? As a military historian, I have had considerable exposure to the accounts of April 1775 and the war that followed. The historical library in which I work holds some of the most critical original documents relating to the encounters on Lexington Green and at Concord Bridge. The papers of General Thomas Gage contain his written orders sending British troops on the march from Boston that inspired Revere’s ride. Reports from three British commanders and a young lieutenant describe the operation, and another collection includes an official statement from Captain John Parker, whose minutemen faced Gage’s regulars on Lexington Green. All the writers insist that it was someone on the other side who fired the “shot heard round the world.” So it goes with primary sources for the study of history.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a well-educated man, but he had no pretensions to being a historian. As he explains in the opening stanza of his poem, firsthand knowledge of the events of April 1775 had nearly disappeared by the time he composed it in 1860. Eighty-five years had passed since that shot was heard round the world, and although a handful of Revolutionary War veterans would live into the middle of the decade, most were gone. Longfellow wrote of the beginning of the Revolution at a time as far removed from that event as we will be from Pearl Harbor in 2026. Americans of the poet’s generation had to rely on histories, local traditions, and family stories, all of which varied wildly in accuracy. National legends and folklore about the age of revolution were full-blown by Longfellow’s time; and poetry, like cinema, is as often a reflection of the time in which it is created than an accurate representation of the time it is intended to depict. By 1860, with sectional conflict building toward civil war, Longfellow had contemporary reasons for exploring patriotic themes and for emphasizing the effects of individual action during a crisis.

Although much has been made of inaccuracies of detail in “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow’s success in expressing the tension and excitement of impending events probably accounts for much of the popularity of his poem. His nod to the way in which historical incidents are enshrined in regional folklore was expressed in the title given to the work on its second appearance. First published as “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860, it was included three years later in a collection of poems called Tales of a Wayside Inn. The poem had been retitled “The Landlord’s Tale,” with the original name relegated to a subtitle, and was presented as a story recounted by a local innkeeper.

Paul Revere (1734–1818) was a stalwart of the movement toward independence, and his talents were far more diverse than the hard riding that would eventually make him famous. By the 1760s Revere was a Boston artisan of note—a competent silversmith who also dabbled in engraving, political cartooning, and the production of mechanical devices. He was something of a propagandist and was an organizer and participant in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Revere also found a useful niche among the Massachusetts revolutionaries as a courier, a talent that would be called upon in April 1775. He made long rides to New York and Philadelphia to bear news to other colonial committees and also carried warnings of impending British preemptive actions to New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts. His last such mission had taken place only two days before his famous ride.

Revere’s later career was equally varied. Once fighting had begun, he performed military services in New England. He was active after the war in civic affairs and gained considerable recognition as a silversmith and as an early manufacturer of brass and copper objects—from cannons to church bells. He might well be amused at the source of his fame today. Indeed, Paul Revere’s ride was little known in the United States until popularized by Longfellow’s poem.

By the spring of 1775 Boston was an armed camp and Massachusetts was nearing the flash point of armed rebellion. Bands of provincial militia had been training and organizing as minutemen, who could react quickly to any British strike. One likely target was Concord, a village 14 miles northwest of Boston, where Massachusetts forces had been collecting gunpowder and weapons. Two of their best-known leaders, John Hancock and Sam Adams, were in the town of Lexington, a few miles closer to Boston. The city itself was occupied by some 3,500 British regular soldiers, commanded by General Thomas Gage, who was charged with maintaining royal authority in the increasingly restive province.

Gage had orders to take some sort of action against the potential rebels, but to get at their supplies he had to secretly and rapidly march troops from Boston to Concord. This would be no easy task. Boston and the bivouacs of his soldiers were located on a tadpole-shaped peninsula with only one narrow connection to the mainland—Boston Neck. Troops could also be ferried across the harbor by boat. Central to the first part of Longfellow’s poem is the uncertainty about whether the British would move “by land”—the Neck—or “by sea”—the harbor. When General Gage penned his orders on April 18 he had decided on the latter, but although it proved impossible for his soldiers to keep preparations for their expedition a total secret, their route remained in doubt to the Americans.

Patriot spies watched for clues that would provide the answer. Meanwhile, two dispatch riders prepared to carry the warning. Revere was to cross by boat to Charlestown on the north side of the harbor, while William Dawes would ride out through the British fortifications on Boston Neck. Confirmation of British intentions would come from light signals displayed in the belfry of Old North Church. Longfellow has received some criticism for his handling of this part of the tale, first for implying that Revere was the only horseman and then for having him wait impatiently for the signal on the “opposite,” or Charlestown, shore. In fact, after safely passing British naval vessels anchored in the busy harbor, Revere arrived in Charlestown to find that compatriots had already observed the signal. Mounting a borrowed horse at about 11 p.m., he clattered toward Lexington and Concord. Dawes had left earlier by way of the Neck with the same goals.

Paul Revere’s ride was even more hazardous and exciting than depicted by Longfellow because, earlier in the day, Gage had dispatched ten mounted British officers to intercept couriers. Revere encountered two of them soon after leaving Charlestown and led them on a chase through Medford as he called out his alarm, losing his pursuers before he got to Lexington. There he passed his warning to Hancock and Adams and met up with Dawes. Continuing toward Concord, the pair ran into another British patrol sometime before 2 a.m. Revere was captured, while Dawes turned back. It remained for a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott, who had accidentally encountered Revere and Dawes at Lexington, to warn Concord. Revere told his captors that he had alerted the countryside and misinformed them that the British troops had been delayed. The officers released Revere near Lexington but took his horse, leaving him to continue, much less colorfully, on foot.

“You know the rest,” as Longfellow put it. The advance British troops arrived at Lexington at about five in the morning to find fewer than 70 minutemen standing on the green. Called upon by the British commander to disband, they had begun to do so when that lone shot was fired. A British volley left eight Americans dead and ten wounded, the first casualties of a long war. By that time, however, the countryside was indeed up in arms, and resistance was stiffer when the redcoats got to Concord, where they found that the arms had been hidden or removed. Their return march to Boston was harried most of the way by Americans firing on them.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s version of Paul Revere’s ride was not meant as literal history but rather as an exciting literary interpretation of the hours during which America teetered on the brink of armed rebellion against its king and Parliament. It paints the events of that night in broad but generally accurate strokes. By capturing the spirit if not the letter of Revere’s time, the poem has retained an ability to engage young people, as it did my daughter, and teach them that historical events are acted out by real people placed in extraordinary circumstances.

  • Brian Leigh Dunnigan serves as curator of maps at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library. Trained as a historian, he has administered historic sites in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Old Fort Niagara, New York. He has written extensively on the early history of the Great Lakes region, particularly...


The British Are Coming (Sort Of)

Maybe Longfellow exaggerated the heroic story of Paul Revere. Can you blame him?
  • Brian Leigh Dunnigan serves as curator of maps at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library. Trained as a historian, he has administered historic sites in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Old Fort Niagara, New York. He has written extensively on the early history of the Great Lakes region, particularly...

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