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Friday, August 6, 2010

The "Legend" of Paul Revere

"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."


These opening lines to Henry Longfellow's epic poem "Paul Revere's Ride" have been recited countless times in classrooms across this country. In fact, most Americans only know of Paul Revere thanks to Longfellow’s 1860 poem, which was written almost 100 years after the actual event. Within the historical community, however, Revere's now famous ride has fallen under scrutiny. Was it really as dramatic and eventful as Longfellow's now infamous poem depicts? Or is Revere's "ride" more along the lines of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and an invisible treasure map existing on the back of the Declaration of Independence?

First off, we can all rest assured that Paul Revere never shouted, "the British are coming." To have done so would have destroyed the secrecy that was needed for the mission. British soldiers were afoot everywhere, with the intent of stopping riders like Revere. We can also be certain that Paul Revere was not alone on April 18, 1775. After receiving his initial instructions from Dr. Joseph Warren to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the impending doom, perhaps as many as fifty other riders were caught up in the excitement of the moment and set out to warn the countryside. In addition, Revere was also instructed by Dr. Warren to gather intelligence on the strength of the British army, where others would signal by lamp light the direction the British army was heading (remember "one if by land, two if by sea?"). Here's Paul Revere's initial account of that evening:
I was sent for by Docr. Joseph Warren about 10 oClock that evening, and desired, “to go to Lexington and inform Mr. Samuel Adams, and the Hon. John Hancock Esqr. that there was a number of Soldiers composed of the Light troops and Grenadiers marching to the bottom of the common, where was a number Boats to receive them, and it was supposed, that they were going to Lexington, by the way of Watertown to take them, Mess. Adams and Hancock or to Concord."
And though Revere was not alone on his "ride", and despite the fact that things were not as poetic as Longfellow makes them seem, Revere's mission was far from simple. In fact, Revere faced danger on more than one occasion. Revere evaded a Royal Navy blockade, avoided being shot by British scouts, escaped capture at Charlestown and was eventually caught in Lincoln. Revere's horse was confiscated and he was forced to march back to town at gunpoint. In fact, Revere was never able to warn Samuel Adams or John Hancock that the "British were coming." Fortunately both men were warned by other riders of the impending danger that was approaching, as was the militia, which prepared for the infamous Battle of Lexington and Concord.

To be certain, Revere was an important figure inside Boston's revolutionary underground. He had been entrusted (along with many others) to carry out important assignments that were critical during the early years of Boston's rebellion. In fact, one of the most important things Revere ever did (and he's almost never remembered for it) was to create the all-important engraving of the "Boston Massacre", which Samuel Adams yielded as a powerful propaganda sword that pierced the heart of many fellow Bostonians. And yes, Revere's depiction of the Boston Massacre was every bit as over-dramatic as was Longfellow's infamous Paul Revere poem.

Thanks in large part to his devotion to the "cause of liberty," Revere was a welcomed member of several influential organizations within Boston, most notably the Masonic Lodge in Boston where he rubbed elbows with other key players in America's quest for independence. As a result, Revere's name became synonymous with bravery and devotion. And though his role was really no different than the other nameless, faceless "riders," Revere's legacy has stood out. It's no wonder why Longfellow would seize his story as the one to embellish through poetry. And though his now infamous ride may be entwined with legend and folklore, Paul Revere's involvement in the early years of Boston's revolutionary fervor are both influential and worthy of further study.

3 comments:

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, Revere did manage to carry out his primary assignment and warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British troops were on the march. He even got to the Lexington parsonage where they were staying before William Dawes.

Then the two men decided to go further, and warn Patriots in Concord. It was on that leg of that journey that British scouts stopped the men, capturing Revere. A young doctor they had met along the way, Samuel Prescott, carried the message to Concord. After holding Revere for a while and taking the horse he’d ridden, the British officers let him go and rode off to rendezvous with the marching column.

Revere made his way back to Lexington and discovered that Hancock and Adams were still there, arguing about what to do.

Brad Hart said...

Good stuff (as always) J.L.

I can't remember where I read it but I've heard from several sources that Revere didn't make it to S. Adams or J. Hancock. I'll have to look into it. You may very well be right (as you often are).

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Interesting reading. As always, I enjoy your posts and find your writing engaging and informative.

Thanks!