'On the Eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five...'
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."
("Paul Revere's Ride" by Heny Wadsworth Longellow)
The image has captured the imagination of American school children for more than 150 years. A lone rider, braving capture at the hands of the British, riding along the narrow country lanes and cobblestone streets of the picturesque towns and villages of New England, shouting out defiance to tyranny, raising the alarm "To every Middlesex village and farm," his trusty horse carrying him on his ride into legend.
To bad it didn't quite happen that way.
Paul Revere, accompanied by William Dawes and Samuel Prescott - who Longfellow failed to mention - was one of the more interesting characters of the American Revolution. Longfellow's poem immortalizing his ride may be historically inaccurate (Revere was actually arrested about 1:00 AM on the 19th, while Prescott and Dawes continied their ride to warn the towns and villages of the British advance) but there was a purpose to his mythmaking.
The poet was, after all, using the ride to illustrate American themes - something almost unheard of in literature until that time. Along with his other great narrative poem "Hiawatha," Longfellow has been credited with introducing the rest of the world to truly American motifs and myths. Paul Revere's Ride, while historically untrue, nevertheless conveys the breathless spirit of resistance of the colonists to British rule.
While the myth may be more dramatic than what actually happened, the reality of what was going on that fateful night is certainly interesting enough. Thanks to Revere, his friends - Sam Adams and John Hancock - avoided the gallows for they most certainly would have been convicted of treason. And given what happened the following day in Lexington and Concord, the work done by Revere, Dawson, and Prescott to arouse the countryside contributed in no small way to events that became known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."
Revere's participation in the revolution was by no means over. He was commissioned a Major of infantry in the Massachusetts militia in April 1776; was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of artillery in November; was stationed at Castle William, defending Boston harbor, and finally received command of this fort. He served in an expedition to Rhode Island in 1778, and in the following year participated in the disastrous Penobscot Expedition. Upon his return from that fiasco, he was court martialed for failing to obey orders. The charges were trumped up by his commanding officer, trying to absolve himself of blame for the military disaster that cost of the lives of 500 men and 43 ships. Revere was acquitted.
After the war, Revere proved himself a canny businessman and bold entrepreneur. He took advantage of the religious revival sweeping the country after the revolution by manufacturing church bells, a business that made him wealthy. He also pioneered the production of copper plating in America and supplied the young country's navy with copper spikes for the planking. In effect, he became one of the first successful industrialists in American history.
With the attack on Boston still fresh in our minds, it is well to remember our Patriot past. Today, Revere's job of arousing the populace has fallen to internet outriders, raising the alarm against advancing tyranny and foriegn and domestic foes who would seek to tear down what Revere and his contemporaries built.
Longfellow's concluding stanza's are particularly apt today:
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 redcoats 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 for evermore!
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.
(Some of this blog post first appeared on April 18, 2005 at Rightwing Nuthouse)