By Rich Grant
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.
When poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those lines in 1862, he was correct -- hardly anyone had heard of Paul Revere. The early histories of the American Revolution didn’t mention him.
But the poem changed that. Overnight, Paul Revere became one of America’s greatest heroes. Today, he is practically an industry in Boston. You can tour his house, see his portrait, buy reproductions of his silver work, have a drink in his favorite tavern and even leave pennies on his grave. In a city that spawned a revolution, there is no greater figure than Paul Revere -- a fact that would have surprised every Boston resident in 1775, the modest Paul Revere most of all.
Why did this practically unknown, 40-year old silversmith become one of the most cherished icons of freedom? Perhaps it’s because he did something few other men have: in one evening’s work he changed history.
On a day trip in Boston, it’s quite easy to follow the dramatic story. Every
building associated with the famous ride has been preserved and can be toured.
Like many a good story, this one begins in a tavern.
In 1775, Boston was a powder keg. Three thousand British soldiers patrolled the streets, trying to crush a growing rebellion, while a rag-tag group of rebels called the Sons of Liberty made their secret headquarters in the Green Dragon Tavern.
The original tavern was torn down in 1854, but a reconstruction was built nearby with dark wood beams and a mural to help you imagine the Green Dragon of 1775, filled with rebels smoking clay pipes and downing tankards of ale.
One of the rebels was Paul Revere. An active patriot, he led a group of 30 “mechanics,” as artisans called themselves, whose purpose was to watch the redcoats. When the British tried a foray into the countryside, Revere and his men acted as “express riders” to spread the alarm.
On the afternoon of April 18, 13-year old Sam Ballard overheard two British officers talking about a raid to Lexington and Concord to arrest revolutionary leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock. Ballard told the landlord at the Green Dragon, who sent a messenger to Paul Revere’s house.
You too can walk to Paul Revere’s house in about 10 minutes.
Built between 1650 and 1680, the Revere House is the oldest dwelling in Boston. Revere lived here for 30 years with his 16 children. The tiny gray dwelling was restored in 1907 and is now a museum where you can squeeze up narrow stairways to view rooms and exhibits that continue the story. It was from this house that Paul Revere gathered his spurs and riding boots and set off for Lexington.
His first stop was around the corner at the Old North Church. Built in 1723, it is Boston’s oldest standing church. In 1775, Boston was built on a neck of land completely surrounded by water. If the British sealed off the neck, an express rider would be trapped.
The answer was to send the message across the water by light. Revere planned for the church sexton, Robert Newman, to hang lanterns in the Old North, which offered the highest steeple in the city. The code was one lantern if the British were leaving for Lexington by land, two if by sea.
About 10 p.m., with two lanterns dimly glowing across the water and the moon rising, Revere had himself rowed across the Charles River, directly under the guns of an English ship. On the other side, associates tipped off by the lanterns provided him with a swift New England saddlebred horse named Brown Beauty, and he set off for Lexington.
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 flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night.
A sea of suburbia has settled around Boston into what was once farm country with stone walls and twisting dirt lanes. There is no point retracing the exact 20-mile route of Paul Revere; it’s easier to follow the Concord Turnpike and head directly to Lexington.
It was here, at the Hancock-Clarke House, that Revere finally arrived at midnight, his horse’s flanks coated with sweat and blood. A sergeant guarding the house told him to stop making noise, there were people sleeping.
“Noise!” Revere shouted. “You’ll have noise enough before long. The Regulars are coming out!”
This was as close as he ever came to the famous, “The British are coming!” Actually, that would have been an insane thing to say. In 1775, everyone in Massachusetts was British.
The pretty yellow house where Hancock and Adams were staying has been preserved with furnishings and portraits owned by the Hancock family.
A five-minute walk away, Lexington Green is a traditional New England town center, surrounded by white houses and churches. On the edge of the green is the Buckman Tavern. It was here that Revere “refreshid” himself (no doubt with a tankard of ale) before setting off yet again, this time to spread the alarm to Concord. The Buckman Tavern is also where the militia gathered to ward off the cold night waiting for the arrival of the British.
You can stand in this same room today, and look out the window toward the green, trying to imagine what it was like in the pale light of an April morning to see 700 of the world’s finest troops in their bright red coats as they marched into town.
Revere, by this time, was racing for Concord. Long stretches of the road have been preserved as Minute Man National Park. Lined with stonewalls and an occasional 18th Century building or tavern, the Battle Road is a wonderful walk five mile trail where little has changed since 1775.
Revere’s luck finally ran out when on the pitch black road he galloped into a party of British cavalry. For the British, it was too late. Revere had warned Lexington and his companion riders William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott (left out of the poem because their names are harder to rhyme) got through to Concord. When the redcoats finally arrived in Lexington, there was a small band of minute men waiting for them.
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 farm-yard wall.
What happened in the next few hours changed the world. On Lexington Green, as the redcoats and armed rebels faced each other, someone fired a shot, and the tired British soldiers began shooting, killing eight colonists before they could be stopped. The redcoats marched on to Concord, but enraged minute men followed, and at the North Bridge, the rebels fired back. The British began a long retreat to Boston, with minute men sniping at them from behind every tree and stonewall.
By nightfall 273 of the King’s troops were killed, wounded or missing, along with 95 casualties among the colonialists. It is impossible to overestimate the shocking effect the high casualties of this battle had on both sides.
There was no going back. The American Revolution had begun. And it had begun to a large extent because of Paul Revere. His network of express riders were able to spread the message so well, that by the end of the day almost 4,000 militia had mobilized and fought in the battle, coming from as far as 20 miles away.
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!
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