Paul Revere's famous ride late on April 18th, 1775 did not happen in a vacuum and it was not a joyride as recent notables in the news have described it. It was serious business conducted to warn a terrified populace that war was riding out to them and they needed to prepare.
This is the real story about that night, the events of the next day and what it meant.
Paul Revere was born in Boston in December of 1734. He was the son of Apollos Rivoire, a French Huguenot or Protestant who had come to America at the age of 11. Revere's father was indentured to a silversmith in Boston and eventually worked his way out of debt and ran his own shop. Apollos married Deborah Hitchborn, a 4th generation Bostonian, and passed on an Anglicized version of his name, Revere, to his son Paul. He also passed on his profession, his gift for inventiveness and his love of freedom and self-expression.
Paul Revere had a gift, a genius really, for being in the center of great events. He belonged to numerous social clubs in Boston and next to Dr. Joseph Warren, was probably the most connected man in town. Revere was also a prominent member of the Boston Mechanics Guild, which was an organization that represented artisans and trade workers in Boston.
Revere had the rare ability to transcend class divisions. His job as a "mechanic" or tradesman made him accessible to working class Bostonians. His incredible work ethic and long, long hours endeared him to the leaders of the Whig or Patriot movement in Boston and his ability to get things done made him a famous messenger for the Sons of Liberty. Paul Revere did not make one ride into the countryside; he made numerous rides during his long service to the Sons, some to places as far away as New York and Philadelphia. He was a critical part of the Revolutionary movement in Boston, in Massachusetts and in the United Colonies. He deserves more from history than being referred to as the guy who ran through town shouting and ringing bells. This is a part of his story on that famous 2 day period in April 1775.
Setup to the ride, preparing the countryside
When the Townsend Act, a series of taxation measures, were revoked in the late 1770's, one small taxation measure was left in place; a small tax on tea. Parliament left the tax in place as a way of maintaining what they viewed as their right to tax the colonies. The colonials stopped drinking the tea and refused to pay the tax. For the most part, this did not result in any problems until a few years later when the multinational conglomerate of the day, the East India Company, ran into problems in India and needed money. Shares in the East India Company were widely held among the ruling class in London and it was a "too big to fail" company of the day. The bail out for East India Co consisted of making the price of tea cheap for colonists. London viewed this as a slam dunk as colonists would rush to buy cheap tea and Parliament would make a little tax money when the colonists also paid the tax.
The colonists were determined not to give in on this tax principle. Plans were made all over the colonies to not allow tea to be unloaded for sale. This was accomplished without incident in most of the colonies. In Boston it became a legal problem which came to a point in December of 1773. Legally, the tea had to be unloaded by Dec 17th or the government had the right to seize it and distribute it anyway. This would result in the payment of the tea tax. The Boston Sons of Liberty resolved this dilemma by illegally boarding the three vessels storing the tea in Boston Harbor on Dec 16th and throwing the tea overboard.
This act enraged many in London. It was viewed as destruction of private property and King and Parliament demanded that Boston be punished. (Also, it messed up plans to bail out the East India Co, but that is a story for another time.) Parliament enacted a series of changes to Massachusetts law and to its sacred Charter that would bring the unruly colony to it's knees. The port of Boston was closed to all traffic. The function and reach of the courts were altered with some types of trials being transferred to courts in London, including trials for treason and sedition. The sacred custom of holding Town Meetings in New England was suspended as Town Meetings were held to be hotbeds of spreading revolt. The Massachusetts Legislature was moved from Boston to Salem, Ma and could only convene with the approval of the new Royal Governor, Thomas Gage. In short, the punishment aimed to change the nature of how Massachusetts governed itself. This enraged the Patriots in Massachusetts and engaged the sympathies of the other colonies.
More troops were sent to Boston, bringing the total to over 1600, and huge war ships were anchored in Boston Harbor, including the Somerset, a large "man o' war" vessel. The sides were now drawn. The British, aided by numerous Loyalist American allies, kept a close watch on inhabitants of Boston and the Whigs or Patriots kept a close eye on any troop movements in and around Massachusetts. Paul Revere was called on several times to ferret messages to various Committees of Correspondence and Committees of Safety in Massachusetts and the surrounding colonies. (Revere was very well known to the British. He was tracked very closely and his movements were reported to Gen. Gage as a signal that the Patriots were planning something or knew something of British plans.) Revere had family in Boston. He put that family at risk every time he ventured out of town. His actions were certainly not done on a whim.
In September 1774 a panic swept Massachusetts in the first "Powder Alarm." Rumors swept through the countryside that Gen. Gage had ordered troops out of Boston to seize gun powder at different locations around the Commonwealth. The rumors resulted in a muster of armed men from towns and villages all over Massachusetts. Thousands of armed locals gathered to defend "their" powder from seizure. This is an important point. The gun powder was viewed by Gen. Gage and the British as belonging to the Crown. The Patriots believed the powder belonged to the people of Massachusetts and not the British. The Minutemen, those men sworn to gather "at a minutes' notice" to defend their towns, assembled to prevent what they saw as an illegal seizure of their communal property.
The September Powder Alarm turned out to be false. But the action was a dress rehearsal for the Patriots who saw that the countryside, the farmers and mechanics and local gentry outside of Boston, would indeed respond to an armed incursion by Gen. Gage's troops. This false alarm also shows just how much fear gripped the countryside. People were mentally preparing for war.
Both sides settled down for the winter. Gen. Gage began receiving ever more militant orders from London that demanded that he "get tough" with the locals and quell unrest with force. London officials were used to putting down riots in England and Ireland with troops. This had usually been enough to restore order and they believed that if Gage used enough force, the locals would be brought into line. Gage did not believe this. He understood the Americans better than his superiors but, he had his orders.
In Dec of 1774, Gage ordered troops out to Portsmouth, NH to seize gun powder. Paul Revere was called upon to spread the alarm to the Committee of Safety in that town. The British arrived and met armed resistance from locals which actually came to warning shots. The British were forced back to Boston without achieving their objective.
In February of 1775, Gage sent out forces to seize gun powder being stored in towns north of Boston. Troops were loaded onto vessels bound for Marblehead, MA and were issued orders to march through Salem to Danvers, MA and seize or destroy a large cache of powder being stored there. Three of the "mechanics" in Revere's network of informants were caught by the British and held captive in Boston Harbor to prevent news of the impending mission from getting to Patriots in that area. The mission ended up being a failure for the British when troops were prevented from getting to the powder and had to turn back to Boston empty-handed.
Revere's most famous ride
Spring had finally come to New England in mid April 1775. Food had become scarce all around Boston. Winter provisions were nearly gone and it was vital that farmers all around the region begin preparing the ground for planting season. Typical New England "mud season" weather dropped rain, frosts and fog on the area. This planting season also came with great fear and dread. The British command in Boston had its orders to go out into the countryside in Massachusetts and assert their authority and put down any signs of revolt. All sides knew that armed revolt and war were coming. They knew that shots would be fired and blood spilt soon. It was just a matter of when this would happen and where.
Both sides had their spies. The British spy, Dr. Benjamin Church, had managed to infiltrate the inner sanctums of the Sons of Liberty in Boston and regularly sent back word of what the Whigs or Patriots were planning. Patriot spies kept careful track of any irregular movements by troops, any movement of troops in town or any repositioning of ships in the harbor that would signal that Gage was going to order troops out of Boston. Such movement was detected in mid April. Dr. Joseph Warren accessed his highest placed informant to get information that troops planned to move out of town on the night of April 18th. Their target was the store of gun powder in Concord, MA. Their other orders were to arrest Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock. These two, if caught, faced possible deportation to London for trial on charges of treason.
Warren's highly placed spy may have been the American born wife of Gen. Thomas Gage. This famous beauty was deeply torn in her loyalties. She was the wife of the Royal Military Governor of Massachusetts, but she was also an American and felt deep loyalty to her native land. Gage later said that he had revealed his plans for the march in April to only one person and soon after the events of April 19th, he sent his wife back to England. The marriage later failed. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that leads to the General's wife as Dr. Warren's night-time informant.
Paul Revere was notified that he needed to get out of Boston and ride out to inform the leaders of the various Committees of Safety outside of Boston that the British were planning an incursion into the countryside. Revere needed to know how the British were going to leave Boston. Gen. Gage had kept his plans a deep secret and it was unknown if the troops would march down through the thin piece of land known as the Roxbury Neck and gain access to bridges to Cambridge that way or if they would row troops across the Charles using boats from the HMS Somerset. Spies had been unable to get this information out until Dr. Warren's highly placed spy revealed it.
The Patriots had numerous systems in place that would send signals out. Boston was, in effect, under Marshall Law. Revere needed to know how that troop movement would occur. Revere had worked out a signaling system with Captain William Pulling of the North End Caucus of Patriots and the sexton of Christ Church, Robert Newman. Christ Church, called the Old North Church, was a High Church or Episcopalian place of worship. The Church was closed because of the Loyalist sympathies of its clergy. Rows of houses along the path to the Old North Church were used as barracks or housing for British troops in Boston. Pulling and Newman had to silently make their way by these houses and avoid suspicion or arrest.
Newman and Pulling climbed the stairs of the Church to the tower where they lit two lanterns to signal that the troops were moving by water. The lanterns were lit only for a very brief moment. The British troops were alert and watching closely for any sign from the Patriots that they were sending out information. Lingering at Christ Church would have made Pulling and Newman subject to arrest and detention. They sent the signal and got out quickly.
Revere could now depart on his mission. He was across town waiting for the signal near where the HMS Somerset was anchored inside the mouth of the Charles River. Revere's mission was to get across the water without making a sound. He had to cross the river without detection or he risked arrest from sailors of the Somerset. Fortunately for him, the angle of the moonlight hid his movement. Legend has it that Revere realized that he needed to "muffle" or minimize the sound of the oars in the water. A Patriot woman, alerted to Revere's need, sent out her petticoat for Revere to wrap around the oars and cut the sound. Revere used the garment, still warm from its owner's body, to accomplish this.
Revere made his silent way across the water and avoided detection by the sailors on the Somerset. He landed at Lechmere Point, not that far from present day Kendall Square. The British troops ferrying across the river much further down from him and were encountering a rising tide coming into the marshes along the way. This slowed their movements down and gave Revere time to meet with local Patriots and obtain a horse. Since Revere could not ride the most direct route to Lexington because that would bring him by the British, he headed north into Mystic or present day Medford, MA.
Revere did not yell "the British are coming" on his famous ride. It would not have been safe to do so. (It would not have made any sense at the time to his listeners either.) Revere rode to the leaders of the local Patriot communities. He informed these leaders that the British Regulars were out of Boston, bound for Lexington and Concord and that local Committees of Safety needed to be notified so that local militias could be assembled. Each contact Revere made could then send out riders. This was the pre-arranged system that Revere and others had worked out for notifying the countryside that troops were coming. Revere was not a lone rider spreading the alarm. He was an important messenger whose coming triggered many other riders to carry the message all over northeastern Massachusetts. Revere was a consummate organizer. He understood the communities he was trying to reach and how to optimize a response. This is his invaluable contribution to that memorable event.
Revere was actually prevented from reaching his destination in Concord. He was detained at gunpoint by advance guards of the British troops. Revere did indeed warn these troops that they did not understand the resolve of the Patriots and that they faced imminent danger that day. This frightened the British, who had no wish to ride into war that day. It was too late to go back, but Revere's warning that organized, armed resistance awaited the British was taken seriously because Paul Revere was taken seriously as a messenger.
Revere was released later that night and found his way to Lexington where Hancock and Adams were staying. He was there when Captain John Parker, terminally ill with consumption or tuberculosis, assembled the Lexington militia on the training ground before dawn. Revere was moving a trunk full of important papers belonging to Samuel Adams across the militia ground when the first shot were fired that morning. He witnessed the British riot that followed and was among the first to know that American blood had been split.
Americans did not just hide behind trees and stone walls and fire at the British. They were organized militias, many of whom were combat veterans of the French and Indian Wars. These ordinary country folk had drilled and practiced for this event. They met the British troops, representatives of the superpower country of the day, in regimental formation. These ordinary people didn't run away and hide as the officials in London thought they would. They openly confronted the forces of Lord Percy, Duke of Northumberland and commander of the Regulars that day and forced his troops back to a siege in Boston. The ordinary people engineered a great victory that day that would shock the world.
There is, of course, much more to this day and it's events. But this is what Paul Revere did. He was a proud Guild member, proud artist and "mechanic" who understood how to mobilize people and get things done. He was the go-to guy for the Patriot movement in Boston when plans needed to be made and people across the political and class spectrum needed to be brought together. Revere, in his own phrase, had a constant need to know "what was acting" or going on and how he could help the Patriot cause. He risked his life that April night to notify the country folk that the British Regulars were coming and he left his wife and children hostage in Boston. He risked much and deserves better than being known as someone who rang bells and rode a horse in Boston on that long ago day. His service meant so much more.