|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 he wrote those lines in 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was correct — hardly anyone had heard of Paul Revere. The early histories of the American Revolutionary War didn’t even 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, walk the streets he walked, have a drink in his favorite tavern and even leave pennies on his grave.
Why did this practically unknown, stocky, 40-year-old artisan become one of the most cherished icons of freedom? Perhaps it’s because he did something that few other men have been able to accomplish: in one evening’s work he changed history.
On a day trip in Boston, it’s quite easy to follow the dramatic story. Every significant building associated with the famous ride has been preserved and many can be toured.
Three thousand British redcoats patrolled the streets of Boston in 1775, trying to suppress the growing rebellion.
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 ragtag 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 at 11 Marshall Street. Although not an exact reproduction, it does have the feel of a colonial inn with its dark wood beams, muskets on the walls and historical prints.
It’s easily possible to imagine the Green Dragon as it must have appeared in 1775, filled with rebels engaged in deep discussion while smoking clay pipes and downing tankards of ale.
One of these rebels was a silversmith named Paul Revere. An active patriot, he led a group of 30 “mechanics,” as artisans called themselves, whose purpose was to watch the redcoats. Whenever the British army attempted a foray into the countryside, Revere and his men acted as “express riders” to spread the alarm.
On the afternoon of April 18, a 13-year-old boy, Sam Ballard, overheard two British officers talking about a raid to Lexington and Concord to arrest revolutionary leaders Samuel 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 ten minutes. Built in 1680, The Paul Revere House, where Revere lived for 30 years (1770-1800), is the oldest dwelling in Boston. It is the only colonial building of this type to survive in the heart of an American city.
The gray, two-story dwelling is now a museum where, on self-guided tours, you squeeze up narrow stairways to view rooms and exhibits that tell the story of Paul Revere. It was from this house that Paul Revere set off on a 20-mile ride to Lexington to spread the alarm.
His first stop was around the corner, at the Old North Church. Built in 1723, it is Boston’s oldest church building. A small museum at the back of a gift shop continues the story.
In 1775, Boston was built on a neck of land 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 river by light. Revere planned to hang lanterns in the Old North, which had 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 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;
John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was painted in 1768, seven years before the famous ride. At this time, it was rare to have the subject of a portrait without a coat. Revere’s descendants misunderstood this picture and thought it made him look like a workman, so they hid it in a closet.
Paul Revere finally arrived at midnight at the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington. A sergeant guarding the house told him to stop making noise, as 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,” which would have been an insane thing to say. In 1775, everyone in Massachusetts was British.
The gray salt-box house where Hancock and Adams were staying has been preserved with furnishings and portraits owned by the Hancock family. Of particular interest are exhibits from the coming battle, including William Diamond’s drum — the very instrument the young man beat to call the militia to Lexington Green.
A pleasant five-minute walk away, today Lexington Green is a traditional New England town center surrounded by white houses and churches. On the edge of the green is the yellow Buckman Tavern.
It was here that Revere “refreshid” himself before setting off yet again 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 army.
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 some 700 of the world’s finest troops in their bright-red coats as they marched into town.
Revere, by this time, had started for Concord, but his luck ran out when, on the pitch black road, he galloped into a party of British cavalry. There is a historic marker that indicates the site of the capture, but for the British military it was too late.
Companion riders William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott got through, and when the redcoats finally arrived in Concord there was an army of minutemen 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 at Lexington and Concord changed the world. By nightfall, 273 of the King’s troops were killed, wounded or missing, and there were 95 casualties among the colonialists. It is impossible to overestimate the shocking effect the high casualties of this battle had on both sides. In today’s U.S. population, it would be the equivalent of 30,000 troops killed or wounded in a single day.
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!
|The Paul Revere House, the oldest home in Boston, is now open as a museum devoted to the famous ride.
Strangely enough, Paul Revere’s role was forgotten for almost a century. In 1860, during the bleak days of the Civil War, Longfellow was looking for a subject that would give the Union hope.
He found his inspiration in the forgotten tale of a silversmith express rider.
Although the poem is a thrilling account of the ride, it is the closing that best captures why Paul Revere’s popularity has endured into the 20th century, and will probably do so forevermore.
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-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.
If You Go
The Freedom Trail Foundation
Information about 16 nationally significant historic sites in Boston, as well as tours and special events related to the American Revolutionary War.
Green Dragon Tavern
11 Marshall Street, Boston
The Paul Revere House
19 North Square, Boston
Old North Church
193 Salem Street, Boston
800-981-4776 or 617-523-4848
36 Hancock Street, Lexington
1 Bedford St., Lexington
Minute Man National Historical Park
174 Liberty Street, Concord
Longfellow National Historic Site
105 Brattle St., Cambridge
The home where poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived from 1837 to 1882, including the time when he wrote his famous poem about Paul Revere.