David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride is a historical narrative about Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride into the Massachusetts countryside to warn the people that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord. Not only does the author thoroughly examine the event itself, but he also reviews little known preceding events that explain the motives of the British and their commander, General Thomas Gage. By examining the lives of the major participants, Fischer expands readers’ understanding of what occurred on April 18-19, 1775.
Most people have heard of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the lantern signal from the Old North Church (Christ Church) steeple, and his warning to John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were marching to Concord to seize munitions. Many people have even heard that he did not succeed in passing the message, and this is partially true. It has also been said that Paul Revere was not the only rider that night and that his role was exaggerated. This is partially true as well. The book opens by asking readers to ponder their own knowledge and builds curiosity in the pages that follow.
A brief biography covers Revere’s upbringing in Boston and the influences that led him to become a critical player in the revolution. Most remarkable, is that Revere was not a great military leader like George Washington, or a revolutionary firebrand like Samuel Adams. Neither was he a statesman or philosopher comparable to Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. It was his social position in eighteenth century Boston society that made him so important.
Paul Revere was an entrepreneurial silversmith, and a skilled artisan of wide renown. He had a large customer base and performed other skilled tasks. As a valued member of the community, Revere seemed to be present at every major event in Boston. He belonged to many organizations, private, public, and even secret. Being associated with such organizations allowed him to meet many influential people and gain their respect.
The author builds up to Paul Revere’s famous ride by discussing his role, during the early 1770s, as America’s first intelligence courier. On several occasions Revere traveled between the colonies carrying sensitive information. This information was of crucial importance in 1774 after the British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts. These were five pieces of legislation intended to punish Boston for the Tea Party, restore British Authority in Massachusetts, and “reform” colonial governments. As tensions rose in British occupied Boston, Revere became known as the main source for intelligence distribution; by both the colonists and the British.
Gage (the general in command of the British forces occupying Boston) was a man who strongly believed in the Rule of Law. He did not treat the Bostonians and the other colonists with the contempt that his peers felt they deserved. He never detained Revere without just cause, as perhaps he should have, considering the growing tensions in New England. With the port of Boston closed due to the Intolerable Acts, relations between the British and the Bostonians quickly eroded. It was decided that in the event of open hostilities, Gage should act preemptively to confiscate the munitions of the Rebel Whigs throughout the surrounding countryside. While Revere was informing colonists in the countryside of British activity in Boston, so, too, were Tory Loyalists reporting the activities of the colonial militias to Gage. The British Parliament and the royal ministers sent instructions to Gage across the Atlantic to put down the rebellion and seize colonial arms and revolutionary leaders, specifically John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
Most people think that the mission to Concord prompted the war but, in fact, the march to Concord via Lexington was one of a series of incursions into the New England countryside in late 1774. Fischer goes to great detail in discussing the Powder Alarm on September 1, 1774, when the British seized colonial munitions near Cambridge; The Portsmouth Alarm and Attack of Fort William and Mary on December 14, 1774; and The Salem Alarm on February 26-27, 1775. All of these, and the famous Concord expedition were part of a general plan to end the rebellion. Paul Revere was the primary person who sounded the alarm to colonial militias in all of these actions.
The popular legend of Paul Revere’s ride leaves out many facts. To fill in those gaps, Fischer discusses Joseph Warren’s role as a clearinghouse for information. Warren, like Revere, always seemed to come across important information in timely fashion. A stable boy, who tended British horses, informed both Revere and Warren about “hell to pay tomorrow.” Warren concluded that the British were up to something. He and Revere, devised a scheme to warn Hancock and Adams in Lexington that the British “Regulars” were probably marching to capture them. It is important to note that the mission was to warn Hancock and Adams, not to warn Concord about a British plan to seize their munitions. A general alarm was to be sounded that the British were on the march to the countryside. This warning was entrusted to Revere and a local tanner named William Dawes. They carried duplicate written messages on different routes to Lexington. After being warned by the two-lantern signal that the British were crossing the Charles River instead of Boston Neck, the riders set off on different routes. Here is where the popular story goes astray. Dawes traveled on a southwestern route and eluded capture by numerous British sentries, but did not warn the villages he passed through, as he did not know anybody he could trust. He pushed on to Lexington. Revere evaded capture once and arrived in Lexington at the home of Jonas Clarke, where Adams and Hancock were meeting with local militia leaders and members of committees of safety. Upon approaching the building, a guard told Revere not to make so much noise, since people were sleeping, to which Revere replied, “Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long! The Regulars are coming out!” However, he did not, as the legend has it, cry out “The British are coming!” while galloping through little towns.
After about an hour of meeting and refreshment, everybody concluded that Adams and Hancock should flee and that Concord should be warned that the British would probably attempt to capture the munitions stored there. Dawes and Revere rode for Concord. Along the way they met Samuel Prescott, who was on his way home from calling on his sweetheart. Prescott, a known Whig, offered to assist the two riders, but before they got very far they were surprised by a British patrol. Prescott and Dawes escaped, but Revere was captured. What most people do not realize is that the alarm had already been sounded and the message went “viral.” Revere set other messengers in motion after he crossed the Charles River. Upon crossing, he was given a horse to ride to Lexington. These other riders in turn told other local officials who, in turn, dispatched multiple messengers themselves.
After the meeting in Lexington, the local militias and Committees of Safety sent out their own messengers to warn other village leaders, and these subsequently sent out still more messengers. Dozens of riders announced the impending British attack, thanks to Paul Revere. The rest is history. The militias were warned in Lexington and Concord, and Revere was released from captivity because he managed to convince his captors that the battle at Lexington had begun. The fact that they could hear musket fire helped. What the British soldiers did know was that the firing they heard was only that of several militia minutemen discharging their weapons prior to entering a tavern near the Lexington green. The rest of the book discusses in detail the combat at Lexington and Concord. The author contends that local militias use of guerrilla warfare in combination with conventional tactics produced a stunning victory in the first major engagement of the American Revolutionary War.
This book is a tremendous resource for teachers of American history. Not only does it debunk the legend of the midnight ride but it also chronicles the precipitating events to the Revolution using a multitude of primary sources. Students of American history will both be informed and entertained by the way the author tells this story. Fischer discusses the major participants and battles in great detail, and also sheds light on the social atmosphere and attitudes of Bostonians during British occupation. The reader is virtually transported to a time when life was far more difficult and inconvenient. Liberty and independence were uncertain and only barely imagined.