As promised, this posting continues my extended response to Garden Keeper’s thoughtful comment on the posting “Without Paul Revere.” That comment argued for Paul Revere’s importance on 19 Apr 1775 this way:
As for your point about the value of the Revere's ride, who could have rousted Hancock and Adams - Dawes or Revere. As you noted, Hancock was loathe to abandon Lexington. Would Dawes have the stature to make the argument? Your earlier note about Monroe recalling a "Mr. Lincoln" suggests otherwise. If Hancock and Adams had not abandoned the Clarke home, would Parker and the others turned away from the British troops? Or would they have felt a greater need to sacrifice themselves to allow for an escape? They sustained heavy losses - and, at the moment, weren't even engaged with the troops. It could have been far worse.To start slowly (since I did get up early this morning), I don’t think Revere knew who Dr. Samuel Prescott was when they met on the road from Lexington to Concord. In 1775 Revere wrote of him as “Mr. Prescot” rather than as a doctor. In 1798, Revere recalled: “We were overtaken by a young Docter Prescot, whom we found to be a high Son of Liberty.” I think the phrase “whom we found” indicates that Revere and Dawes hadn’t known about the doctor’s politics until they got to talking.
And, let's not ignore the considerable heroism of the Prescott family that day. Did Dawes know who Samuel Prescott was? Revere did. His later recollection was that Dr. Prescott was recognized as a son of liberty. After all, Revere HAD been to Concord twice in the prior two weeks before the troops left Boston. If Dr. Prescott had not been recruited as a rider that evening, would Acton had been notified in time to be at the bridge that day? Would Abel Prescott had been sent off to Sudbury and Framingham? Perhaps young Abel would have survived the day unscathed...
It's a terrific point to consider but I would submit that Revere's ride was a considerable part of the success of the day.
That said, I think your remarks get to the larger question about Revere’s personal influence on events. He had intangible qualities we can only infer from the preserved records, including his level of confidence, dedication, and contacts with top Whigs in and out of Boston. Revere himself recognized how Dr. Prescott’s personal contacts were useful on the road from Lexington to Concord:
we had better allarm all the Inhabitents till we got to Concord; the young Doctor much approved of it, and said, he would stop with either of us, for the people between that and Concord knew him, and would give the more credit to what we said.William Dawes, Jr., wasn’t as well known as Revere. He was adjutant (or clerk) of the Boston militia company and a member of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, a private group for militia officers that reached outside Boston. Through his wife, he had contacts in Roxbury. But he hadn’t sat in on meetings of the top Whigs in Boston, as Revere had. He hadn’t been out to Concord and Charlestown earlier in the month, making arrangements for an alarm, as Revere had. The major thesis of David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride is that the silversmith was uniquely positioned to spread the word of the British march.
But the bigger question remains, how much did Revere’s personal connections matter at the end of the day? And in that inquiry I’m taking the long view and following what I’ll call the Casablanca rule: “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In other words, rather than looking at how Revere affected individual people’s fates, such as the number of men shot in Lexington or the activity of the Prescott brothers, we should consider the broader picture.
On the “crazy world” scale, what were the important developments of 19 Apr 1775?
- There was a sustained clash between the British army and the British colonists of Massachusetts, with significant numbers of lives lost on both sides, signaling to everyone that the long political conflict had turned into a military one.
- Both sides felt that the other had started the violence and/or carried it out brutally and unfairly.
- The army failed to find the Provincial Congress’s most important supplies in Concord.
- The militias didn’t capture the army column (though it’s not clear that provincial commanders wanted to do that).
- At the end of the day, provincial troops had Boston under siege.
To start with, Col. James Barrett and his family were already moving the Congress’s arms off his farm in the days before 19 April. Gen. Thomas Gage’s mission was doomed to failure before it began.
More important, the Massachusetts countryside had been on high alert for a long time. The Powder Alarm of the previous September showed how the rumor of an army attack could put thousands of militiamen on the march. Concord was farther inland than Gage had ever sent troops before, bringing more opportunities for conflict. It took only a little stimulus—a shot no one can trace in Lexington, smoke from burning artillery carriage wheels in Concord—to lead to fatal violence. With or without Revere, that march was very likely to have triggered the war.
The first shooting might even have happened at the same places without Revere. The record from Lexington indicates that several messengers alerted Capt. John Parker about troop movements, starting with local teenager Solomon Brown and including Dawes. The town’s militia had been assembled (and dismissed, and reassembled) for more than four hours when the British column finally arrived. Parker was sending riders both west to Concord and east to see how close the troops were. He and his men didn’t necessarily need to hear from Revere that night to be on the alert, on edge, and on the green.
What about Concord? If Revere hadn’t made it to Lexington, then Dawes may well have decided not to ride on to Concord, and Prescott wouldn’t have met anyone on the road, and Prescott may have been stopped (along with Brown and others) by the British scouts. In that case, Concord wouldn’t have received Prescott’s alert at 2:00 A.M. But, as I noted above, Col. Barrett, commander of the Concord militia, was already wary of a possible army raid. And in the several hours between two o’clock and the first shots at the North Bridge, other riders came into the town with news of the troops.
Finally, in the broad view, did the early alerts amount to more than “a hill of beans”? Our public history emphasizes the minutemen, ready at a minute’s notice to defend the countryside. And indeed thousands of men heard the various summonses in their towns and quickly gathered in their militia units. And then what happened? A lot of them stood around for a while, discussing what to do. That’s partly what military service is like: “Hurry up and wait.” And it’s partly what the New England culture was like, with a lot of consensus decision-making; there’s nothing wrong with discussing things before you go into a war. But that lessens the crucial importance of the initial alert.
Thus, even after the shooting on Lexington green, even after the shooting at the North Bridge, the Massachusetts militia didn’t make a serious attack on the British column until it had started to withdraw from Concord, sometime after noon on 19 April. Eleven hours had passed since Revere’s capture, about seven since the first fatalities of the day, and about two since some of those same militiamen had exchanged shots with regulars. The war’s start involved minutemen, but it wasn’t determined in minutes.
Granted, some town militia companies might have mustered later without Revere’s message, and thus might not have arrived along the battle road in time to attack the British column. But would that have mattered, given that the column got through to Charlestown anyway? The big military development was the start of the siege, and the siege would probably have started much the same way even if Revere hadn’t been able to do all he did.
Some might say, as Jay Fitzgerald’s Hub Blog did, “couldn't the same be said of the actions of 99.9 percent of those who participated in the events of April 18-19, 1775?” And the same could indeed be said. But often people describe Paul Revere as crucial for determining the major results of the day; nobody else gets that treatment. Revere’s story has built-in appeal; it’s a dramatic narrative about admirable actions. (So is Casablanca.) But by presenting Revere alone as crucial to the start of the war, we can lose sight of the Revolution as a mass movement involving thousands of people already prepared for armed conflict.