J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

The Concord Alarm and the Casablanca Rule

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.

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.
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.

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.
If we take away Revere’s ride—say, by imagining him detained by British officers along the Charlestown/Cambridge border—do those big developments change? One can never be sure about a counterfactual hypothesis, but I’m not sure they shift significantly.

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.


Vern said...

I think the danger now is the reverse effect - that EVERY aspect of basic history is now considered myth by people who barely if ever learned the original.

Ask the average tourist about Revere these days and all you'll get is "oh he's that guy who everyone thinks made a ride but now we know he never did anything." To this you can add tourists who's only knowledge of Bunker Hill is that it didn't take place on Bunker Hill. Detail is fun - but only if it adds to the baseline of the case, not if it replaces it.

Revere makes a great example of the kind of warning riders that typify the era - prominent (of sorts) people who had much to lose, well organized and operating at great risk to themselves. If folks oversimplify at least they got the gist of it.

We always know some people more than others in history, often based on the luck of the letters that were kept or lost. Joseph Plum Martin as the typical Revolutionary soldier cited everywhere comes to mind.

I think it's important to state whether a person typifies the era and gives a good "gist" of what was going on. THEN add the fun detail.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not convinced that average tourists come with ingrained cynicism about well-known historical figures like Paul Revere, but I agree that they’re more quick to accept such skepticism.

And that’s partly because some previous generations have been fed stories that were misleading, limited, and easily refuted. (Of course, so have we; we just don’t know what all those stories are yet.)

And it’s partly because our culture is more cynical than in the past. At a Cambridge forum a few years ago, the comics creator Art Spiegelman said that Mad magazine was precious in the 1950s because its sarcastic iconoclasm helped young readers see through the dominant, stifling culture, but now sarcastic iconoclasm is the dominant, stifling culture.

Still, when it comes to studying history, the way the current culture will receive or distort it seems less important than getting the past accurate.

In the case of Paul Revere, he was the one, crucial messenger out of Boston during the Portsmouth alarm of December 1774, which I’ve argued (in my contrarian way) culminated in the real first fight of the Revolutionary War. He was also involved in a lot of other aspects of the Revolutionary movement, the building of a republican civil society in Massachusetts, and the early American Industrial Revolution. Though he wasn’t the only mechanic in Boston active in the movement, he was more involved and at a higher level than almost all the rest, and thus atypical. He was an admirable, important guy.

Revere also spent a lot of the early hours of 19 Apr 1775 running around trying to protect John Hancock and his papers when that probably didn’t matter—not that he could know that at the time. Yet people know him mostly for what he did that night.

The case of Joseph Plum Martin seems different because his experiences haven’t been turned into such a simple story, with a beginning, exciting middle, and satisfying end. Pvt. Martin’s military experiences and his writings have been too long, complex, and wrinkled to be boiled down into a unified narrative, and thus into a myth.

Martin can still stand for a typical Revolutionary soldier rather than stand above the pack, as Revere has sometimes been made to do.

Jason Thomas said...

The one thing that you neglected to mention was why was Col. Barrett wary of a British march? That was because a Boston messenger, by the name of Revere, warned the area on April 8th. He rode to Concord to alarm the area of possible troop movements (which was an accurate although early alarm). This warning also caused the Provincial Congress who were meeting in Concord to adjourn early. I personally don't think Revere stands above the pack, (especially when you look at his military record in the Revolution).

I'll give you that the day's events would have still happened. But, what if substantially smaller numbers of minutemen showed up? Would that have changed the outcome? Would the colonists still have the stomach to start a seige if they were trounced on the field that day due to being outnumbered instead of the other way around? What if late comers saw fellow countrymen running away instead of running after the Regulars? Would it setback the Revolution a few months? Or a few years? Of course we will never know how important those extra towns that Revere alerted were to this flashpoint.

I do think Revere was, as Fischer argues, the perfect candidate suited for this messenger role due to his many affiliations with several separate whig groups. It is hard to insert another historical figure from the Boston area in Revere's role and think they would have done a better job (maybe Warren???). I am not even going to try to visualize Hancock alerting the countryside (now that would be a good Mad Magazine cover). Not to mention Revere was a hell of a horseman too.

J. L. Bell said...

Technically, when I wrote Dawes “hadn’t been out to Concord and Charlestown earlier in the month, making arrangements for an alarm, as Revere had,” I did mention Revere’s warning to Barrett.

My proposal that Revere’s ride on 18-19 Apr 1775 wasn’t as important as it’s been made out to be says nothing about the importance of his other activities, including his other rides. I was specific about the parameter of the counterfactual: what if Revere had been stopped before riding on to Medford? That leaves his political organizing, his engravings, his spy ring, his warning to Portsmouth, and the signal he arranged from Old North Church as we know them. Those actions, I submit, had a bigger effect than his actual ride.

You ask, “Would the colonists still have the stomach to start a seige if they were trounced on the field that day due to being outnumbered instead of the other way around?” That’s a good question, but what exactly would being “trounced on the field” mean? What “field”? What would define “trounced”?

The provincials didn’t try to force the army out of Concord—the troops were already withdrawing when the provincials opened up. The militias didn’t try to stop the British column—at most, they tried to hurry it up. In sum, the provincials’ goal appears to have been to cause damage to the troops. And with such a nebulous goal, they could have proclaimed success at anything short of Col. Percy camping out in Harvard Yard.

But what about the damage that the troops caused to the provincials? Would that have been disheartening? The Provincial Congress actually spent a great deal of effort proclaiming how nasty the soldiers had behaved—the shooting at Lexington, the men the soldiers “slaughtered,” the buildings they burned. Those “atrocities” energized rather than frightened the region.

As long as the Massachusetts militia turned out in numbers that day, I don’t think the timing of that mobilization would have made a big difference. With fewer numbers, the men nearest the column might well have been less aggressive about confronting the troops, but at the end of the day they still would have camped around Boston and proclaimed victory over the tyrannical ministerial troops.