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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Friday, April 18, 2008

Without Paul Revere

Today is the anniversary of Paul Revere’s 18-19 Apr 1775 ride to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British troops were coming out of Boston. So I’m going to discuss the one myth of this event that we have the hardest time dealing with.

It’s not the myth created by H. W. Longfellow’s poem that Revere was in Charlestown awaiting the two-lantern signal from Old North Church. Most books these days remind us that Revere arranged to send that signal from Boston, not receive it; he was already aware that the army would start its expedition by crossing the Charles River. Only after the signal had been sent did he cross the Charles himself as a backup rider and proceed west.

It’s not the myth, also implied by that poem, that Revere was a lone rider. Many people know the name of William Dawes, Jr., who carried the same message out of Boston through Roxbury a few hours before Revere crossed the Charles. David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride does an excellent job of documenting how Revere was also just the start of a cascade of alarm riders, like a nuclear chain reaction, fanning out from the towns he passed through.

It’s not the myth that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”; I discussed that here.

It’s not the myth that Revere rode all the way to Concord with the news. Again, history books are clear that mounted officers sent out ahead of the army’s march captured Revere and Dawes on the road between Lexington and Concord. There’s a historic marker at that point, and a yearly ceremony. The two Boston men had happened to pick up a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott; he was a local man, perhaps with a fresher horse, and he escaped from the officers and brought news of the approaching troops to Concord.

It’s not the more recent myth that after Revere was captured he fearfully spilled his guts to those officers. He did tell them how he’d warned the countryside about their army’s march, but that was in all likelihood an attempt to make them tell their commanders to call back those troops before anyone got hurt.

It’s not even the myth that the provincial militiamen at Concord stopped the British army at the North Bridge. Three companies of soldiers crossed that bridge and proceeded to James Barrett’s farm, then returned hours later, without being blocked or attacked. The firing at the bridge occurred after the locals advanced on the army companies trying to hold it. The militiamen drove that rear guard away, but then withdrew and didn’t try to trap the advance units.

Rather, the most troublesome myth of Paul Revere’s ride is that Paul Revere’s ride mattered a lot.

There’s no doubt that Revere was very active on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775. After telling Hancock and Adams that troops were coming so that they could move out of reach, Revere rode on toward Concord with Dawes and then Prescott, was captured, was released, walked back to Lexington—and found Hancock and Adams still hadn’t left town. Revere then helped convince Hancock to get in the damn carriage, and the political leaders set off for Woburn—only to realize that Hancock had left some Provincial Congress papers behind in a tavern. So Revere returned to Lexington and was helping to move those papers during the first shots on Lexington green.

The ironic or even farcical part of all that dedicated activity was that Gen. Thomas Gage had written nothing in his orders about John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The officers commanding the expedition knew nothing about those men being at the Lexington parsonage, or about Hancock’s trunk. No soldiers went toward those buildings on the morning of 18 April.

Hancock, Adams, Revere, and Dawes could have decided to hunker down in the parsonage with guns, swords, and a militia guard, and waited for the army to try to grab them. And those troops would have marched straight through Lexington without noticing. Gen. Gage’s only target was armaments stored in Concord.

Without Revere, the Lexington militia would still have been on the alert by dawn on 19 April after hearing the same news from Dawes. There were hours between when he arrived and when the troops did, during which several more riders came into town. Capt. John Parker thus had more than enough time to assemble his men.

Dawes may not have taken the initiative to ride on to Concord without Revere, and thus no man from Boston might have met Dr. Prescott. In that case, the warnings Col. Barrett heard in Concord might not have seemed as authoritative as when he knew Revere was behind them. Earlier in the month, Revere had established contact with men in Concord.

Nonetheless, there were about two hours between the British soldiers’ arrival at Concord and the exchange of shots at the North Bridge. There was another two hours between then and when the troops withdrew from the town and headed back toward Boston. So in all there were more than six hours between the shots at Lexington and when the provincial militias began to counterattack the British column in earnest. That was enough time for many towns to mobilize and reach the battle area, even without a warning the night before. So as brave, hard-working, and dramatic as Paul Revere’s ride was on 18-19 Apr 1775, it may not have changed events all that much.


Garden Keeper said...

As a great admirer of your work, this post asks for some comment.

I know that you have written several times about the "myth" that the British troops were after John Hancock and Samuel Adams. I would respectfully differ on whether it is a "myth". I cannot find the citation right now, but I believe that General Gage received orders from London in the days before April 17th. Those orders, along other things, directed him to arrest the provincial leaders. As the British communication system was notably less secure than our own Belichick system, it is doubtless that these orders were known by Warren and others.

Further, while you have noted that Gage's written orders said nothing about the capture of Hancock and Adams, Gage also sent 20 officers on horseback into Middlesex County to thwart the Revere and the other riders. As Hackett Fischer notes, "In particular, [the patrols] inquired about the whereabouts of John Hancock and Samuel Adams."

So while the written orders suggest otherwise, there was good reason to fear that the expedition to Concord might have ancillary targets. Written orders, after all, have some limits. Gage also ordered that property not be damaged which didn't prevent the burning of some Lexington homes.

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.

And by the way, did you notice the Massachusetts Historical Society's recollection of what happened on April 18th? "The British are coming."


However, I completely agree with your recitation of what was said that night.

bizQuirk said...

It was the most exciting time in this country's history, and no one knows a damn thing about it. When I stand on the North Bridge, my hair stands on the back of my neck.

Jason Thomas said...

Here is a wild guess based on some facts, and I'm prepared for some criticism on this:)
The "unwritten" orders of Hancock and Adams capture may explain some actions of the Lexington men. They located themselves on the Green blocking the Bedford Rd instead of the road to Concord. It is curious that they assembled on the side of the Green that leads to Bedford. A town which to my knowledge had no strategic military value for the British troops. Of course the road does lead you by the Hancock Clarke parsonage with its 2 famous occupants.
The other historical piece I remember reading (sorry I don't recall the source) stated that the people recalled the regulars on the night of the 18th asking directions to the Hancock tavern. Again, why would this name and place (that wasn't a tavern) be mentioned by the Regulars?
I realize this is speculation, but there are some facts and actions by the participants that can lead you in this direction of reasoning.

J. L. Bell said...

The M.H.S.’s website links to the MassMoments site. Its writeup of 19 Apr 1775 doesn’t have “The British are coming!” but does have the wrong date in the graphic at the top.

Your comments are so interesting, Garden Keeper, that I’ll build a new posting around them.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your hypothesis, Jason Thomas. I’m not exactly sure what you’re proposing about “‘unwritten’ orders of Hancock and Adams[’s] capture,” but I’ll respond to what I think is the idea.

Where should we seek evidence for such orders from Gen. Gage? The first place to look would be accounts from the British officers who would have been responsible for carrying out those orders. None of their accounts mention such instructions or efforts to find the two men.

On the other hand, we have what seem to be two drafts of Gage’s orders. They fit with what those officers did write and what their soldiers actually did. So what mystery needs to be solved by positing “unwritten orders”?

Whether or not such orders existed has no bearing on the Lexington militia’s behavior. For that, we have to consider whether Capt. John Parker and his men thought there were or might be such orders. And they probably thought there might be. I agree that helps to explain why there were more Lexington militiamen on the road toward the parsonage than on the road toward Concord—though the proximity of Buckman’s tavern is another strong reason.

As for the inquiries about the “Hancock tavern,” I don’t recall those, but today I’ll discuss the one Lexington source I’ve found saying British officers asked about Hancock and Adams.

Jason Thomas said...

You bring up an excellent point. My logic is faulty in assuming that just because the Lexington men may have thought that the Regulars were out to capture Hancock and Adams, it does not actually prove that that was the actual mission. Revere also may have been assuming this, due to his panic that the men had not left the parsonage when the regulars were arriving. By the way, thanks for being easy on me! In my humble opinion, I still think that Revere's role was crucial in alarming the countryside. He definitely was a man who knew who the whig leaders throughout the area. He had a certain credibility that others may have lacked.