In a half-serious, half-parodic poem called “Israel Bissell’s Ride,” western Massachusetts newspaper columnist Gerard Chapman wrote:
He lacks the renown that accrued to RevereBut such praise for Bissell over Paul Revere is based on some important misunderstandings.
For no rhymester wrote ballad to blazon his fame;
But Bissell accomplished—and isn’t it queer?—
A feat that suggested Revere’s to be tame.
One mistake is assuming that Bissell rode all the way to Philadelphia, switching horses along the way. (According to legend, his first mount collapsed and died as he rode into Worcester, and he hopped on another.) Bissell’s name indeed appeared in all the copied letters because Joseph Palmer had mentioned him specifically before signing his name. But Palmer’s letter also specified Bissell’s job: to carry the message “quite into Connecticut.”
Other riders took over in that colony and carried the message south. That’s how the post system was designed to work. Alexander McDougall of the New York Committee of Correspondence even stated the name of the courier to New Brunswick: a “Mr. Moorbach.”
Writers like Chapman praise Israel Bissell for riding over a much longer distance than Paul Revere, and that doesn’t change even if he went only as far as Connecticut. But length is only one way to compare Revere’s and Bissell’s actions.
Revere rode on a night when the British military was out to stop messengers just like him. He evaded a Royal Navy warship, narrowly escaped capture after leaving Charlestown, and was actually captured in Lincoln. In contrast, Bissell rode in daytime, farther and farther from the battle, with no danger of being captured or shot.
Revere also did a lot of other things on 18-19 April: gathering intelligence about the British march for Dr. Joseph Warren, arranging to send the news by signal-light to Charlestown, alerting militia officers along his way west, helping Samuel Adams to convince John Hancock to leave Lexington, and finally helping to hide Hancock’s papers as the first shots rang out on Lexington common.
Bissell, on the other hand, stuck to his job as a mail carrier. There’s no evidence of him doing anything else for the Patriot cause in in 1775. Bissell did an important task, but another post rider could have taken his place and done the same. Revere had the connections and persistence to do more than any other alarm rider on 18-19 April.
TOMORROW: What’s more, it looks like Israel Bissell didn’t really ride at all.
(The image above is Grant Wood’s rendering of Revere’s midnight ride from the Grant Wood Gallery.)