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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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ebenezer Stiles’s Story of “Revear’s ride”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wasn’t the first American poet to write about Paul Revere’s ride. He was simply the best and most famous. On 15 Mar 1795, more than sixty years before Longfellow had his inspiration, a man named Ebenezer Stiles signed a poem he headlined “Story of the Battle of Concord and Lexinton and Revear’s ride Twenty years ago.”

Stiles’s manuscript entered the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which published the opening in its Proceedings in 1878. Esther Forbes printed the first two stanzas in Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, and David Hackett Fischer included four lines in Paul Revere’s Ride, which I quoted back here.

The entire poem has been published only once, so far as I can tell: by Prof. Tristram Peter Coffin in Uncertain Glory: Folklore and the American Revolution, published by Folklore Associates in 1971. I’m going to quote and analyze it to observe the anniversary of the events it relates.

When he started, Stiles either hadn’t figured out his verse form or chose to use the daring rhyme of “spur” and “Liberty.” And the lines don’t get much better than that:
He speard neither horse nor whip nor spur
As he galloped through mud and mire
He thought of nought but “Liberty”
And the lanterns that hung from the spire
He raced his steed through field and wood
Nor turned to ford the river
But faced his horse to the foaming flood
They swam across togather

He madly dashed o’er mountain and moor
Never slacked spur nor rein
Untill with shout he stood by the door
Of the church by Concord green
“They come They come” he loudly cried
“They are marching their Legions this way
Prepar to meet them ye true and tried
They’l be hear by Break of day”

The bells were run the drums were beat
The Melitia attended the roll
Every face we meet in the street
Wears a determined Scoul
For this is the day all men expected
Yet none of us wanted to see
But now it had come no one rejected
Our Country’s call of Liberty

Youngmen and old ansured the call
To defend the land of their sire
The[y] brought with them some powder and ball
To return the British fire
For well they knew the Blood thirsty troops
Would do their best endevour
To ruin their homes destroy their crops
And bind them slaves for ever.

The morning dawned the Sun arose
The birds sang loud with glee
All nature seemed to strife opposed
And the river Rolled on Merrylie
But Hush! the tramp the gleam of steel
See, See, their waving plums
As slowly they came o’er the fields
Marching to beat of drums

Fall in, attention the captain cried
Look well to your guns my men
But do not fire till I give the word
Leave the opening shot to them
E’en as he spoke a shot was heard
And a patriot fell on the green
And again they fired without speaking a word
The assassins what do they mean

Unable to stand their withering fire
We’re reluctantly foreced to obay
The word from our Captain to gently retire
And meet e’er the close of the day
The foe passed on to his work of blood
And to search for hidden stors
With a laugh and a jest that boaded no good
To the women we left within doors.
I chose to follow the M.H.S. Proceedings and Forbes quotations and use the plural “lanterns” in the first verse instead of the singular “lantern,” as Coffin transcribed the line. I haven’t seen the original manuscript, and it’s possible the people who saw “lanterns” were influenced by what they already knew about Revere’s ride. In fact, this poem is the earliest link between Revere and the signal from a Boston spire—the steeple of Old North Church, later sources specify.

Notably, Stiles changed the historical event in the same ways that Longfellow did: he had Revere spot the lantern signal instead of arrange to send it, and had him ride alone all the way to Concord. He also raised the drama by adding a “river” for Revere and his horse to swim.

Most of Stiles’s stanzas were about the skirmish at Lexington. Like all American writers for many decades after 1775, he identified (even using “we”) with the provincials and put all the blame for the shooting on “the Blood thirsty troops.” However, Stiles didn’t claim that Maj. John Pitcairn had ordered the firing or told the “damned rebels” to disperse, as many provincial witnesses claimed. Of course, he might have written “without speaking a word” simply because that was easier.

And these fine stanzas were only the first part of Stiles’s poem.

TOMORROW: New heroes appear in part two.

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