Most histories of the start of the Revolutionary War don’t say much about William Dawes after he escaped the British army officers who caught Paul Revere. (I discussed Dawes’s amusing anecdote about that episode here.)
According to David H. Fischer, after losing his horse and his watch, Dawes went back to Lexington and went to bed. There’s a family story that a few days later he went back to the site in Lincoln where he fell off his horse and found his watch. But anything else?
In 1878 descendant Henry W. Holland, relying on family traditions and published sources, wrote:
Dawes at once joined the Continental troops at Cambridge, and, it is said, fought at Bunker Hill, but never, I believe, took commission in the regular army. When Boston became unsafe, he moved his family to Worcester, one of the great centres of rebellion; and when the siege ended, and the war was removed from New England, he was appointed commissary at Worcester by Congress.Holland’s sources were older relatives born after the war, so he relying on thirdhand information. I’m not sure about that Bunker Hill thing (so many family insisted their ancestors were at Bunker Hill), and I suspect Dawes did take a formal military role.
Below are the entries in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War for men named William Dawes. Each has a separate entry in the state archives. However, some of these could pertain to the same man. And of course some could pertain to multiple men with the same name.
prisoners of war).
But what about the adjutant? What about the major of the Boston militia regiment?
We know that in 1768 Dawes joined the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, then an organization of men who wanted extra training to become militia officers. In April 1772 the printer John Boyle listed Dawes as “Junr. Adjut. Lieuts. Rank” in the Boston militia regiment. In early 1775 Massachusetts Committee of Safety contacted Dawes about getting cannon out of Boston [as discussed in my upcoming book, The Road to Concord], and of course Dr. Joseph Warren sent him out to Lexington.
In short, Dawes had experience in military administration and the trust of the Massachusetts Patriots. And there was a war on. It makes sense for him to serve as Gen. William Heath’s adjutant in the first months of the war, and to become a major (another position of administrative responsibility) in the Boston militia regiment after the British evacuated. But then he resigned and went to Worcester.
As for the first entry, that William Dawes was a junior officer in the Continental Army from January 1777 to May 1778, with a possible short service in late 1776. That stretch doesn’t directly contradict the other entries, but they seem to refer to a younger man.