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 17, 2019

“Paul Revere never made the midnight ride”?

A lot of legend grew up around the American Revolution in the late 1800s, and Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” made the events of 18-19 Apr 1775 especially famed and susceptible to mythologizing.

In the early 1900s the pendulum swung the other way, toward debunking and skepticism. This is when the story of Boston’s stolen militia cannon dropped out the standard telling—that story seemed too dramatic to be true. Sometimes debunking went too far.

Here’s another example from the 29 Nov 1908 New York Times—a story headlined “Paul Revere’s Ride Is Fiction, He Says”:
Walter Benjamin, publisher of The Collector, has in his possession a letter which he believes proves conclusively that Paul Revere never made the midnight ride attributed to him by Longfellow and tradition.

The document is a letter from John Hancock to Elbridge Gerry, dated Lexington, April 18, 1775, at 9 o’clock. . . . The message reads:
Dear Sir: I am much obliged for your notice. It is said the officers are gone along the Concord Road, and I will send word thither. I am full with you that we ought to be serious, and I hope your decision will be effectual. I intend doing myself the pleasure of being with you tomorrow. My respects to the committee. I am your real friend, JOHN HANCOCK.
Mr. Benjamin says that it Hancock of the Committee of Safety, knew at 9 o’clock that the troops had gone along the Concord road and hoped they would be “serious,” that Lexington and Concord were fully aroused to the danger of the coming of British troops, and that there would be no need for Paul Revere. . . .
The article noted that a version of this letter had been published in the 1828 biography of Gerry, but without the time included. Benjamin argued that the omission of “at 9 o’clock“ meant people hadn’t realized its significance.

On the other hand, the Times continued, “the learned professors…did manage to find a plain prose version of Paul Revere among the old manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society papers.” The article summarized Revere’s own account, which the M.H.S. had published in 1798 and certainly wasn’t hiding from view.

The Times story concludes:
However, the historians are not altogether satisfied with the Revere letter, for he wrote it in 1798, twenty-four years after the ride, and, conceding his honesty, his memory might easily have been bad. Considering the many doubts which the learned have come to have of Paul Revere’s ride, Mr. Benjamin believes that the evidence contained in the Hancock-Gerry letter shows that it never happened at all, outside Longfellow’s poems.
Benjamin made a couple of errors in interpreting the document he’d bought. First, Gerry and Hancock exchanged notes about a squad of “officers,” not the full “coming of British troops.” Those officers were mounted scouts with a mission of stopping messengers from getting out of Boston and into Concord. The hundreds of grenadiers and light infantrymen who followed the scouts presented a much bigger threat. About three hours after Hancock wrote his note, Revere reached Lexington with news of that column.

Benjamin’s second error was concluding that the letter showed “Lexington and Concord were fully aroused to the danger of the coming of British troops” before Revere arrived. They were only partially aroused. James Barrett’s household was busy moving the most valuable weaponry off his Concord farm. The sight of the mounted officers caused Sgt. William Munroe to summon a guard at the Lexington parsonage. But again, news of the much larger column of soldiers increased the alert level in both towns, producing the full militia alarms.

It looked like this debunking was itself quickly debunked and didn’t affect early-20th-century recountings of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The letter itself appears to have stayed in private collections because authors continued to quote the published version only.

Then in 2014, Hancock’s letter to Gerry was displayed in an excellent exhibit at the Concord Museum. I saw it there and grabbed a brief quotation for The Road to Concord. (My transcription varies a bit from both the Gerry bio and this Times article, but not meaningfully.)

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