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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Monday, May 03, 2010

Comparing Bissell and Revere

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 Revere
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.
But such praise for Bissell over Paul Revere is based on some important misunderstandings.

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.)


George Lovely said...

For anyone like me who, while growing up, learned little about Revere aside from Longfellow's poem, David Hackett Fischer "Paul Revere's Ride" is both fascinating and revelatory.
As the book makes clear, P.R. wasn't just some guy equipped with a horse and a loud voice, but really was what today might be called a 'community organizer'.

Tess said...

Yes, George, I fully agree. I just read "Paul Revere's Ride" about four months ago, and from the very first page, I found I couldn't put it down. Truly it is an outstanding book, that deserves high praise, and many times since then I've asked myself, seriously, "why didn't I learn about the whole thing in my elementary studies?" The entire midnight affair from Warren to Newman, to Prescott, to Dawes, to Lowell and nameless others is far from what many today believe and have come to accept. P.R. is a national hero, and deserves such as does David Hackett Fischer for his stirring rendition of a story that many consider as just "history."