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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Friday, April 13, 2018

How the Signal Lanterns Started to Glow in American Culture

For most of the nineteenth century, Americans didn’t care who hung the lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775. That’s because very few Americans had ever heard about that signal.

Paul Revere had mentioned the lanterns in the account he gave to the Massachusetts Historical Society around 1798, published in the society’s Collections series. He wrote:
I agreed with a Col. [William] Conant, & some other Gentlemen, in Charleston, that if the British went out by Water, we would shew two Lanthorns in the North Church Steeple; & if by Land, one, as a Signal; for we were aprehensive it would be dificult to Cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck. I left Dr. [Joseph] Warrens, called upon a friend, and desired him to make the Signals.

I then went Home, took my Boots and Surtout, and went to the North part of the Town, where I had kept a Boat; two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset Man of War lay. It was then young flood, the Ship was winding, & the moon was Rising. They landed me on Charlestown side. When I got into Town, I met Col. Conant, & several others; they said they had seen our signals.
However, Revere’s story didn’t get very wide circulation. It was reprinted in the New-England Magazine in 1832, but historians and textbook writers didn’t pick up on it. Revere’s name appeared in just a few books published in the first half of the 1800s, all discussing him as an engraver or as a leader in Boston manufacturing after the war.

That started to change in 1849 when Richard Frothingham published the first edition of his History of the Siege of Boston. In addition to drawing on Revere’s account, he published a corroborating document, a memorandum written by Richard Devens of Charlestown:
I soon received intelligence from Boston, that the enemy were all in motion, and were certainly preparing to come out into the country. Soon afterward, the signal agreed upon was given; this was a lanthorn hung out in the upper window of the tower of the N[orth]. Ch[urch]., towards Charlestown. I then sent off an express to inform Messrs. [Elbridge] Gerry, &c., and Messrs. [John] Hancock and [Samuel] A[dams]., who I knew were at the Rev. Mr. ——— [Jonas Clarke’s] at Lexington, that the enemy were certainly coming out. I kept watch at the ferry to watch for the boats till about eleven o’clock, when Paul Revere came over and informed that the T[roops]. were actually in the boats.
Over the next decade, several more authors mentioned the signals.

But what really made those lanterns famous was Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” published in The Atlantic in 1860. Longfellow used Revere’s account as his main source, but he indulged in a lot of poetic and narrative license. He made Revere the rider on “the opposite shore” awaiting those signals rather than the Boston organizer who’d arranged to send that information before crossing the river as a backup messenger.

Longfellow wrote of the silversmith:
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”
Longfellow’s poem made the lantern signal into a big deal, and not just because he provided the easily remembered “One if by land, and two if by sea” phrasing. Six of the poem’s fourteen stanzas describe Revere arranging for this signal, his friend gathering intelligence, his friend climbing the tower, Revere waiting for the signal, until finally “A second lamp in the belfry burns!” Revere’s actual ride goes by in a relative blur, even including the extra miles out to Concord that Revere didn’t get to travel.

Longfellow was one of America’s favorite poets at a time when poetry was part of pop culture. “Paul Revere’s Ride” became one of his greatest hits. Starting in 1861, therefore, the lanterns in the Old North Church steeple were embedded in America’s national origin myth.

Which made the identity of the “friend” Revere had asked to “make the Signals” a topic of great public interest.

COMING UP: Rival claimants.


G. lovely said...

Worth recalling that Longfellow's poem was published just before the start of the Civil War, and was as much an abolitionist call to arms as an ode to the Revolution as discussed in Jill Lepore's NYT piece from 2010:


J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I’ve discussed that aspect of the poem before. This series focuses on several years after the Civil War when “Paul Revere’s Ride” was no longer resonating with current events but had started to define how Americans understood (or misunderstood) their history.