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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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Capt. Thomas Barnard and the Signal from Old North

Last spring I wrote a bunch of postings about the debate over who hung the signal lanterns from Old North Church on 18 Apr 1775, John Pulling or Robert Newman.

My conclusion: They were both involved, and in fact the earliest stories told by their descendants each mention another man, who was probably the other claimant. There’s no need for a debate.

However, a third name comes up in those accounts: sea captain Thomas Barnard. This posting is an attempt to sort out his place in the historiography of the event.

A 30 Dec 1873 Boston Traveler article (quoted here) credited sexton Robert Newman with hanging the lanterns and mentioned his “friend, a sea captain, who was watching the movement of the regulars.” That same article said (following the Longfellow poem) that Paul Revere was on the opposite shore of the Charles, which elevated Newman’s role but was wrong.

When the Rev. John Lee Watson first complained that Newman was being honored for the work he’d grown up hearing credited to his relative John Pulling, he wrote to the rector at the church. The Rev. Henry Burroughs wrote back noting how multiple people supported the Newman family account, including (as Watson put it in his letter in the 20 July 1876 Boston Daily Advertiser):
William Green, who lives at the North End, is the grandson of Captain Thomas Barnard. His sister, eighty-four years old, remembers Robert Newman.
The Barnard name thus came up first as someone whose grandchild remembered Newman. There was no claim to the man’s own role in signaling the Patriots of Charlestown.

Two years later, in his History of Paul Revere’s Signal Lanterns, April 18, 1775, William Willder Wheildon expanded on that story:
Miss Maria Green, living in Weston, born in 1793, is a daughter of William Green, who lived in Boston, near the North Church, where also her grand parents resided. She heard many times from her mother the story of the lanterns, and says, “I distinctly remember that she said her father, Capt. Thomas Barnard, was engaged on that night in watching the movements of the troops in order to obtain for Robert Newman the necessary information concerning their departure. Our family were familiar with the story of hanging out the lanterns owing to the connection of Capt. Barnard with it, and we never heard the act ascribed to any other person than Robert Newman, or to any other place than Christ Church.”

Mr. Green, a brother of the lady above mentioned, who died recently in Boston, is known to have made a similar statement.
Thomas Barnard’s grandchildren thus claimed that he was part of the story of 18-19 April, but only in watching the British troops (as many Bostonians had). They also suggested that Newman himself gathered information on the troops’ movements rather than taking direction from Dr. Joseph Warren through Revere.

Thomas Barnard was a ship’s captain who lived at one point on Middle Street. He was active in Boston maritime life and business until his death at age sixty-two in 1803. He may have been the Capt. Thomas Barnard who commanded the New York packet, often mentioned in the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap’s letters because he was always sending things to friends there. (This Barnard is distinct from the Rev. Thomas Barnard of Salem who played a big role in “Leslie’s Retreat”; to confuse matters further, that minister’s meetinghouse has also been called “the old North Church.”)

In the twentieth century Thomas Barnard’s role in the lantern-hanging shifted—without, as far as I can see, any new evidence coming to light. In Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942), Esther Forbes wrote of the lantern-hanging:
One of the vestrymen at Christ’s, John Pulling, went with Newman, as probably did Revere’s neighbor, Thomas Barnard.
In a note Forbes added, “What Revere’s next-door neighbor, Barnard, was doing is even vaguer [than details about Pulling and Newman], but tradition says he did something.”

Fifty years later, in Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), David Hackett Fischer described this scene in detail:
On the afternoon of April 18, Revere alerted Newman and Pulling, and also another friend and neighbor, Thomas Bernard [sic], and asked them to help with the lanterns.

It was about 10 o’clock in the evening when Paul Revere left Dr. Warren’s surgery. He went quickly to the Newman house at the corner of Salem and Sheafe streets. As he approached the building, he peered through the windows and was startled to see a party of British officers who boarded with Mrs. Newman playing cards at a parlor table and laughing boisterously among themselves. Revere hesitated for a moment, then went round to the back of the house, and slipped through an iron gate into a dark garden, wondering what to do next.

Suddenly, Newman stepped out of the shadows. The young man explained that when the officers sat down to their cards, he pretended to go to bed early. The agile young sexton retired upstairs to his chamber, opened a window, climbed outside, and dropped as silently as a cat to the garden below. There he met Pulling and Bernard, and waited for Revere to arrive.

Revere told his friends to go into the church and hang two lanterns in the steeple window on the north side facing Charlestown. He did not stay with them, but hurried away toward his own home. The men left him and walked across the street to the Old North Church. Robert Newman tugged his great sexton’s key out of his pocket and unlocked the heavy door. He and Captain Pulling slipped inside, while Thomas Bernard stood guard.
This seems to be an attempt to reconcile the claims of both Pulling’s and Newman’s descendants that their ancestor actually hung the lanterns while keeping someone at watch down below. In turn, Fischer’s authoritative telling shaped the story in several books published in this century.

But, as I said, I’ve found no claim that Barnard actually was at Old North that night.

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