|Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth|
With those words, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere and the Old North ensuring their place in American folklore, tradition, and history.
However, he wrote those words more than 80 years after Revere made his famous ride. Whether he didn’t know all the facts or took some liberties with them for dramatic effect, Longfellow’s poem is not very good history.
For many months before Paul Revere made his ride, tension between the Colonists and British Troops had been on the rise, both in the city and in surrounding towns. The Royal Government (the British government in Massachusetts) wanted to ensure that troops would be able to secure the colony in case of rebellion. Orders went out to confiscate weapons that the Colonists had been storing throughout the countryside.
Several parties of British troops had been sent up the coast to confiscate ammunition in Salem and parts of what is now New Hampshire. In both of those cases, Paul Revere and other riders who were members of the Sons of Liberty, alerted the townspeople of the movement of British troops well before those troops could reach their destinations. The munitions were successfully hidden and the British troops were humiliated
When General Gage, the Commander of British forces in North America and a parishioner at Old North , decided to seize the weapons and ammunition at Lexington and Concord, he didn’t want to risk another humiliating failure, so he devised a secret plan. On the evening of April 18th, 1775, he would order his British soldiers cross the Charles River and march the remaining 15 miles to Lexington under the cover of darkness, arrive at sunrise to collect the armaments and return to Boston before the townspeople could organize their resistance.
Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty had prepared for this troop movement and set about to alert their countrymen that the British Regulars (the British soldiers, sometimes referred to as Redcoats) were heading their way. Sending just one rider into the countryside was far too dangerous this time. Revere asked Robert Newman, the church sexton or caretaker, if he would send a back-up signal to warn the patriots in Charlestown, just in case Revere himself was captured on his ride before he could spread the alarm that the British were on the move.However, someone found out about this secret plan—some believe it was General Gage’s maid, some believe it was his own American-born wife, Margaret Kimball Gage, who informed the leaders of the Sons of Liberty that the troops were on the move by way of the shorter water route across the inner harbor.
Paul Revere, who was not a member of Old North, knew it well because he had been a bell-ringer here as a 15 year old boy. He knew that lanterns shining from the steeple of the tallest building in Boston at the time would clearly be seen on the other side of the harbor.
Newman agreed to help, so about 10:00pm that evening, he entered through the front doors of the church. He then went up the stairs to the balcony and slipped through the doorway that is now behind the organ. From there he climbed the 14-story steeple in complete darkness. When he reached the very top, he lit and briefly held up two lanterns in the steeple window.
Although Newman hung the lanterns for probably less than a minute, it was long enough to be seen not only by the patriots, but also by the British troops. As Newman was coming down the stairs, British soldiers were at the front doors, trying to break in to investigate.
To escape arrest, Newman came down the center aisle, and escaped through the window to the right of the altar. It is now called the “Newman” window in his memory. Above the window is the replica of Newman’s lantern that was lit by President Gerald Ford on April 18, 1975, to begin our nation’s Bicentennial Celebration.
So here, from General Thomas Gage’s own church, the King’s own church, the lanterns which ignited the American Revolution, were shone ever so brightly.
For More Information about Paul Revere’s Famous Ride and Longfellow’s poem:
Poets.org is run by The Academy of American Poets, founded in 1934 to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. Amongst other things, they maintain a database of poetry, including the full text version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere’s Ride.
National Public Radio is an internationally acclaimed producer and distributor of noncommercial news, talk, and entertainment programming. Here, historian Jayne Triber reads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. She also discusses the background of Revere’s fabled ride, and the historical inaccuracies in Longfellow’s poem.