“Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”
With these words an American poet and ardent abolitionist named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Paul Revere and Old North Church in American history and myth. Many of us may remember the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” but it doesn’t portray the true events of what took place on that fateful night. Longfellow wrote the poem 80 YEARS after Revere’s famous midnight ride when the country was on the brink of Civil War in 1860. He wanted to inspire people to join the Union army by demonstrating that one person could make a difference AND change history in the process. As we shall see, the only one really changing history was Longfellow himself through his creatively altered story. The real events of what took place on April 18, 1775 are far more interesting.
On that day, Boston was under British occupation by an army of 4,500 troops, under the direction of General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Tensions between the colonists and the soldiers had reached an all-time high. For months, Gage had been sending troops into the countryside to search for and capture arms and ammunition being stockpiled by the colonists. One particularly large stockpile was held in a town called Concord some 20 miles northwest of Boston. Gage decided to send out two regiments, roughly 700 men, to march out to Concord, capture the ammunition and end all hopes of an armed conflict.
Unfortunately for General Gage, like every time before, his secret plans were discovered by the patriot spy group known as the Sons of Liberty, who quickly hatched their own plan to counteract. They would send their two best riders ahead of the British army, William Dawes and Paul Revere. Dawes and Revere were not to ride all the way to Concord, where the British were headed, but to stop halfway in the town of Lexington. There they were to warn the two leaders of the rebellion, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. But Revere and Dawes were just two men and the fear of being caught was great. With military occupation came military curfews, which restricted when people could leave their homes. So Paul Revere devised a backup plan to make sure his message would leave Boston even if he could not.
Revere enlisted the help of over thirty additional riders. He placed them across the river in Charlestown and ordered the militia leaders to look to the steeple of Old North Church every night for signal lanterns, the number of which indicating when the British army was leaving Boston and by which route. One lit lantern meant the British would march over the Boston Neck, a narrow strip of land and the only road connecting the town to the mainland, which would take a considerable amount of time. Two lit lanterns in the steeple meant the British would take a shortcut by rowing boats across the Charles River into Cambridge, cutting valuable time off their journey. That’s where we get the famous line from Longfellow’s poem, “One if by land, two if by sea.”
When the British Navy put boats in the water on the night of April 18, 1775, the colonists knew which way they intended to leave. Paul Revere had two men come to the church that night. One was the sexton, or the church caretaker, Robert Newman. The other was a vestryman of the church and a close friend of Revere’s, named Captain John Pulling Jr. The two men came inside the church’s front door, locking it behind them and then climbed up either one of the staircases in the back corners. Once in the gallery, they squeezed behind the pipe organ and through a small door into the tower. They climbed a winding series of stairs and ladders eight stories high in total darkness. Once at the top, using flint and steel, they lit the two lanterns and held them out the window facing towards Charlestown for just sixty seconds. It doesn’t sound like a long time but it was all the time that was needed.
When Paul Revere arrived in Charlestown nearly an hour later, he was told that the lights had been seen and men were already riding. He borrowed a horse and began his own ride from there. The message would spread as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Connecticut. So the next morning on April 19, 1775, when the 700 British troops arrived in Lexington, they did not find the sleeping village they had hoped, instead they found an armed and waiting militia. The shots that were fired that morning became the first of the American Revolutionary War. 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.