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The Real Story of Paul Revere’s Ride

On the evening of April 18, 1775, silversmith Paul Revere left his home and set out on his now legendary midnight ride. Find out what really happened on that historic night.

In the spring of 1860, Harvard professor and well-regarded romantic poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began working on a poem about an otherwise obscure messenger ride by American patriot Paul Revere on the evening of April 18-19, 1775. Longfellow hoped to use the story of Paul Revere’s ride as a vehicle to warn the American Union that it was in danger of disintegrating (which it was). Even though there is good evidence that Longfellow knew the real story of Revere’s ride (from Paul Revere’s 1798 letter to Dr. Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society, published in a magazine Longfellow had almost certainly read), Longfellow chose to simplify and re-arrange parts of the story in the interests of creating a better and more effective poem. In particular, Longfellow reversed the story of the famous signal lanterns hung in Christ Church tower to indicate that British troops had left Boston. According to Longfellow, Paul Revere was waiting “booted and spurred” in Charlestown across the river from Boston for the signal, whereas in fact Revere was still in Boston when the signals were shown. The signals were not “for” Paul Revere, but “from” Paul Revere to the Sons of Liberty in Charlestown, because Revere was apprehensive that he would be prevented from leaving Boston. 

 Longfellow also records Revere as arriving in both Lexington and Concord, when in fact Revere was captured outside of Lexington and never reached Concord (although his companion Dr. Prescott did). Perhaps most important is the fact that Longfellow presented Revere as a lone rider in opposition to the might of the British Empire, when in fact Revere was just a cog, although an important one, in an elaborate warning system set up by the Sons of Liberty to spread an alarm quickly and efficiently.  

Unlike some historical events, a great deal is known about Paul Revere’s ride, derived largely from his own accounts – the draft and finished version of a deposition taken soon after the Revolutionary War broke out, and the 1798 letter to Dr. Jeremy Belknap referred to above. On the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was sent for by Dr. Joseph Warren, the last major patriot leader left in Boston and a personal friend of Revere’s. When he arrived at Dr. Warren’s surgery, Revere found out 1) that British regular troops were preparing that evening to march into the countryside, probably to Concord, Massachusetts, to capture or destroy military stores that had been gathered there. This was no surprise, as such a movement had been expected for several days. 2) Dr. Warren informed Revere that he had just received intelligence from his own spy network that the troops planned to stop in Lexington, Massachusetts, on the road to Concord and arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, patriot leaders who were staying in a house owned by one of Hancock’s relatives (As it turned out, this intelligence was inaccurate). Dr. Warren “begged” Revere to stop in Lexington and warn Adams and Hancock to get out of the way of the British troops. Warren also informed Revere that he had already sent one messenger to Lexington – a Mr. William Dawes – who had taken the longer land route out Boston Neck, around Back Bay, and over the bridge into Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Harvard College.

After Revere conferred with Warren, he returned to his own neighborhood, where he contacted a “friend” (Revere was very careful not to identify anyone he did not need to, in case his deposition fell into the wrong hands) to climb up into the bell tower of Christ Church (today known as the Old North Church) to set the famous signals. The “friend” hung two lanterns, meaning the British planned to leave Boston “by sea” across the Charles River, as opposed to a single lantern, which would mean the troops planned to march entirely “by land,” by the same route William Dawes had taken. Presumably the water route would be shorter, although as it turned out the troops were so slow it really mattered very little which way they went. Revere then stopped by his own house to pick up his boots and overcoat, then made his way to the North End waterfront, where two “friends” waited with a small boat to row him across the mouth of the Charles River. Successfully passing by the British warship HMS Somerset, that had been anchored close by where the ferries normally crossed to Charlestown, the two men dropped Revere off near the old Charlestown battery just outside of town. Making him way into Charlestown, Revere met with the local Sons of Liberty, who verified that they had seen his lantern signals (which by then were no longer necessary). Revere then borrowed a horse from Charlestown patriot John Larkin (who actually had to get the horse from his father, Samuel Larkin) and then set off through the countryside northwest towards Lexington and Concord.

Narrowly escaping capture by a British patrol just outside of Charlestown, Revere charged his planned route somewhat and arrived in Lexington just past midnight. We do not know what he said at each of the houses along the road. We do know exactly what he said when he got to Lexington, however, as there was a sentry on duty outside the house where Adams and Hancock lodged, and that sentry, a Sergeant Monroe, later wrote down what happened. As Revere approached the house, Monroe told him not to make so much noise, that everyone in the house had retired for the night. Revere cried “Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long! The regulars are coming out!” Despite this, Revere still had trouble convincing the sentry to let him pass until John Hancock, who was still awake and heard the commotion, recognized Revere’s voice and said “Oh, you, Revere. We are not afraid of you” after which Revere was allowed to enter the house and deliver his news.

Revere’s deposition (draft and final copy) can today be found in the Revere Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, along with Revere’s 1798 letter to Dr. Jeremy Belknap.

Patrick M. Leehey is Research Director at the Paul Revere House in Boston, which is owned and operated as a museum by the Paul Revere Memorial Association since 1908. Follow the Paul Revere House on Facebook and Twitter, and check out a hypothetical diary of Paul Revere’s commentary on various contemporary events

From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on April 17, 2015.