Paul Revere’s Midnight Rides
By Evan O’Connor
One of the questions visitors often ask at the Paul Revere House is how much of the Midnight Ride is fact versus fiction, and how we can be certain about the Ride’s specific details. It is a good question since in American history, particularly around iconic moments like the Midnight Ride, a story can be altered over the years and lose a strong connection to the historical reality. Fortunately for us at the Paul Revere House, Revere wrote down his version of the events three times over the course of his life. Two accounts were written shortly after the Midnight Ride was completed in 1775, and thus have a strong chronological tie to the actual event. The third account, written over twenty years later, included more historical context about not only the Midnight Ride, but the inner workings of the Sons of Liberty. In each case, the account from Revere was situationally specific and can be cross-referenced by other accounts from the time.
Revere wrote his first account of the Midnight Ride for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1775. The Congress wanted testimonials from colonists that certified that the British forces had fired first at Lexington on the morning of April 19, 1775. If the Congress could form a consensus that the British fired first and unprovoked in Lexington, then the Patriots could solidify their actions as self-defense and garner additional support from those on the fence about rebellion against Great Britain. Revere submitted an initial copy of his testimonial and then produced a revised version sometime shortly thereafter. The differences between the two accounts are minor with the second containing spelling and grammar corrections to the first.
In these accounts, Revere stated that he received instructions from Dr. Joseph Warren on the night of April 18, 1775, and around 10 P.M. he “was put across” the Charles River by rowboat and landed in Charlestown. Once he arrived in Charlestown, he rode via horseback towards Lexington. Revere is then short on details, noting that he avoided a British patrol straight away and then “proceeded to Lexington throu Mistick, and awaked Messr. Adams and Hancock and delivered my message.” About a half hour later, Revere was joined by William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, fellow members of the Sons of Liberty, to continue riding towards Concord. It is at this point that Revere goes into greater detail describing the action taken when British patrol came upon them. The three riders divided and only Revere was captured. Revere reported that his British captors were very hostile, threatening his life multiple times at gunpoint. After the British Regulars were done questioning Revere, they headed towards Lexington. Without much use of a prisoner, and a growing number of militiamen and gunfire in the area, the British released Revere a few hours before the main British force arrived in Lexington. They took Revere’s horse, and as they thought that he was of no further consequence, the British left him behind to continue on foot as they rode off.
In the testimonial, Revere stated that the local militia commander, most likely Captain John Parker, said that the colonists assembled on Lexington Green would not fight unless fired upon first. A house had blocked Revere’s view of the British Regulars and Minutemen militia, so he did not see, and could not attest to, who fired the first shot. As a result, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress did not include his testimonial in the official report that they released about the event. Overall the account and its corrected version are direct and to the point without many flourishes or background details.
Revere wrote his third and final account of the Midnight Ride in 1798. Jeremy Belknap, the Corresponding Secretary for the newly created Massachusetts Historical Society, wrote to Revere and other surviving Patriots about their actions and events during the American Revolutionary period. Revere consented to contribute his remembrances on the Ride as Belknap looked to compile foundational pieces for the fledgling society.
The third account does not factually differ from the first accounts. However, Revere augmented his story by including information that he did not know at the time of the ride or in writing his first two accounts. Namely, Dr. Benjamin Church, a prominent Patriot leader in 1775, was later exposed as a traitor to the cause. During the war when his actions were uncovered, Dr. Church was exiled from the United States and likely died in a shipwreck. A good portion of Revere’s third account is spent talking about Dr. Church being a spy for the British and disavowing his actions.
Revere’s final account also differs from his first two in that it is slightly sanitized. The Regular’s vulgarities towards Revere are removed and the British in general are presented as less demanding and menacing. Belknap published this final version with Revere’s name attached in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1st series, vol. 5, despite Revere initially requesting that his name not be included. Even in 1798, Revere wanted to stay anonymous for his actions for the Sons of Liberty, but we can only speculate as to why. Belknap’s publication and local prominence allowed Revere to be regarded as a local Patriot in the early nineteenth century while still being better known for his business ventures.
While Revere never earned widespread recognition for his Midnight Ride during his lifetime, he of course found posthumous fame. Forty-two years after his death, nationally renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride”. This poem propelled Revere to national fame as a Revolutionary War hero. Longfellow’s purpose was not to write a factual, yet poetic, account of the Midnight Ride but instead to use Revere as a call to active citizenship and the cause of antislavery in the lead-up to the Civil War. While Revere’s accounts were known at the time, Longfellow did not use them, hence the many historical inaccuracies of the poem. Namely, Longfellow lionized Revere as a lone rider and neglected to mention that Revere was captured. Longfellow had Revere shouting around the countryside, rather than attempting to stay under the radar and quiet to protect the secrecy of his mission. Ultimately, Paul Revere’s own words provide the best insight into the events of the evening of April 18, 1775. Despite the differences from the legendary Paul Revere and the actual Paul Revere, he retains an important position in our understanding of Colonial America and the Revolutionary War.
Evan O’Connor is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House
Revere, Paul and Edmund S. Morgan. Paul Revere’s Three Accounts of His Famous Ride. Massachusetts Historical Society Picture Book. Boston: [Massachusetts Historical Society], 1961.