“Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of”……William Dawes. No, that doesn’t work. “Of the midnight ride of …Samuel Prescott. No, that doesn’t work either; Oh, I have it: “Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Thus, Paul Revere became a legend and an icon in American history, and William Dawes and Samuel Prescott were left in the dust from Paul Revere’s horse, a footnote at best, if remembered at all.
Sadly, much of the history Americans know is founded on myths and legends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” did much to create a history rife with deliberate inaccuracies and gives all the glory to Revere. The truth, however, is almost completely different from the “history” of the poem, learned by countless generations of Americans in school, and carried through to adulthood.
In fact, until Longfellow wrote the poem, Revere, was known for his metalwork but not for Revolutionary War heroics anywhere in New England, let alone the rest of the country. He was locally well-known as an artisan and entrepreneur. When he died in 1818, his obituary made no mention of the “famous” ride. Just as Hollywood creates heroes, Longfellow created a heroic persona for Revere far beyond what he actually did.
Some Truth to the Story
While the events described in the poem all took place on the night of April 18, 1775, they were set in motion long before that. The possibility of a confrontation between British forces and colonists had been brewing for months. The colonist had prepared for just such an eventuality.
The most critical part of the preparation was prior warning. Paul Revere did play a part in these events, and he did arrange for the famous signal from the steeple of Christ Church (Old North Church) – one if by land and two if by sea. And it is true that he did participate in part of the ride that night to warn of British movements.
But beyond that, the majority of Longfellow’s poem amounts to fictional propaganda. He wrote it just before the start of the Civil War. Longfellow, an ardent abolitionist, designed the poem to stir up patriotic fervor, not to record history.
Straying From the Truth
“And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm…“ It didn’t take long for Longfellow to stray from the truth. Revere was not on the opposite shore in Charlestown. He was in Boston, on the shore near the Old North Church, and when he, “…with muffled oar Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore…” — he did it as a passenger. Two very brave and anonymous men did the rowing past the British guard boats.
“Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride, Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride, On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere…And lo! As he looks on the belfry’s height, a Glimmer, and then a gleam of light! He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight A second lamp in the belfry burns!” If he was impatient at all, it was on the Boston shore where he would have seen the signal, since he only crossed the water once the signal had been given. With a horse waiting for him on the “opposite shore,” he would have quickly mounted and gone on his way with little ceremony.
William Dawes, Too
It beggars belief to think the colonial leaders would assign such a critical task to just one man as Longfellow’s poem infers. Of course they didn’t. Revere was only one of at least two men specifically assigned to carry the message of the British movements to critical personnel and start the add-on affect of riders spreading out throughout the countryside.
They did it this way for a couple of reasons. First, one man could not possibly cover the area needed to reach all the important personnel. Secondly, they had to assume capture, so they needed redundant messengers. If one got caught, then another carried the same messages. In fact, Paul Revere and William Dawes just started a chain of riders that got bigger as the night progressed.
The idea that Revere, or any single rider, rode to warn every village and farm is staggering. In the first place, they didn’t have enough time to stop at every house to issue a warning. And that assumes they even knew how to find each house. Although Longfellow never claimed Revere rode along shouting “the British are coming, the British are coming,” this somehow got added to the legend.
It doesn’t make sense for three reasons. First, not every house held patriots. Many held loyalists, and British patrols were out everywhere. Riding by shouting their presence would have amounted to a very risky proposition.
Secondly, many homes were farmhouses, and not located on any main route. Going to every one would have taken days for one or two men.
Thirdly, anyone riding around in the dead of night, when everyone slept, shouting “the British are coming” would have been thought a crackpot. Since they were all British, the warning would have seemed nonsensical. And that assumes sleeping people would even hear them at that time of night.
The Real Reason They Rode
The riders did not blindly go from place to place hoping to find everyone to pass on the news. They all had specific targets – personnel they were tasked with warning. Those personnel would then get the message out to everyone who mattered. Most of the time, the riders knocked on doors to wake the residents up. Then they’d quickly convey the message that the Regulars (or Redcoats) were out, and then ride on to the next target. The messages were brief and to the point. By Revere’s own account, his message was, “The Regulars are coming out.”
In fact, two men, Paul Revere and William Dawes, Jr., set out at about same time, along different routes that eventually converged in Lexington. Alerting specific men, those men, in turn, rode out to warn others, and so on and so on. While Revere took the water route to Charlestown, Dawes took the longer land route out of Boston. He barely cleared the city before the Regulars shut it down. Dawes would have started sooner since it took time for Revere’s slow and silent rowboat ride across to Charlestown.
“It was one by the village clock, When he galloped into Lexington…It was two by the village clock, When he came to the bridge at Concord town…” Revere did make it to Lexington, joined a half hour later by Dawes. It was about midnight, not one as in the poem. That meant both Revere and Dawes set out somewhere near 11 p.m. They had as their ultimate mission at Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, spending the night in the town. Other riders then took over to spread the alarm around Lexington and the surrounding countryside. Here that they were fortuitously joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott, who just happened to be in town returning from an evening with a female friend at around 1 a.m. The three men now set off together toward Concord.
William Dawes and Samuel Prescott Escape
They never made it farther than Lincoln, 4.4 modern miles from Concord. Neither Revere nor Dawes saw Concord Bridge because a British patrol stopped them. The British captured Revere, but Dawes and Prescott managed to escape. Undoubtedly riding at breakneck speed, through unfamiliar fields and along farm roads, Dawes’ horse threw him. Apparently the horse continued on since Dawes, probably more than a little sore, had to walk back to Lexington. His night ride had ended.
Prescott, however, continued to Concord, and he, not Revere, passed the warning to Concord. Through all this, countless other nameless riders actually spread “…the alarm Through every Middlesex village and farm…”
Revere and the Regulars
When questioned by the patrol, Revere seems to have had no problem bragging to the British that he knew of the army’s movement from Boston. He also knew the militia were gathering at Lexington to meet them. Revere wasn’t the only one being held by the patrol, and they all set off back toward Lexington. As the British patrol and its prisoners neared Lexington, they could hear sporadic shots and the ringing of bells. Revere told the major commanding the patrol that these were the alarms to warn the countryside of the coming of the Regulars. At this point, discretion became the better part of valor for the British. They released their prisoners and set off to warn their coming compatriots, but not before confiscating Revere’s horse.
On foot now, Revere walked back to the Rev. Jonas Clarke’s house, where Hancock and Adams stayed. The whole area was abuzz, and Clarke’s house must have been in disarray. Hancock and Adams needed to leave. They may have heard the firing on Lexington Green as they fled the area, assisted by Revere.
The Forgotten Man
Mostly forgotten in all of this: Dr. Prescott. He didn’t belong to the original plan to spread the warning. Rather than run after escaping the British patrol, he continued on to Concord,. With great courage, since he had almost been captured at the edge of town, stopped at several houses in Lincoln to raise the alarm. Other nameless riders set off from there. Reaching the sentry at Concord, Prescott further spread the word. The Concord First Parish Church bell then began the general alarm.
Prescott then rode to his brother Abel’s house and told him to ride to Sudbury with the alarm. He continued on to Acton and Stowe, continuing to spread the warning.
After the Ride
After the Lexington and Concord battles, Revere couldn’t return to Boston, now under siege. He tried to get a commission in the army but was refused. He continued to offer his services, however, and was initially used as a courier and in an effort to produce more gunpower. Nine months after Bunker Hill, Revere was involved, with others, in a successful effort to find and recover his friend Joseph Warren’s body from the battlefield. In April 1776 he was commissioned an infantry major in the Massachusetts Militia and transferred to the artillery a month later.
In November 1776 he won promotion to lieutenant colonel and stationed at Castle William, defending Boston Harbor. He spent the next two years quietly, broken only by the occasional prisoner escort and two brief deployments to Rhode Island. In the summer of 1779, he commanded an artillery detachment during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition. As one of the senior leaders of the campaign, his enemies later tried to lay blame on him. Although the hearings reached no conclusion, Revere was asked to resign. Rather than resign, however, he demanded a court-martial, which cleared him in February 1782.
After the war, already a renowned silversmith, he invested in an iron-working foundry. With its success, he expanded further into bronze casting and rolled copper. In 1801 he founded the Revere Copper Co., now called Revere Copper Products, and headquartered in Rome, N.Y.
Revere died on May 10, 1818 in his home on Charter Street, Boston. He is buried at the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street.
Paul Revere’s home in Boston’s North End, a stone’s throw from Old North Church, is preserved as a museum. A statue of him astride his horse stands in the park in back of the church.
William Dawes, Jr.
It is not clear what William Dawes, Jr. did in the aftermath of the ride. His story picks up again on 9 Sept. 9,1776, with his commission as a major in a Boston militia regiment. He saw no action during the war, serving mostly as a quartermaster in central Massachusetts. He also served as a prisoner escort for British prisoners from the battles at Saratoga.
Dawes must have still served in the militia in some capacity after the war because he refused to join a punitive expedition against Indians. On Feb. 25, 1799, Dawes died in Marlborough, Mass. Believed to have been buried at the King’s Chapel Burying Ground where he has a tomb marker, there is some speculation that he is buried in his wife’s plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
A traffic island in Cambridge, Mass., has a bronze plaque denoting the route of his ride, along with bronze horseshoes set in the pavement.
His family name did not fade from history, however. Among other notable Dawes relations, his great-grandson, William Dawes, served as a Union officer in the Civil War. One of William’s sons, Charles Gates Dawes, served as the 30th vice president of the United States under Calvin Coolidge. He also won a Nobel Prize in 1925 for his work on the Dawes Plan for World War I reparations.
Dr. Samuel Prescott
Little is known about Dr. Samuel Prescott after his ride. A man of that name is recorded at Fort Ticonderoga, and another in a British prison in Halifax. There is no evidence beyond the name to indicate that either of these men is the Dr. Samuel Prescott that rode to Concord. One account claims he died in prison in 1777 but evidence is lacking. While most have forgotten Prescott’s ride, Concord remembers it yearly at midnight on April 18 and Acton on Patriot’s Day.
Unquestionably, Paul Revere, William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott performed an extremely valuable service that night. Without their timely warning, events at Lexington and Concord may have been very different. But during their lifetime, they were never iconic Revolutionary War heroes. Without Longfellow’s assistance, Revere undoubtedly would have been remembered solely for his superb silver work and for his entrepreneurship with iron and copper. In a sense, Longfellow may have done Revere, Dawes and Prescott a favor by calling attention to the ride, which probably would have been nothing more than a minor footnote without the poem.
Charles Gates Dawes is the author’s 9th Cousin, 2 times removed. However, he did not realize his relationship to William Dawes until he researched this article. William Dawes is not a relative of his.
Images: Paul Revere Capture Site, photo taken by By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11394644.