Today in History: Paul Revere’s Legendary Ride

The Paul Revere Statue located near the Old North Church at 193 Salem Street, Boston.
The Paul Revere Statue located near the Old North Church at 193 Salem Street, Boston. –The Boston Globe

240 years ago today, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “the fate of the nation was riding’’ in a literal and figurative sense, on Paul Revere.

At least, that’s what popular legend would have us believe.

Between “Paul Revere’s Ride,’’ and history teachers across America, nearly everyone has heard the words “one if by land, two if by sea’’ and associates them with the heroic silversmith-turned-herald.

But how accurate is the tale?

The basics of Longfellow’s poem ring true. On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode through Middlesex County to warn of approaching British soldiers. But Longfellow’s account takes a little creative license on some of the more glamorous aspects of the historical night.

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According to OldNorth.com, the historical site of the legendary Old North Church, the true events were “far more interesting.’’

Here’s a game of fact or fiction for the anniversary of this piece of local, and national, history.

ON THE PLAN

“He said to his friend, “If the British march/By land or sea from the town to-night,/ hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch/Of the North Church tower as a signal light’’

According to the Paul Revere Heritage Project, Revere described using “Lanthorns’’ in a 1798 letter to then-Corresponding Secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Jeremy Belknap. Revere had instructions to notify Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and worried that he may not be able to leave city limits, due to the strict curfew imposed by the British.

ON SPOTTING THE LANTERNS

“And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height/A glimmer, and then a gleam of light’’

Revere departed Boston around 10pm, according to The Paul Revere House, and rowed across the Charles River to Charlestown. By the time he arrived, around 11 p.m., the lanterns had already been lit. So, unlike in Longfellow’s account, Revere did not himself see the lanterns, but rather was told by the local Sons of Liberty contingent that the signal had been seen.

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ON THE TIMELINE

“It was one by the village clock/When he galloped into Lexington’’

The timeline of the poem doesn’t quite align with the historical reports. Upon arriving in Charlestown, Revere borrowed a horse and began the hour-long ride to Lexington, where he warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the impending British army. This, according to The Paul Revere House, occurred at midnight.

ON THE SOLO RIDE

“So through the night rode Paul Revere;/And so through the night went his cry of alarm’’

The poem makes it seem like Revere did all of the work, but in reality, over thirty men were enlisted to help spread the message.

William Dawes was charged with the same task as Revere, via a different route. The two joined up in Lexington, and, accompanied by Samuel Prescott, continued on to Concord, according to The Paul Revere House.

Revere didn’t garner fame for his role in the evening’s events until the 1861 publication of Longfellow’s poem, according to History.com.

ON EVERYTHING GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN

“It was two by the village clock, When he came to the bridge in Concord town’’

Revere never made it to Concord. Around 1 a.m., British patrol stopped the three riders, according to the World History Project. Revere was briefly detained, while Prescott and Dawes escaped. Dawes later fell off of his horse, so Prescott continued to Concord alone.

Revere was eventually released, and made it to Lexington to witness the beginning of the battle on Lexington Green, and the start of the Revolutionary War.

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