We’ve all heard about the midnight ride of Paul Revere when he warned citizens the British were coming. What isn’t so well known is that Paul Revere was not the only patriot to ride and warn people that night.
The midnight ride was the last major event to occur prior to the start of the American Revolutionary War, but events leading up to the ride on April 18, 1775, began much earlier.
On May 10, 1773, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act. The Act had two purposes: 1) to help the struggling British East India Company survive, and 2) to sell tea at a lower price than the illegal tea that was being smuggled into the colonies. That would force the colonists to purchase British East India Company tea that had already been taxed, which would have also forced the colonists to indirectly accept the right of taxation by Parliament.
The Massachusetts colonists understood the true purpose of the Tea Act, and began mobilizing resistance to how the tea was being delivered. The end result of the colonists’ resistance was the tea ships in the harbor being boarded by colonists and the tea being dumped overboard. The Boston Tea Party occurred on December 16, 1773. In retaliation, Parliament passed legislation to punish Massachusetts colonists for their defiance. The Tea Party exacerbated an already tense situation, and is seen as the catalyst for the American Revolutionary War.
Express riders were hired by the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to deliver the news, as well as resolution copies, to different cities, including distant cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Paul Revere was employed as a rider from 1774 through the spring of 1775.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued a resolution concerning movements of General Gage’s army. The March 30, 1775 resolution stated:
“Whenever the army under command of General Gage, or any part thereof to the number of five hundred, shall march out of the town of Boston, with artillery and baggage, it ought to be deemed a design to carry into execution by force the late acts of Parliament, the attempting of which, by the resolve of the late honourable Continental Congress, ought to be opposed; and therefore the military force of the Province ought to be assembled, and an army of observation immediately formed, to act solely on the defensive so long as it can be justified on the principles of reason and self-preservation.”
On April 7, 1775, Paul Revere was sent to warn the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord of the possibility the British army might be preparing to move. A significant amount of Patriot military supplies were kept at Concord, which the residents moved following the warning.
The North Church caretaker was told by Revere to use a lantern to warn Charlestown residents if the British came. The caretaker was to put lanterns in the church’s steeple to indicate how the British were traveling. One lantern meant the British were coming by land, and two lanterns meant the British would row across the Charles River. This is the origin of the phrase “one if by land, two if by sea.”
By April 8, 1775, the only Patriot leaders still in Boston were Paul Revere and Dr. Joseph Warren. Samuel Adams and John Hancock had fled to Lexington because sources in London had notified them of the instructions the Earl of Dartmouth was sending to General Gage, that included capturing Adams and Hancock.
Britain’s General Gage, the military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and commander of approximately 3,000 British soldiers, received orders on April 14, 1775, from the Earl of Dartmouth, to confiscate the rebel weapons at Concord, and capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
On April 15, 1775, General Gage received information from a spy in the Provincial Congress that some of the colonies were trying to raise an 18,000 man colonial army. This was in spite of the fact that the Congress could not agree on the necessity of armed resistance.
A patrol of approximately 20 soldiers was sent into the countryside by General Gage on the morning of April 18, 1775, to stop anyone on horseback that might be a messenger. The actions of this patrol were different from previous patrols, including asking anyone they encountered if they knew where Samuel Adams and John Hancock were. This resulted in alarming the citizens, and the militia gathering in Lexington before Boston sent them a message.
Dr. Joseph Warren had received intelligence of a surprise attack on Lexington and Concord by the British which was about to commence. There was also concern the British would hunt for Adams and Hancock, as well as munitions being stored in Concord. At approximately 10 p.m. on April 18, 1775, after the British began moving their boats, Warren sent Paul Revere and William Dawes, a member of the Sons of Liberty, to Lexington to warn their leaders and alert militias in towns along the way. The message they both took said, “A large body of the King’s troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12 or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston and gone to land at Lechmere’s point.” They took different routes to increase the likelihood of success if one of them were captured.
Revere first went to the North Church and told the caretaker to put two lanterns in the steeple. Next, Revere crossed the Charles River to Charlestown. After making sure the signal had been seen by the Sons of Liberty committee, he went to a horse waiting for him and rode to Lexington, while some residents sent other riders north. As Revere continued to warn residents along the way, many of them also rode to warn residents. It was estimated that approximately 40 riders made a ride to warn people.
Dawes managed to get out of Boston just before the British stopped allowing people to leave the town, and rode directly to Lexington without stopping to warn colonists as Revere had. It is not known why he did this, but one theory is that he thought his mission was just to warn Hancock and Adams about the British army approaching. Dawes’ actions meant it took longer for the militia to prepare for the British than it took the militia along the route Revere had travelled. Dawes’ route was longer than Revere’s was, and it took three hours to travel the 17 miles to Lexington.
As it turns out, Revere shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!” is, unfortunately, a myth. Revere’s ride took him through areas where he would likely have encountered British patrols, and where the colonists considered themselves to be British, so not attracting attention was necessary for the mission to succeed. Eyewitnesses, and Revere himself, reported he said, “The Regulars are coming out,” when he warned citizens.
Arriving in Lexington at about midnight, Revere and Dawes, who had arrived half an hour later, met with Samuel Adams and John Hancock. After a discussion, they decided that Concord, not Lexington was the target of the British army. Revere and Dawes rode to Concord, with Dr. Samuel Prescott, one of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, as other riders warned neighboring towns.
At a roadblock near Concord, Revere, Dawes, and Prescott were stopped by a British patrol. Revere was the only one of the three that was captured. As Dawes was being chased by two soldiers, he rode to a farm house closeby and shouted, “Halloo, boys, I’ve got two of ’em!” Fearing they would be attacked, the soldiers rode off. Even though he had escaped capture, Dawes was injured and did not make it to Concord. Prescott was the only one to make it to Concord.
Revere was interrogated and held with other prisoners to be returned to Lexington. As the group neared Lexington, gunfire was heard. When questioned about it, Revere said it was a signal that would “alarm the country.” Revere and the other prisoners were freed as the British rode off to warn their leaders.
The significance of the midnight ride of Revere, Dawes, Prescott, and dozens of others cannot be emphasized enough. It provided time for the colonists to organize and prepare to battle the British, and also send a message that they would no longer tolerate the treatment they had been subjected to by the British.
The midnight ride itself was actually an “alarm and muster” system the colonists had created in the months leading up to April 18, 1775. An enhancement to a notification network used prior to the 1750’s, it consisted of messages delivered by various methods, including express riders, drums, alarm guns, and bonfires. This network allowed towns to quickly communicate with each other in case the militias needed to assemble to fight large numbers of British troops leaving Boston. As an example of how effective the communication system was, on the night of April 18th, British boats at Cambridge were still being unloaded by the troops as towns as far away from Boston as 25 miles were being notified of the British army’s actions.
The next day the American Revolutionary War began.