Historian Trots Out the Truth About Paul Revere's Famous Ride

PAUL REVERE didn't ride alone. That's no revelation to historians who've studied the facts of 1775, but it's still a little jarring to average Americans. The ``facts'' according to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are what stick in our minds.

One of the more intriguing byways in ``Paul Revere's Ride,'' a generally fascinating narrative by Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer, is a historiographic section in the back where he exposes all the myths associated with the intrepid Bostonian's ``midnight ride.''

``Longfellow's Myth of the Lone Rider'' is explained as a poetic effort to rally Americans for another great national cause - that of saving the union at the outset of the Civil War. When Longfellow published his poem in 1861, his countrymen were hungry for proof of what one man's bravery could accomplish in an ``hour of darkness and peril and need.''

The poem can still stir patriotic feelings, despite its skimpy ties to what actually happened. Fischer spends most of his book chronicling how far from a one-man show Revere's ride really was.

There were other riders that night too, alerting militias in a widening circle around Boston. The state of readiness evidenced months, if not years, of planning.

Fischer doesn't downplay Revere's role, however. If anything, he gives us a portrait of a man who was a linchpin in the movement to resist British rule - a movement that lacked a central unifying figure and relied on communication over a far-flung geographic area.

``Here was the source of Paul Revere's importance,'' writes Fischer. ``He knew everyone and moved in many different circles. In Boston this great joiner helped to link one group to another, and was supremely good at getting things done.''

Revere was off on rides to take missives to outlying ``committees of correspondence'' and warn of British moves against supplies of powder and arms long before his immortalized gallop through ``every Middlesex village and town.''

Fischer points out that for decades after the gunfire and bloodshed at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, some American politicians strove to preserve the popular view of those events as an unprovoked British attack on innocent and largely unprepared American yeomen. It was important that there be no question about who started the Revolutionary War.

Even Revere's early written recollections of his ride of warning, his capture by a British patrol, and his presence as the shooting began at Lexington were suppressed by leaders of his own Whig political faction, since he refused to confirm that the British fired first.

In fact, says the historian, the matter of who fired the first shot remains shrouded in confusion. Confusion, indeed, was the order of much of that day, as British regulars broke formation and rushed at American militiamen who were sometimes ably commanded and sometimes not.

Fischer's account of the battles at Lexington and Concord and the long, constantly harassed retreat of the regulars back to Boston will relieve any reader of the illusion that this initial engagement in the war for independence was somehow pristine or quaint.

It was brutal, dirty, and often cruel. One wounded British soldier was hatcheted to death by a crazed militiaman, which infuriated the regulars and intensified the killing.

One thing it was not, however, was spontaneous. Fischer carefully explains the lines of communication that Revere helped keep open. The rallying of thousands of militia to challenge the force sent out by Gen. Thomas Gage, the British royal governor of Massachusetts, took intricate planning. It also demanded that commanders think on their feet.

Even as the muskets rang out on Lexington common, Revere and a colleague were struggling to dispose of a trunk of confidential papers that had been left behind by John Hancock and Samuel Adams as they fled the approaching regulars.

``What made the difference was a complex sequence of contingencies, shaped by the interplay of individual choices and collective effort within a social frame,'' summarizes Fischer. That's a scholarly way of saying that, like most effective acts of war and rebellion, it was both ordered and messy.

This is not a ``scholarly'' book in the sense of being heavy or dull. It has suspense, for though most of us know the outcome of that day 219 years ago, the details here tell a story most of us haven't heard before.

Fischer succeeds in pushing aside both the mythmakers and the more recent debunkers of Revere, giving us a clear look at a true man of the people - a ``mechanic,'' as tradesmen were called - who responded remarkably to the needs of his day.

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