Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Romantic Resistance on Horse Back—Longfellow Myth Making

Paul Revere's ride as immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

April 18, 1775 was immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as the date of Paul Revere’s Ride.  But Revere, a prominent Boston silver smith and a leading member of the Sons of Liberty, was only one of dozens of couriers who spread the word that night and the following morning of the Redcoat advance from the city
Troops had been quartered in Boston since the port was closed by the Crown in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party in 1773.  Revere had been among the men who boarded the ship in semi-disguise as Indians
It was not his first connection to the Patriot movement. His shop had been producing political engravings protesting the Stamp Act in the 1760’s and he was a close associate of Dr. Joseph Warren.
Tensions mounted in the city culminating in a clash between armed troops and Patriot rowdies that became known as the Boston Massacre of 1770 which Revere recorded in an engraving that both stirred passions and was accurate enough in the placement of the victims of the shooting to be used in evidence in the trial of the British soldiers involved. 

Paul Revere, Patriot craftsman as famously portrayed by John Singleton Copley.

When Warren organized the Committee on Public Safety, Revere was a leading member. This organization, which has been described as the first American intelligence operation, set up networks to monitor and report on British military operations and developed a system of couriers.  Revere, leaving his shop mostly in the hands of his son, immersed himself in this work and often rode courier with reports from the Committee of Correspondence to New York. 
As conditions in the city grew worse, militias in the countryside began drilling and assembling arms.  Under British law these militias were perfectly legal—in fact all able bodied adult males were expected to be enrolled in the militia to act in defense of the colony or to be called to service by the Royal Governor. But the regular drilling, instead of yearly muster days, alarmed the authorities. As did the fact that John Hancock and other wealthy merchants were buying arms and powder
When the British learned that a significant armory was at Concord, they determined to seize it.  Despite attempts at secrecy, the Army’s intentions were quickly discovered by the Patriot intelligence network.  What they didn’t know was whether troops would advance by land across the narrow neck connecting the city to the mainland, or opt to cross the Bay by boat
Revere himself set up the signal system in the bell tower of the Old North Church, an Anglican church with Tory sympathies but whose steeple could easily be seen across the Bay and which had Patriot sexton

The forgotten man--William Dawes was the other courier rider to set out from Boston that night.

Revere crossed the bay by boat to Charlestown. Meanwhile another rider, William Dawes set out across the Boston Neck, getting past the sentries posted to stop such messengers by pretending to be drunk.  When Revere spotted two lamps in the Church tower, signifying a boat crossing of the bay, he sped off from Charleston on a borrowed horse.  Both he and Dawes alerted the countryside with the word “The Regulars are out,” not the “British are coming” for the simple fact that at the time New Englanders still considered themselves British
As the two dispatch riders converged on Lexington from different directions they alerted other riders and messengers, probably 40 or more in all, who fanned out over the countryside.  By relay, the word was passed as far as New Hampshire by morning
Revere dodged a Redcoat patrol on the road to Cambridge and was forced to detour through Medford.  Dawes took a round-about route through Roxbury. Revere arrived in Lexington about midnight and Dawes not long after.  They found Hancock and Sons of Liberty leader Sam Adams. 
After conferring for some time the two men set off to Concord with Dr. Samuel Prescott. The three riders were intercepted by a patrol at Lincoln. Dawes lost his horse but escaped on foot back to Lexington. Revere was captured.  Prescott jumped a stone wall and galloped off to Concord where he delivered the vital message the armory. 
Marching back toward Lexington with Revere at gun point, a rattle of musketry in the distance alarmed the officer in charge who took Revere’s horse and galloped to the scene releasing him on foot. Revere scampered cross country to Dr. Clark’s house where he found Hancock and Adams. 
Hancock wanted to stay for the fight, but Revere convinced the men that they were too valuable to the cause to be captured and helped them get on their way.  When he discovered that Hancock had inadvertently left behind a chest containing important Patriot papers, he rescued the documents while making his own escape.
The handful of Minute Men assembled hastily in the open on Lexington Green was no match for British Regulars.  But a significant force was raised to repel the advance at Concord Bridge and harry the Redcoats’ bloody retreat all the way back to Boston. 

We usually see Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a bearded patriarch in old age thanks to a widely used late life photo.  But in 1860 he was still a clean shaven Harvard professor in vigorous middle age shown in a portrait that year by Thomas Buchanan Read. 

Although Revere’s role in alerting the countryside was known, it was not particularly well celebrated until Longfellow took pen to paper in January of 1861.  He was inspired as much by contemporary events as by historical ones.  With the election of Abraham Lincoln, civil war was brewing. Longfellow hoped his poem itself would be a warning to his countrymen of the new danger.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

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,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.” 

Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. 

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,—a
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all. 

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a
sentinel’s tread,

The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,—
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
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.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.
It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.

He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock.

Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon. 

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.

And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!

For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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