Modern history

THE ALARM

image Paul Revere and the Other Riders

It must have been a preconcerted scheme in them.

—British Colonel Francis Smith
April 22, 1775

The men appointed to alarm the country on such occasions … took their different routes,”

—American leader John Adams,
April 19, 1775

IN THE TIME THAT Paul Revere remained a prisoner, his message traveled rapidly across the countryside. To many Americans, the legend of the Lexington alarm conjures up the image of a solitary rider, galloping bravely in the darkness from one lonely farmstead to the next. This romantic idea is etched indelibly upon the national memory, but it is not what actually happened that night. Many other riders helped Paul Revere to carry the alarm. Their participation did not in any way diminish his role, but actually enlarged it. The more we learn about these messengers, the more interesting Paul Revere’s part becomes—not merely as a solitary courier, but as an organizer and promoter of a common effort in the cause of freedom.

Earlier that evening, while Paul Revere was making ready for his own midnight ride, he and his Whig friends began the work of dispatching other couriers with news of the British march. While he was still in Charlestown, preparing to travel west to Lexington, arrangements were made for another “express” to gallop north with the news that he had brought from Boston. The identity of this other courier is not known. Many people heard him in the dark, but few actually saw him, and nobody recorded his name. He set out from Charlestown at about the same hour as Paul Revere himself. His route took him north, through the present towns of Medford, Winchester, Woburn, and Wilmington. So swiftly did he gallop on dark and dangerous roads that by two o’clock in the morning he was in the town of Tewksbury on the Merrimack River, twenty-five miles north of Boston. 1

Whoever he may have been, this messenger knew exactly where he was going, and what he was to do. When he reached Tewksbury, he spurred his horse through the streets of the sleeping village, and rode directly to the farm of Captain John Trull on Stickney Hill, near the town’s training field.

Captain Trull was the head of Tewksbury’s militia, and a pivotal figure in the alarm system that Whig leaders had organized during the past few months. He was awakened by the courier who told him, “I have alarmed all the towns from Charlestown to here.” Trull rose from his bed, and took up his musket. Still in his nightdress, he fired three times from his bedroom window. This was a signal previously arranged with the militia commander in the neighboring town of Dracut, north of Tewksbury on the New Hampshire border. 2

The sharp report of Captain Trull’s alarm gun carried across the Merrimack River, and the militia company of Dracut instantly began to muster. The hour was a little after two o’clock in the morning. At the moment when General Gage’s Regulars were still in the marshes of the East Cambridge, the news of their secret mission had traveled thirty miles from Boston to the New Hampshire line. These were 18th-century distances. Thirty miles was normally a long day’s journey in that era. 3

The astonishing speed of this communication did not occur by accident. It was the result of careful preparation, and something else as well. Paul Revere and the other messengers did not spread the alarm merely by knocking on individual farmhouse doors. They also awakened the institutions of New England. The midnight riders went systematically about the task of engaging town leaders and military commanders of their region. They enlisted its churches and ministers, its physicians and lawyers, its family networks and voluntary associations. Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs of Massachusetts understood, more clearly than Americans of later generations, that political institutions are instruments of human will, and amplifiers of individual action. They knew from long experience that successful effort requires sustained planning and careful organization. The way they went about their work made a major difference that night.

While the Tewksbury rider was galloping north, Paul Revere himself was on the road, traveling northeast from Charlestown to Medford. As we have seen, he had not planned to go that way, but once in the village of Medford, he went quickly about the task of awakening that community with remarkable economy of effort. He rode directly to the house of Captain Isaac Hall, commander of Medford’s minutemen, who instantly triggered the town’s alarm system. A townsman remembered that “repeated gunshots, the beating of drums and the ringing of bells filled the air.” 4

From Medford, Paul Revere’s friends started yet another express rider galloping to the northeast. He was Doctor Martin Her-rick, a young Harvard graduate who studied in Medford and worked in the town of Lynnfield, fifteen miles to the north. Several Whig messengers that night were physicians. In that far-distant era when American physicians made house-calls, a country doctor was apt to own the best saddle horse in town, and be a highly experienced rider. He also tended to be a “high-toned son of liberty,” So it was with Martin Herrick. He carried Paul Revere’s message of alarm northeast from Medford to the village of Stone-ham, then turned east toward Reading, where he roused the militia officers in the south precinct of that town. From Reading he rode to Lynn End, alarmed the militia company and later joined it as a volunteer on the march—a busy night for young Doctor Herrick. 5

Within a few hours, Doctor Herrick awakened a large area on the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay. He also set other riders in motion. One “express” was in Lynn by “early morn.” 6 Another galloped from Reading fifteen miles east to Danvers. A third rode fourteen miles north to Andover, where militiaman Thomas Boynton noted that “about the sun rising, the Town was alarmed with the News that the Regulars were on their March to Concord.” 7 Another resident of Andover, slower to get the word, wrote in his diary, “About seven o’clock we had alarum that the Reegelers was gon to Conkord we gathered at the meting hous & then started for Concord.” 8

Along the North Shore of Massachusetts, church bells began to toll and the heavy beat of drums could be heard for many miles in the night air. Some towns responded to these warnings before a courier reached them. North Reading was awakened by alarm guns before sunrise. The first messenger appeared a little later. 9

While the alarm was spreading rapidly to the north, Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs started yet another courier in a different direction—east from Medford to the town of Maiden. This express rider delivered the alarm to a Whig leader who went to an outcropping called Bell Rock, and rang the town bell. That prearranged signal summoned the men of Maiden with their weapons to a meeting place at Kettell’s Tavern. From Maiden, the alarm was carried east to Chelsea on the Atlantic coast. 10

Meanwhile, Paul Revere himself was carrying the same message west from Medford to the village of Menotomy. There again he started other messengers in motion. This was the part of his journey of which he later wrote, “I alarmed almost every house, till I got to Lexington.” 11 From some of those houses men rode north and northwest to the precincts above Cambridge and Menotomy. Captain Ebenezer Stedman, a prominent Whig leader, was awakened at an early hour. He sent an express rider to Captain Joshua Walker and Major Loammi Baldwin in Woburn, north of Menotomy. From Woburn village, Captain Walker sent a messenger riding west to Jonathan Proctor in the second parish, now the town of Burlington. The alarm was also carried to the northwest in the same way. All along Paul Revere’s route, town leaders and militia commanders were systematically engaged—a fact of vital importance for the events that followed. 12

Much of what happened that night was cloaked in secrecy, but repeated evidence indicates that Paul Revere played a unique role. From long association he was acquainted with leaders throughout the province. He knew who they were and where to find them, even in towns that he had not expected to visit. They knew him as well.

It is instructive in that regard to compare the conduct of Paul Revere and William Dawes, who went about their work in very different ways. Revere’s ride to Lexington covered nearly thirteen miles in less than two hours. His circuit was a broad arc north and west of Boston. In every town along that route Paul Revere met with Whig leaders—Richard Devens in Charlestown, Isaac Hall in Medford, probably Ebenezer Stedman in Cambridge, Benjamin Locke and Solomon Bowman in Menotomy. 13

William Dawes traveled a longer distance on a slower horse— nearly seventeen miles in about three hours. His route took him in a different direction, south across Boston Neck to Roxbury, then west and north through Brookline, Brighton, Cambridge, Menotomy, and Lexington. No evidence exists that he spoke with anyone before he reached the Clarke house in Lexington. It is difficult to believe that he did not talk with at least a few people on the road, but in many hundreds of accounts of the Lexington alarm, only one person remembered meeting him that night—Lexington’s Sergeant Munroe, who was unable to recollect his name and called him “Mr. Lincoln.” 14

Along Paul Revere’s northern route, the town leaders and company captains instantly triggered the alarm system. On the southerly circuit of William Dawes, that did not happen until later. In at least one town it did not happen at all. Dawes did not awaken the town fathers or militia commanders in the towns of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown, or Waltham. Probably he did not know them. As we shall see, Roxbury and Brookline and Watertown would receive the alarm in other ways, long after Dawes had passed. Waltham never received it at all.

The town of Waltham lay just west of Watertown and south of Lexington. Its northern border was only two miles from Lexington Green, closer than any other community. But the alarm system was not triggered in Waltham until much later the next morning, too late for its militia companies to join the fighting. Only a few farmers in the neighborhood called Waltham Farms, at the north end of town, heard the alarm. Some of these men would see action, but no company of militia from Waltham fought that day. Several historians have suspected that the community was Tory in its sympathies—which certainly was not the case. Two days later, more than 200 Waltham men were in the field with the New England army. Many would fight bravely at Bunker Hill and on other fields. But on the 19th of April they mustered too late, through no fault of their own. Anyone with experience of military service will understand what happened. In the jargon of another war, Waltham was among the 10 percent who never got the word. 15

The dogs that did not bark in Waltham and other southern towns were an important clue to the working of the alarm system, and to Paul Revere’s role that night. In North Waltham we find evidence that a knock on a farmhouse door was not enough to set the process in motion. Scattered homes received the warning, but military officers and town fathers were not notified, and the militia failed to muster in time. Here was further proof that Paul Revere and his fellow riders on his northern route succeeded in spreading the alarm by engaging the institutions of these rural communities, in a way that William Dawes did not.

None of this is meant to deny William Dawes his role in the Lexington alarm. His ride was firmly documented, most of all by Paul Revere himself, who was always careful to give Dawes a share of the credit. On other occasions before and afterward, Dawes proved himself to be a brave and resourceful man who believed deeply in the Whig cause and served it faithfully. He carried his message to Lexington just as Doctor Warren had requested, in the face of many dangers. But Paul Revere did that, and more. 16

When Dawes and Revere came together in Lexington, they began to work as a team. While they were at the Clarke house and the Buckman Tavern, other messengers were dispatched from Lexington center. Some rode east into parts of Cambridge that Revere had skirted on his detour to Medford. Lexington’s minister remembered that between 12 and 1 o’clock “two persons were sent express to Cambridge.” 17 The houses clustered around Harvard College received the news from the west at about two o’clock in the morning. Hannah Winthrop, who lived near Harvard yard, remembered that she was awakened by “beat of drum and ringing of bell,” a few hours before dawn. These were the drums and bells that the British Regulars themselves had begun to hear with growing concern, as they hurried on their way. 18

Two other Lexington men, Nathan Munroe and Benjamin Tidd, rode north from Lexington to warn the town of Bedford. They called at the house of Cornet Nathaniel Page, the color bearer of the Bedford militia, and shouted, “Get up, Nat Page, the Regulars are out!” Then they galloped west as far as Meriam’s Corner in Concord, delivered their news, and trotted back to Lexington by side roads, while Page spread the alarm to his Bedford company. 19

By that hour so many couriers were riding from Lexington Common across the countryside that Paul Revere and William Dawes were unable to find fresh horses for their trip to Concord. As they set out on their weary mounts, we have seen how they recruited Dr. Samuel Prescott to help them with his fresh animal. Here again, Revere and Dawes prepared carefully for contingencies, and worked out a plan in case they were captured. That act of individual foresight and collective effort made a vital difference.

Let us pick up Dr. Prescott’s trail. He was well mounted, and master of the ground. When Dawes was stopped and Revere was captured, Prescott put heels to his horse, and disappeared into the countryside that he knew so well. Revere remembered that “the Doctor jumped his horse over a low stone wall” and got away. Prescott picked his way in the darkness through woods and swamps until he had eluded his English pursuers, then returned to the main road and galloped on alone. As he had promised, Prescott spread the word through Lincoln and Concord, making an effort to awaken ministers, militia officers, and the family networks of outlying hamlets. He also recruited other couriers, in the same way that Revere and Dawes had recruited him.

On the road in North Lincoln, Doctor Prescott came upon a young man named Nathaniel Baker, who like Prescott himself had been out courting his fiancee Elizabeth Taylor at her house near the present Lexington-Lincoln line. A good many travelers that Spring night were young men on errands of love. Nathaniel Baker “received the alarm” from Doctor Prescott, and carried it to his kinsman Amos Baker, who awakened his father, four brothers, and brother-in-law. They in turn went to warn others throughout the town of Lincoln. 20

Still in Lincoln, Prescott also stopped at a blacksmith shop close to the road where one or two African slaves lay sleeping. The slaves carried the alarm to their mistress Mary Hartwell, who was in a nearby house with her newborn infant. So urgent did she think the news that she left her baby and ran across the fields to the home of militia captain William Smith and told him what she had heard. While Mary Hartwell hurried home to her baby, Captain Smith began to ring Lincoln’s town bell and mustered his company. The time was about two o’clock in the morning. 21

From Lincoln the news was also carried south to Weston. In that country town, Boston Whig leader Samuel Cooper had found refuge with the family of Samuel Savage near Daggett’s Corner in the north part of Weston, near the Lincoln line. He was awakened with the alarm by Mrs. Savage at about 3 o’clock in the morning. 22

While the warning was spreading to the south, Doctor Prescott galloped west into Concord center, and arrived there before two o’clock in the morning. He found someone to ring the Concord bell, then rode off to find the town’s minister, William Emerson, and the militia leaders. 23 Emerson noted in his diary, “This morning between 1 and 2 o’clock we were alarmed by the ringing of the bell, and upon examination found that the troops to the number of 800, had stole their march from Boston in boats and barges … this intelligence was brought us at first by Samuel Prescott who narrowly escaped the guard that were sent before on horses, purposely to prevent all posts and messengers from giving us timely information. … He by the help of a very fleet horse crossing several walls and fences arrived at Concord at the time aforementioned.” 24

While the town of Concord was awakening, Prescott stopped at his own home where he lived with his father and brother—three physicians under one roof. In the town’s tax list, they were assessed for four saddle horses, a greater number than any other household. Samuel Prescott asked his brother Abel to help spread the alarm. Abel quickly agreed, and went to saddle his horse—yet another physician who served as a courier that night.

Then, according to local memory, Dr. Samuel Prescott mounted his horse again and carried the alarm west from Concord into the town of Acton. He galloped to the house of militia captain Joseph Robbins. One of the children in that household remembered waking with a start, when the messenger “struck with a large heavy club … the corner of the house, never dismounting,” While the wooden building reverberated from that blow, Doctor Prescott cried in haste, “Captain Robbins! Captain Robbins! Up! Up! The Regulars have come to Concord.” Within minutes Captain Robbins mounted his “old mare” and carried the news to west Acton. He rode first to the house of Isaac Davis, captain of Acton’s minutemen. Then he continued to the home of Deacon Simon Hunt who commanded Acton’s “west company.” 25

Doctor Prescott galloped on, over a wooden bridge to the garrison house in South Acton where Major Francis Faulkner lived. In his nightshirt Faulkner fired his musket three times as fast as he could load—the prearranged signal for assembly in the town. Others repeated the signal. Major Faulkner’s young son later remembered listening in fascination as the signal guns echoed in the distance. 26

From Acton, a courier named Edward Bancroft took up the message and carried it northwest to the towns of Groton and Pep-perell. Another messenger galloped north to the town of Billerica, where the militia were awakened between 3 and 4 o’clock. They mustered on the Common and at Pollard’s Tavern. Yet a third express rider named Weatherbee galloped into Littleton in the early morning, and then continued across Beaver Brook Bridge to the towns beyond. 27

A prearranged system of beacon fires and signal guns was used to muster the militia in what is now the town of Carlisle, north of Concord and Acton. An historian of the town writes that they “were wakened by the cannon and musket fire relay signal system, gathered up their muskets, powder and ball, and began to assemble at the First Parish Meeting House in Carlisle Center at about 7 a.m.” 28

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While Doctor Samuel Prescott was alarming the towns west of Concord his brother Abel Prescott traveled south to Sudbury and Framingham. He went to Thomas Plympton, the leading Whig in Sudbury, and the town’s alarm bell began to ring about 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Warning guns were fired to summon militia companies on the west side of the Sudbury River and also in East Sudbury, now the green country town of Wayland. Within thirty-five minutes the entire town of Sudbury had been awakened.29

From Sudbury, Abel Prescott and other messengers continued south to Framingham and Natick, where the militia began to muster between 5 or 6 o’clock. The news was relayed from Framingham to Needham and Dover Farms by another “express” who was not known in those towns, but would be long remembered as the “bare-headed alarm rider.” He “brought the news to Bullard’s Tavern,” where “Ephraim Bullard fired three musket shots from the hill behind his house, giving the agreed-upon signal to arouse the town,” Distant parts of Needham were awakened by the trumpet of African slave Abel Benson. 30

From Needham the alarm spread east to Newton, and from Dover Farms it raced south into what is now Norfolk County, circling back toward Boston whence it had begun. 31 The large town of Dedham, a few miles southwest of Boston, did not get the word until about 9 o’clock in the morning, when the alarm arrived by way of Needham and Dover, in a wide circuit of express riders from the west and north. 32 Roxbury, next to Boston, was not alerted until dawn. William Heath, the ranking military officer in that town, remembered that he was not “called from his bed” until daybreak. Here again, the news that had left Boston seven hours earlier arrived from the west in a long circuitous journey. 33

In Watertown, the militia were not alarmed until word finally reached them indirectly from the northern towns that Paul Revere had alarmed, and from the western communities that had been awakened by the Prescotts. The alarm arrived in a manner that left the Whig leaders of Watertown in much uncertainty. While they debated what to do, Newton’s militia companies marched into town on their way to Lexington. The men of Watertown promptly joined them. 34

Thus the circle was complete. The alarm had passed from Paul Revere and William Dawes to Samuel Prescott, then to Abel Prescott, and on to other riders who spread the word to Natick, Framingham, Needham, Dover, Dedham, Roxbury, and Watertown,curving back to Boston in a great chain of alarm-riders. 35

To study in detail the spread of the alarm, and to observe the towns from which the militia marched to Lexington and Concord, is to understand another layer of significance in Paul Revere’s ride. In the flow of information one may discover the importance of the preparations he had made, the impact of his decisions along the way, and the role of his associations with other Whig leaders. Many of the links in that chain had been forged in advance. Others were improvised by Paul Revere and his friends who prudently prepared for the worst case. 36

Had they acted otherwise, the outcome might well have been different. A few hours’ delay in the alarm—perhaps less than that—might have been enough for General Gage’s troops to have completed their mission and returned safely to Boston before an effective force could muster against them. The result would have been a small success for British arms, and an encouragement to the Imperial cause at a critical moment. On the other side, the revolutionary movement would have lost a moral advantage that had a major impact on events to come.

What made the difference was a complex sequence of contingencies, shaped by the interplay of individual choices and collective effort within a social frame. A major event happened that night in a way that was profoundly different from the popular image of solitary hero-figures, and also from the naive determinism of academic scholarship in the 20th century. Here was another part of Paul Revere’s message for our time.

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