The Midnight Ride as a Collective Effort
I told them what was acting, and went to git me a horse.
—Paul Revere’s account of the midnight ride, 1798
LATE IN THE AFTERNOON of April 18, 1775, a stable boy sprinted through the busy streets of Boston. He ran from -J Province House off Marlborough Street to the close-built neighborhood of the North End. When he reached Paul Revere’s place he dashed through the door and announced his news—the Regulars were ready to march!
Catching his breath, the boy told Paul Revere what he knew. A friend was a hostler at a livery stable where the Regulars kept their horses. Earlier that day, several officers had gone there to work on their riding tack. As they tugged at their bridles and saddlery, they talked in low tones among themselves. From time to time, a voice rose high enough for the eavesdropping groom to hear a snatch of conversation—something about “hell to pay tomorrow!” 1
Paul Revere listened as the boy told his story, and thanked him for coming. “You are the third person who has brought me the same information,” he confided. All that day, Bostonians had noticed signs of activity in the British garrison. An “uncommon number of officers” were seen striding up and down Boston’s Long Wharf, and talking earnestly among themselves on the far end of the pier that extended far into the waters of Massachusetts Bay. It was the only place in town that was safe from Yankee ears. 2
At noon, people on the waterfront heard the high-pitched squeal of boatswains’ pipes aboard British warships in the harbor, and the screech of heavy tackle. The townfolk could see crewmen bustling about the ships’ longboats that were moored beneath the towering sterns of HMS Somerset and HMS Boyne.
In the early afternoon, several British seamen were sent ashore on various errands. In the immemorial way of sailors everywhere, some of them stopped for a quick pint at a waterfront tavern. Others may have found a moment to run upstairs with enterprising Yankee whores, who were renowned across the Seven Seas for the energy and speed of their transactions (the impact of the Puritan Ethic on the oldest profession was not precisely as the Founders had intended). 3
Instantly, the navy’s orders were known throughout the town. Boston was still a small community in 1775. In the manner of small towns, it soon learned every step that the Regulars were taking. Alert officers in the British garrison were equally quick to know that Boston knew. Frederick Mackenzie, the sharp-eyed adjutant of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, noted in his diary, “The town was a good deal agitated and alarmed at this movement, as it was pretty generally known by means of seamen who came on shore from their ships, about 2 o’clock, that the boats were ordered to be in readiness.” 4
Other signs of impending movement were also noticed by the people of Boston. Late in the afternoon, a British light infantryman was seen in a shop “with his accoutrements on.” 5 As evening fell, people watched from the waterfront as the navy’s longboats began to move about the harbor, looking from a distance like small black beetles crawling across the surface of the water. The boats rowed toward HMS Boyne, and tied up together alongside her dirty, salt-stained hull. 6
These movements were reported to Paul Revere and Joseph Warren. Only a few Whig leaders remained in Boston. Some were sitting with the Committees of Safety and Supplies in Cambridge. Others had fled in fear of arrest. John Hancock and Samuel Adams had left town several weeks earlier to attend the Provincial Congress in Concord, and had thought it prudent to remain in the country.
In their absence, Doctor Joseph Warren’s office became a clearing house for information. In the highly charged atmosphere of Boston, scarcely an hour passed without some new rumor or alarm. Doctor Warren had become highly skilled at diagnosing these political symptoms. On the afternoon of April 18, as these reports suddenly multiplied, he began to suspect that the Regulars were at last about to make the major move that had long been expected. 7
Doctor Warren was a careful man, and he decided to be sure. For emergencies he had special access to a confidential informer, someone well connected at the uppermost levels of the British command. The identity of this person was a secret so closely guarded that it was known to Warren alone, and he carried it faithfully to his grave.
Doctor Warren’s confidential source was someone very near the heart of the British command, and so much at risk that he—or she—could be approached only in a moment of dire necessity. As evidence of British preparations began to mount, Warren decided that such a time had come. One who knew him wrote later that he “applied to the person who had been retained, and got intelligence of their whole design,” The informer reported that the plan was “to seize Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were known to be at Lexington, and burn the stores at Concord. 8
Dr. Joseph Warren (1741-75), was a gentleman-revolutionary. Admired by his friends and respected even by his enemies, he contributed a quality of character to the Whig cause. This animated oil sketch by John Singleton Copley occupied the place of honor over the parlor fireplace in the Adams family home. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Adams National Historic Site, Quincy, Massachusetts.
We shall never know with certainty the name of Doctor Warren’s informer, but circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it was none other than Margaret Kemble Gage, the American wife of General Gage. This lady had long felt cruelly divided by the growing rift between Britain and America. Later she confided to a close friend that her feelings were those spoken by the lady Blanche in Shakespeare’s King John:
The Sun’s o’ercast with blood; fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both: each army hath a hand;
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me. …
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose.
Assured loss, before the match be played. 9
Margaret Gage made no secret of her deep distress. In 1775, she told a gentleman that “she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen.” 10
Her loyalty came to be suspected by both sides. The well-informed Roxbury clergyman William Gordon wrote that Dr. Warren’s spy was “a daughter of liberty unequally yoked in the point of politics.” 11 Many British officers, including Lord Percy and General Henry Clinton, believed that General Gage was “betrayed on this occasion” by someone very near to him. Some strongly suspected his wife. 12
Even Gage himself appears to have formed his own suspicions. Earlier that same evening, he had summoned Lord Percy and told him that he was sending an expedition to Concord “to seize the stores,” Percy was admonished tell nobody—the mission was to remain a “profound secret.” As he left the meeting and walked toward his quarters, he saw a knot of eight or ten Boston men talking earnestly together on the Common. Percy approached them to learn what they were discussing. One man said:
“The British troops have marched, but will miss their aim,”
“What aim?” Lord Percy demanded.
“Why, the cannon at Concord.”
Percy was shocked. He hastened back to the general, and told him that the mission had been compromised. Gage cried out in anguish that “his confidence had been betrayed, for he had communicated his design to one person only,” besides Percy himself. 13
Before this fatal day, Gage had been devoted to his beautiful and caring wife. But after the Regulars returned from Concord, he ordered her away from him. Margaret was packed aboard a ship called Charming Nancy and sent to Britain, while the General remained in America for another long and painful year. An estrangement followed after Gage’s return. All of this circumstantial evidence suggests that it is highly probable, though far from certain, that Doctor Warren’s informer was indeed Margaret Kemble Gage—a lady of divided loyalties to both her husband and her native land. 14
After hearing from his secret source, Dr. Warren sent an urgent message to Paul Revere, asking him to come at once. The time was between 9 and 10 o’clock when Paul Revere hurried across town. “Doctor Warren sent in great haste for me,” Revere later recalled, “and begged that I would immediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement, and that it was thought they were the objects.” 15
Paul Revere’s primary mission was not to alarm the countryside. His specific purpose was to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were thought to be the objects of the expedition. Concord and its military stores were also mentioned to Revere, but only in a secondary way. 16
Warren appears to have known or suspected that British officers were patrolling the roads west of Boston. To be sure that the message got through, he told Revere that he was sending duplicate dispatches by different routes. One message had been entrusted to William Dawes, a Boston tanner. Dawes was not a leader as prominent as Revere, but he was a loyal Whig, whose business often took him through the British checkpoint on Boston Neck. As a consequence the guard knew him. He was already on his way when Revere reached Doctor Warren’s surgery. Another copy of the same dispatch may have been carried by a third man. 17
Dawes and Revere carried written messages, which Lexington’s Congregational minister later copied into his records: “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.” Warren’s estimate exaggerated the strength of the British expedition, but was accurate in every other detail. 18
The messengers took different routes. William Dawes left town across Boston Neck—no small feat. He had to pass a narrow gate, closely guarded by British sentries who stopped all suspicious travelers. Dawes was remembered to have been “mounted on a slow-jogging horse, with saddle-bags behind him, and a large flapped hat upon his head to resemble a countryman on a journey.” 19
William Dawes, Jr. (1745-99), was one of many Whig “expresses” who carried the Lexington Alarm. A Boston tanner of old Puritan and East Anglian stock, he was asked to be a courier on April 18, perhaps because his work often took him through the British “lines” on Boston Neck, and he knew many of the guard. (Evanston Historical Society)
Some say he attached himself to another party; others, that he knew the sergeant of the guard and managed to talk his way through. According to one account, a few moments after he passed the British sentries, orders arrived at the guardhouse, stopping all movement out of town. Once safely across the Neck, William Dawes eluded the British patrols in Roxbury, and rode west through Brookline to the Great Bridge that spanned the Charles River at Cambridge. 20
Paul Revere made ready to leave in a different direction, by boat to Charlestown. His journey was not a solitary act. Many people in Boston helped him on his way—so many that Paul Revere’s ride was truly a collective effort. He would be very much surprised by his modern image as the lone rider of the Revolution.
Revere had anticipated that the Regulars might try to stop all communications between Boston and the countryside. He would have remembered keenly his failure to warn the people of Salem in February, when Colonel Leslie’s men held three of his fellowmechanics prisoner in Boston harbor until the expedition was on its way. The problem had been percolating in his mind for several weeks. Only the Sunday before, on his way home from Concord, Paul Revere had stopped at Charlestown and discussed the matter at length with Colonel William Conant and the Whig leaders of that town. Together they worked out a set of contingency plans for warning the country of any British expedition, even if no courier was able to leave town. 21
Later Paul Revere recalled, “I agreed with a Colonel Conant and some other gentlemen, that if the British went out by water, we would shew two lanthorns in the North Church steeple, and if by land, one, as a signal, for we were apprehensive it would be difficult to cross the Charles River, or git over Boston neck.” 22
Revere called his signal lights “lanthorns,” an archaic expression in England by 1775, but still widely used in Massachusetts, where translucent lantern-sides continued to be made in the old-fashioned way from paper-thin slices of cow-horn. These primitive devices emitted a dim, uncertain light. The problem was to make them visible from Boston to Charlestown, more than a quarter-mile distant across the water. 23
Paul Revere and his friends agreed that the best place to display such a signal was in the steeple of Christ Church, commonly called the Old North Church. In 1775 it was Boston’s tallest building. Its location in the North End made it clearly visible in Charlestown across the water. 24 But there was a problem. Christ Church was Anglican. Its rector was an outspoken Loyalist, so unpopular with his congregation that his salary had been stopped and the Church closed. As always, Paul Revere had several friends who could help. He was acquainted with a vestryman of Christ Church named Captain John Pulling, a staunch Whig and a member of the North End Caucus. Pulling agreed to help. 25
Revere also knew the sexton of Christ Church, a young artisan named Robert Newman, who came from a prominent North End family that was down on its luck in 1775. Like many Boston families, the Newmans were a transatlantic cousinage, with branches in East Anglia and Massachusetts. Robert Newman’s uncle was Sir Thomas Newman, Lord Mayor of Norwich. His father had been a prosperous Boston merchant, who built a big three-story brick house in the North End, with massive chimney stacks and a cupola that looked out upon his ships in the harbor. When Robert Newman was two years old, the family’s fortunes were shattered by his father’s death. His mother was forced to convert their handsome home into a boarding house, and Robert was apprenticed to a maker of leather breeches. Like many others in Boston, the Newman family was hard-pressed in 1775. They earned a few shillings by renting rooms to British officers, whom they disliked and resented. Robert Newman was unable to find work in his trade and could get employment only as a church sexton, a job that he despised. When Paul Revere asked him to help, he was happy to agree. Revere had chosen well. Robert Newman was known in the town as “a man of few words,” but “prompt and active, capable of doing whatever Paul Revere wished to have done.” 26
On the afternoon of April 18, Revere alerted Newman and Pulling, and also another friend and neighbor, Thomas Bernard, and asked them to help with the lanterns. They were warned to be ready that night. 27
It was about 10 o’clock in the evening when Paul Revere left Dr. Warren’s surgery. He went quickly to the Newman house at the corner of Salem and Sheafe streets. As he approached the building, he peered through the windows and was startled to see a party of British officers who boarded with Mrs. Newman playing cards at a parlor table and laughing boisterously among themselves. Revere hesitated for a moment, then went round to the back of the house, and slipped through an iron gate into a dark garden, wondering what to do next.
Suddenly, Newman stepped out of the shadows. The young man explained that when the officers sat down to their cards, he pretended to go to bed early. The agile young sexton retired upstairs to his chamber, opened a window, climbed outside, and dropped as silently as a cat to the garden below. There he met Pulling and Bernard, and waited for Revere to arrive. 28
Revere told his friends to go into the church and hang two lanterns in the steeple window on the north side facing Charlestown. He did not stay with them, but hurried away toward his own home. The men left him and walked across the street to the Old North Church. Robert Newman tugged his great sexton’s key out of his pocket and unlocked the heavy door. He and Captain Pulling slipped inside, while Thomas Bernard stood guard.
Newman had found two square metal lanterns with clear glass lenses, so small that they could barely hold the stump of a small candle. Earlier that day he had carefully prepared the lanterns, and hidden them in a church closet. Newman took them from their hiding place. The men hung the lanterns round their necks by leather thongs, and stuffed flint and steel and tinder boxes into their pockets. They climbed the creaking stairs, 154 of them, high into the church tower. At the top of the stairs they drew out their flints, and with a few practised strokes sent a stream of sparks into a nest of dry tinder. Gently they blew the glowing tinder into a flame, and lighted the candles.
At the Newman House, on the corner of Salem and Sheafe streets, Paul Reveremet Robert Newman and John Pulling and asked them to hang the lanterns in the Old North Church. The building was a boarding house in 1575, occupied by British offficers. The storefront was a later addition. The building no longer stands. This old photograph by Wilfred French is in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.
Then they went to a narrow ladder above the stairs and climbed higher, rung after rung, past the open beams and great silent bells. At last they reached the topmost window in the steeple. They threw open the sash, and held the two lanterns out of the northwest window in the direction of Charlestown. 29
The Old North Church from Hull Street, from an old photograph. To the left is Copp’s Hill burying ground. To the right are houses that were occupied by British troops in 1775. The steeple window showing here faces north toward Charlestown. From it Newman and Pulling displayed two lanterns, one of which survives today in the Concord Museum. (Bostonian Society)
Across the river, the Charlestown Whigs were keeping careful watch on the steeple. In the night it appeared to them as a slim black spire, silhouetted against the starry southern sky. Suddenly they saw a flicker, and then a flash of light. They looked again, and two faint yellow lights were burning close together high in the tower of the church. It was the signal that Revere had promised to send if British troops were leaving Boston by boat across the Back Bay to Cambridge.
The lights were visible only for a moment. Then Newman and Pulling extinguished the candles, closed the window, descended the steeple stairs, and returned the lanterns to their closet. As they prepared to leave the church, they saw a detachment of troops in the street near the door. The two men ran back into the sanctuary of the church, searching for another way out. They climbed a bench near the altar, and escaped through a window, their mission completed. 30
The men of Charlestown acted quickly on the signal. Some went down to the water’s edge to look for Paul Revere. Others hastened to find him a horse. While waiting for his arrival they dispatched their own express rider to the Committee of Safety in Cambridge. One of them wrote later, “This messenger was also instructed to ride on to Messrs Hancock and Adams who I knew were at the Rev. Mr. [Clarke’s ] at Lexington …” 31
This anonymous Charlestown courier never reached his destination. Probably he was stopped by the British officers who lay in wait on the Lexington Road. General Gage’s meticulous precautions were beginning to take effect. His roving patrols intercepted many travelers that night, and may have captured this first messenger who threatened to reveal his plans.
While the Charlestown Whigs were acting on the lantern signal, Paul Revere went to his own home in North Square, a few short blocks from the church. His family helped him to collect his heavy boots and long riding surtout. Perhaps he thought about taking his pistol, but decided to go unarmed, a decision that may have saved his life.
The time was about 10:15 when Revere left his house. Later he remembered, “I … went to the north part of the town, where I had kept a boat.” Here again, Revere enlisted another group of friends to assist him. He sought the aid of two experienced Boston watermen to help him cross the Charles River. One was Joshua Bentley, a boat builder. The other was Thomas Richardson. 32
Both men met Paul Revere by his boat, hidden beneath a wharf on the waterfront, in the North End. The folklore of old Boston cherishes many memories of that moment. It is said that Paul Revere absent-mindedly forgot his spurs and sent his faithful dog trotting home with a note pinned to his collar. A few minutes later the dog returned. The note was gone, and a pair of spurs was in its place. The reader may judge the truth of this legend. 33
Another folktale has it that as Bentley and Richardson prepared to launch the boat, they discovered that they had forgotten a cloth to muffle their oars. The two men knocked softly at a nearby house. A woman came to an upper window, and they whispered an urgent request. There was a quick rustle of petticoats in the darkness, and a set of woolen underwear came floating down to the street. The lady’s undergarments, still warm from the body that had worn them, were wrapped snugly round the oars. 34
The three men balanced themselves in Paul Revere’s little boat and pushed off into the harbor, rowing north from Boston toward Charlestown’s ferry landing. Suddenly, another danger loomed in their path. The dark bulk of HMS Somerset was anchored squarely in their way. Four days earlier she had been moored between Boston and Charlestown to interrupt the nocturnal traffic between the towns. At 9 o’clock that night, the ferries that plied between the towns had been seized, and secured alongside the British ship, with all “boats, mud-scows, and canoes” in town. No crossings were allowed after that hour. 35
Paul Revere looked up from his little rowboat at the great warship. She was a ship of the line, rated for 64 guns. He could expect the men of her watch to be alert, and armed sentries to be posted fore and aft. Probably he heard across the water the ship’s bell chime twice in quick succession, then twice more, and once again as the midshipman of the watch marked the time at five bells in the evening watch, or 10:30 to a landsman.
Paul Revere sat quietly in the boat while his friends bent over their muffled oars. All his senses were alive, sharpened by the danger that surrounded him. Artist that he was, in that moment of mortal peril he noticed with special intensity the haunting beauty of the scene. Many years later the memory was still fresh in his mind. “It was then young flood, the ship was winding, and the moon was rising,” he wrote in the haunting cadence of the old New England dialect. The great warship must have seemed a thing alive as she moved restlessly about her mooring, swinging slowly to the west on the incoming tide. In the fresh east wind, she pulled hard against her great hemp anchor cable that creaked and groaned like an animal in the night.
The moon was coming up behind Boston, a huge orb of light in the clear night sky. To Paul Revere it must have seemed impossible to pass the ship without detection. Then, miraculously, it was the moon that saved him. The moon was nearly full, a large pale yellow globe that was just beginning to rise in the southern sky.
Normally, Paul Revere’s boat would have been caught in the bright reflection of the moonbeam on the water as he passed close by HMS Somerset. But there was something odd about the moon that night. Often it rose farther to the east, but that night it had a southern declination. A lunar anomaly caused it to remain well to the south on the evening of April 18, 1775, and to hang low on the horizon, partly hidden behind the buildings of Boston. The sky was very bright, and Paul Revere’s boat was miraculously shrouded in a dark moonshadow that was all the more obscure because of the light that surrounded it. He passed safely “a little to the eastward” of the great ship’s massive bowsprit that pointed downstream toward the incoming tide. 36
Revere’s skilled boatmen set him safely ashore at Charles-town’s ferry landing. Another group of his many friends was waiting there. Later he remembered, “I met Colonel Conant, and several others; they said they had seen our signals. I told them what was acting.”
Revere talked briefly with Richard Devens, the Charlestown Whig who was a member of the Committee of Supplies. As they walked from ferry landing into the town, Devens warned him to take care on the road, and to stay alert for British officers who were patrolling the highway to Lexington. Devens added that he himself had met them earlier in the evening, “nine officers of the ministerial army, mounted on good horses, and armed, going towards Concord.” Revere listened carefully. Then, he later wrote in his laconic Yankee way, “I went to git me a horse.” 37
This sinister cathead embellished an anchor-boom on the bow of HMS Somerset. Paul Revere’s boat passed beneath it, as the great ship strained at her mooring against the incoming tide. In 1777, the cathead was salvaged from the wreck of the Somerset on Cape Cod, and survives today at the Pilgrim Monument and Province-town Museum.
The Charlestown Whigs had already given thought to the horse. One of the fleetest animals in town belonged to the family of John Larkin, a deacon of the Congregational church, who agreed to help. The Larkin horse was a fine great mare named Brown Beauty, according to family tradition. She was neither a racer nor a pulling animal, but an excellent specimen of a New England saddlehorse—big, strong, and very fast. 38
Many years ago, equestrian historians concluded from their research that Brown Beauty was probably the collateral descendant of an East Anglian animal, distantly related to the modern draft horse known as the “Suffolk Punch.” The horses of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like the Puritans who rode them, came mainly from the east of England. In the new world these sturdy animals were bred with Spanish riding stock to create a distinctive American riding horse that can still be found in remote towns of rural Massachusetts. New England’s saddle horses were bred for alertness and agility on Yankee ice and granite. At their best they were (and are) superb mounts—strong, big-boned, sure-footed, and responsive. Such an animal was Deacon Larkin’s mare Brown Beauty, who was lent to Paul Revere that night. 39
The horse was led out of the Larkin barn, and handed to Paul Revere by Richard Devens. The rider took the reins, put a booted foot into the stirrup, and sprang into the saddle. He said a last word to his friends, and urged the animal forward.
Brown Beauty proved a joy to ride. “I set off upon a very good horse,” Paul Revere wrote later, “it was then about 11 o’clock, and very pleasant.” The night was mild and clear. After a long New England winter, the first welcome signs of spring were in the air. The heavy musk of damp soil and the sweet scent of new growth rose around him in the soft night air.
Paul Revere headed north across Charlestown Neck, past the grim place where the rotting remains of the slave Mark still hung in rusty chains. Then he turned west on the road to Lexington, and kicked his horse into an easy canter on the moonlit road. He always savored that moment—a feeling that any horseman will understand. Psychologists of exercise tell us that there is a third stage of running, which brings euphoria in its train. There is also a third stage of riding, called the canter. After the tedium of the walk and the bone-jarring bounce of the trot, the animal surges forward in an easy rolling rhythm. Horse and rider become one being, more nearly so than in any other gait. The horse moves gracefully over the ground with fluent ease, and the rider experiences a feeling of completeness, serenity, and calm. Paul Revere’s language tells us that such a feeling came to him as he cantered along the Lexington Road. Even at the vortex of violent events that were swirling dangerously around him, he experienced a sensation of quiet and inner peace. 40
Paul Revere’s leather saddlebags are in the collections of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, Boston.
Suddenly the mood was shattered. It would have been the horse that noticed first, as horses often do. A rider as experienced as Paul Revere would instantly have seen the animal’s head come up, and her ears prick forward, and her high-arched neck twist slightly from side to side as she came alert to danger. He would have felt a momentary break in the rhythm of the canter, a change in the tension of the reins, and a subtle shift of pressure beneath his seat.
Paul Revere searched the road ahead. Suddenly he saw two horsemen in the distance, almost invisible, waiting silent and motionless in the moonshadow of a great tree by the edge of the highway. As Revere rode closer, he made out the blur of military cockades on their hats, and the bulge of heavy holsters at their hips.
He pulled sharply on his reins, and Deacon Larkin’s horse responded instantly. Even before she had stopped, Revere yanked her head around, and spurred her savagely in the opposite direction. The two officers gave chase. One tried to cut off Paul Revere by riding crosscountry, and galloped straight into an open claypit, miring his horse in the wet and heavy ground. The other kept to the road, but was soon left far behind by the long stride of Deacon Larkin’s splendid mare.
As his pursuers disappeared in the darkness behind him, Paul Revere later recalled that he “rid upon full gallop for the Mistick road.” His route took him to a small village north of Charlestown which is now the Boston suburb of Medford. It was commonly called Mystic in 1775, after the river of the same name. He had not planned to go that way. This road was a long detour for him, and added many northern miles to his westward journey. He must have cursed his luck. But as Prince Otto von Bismarck liked to observe, there is a special Providence for children, fools, drunkards—and the United States of America! Paul Revere’s unwelcome detour took him safely around the roving British patrols that might have intercepted him.
Revere followed the Mystic Road over a wooden bridge, and clattered into the quiet village. From there he rode through north Cambridge to the little hamlet of Menotomy, now the town of Arlington. At the Cooper Tavern in Menotomy he met the King’s Highway or Great Road, as it was variously called, and turned west toward Lexington. He continued along the road through rising hills to the town’s meetinghouse at Lexington Common. There he came to the Buckman Tavern with its traditional bright red door. Perhaps still burning in the window was a small metal lantern with four candle stubs that signaled the availability of food, drink, lodging, and livery. 41
At the Buckman Tavern, Paul Revere turned right into the Bedford Road. He traveled a few hundred yards past a fifty-acre tract of the minister’s farmland to the parsonage that was the home of Lexington’s clergyman, Jonas Clarke, his wife and many children.42
Inside the crowded house that night were at least ten Clarkes, and Sam Adams and John Hancock. With them were Hancock’s “slight and sprightly” fiancee Dorothy Quincy, and his aged aunt Lydia Hancock. The Clarkes and Hancocks were kin. They were both old clerical families, deeply rooted in the extended cousinage of New England Congregationalism. John Hancock and his ladies had been there since April 7; Sam Adams since April 10. 43
Everyone in the parsonage had retired for the night. Adams and Hancock were sleeping in the downstairs parlor-bedroom. Aunt Lydia and Miss Dolly had the best chamber upstairs. Jonas Clarke and his wife were in another bedroom, and eight of their twelve children were in various trundle beds and backrooms. The old house was dark and silent. Outside, the faithful Sergeant William Munroe stood guard in the moonlight with ten or twelve Lexington militiamen. 44
It was midnight when Paul Revere arrived, his horse probably flecked with foam and streaked with blood from the sharp rowels of his old-fashioned silver spurs. The scene that followed was not the heavy melodrama that one expects of great events, but a touch of low comedy that often incongruously happens in moments of high historical tension.
When Paul Revere came riding up to the parsonage, he met Sergeant William Munroe and called out to him in a loud voice. Sergeant Munroe did not know Paul Revere, and was not impressed by the appearance of this midnight messenger. In the eternal manner of sergeants in every army, he ordered Revere not to make so much noise—people were trying to sleep!
“Noise!” Paul Revere answered, “You’ll have noise enough before long! The Regulars are coming out!”
The alert reader will note what Paul Revere did not say. He did not cry, “The British are coming,” Many New England express riders that night would speak of Regulars, Redcoats, the King’s men, and even the “Ministerial Troops,” if they had been to college. But no messenger is known on good authority to have cried, “The British are coming,” until the grandfathers’ tales began to be recorded long after American Independence. In 1775, the people of Massachusetts still thought that they were British. One of them, as we shall see, when asked why he was preparing to defend his house, explained, “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” The revolution in national identity was not yet complete. 45
In American museums, Paul Revere spurs are as numerous as fragments of the True Cross. This one may be authentic. It is made of silver, bears the mark of Paul Revere, and is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. There is no evidence that Revere actually wore it, but he is known to have used spurs on his midnight ride, probably a pair of his own manufacture such as this one. Its sharp rowls would have left the flanks of his horse raw and bloody.
On the other side, the Regulars did not usually refer to the New England militia as Americans, but as “country people,” “provincials,” “Yankeys,” “peasants,” “rebels,” or “villains” in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “a low-born, base-minded rustic,” or “boors” in the archaic sense of farmer (as Dutch boer).
As late as 1775, people on both sides in this great struggle still thought of themselves as of the same stock. They commonly spoke of their conflict not as the American Revolution, but as a “Civil War” or “Rebellion” that divided English-speaking people from one another. This was the way that Paul Revere was thinking on April 18, 1775, when he told Sergeant Munroe that the “Regulars are coming out.” 46
After exchanging a few choice words with the sergeant, Paul Revere went past him and banged heavily on the door of the parsonage. Up flew the sash of a bedroom window, and out popped the leonine head of the Reverend Jonas Clarke, perhaps wearing a long New England night cap. Other heads appeared from different windows—as many as ten Clarke heads in various assorted sizes. From yet another downstairs window emerged the heads of Sam Adams and John Hancock, who instantly recognized their midnight caller. “Come in, Revere,” Hancock called in his irritating way, “we’re not afraid of you.” 47
Paul Revere entered the Clarke house in his spurs and heavy riding boots, his long mud-spattered surtout swirling around him. He delivered his message to Hancock and Adams. The hour was a little past midnight. The men began to talk urgently among themselves. Revere asked if Dawes had arrived, and was concerned to hear that nobody had seen him. “I related the story of the two officers,” Revere later recalled, “and supposed he must have been stopped, as he ought to have been there before me,” Half an hour later, to everyone’s relief, Dawes appeared with a duplicate of the message from Boston.
The two expresses remained in Lexington for another hour. “We refreshed ourselves,” Revere wrote simply. Dorothy Quincy remembered later that John Hancock left the parsonage and walked down the Bedford Road to the tavern on the Common, where some of the Lexington militia had been staying the night. Sam Adams went along, as did the minister Jonas Clarke. Probably Revere and Dawes also went to the tavern to find “refreshment” for themselves, and their exhausted horses.
The Hancock-Clarke Parsonage was built in 1738 for Lexington’s minister John Hancock. In 1775, it was occupied by his successor Jonas Clarke, whose silhouette still hangs in the house. Samuel Adams and John Hancock (grandson of the builder) were staying here when Paul Revere arrived with news that the "Regulars are out." The house was moved across the street in 1896, and returned to its original location in 1974,
The men talked with members of Lexington’s militia company. Jonas Clarke remembered that the conversation centered on the purpose of the British mission. They agreed on reflection that Doctor Joseph Warren must have been mistaken in thinking that the purpose of General Gage was the arrest of Hancock and Adams. It was true, as Jonas Clarke observed, that “these gentlemen had been frequently and publickly threatened.” But the arrest of Hancock and Adams alone could not be the primary object of so large an expedition. “It was shrewdly suspected,” Clarke later recalled, “that they were ordered to seize and destroy the stores belonging to the colony, then deposited at Concord.” 48
It was clear that Concord must be warned, and that the messengers from Boston were the men to do it. Once again, Paul Revere and William Dawes climbed into their saddles, probably a bit more slowly than before. They said farewell to Adams and Hancock, and turned the heads of their weary horses westward toward the Concord Road. Behind them, Lexington’s town bell began to ring in the night.