Modern history

THE CAPTURE

image A British Patrol Takes Paul Revere, and Is Taken by Him

After they had taken Revere, they brought him within half a rod of me, and I heard him speak up with energy to them.”

—Elijah Sanderson, Deposition, December 17, 1824

WHILE THE BRITISH COLUMN was beginning its march through Cambridge, Paul Revere and William Dawes traveled out of Lexington on their second mission of the night. As they headed west toward Concord, they were overtaken on the road by a handsome young country gentleman, splendidly mounted and elegantly dressed. He introduced himself as Doctor Samuel Prescott, a physician of Concord.

Young Doctor Prescott had other things on his mind than politics or war that night. He had been in Lexington courting Miss Lydia Mulliken, a young woman much celebrated in Middlesex County for her grace and beauty. Many a hopeful swain had beaten a path to the Mulliken door, but Miss Lydia had pledged herself to Doctor Prescott, and they had agreed to be married.

It was about one o’clock in the morning when Doctor Prescott said farewell to his fiancee and started home to Concord. He met Paul Revere and William Dawes, and rode along beside them. They found the congenial young doctor to be a “high son of liberty,” and explained their mission to him. He instantly offered to help alarm the countryside. 1

Paul Revere proposed a plan. As always he was thinking several steps ahead, and preparing for the worst case. He told Dawes and Prescott about the roving British patrols, and warned them that they might expect to be captured. “I told them of the ten officers that Mr. Devens met,” he wrote later, “and that it was probable we might be stopped before we got to Concord … I likewise mentioned that we had better alarm all the inhabitants till we got to Concord.” 2

The others accepted his plan. Revere remembered that “the young doctor much approved of it, and said, he would stop with either of us, for the people between that [place] and Concord knew him, and would give the more credit to what we said,” The three riders decided to alarm every house, taking turns from one farmstead to the next. Knowing that British patrols were abroad in the night, they urged others to help spread the warning. Working together, they made rapid progress through the western part of Lexington.

Two miles beyond Lexington Green, they entered the town of Lincoln, a new community that had been created only twenty years before. Paul Revere reckoned they had come “about half way from Lexington to Concord.” Here the Great Road curved westward through open fields and pastures, interspersed with patches of swamp and woodland. 3 Very near the boundary between Lincoln and Lexington, the road ran past a little cluster of farmsteads, three or four of them, a few hundred feet apart. Each house was set only a few feet from the north edge of the highway, facing south toward the warmth of the sun, according to the Yankee custom. All were occupied by families called Nelson. This pattern of settlement was typical of old New England. It was the custom for sons to settle close to their fathers’ land, while the daughters moved away. As a consequence, many town centers in Massachusetts were surrounded by small hamlets of households with the same surname. 4

As the riders approached the Nelson farms, Dawes and Prescott left the road to awaken a family while Revere rode several hundred yards ahead, perhaps intending to stop at the next farm. 5 Suddenly in the bright moonlight he saw two horsemen lurking under a tree, “in nearly the same situation as those officers were, near Charlestown.” Revere turned in his saddle and shouted a warning to his companions. They came riding up to him. Revere instantly proposed to attack, saying “There are two, and we will have them.” Dr. Prescott turned the butt end of his riding whip and gamely prepared to give battle. 6

As they advanced, the two horsemen suddenly multiplied into four British Regulars in full regimentals, with swords and pistols in their hands. One shouted, “God damn you! Stop! If you go an inch further you are a dead man!” 7

The New England men spurred their horses forward, trying to force a passage. “We attempted to git through them,” Revere wrote, “but they kept before us.” The ambush site had been chosen with cunning. Revere remembered that the shoulders of the narrow road “inclined each way,” and left little room for maneuver. The armed British officers herded them at pistol-point toward a pasture north of the Great Road. The bars across the entrance to the pasture had been taken down. The officers “swore if we did not turn into that pasture they would blow our brains out.” 8

The New England men left the highway, with the British officers hovering about their flanks and rear. As they entered the pasture, Doctor Prescott saw an opportunity. He turned to Paul Revere who was riding beside him, and whispered urgently in the old Yankee dialect, “Put on!” Both men dug their heels into their horses’ sides and galloped for their lives. Prescott turned left, jumped a low stone wall, and disappeared on a dark and narrow path that ran through woods and swamps. Several British officers gave chase, but Prescott knew the countryside, and his horse was strong and fresh. He vanished into the night. 9

When Prescott turned left, Paul Revere headed to the right toward a tree line at the bottom of the pasture, hoping to escape into the woods. His splendid animal was very tired, but responded nobly to urgent command. Revere surged ahead of his captors. But just as he reached the trees, six more horsemen suddenly appeared. Now ten British Regulars surrounded him. They pointed their pistols at his heart, seized his bridle, tore his reins from his grasp, and held him firmly in their grasp.

In that moment of confusion, William Dawes got away. When the officers went after Revere and Prescott, Dawes turned back into the highway. He tried to confuse his captors by shouting “Halloo, my boys, I’ve got two of ’em!” As the officers went after Revere, Dawes galloped away in the opposite direction, to what appeared to be the safety of a nearby farm. As he approached the house in the darkness, his horse took fright and stopped so abruptly that Dawes pitched forward, out of his seat. He tumbled to the ground, losing his watch, his horse, and what remained of his composure. His frightened animal ran away, with empty stirrups banging crazily on the long leathers that were then in use.

The dark house that Dawes took to be a place of refuge turned out to be an abandoned building, perhaps inhabited by wild animals that had frightened his horse. Badly shaken, William Dawes decided that enough was enough. He went limping back toward Lexington in the moonlight, keeping in the shadows and out of sight. 10

Meanwhile the British Regulars gathered around their prisoner. They were angry men. Ten of the King’s officers had failed to snare two out of three suspicious countrymen who had ridden straight into their trap. They turned their hostility toward the one who remained in their hands. Revere was ordered to dismount. Some of the Regulars began to abuse him.

Suddenly another officer intervened. Paul Revere thought him “much of a gentleman.” The officer addressed his captive as a gentleman too, with the elaborate courtesy of that distant age.

“Sir,” the British officer said politely, “may I crave your name?”

“My name is Revere,” the captive answered.

“What?” the officer exclaimed in surprise, “Paul Revere!”

“Yes,” came the reply. 11

Paul Revere was well known to these British officers. They began to talk among themselves with high excitement, then angrily turned back toward their captive. “The others abused me much,” Paul Revere remembered, but their leader continued to treat him correctly. “He told me not to be afraid; they should not hurt me.” 12

Paul Revere began to look around him. He discovered that he was not the only prisoner. The officers had been stopping every suspicious rider who passed them on the road. They had caught Elijah Sanderson and Jonathan Loring, who had been sent from Lexington to watch them, and had also bagged Solomon Brown, a messenger who had been dispatched to Concord. Along the way, they also captured an innocent one-armed pedlar named Allen who had nothing to do with either side. 13 All of the prisoners had been interrogated at length. “They asked as many questions as a Yankee could,” Sanderson later testified. He remembered that they “put many questions to us, which I evaded … they particularly inquired where Hancock and Adams were.” 14

The officers turned to Revere and began to question him in the same way. He answered truthfully. They demanded to know if he was an express, and were told yes. The other captives were too far away to hear all of the questions, but close enough to make out Paul Revere’s replies. With six pistols pointed at him, Revere spoke with a spirit that the British officers found infuriating in a provincial prisoner, who seemed not to know his place, or to care about the danger he faced. One of the prisoners, Elijah Sanderson, listened at a distance and later remembered, “I heard him speak up with energy to them.” 15

“Gentlemen,” Revere told them, “you’ve missed of your aim.”

“What of our aim?” one answered in a “hard” tone. Another insisted that they were out after deserters, a frequent employment of British officers in America.

“I know better,” Paul Revere boldly replied. “I know what you are after, and have alarmed the country all the way up.”

Even as the British officers posed the questions, Paul Revere began to control the interrogation. Before the Regulars realized what had happened, the prisoner himself became the inquisitor. Paul Revere proceeded to tell his astonished captors more than they knew about their own mission. He informed them that Colonel Smith’s expedition had left Boston by boat across the Back Bay, and that “their boats had catched aground” at Lechmere Point, and that the Regulars had come ashore in Cambridge.

He also told them what he had been doing that night, and warned that he had alarmed the militia at Lexington, and their lives would be at risk if they lingered near that town. “I should have 500 men there soon,” he said, adding, “if I had not known people had been sent out to give information to the country, and time enough to get fifty miles, I would have ventured one shot from you, before I would have suffered you to have stopped me.” 16

As the conversation continued, the British officers grew more and more agitated. They were outraged by the effrontery of this infernal Yankee scoundrel who dared to threaten the King’s officers even while their pistols were pointed at his breast. They were also increasingly disturbed by the unwelcome news that he brought them.

After Paul Revere had spoken, one of the Regulars rode off some distance to the highway, and came back at full gallop with his commander, Major Edward Mitchell of the 5th Foot. The major was an excitable man, and not in a happy frame of mind. He ordered that Revere be searched for weapons. None were found. Had he been carrying arms, the story of the midnight ride might have ended differently.

Then Major Mitchell himself came up to Paul Revere in a high temper. “He clapped [a] pistol to my head,” Revere remembered, “and said he was agoing to ask me some questions, and if I did not tell the truth, he would blow my brains out.” 17

Paul Revere was angered by those words, and told the major that “he did not need a threat to make him speak the truth,” He added contemptuously, “I call myself a man of truth, and you have stopped me on the highway, and made me a prisoner I knew not by what right. I will tell the truth, for I am not afraid.”

That is precisely what Paul Revere proceeded to do. He told the truth without hesitation, while surrounded by armed and hostile horsemen in that dark pasture on the Concord Road. He spoke with a serene self-confidence, even to these armed and angry men who pointed their pistols at him, and were not happy to hear what he had to say.

Later, Paul Revere remembered that “the officer who led me said I was in a damned critical situation. I told him I was sensible of it.” But even in this moment of mortal peril he spoke boldly to the British officers with the courage of an urgent purpose. Paul Revere had a particular object in mind. Everything, without exception, that he said and did to his captors was consistent with a single goal. He was trying to move these men away from Lexington— away from Hancock and Adams. Revere had reason to believe that the mission of the patrol was to arrest those two Whig leaders. He warned the British officers that if they remained in the vicinity of Lexington Green, they also would be in extreme danger, and he hinted that the expedition coming after them could start a war unless it was warned of the trouble that awaited them at Lexington center. In fact, trouble was gathering for them in many places that night, but Revere stressed only one place in particular—Lexington, where he had left Hancock and Adams. 18

It was a remarkable performance. The soldiers listened carefully to Paul Revere, increasingly quiet and pensive. Then they withdrew a little way and began to talk among themselves. Suddenly they returned to Revere, and ordered him to mount. Another officer went to the captive Sanderson, who remembered that they “ordered me to untie my horse (which was tied to a little birch) and mount.”

The party left the pasture, entered the road, and turned east toward Boston. “They kept us in the middle of the road, and rode on each side of us,” Sanderson recalled. “They took all of us, Revere, Loring, Brown and myself.” One of the officers took out his watch and looked at it. Sanderson asked him the time and was told it was a quarter past two. 19

Paul Revere’s words had worked brilliantly. The Regulars were increasingly tense and nervous. For many hours they had loitered on the road. Now they were in a hurry to ride east, and impatient of every delay. Sanderson was badly mounted on a slow horse. One officer struck the animal with the flat of his sword, and sent it skittering ahead.

The ten British Regulars and their four or five prisoners rode down toward Lexington. “When we got into the road,” Revere remembered, “they formed a circle and ordered the prisoners in the centre, and to lead me in the front.” The captives remembered that the pace was “prittie smart.” 20

With Paul Revere, the officers took special measures. He was made to mount with the others, but his reins were taken from him. Revere asked if he might hold the reins himself, and received a rude reply. The polished manners of these English gentlemen were beginning to wear thin. “God damn you, sir!” an officer said to him, “you are not to ride with reins, I assure you!” 21 Major Mitchell in particular was showing the strain. He told Paul Revere, “We are now going towards your friends and if you attempt to run or we are insulted, we will blow your brains out.”

“You may do as you please,” Revere answered.

Revere’s reins were given to a sergeant who was ordered to draw his pistol, and use it to “execute the major’s sentence” if the captive tried to bolt. The anger and frustration of the British Regulars were growing dangerously. Revere remembered that “I was often insulted by the officers, calling me damned Rebel &c. &c.”

They were now about half a mile from Lexington Green. Suddenly they heard a gunshot. Major Mitchell turned in fury to his prisoner and demanded an explanation. Revere told him that it was a signal “to alarm the country.” A few minutes later the riders were startled to hear the heavy crash of an entire volley of musketry, from the direction of Lexington’s meeting house. Probably it came from a party of militiamen who were clearing their weapons before they entered the Buckman Tavern for a bit of cheer. The Regulars were appalled to hear it. Revere remembered that the volley “appeared to alarm them very much.” 22

At last the officers began to feel the full import of what Paul Revere had been telling them. His words of warning took on stronger meaning when punctuated by gunfire. The sound of a single shot had suggested to them that surprise was lost. The crash of a volley appeared evidence that the country was rising against them. As they came closer to the Common they began to hear Lexington’s town bell clanging rapidly. The captive Loring, picking up Revere’s spirit, turned to the officers and said, “The bell’s a’ringing! The town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men!” 23

The officers halted, rode apart from their captives, and once again talked urgently among themselves. They decided that they must gallop back to warn the commanders of the marching column. To travel faster, they resolved to release their captives. 24

A young subaltern went over to Sanderson, ordered him to dismount, drew a sword, and said apologetically, “I must do you an injury.” As the officer brandished his weapon, Sanderson wondered, what injury? The Regulars had already made him a prisoner, taken his property and threatened his life. What further injury remained? “I asked what he was going to do to me now?” Sanderson later wrote. The officer “made no reply, but with his hanger cut my bridle and girth, and then mounted.” Sanderson, to his amazement, found himself a free man. 25

Major Mitchell released the other prisoners. He ordered his men to cut their bridles and girths and drive the horses away. Then the major rode over to Paul Revere’s guard, a sergeant of grenadiers, a big man on a little horse. The major asked if the sergeant’s mount was fatigued, then gestured toward Revere and ordered, “Take that man’s horse.” 26 Paul Revere was told to dismount. Brown Beauty was given to the sergeant, who mounted quickly. Then the Regulars turned their horses and rode off to the east at what Sanderson called “a good smart trot.” 27

The liberated prisoners headed directly for Lexington Green. Paul Revere instantly began to think of capturing the men who had captured him. Sanderson remembered that they waded “through the swamp, through the mud and water, intending to arrive at the meetinghouse before they [the British officers] could pass, to give information to our people.” 28

But the Regulars were moving too fast to be caught. The former captives watched as they stopped briefly near the meetinghouse, talked among themselves, then started at full gallop toward Cambridge. “We saw no more of them,” Sanderson remembered. 29

It was also the last that Paul Revere saw of Brown Beauty. Deacon Larkin’s splendid horse had served him nobly that night. He watched her disappear into the night with a sergeant of grenadiers bouncing on her back. The Larkin family were later told that she was driven until she dropped to her knees and died in the night. Whatever happened, Brown Beauty was never seen by her owners again. 30

The released captives were exhausted by their ordeal. Sanderson headed straight for the beckoning lights of Buckman’s Tavern on Lexington Green. “I went to the tavern,” he recalled later, “the citizens were coming and going; some went down to find whether the British were coming; some came back, and said there was no truth in it. I went into the tavern, and, after a while, went to sleep in my chair by the fire.” 31

While Sanderson dozed in the warm tavern, Paul Revere remained outside, still on his feet. Suddenly he thought of one more urgent task that needed to be done. Revere turned away from the tavern lights, left the main road, and strode north across the countryside on yet another mission.

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