Did you know that two other men accompanied Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride? If you didn't, then you're not alone. The story of the midnight ride was stamped on the American psyche by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular 1861 poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." And anyone who's read the poem envisions a lone hero dashing through the night, single-handedly warning his countrymen of a British attack.
But that's not the whole story. Two other men rode with Revere that night: William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. They were left out of the poem and subsequently most history books.
Some joke that Longfellow used Revere's name in his poem -- instead of Revere's comrades' names -- simply because it was easier to rhyme with other key words. In fact, a woman named Helen F. Moore wrote a parody poem in 1896 titled "The Midnight Ride of William Dawes." The poem compares Dawes' and Revere's accomplishments, but complains, "What was the use, when my name was Dawes!"
More likely it was Paul Revere's established political fame in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that landed him his starring role in the Longfellow poem. A silversmith by trade, he spent most of his free time supporting the patriots' cause. He had participated in the Boston Tea Party to protest taxation without representation -- one of the main events leading up to the Revolutionary War. And he was known as a reliable courier for news and messages that needed to be distributed to patriot leadership, so much so that the British even had someone tracking his movements.
But truth be told, it was really Samuel Prescott who completed the midnight ride. Read on to find out how the three riders carried out their mission on the night of April 18, 1775 to start the American Revolution.
The Ride to Lexington
On April 18, 1775, it was pretty clear the British were antsy to attack. A patriot named Joseph Warren confirmed through a secret source -- often thought to be the British general's wife -- that the British were planning to arrest patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock and then attack the stores of supplies in Concord. Warren sent for William Dawes and Paul Revere, and the midnight ride was set into motion.
British patrols were posted along the roads, which is why more than one messenger was used for the mission. If one failed, the other could get through. Joseph Warren sent first for William Dawes, directing him to take the land route out of Boston. He was to alert the towns of Roxbury, Cambridge and Menotomy (now Arlington) on his way to Lexington, where he was to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the impending threat.
Dawes had made a few rides for the freedom fighters, but he was not as well known as Revere. Therefore, he was less likely to be stopped. He traveled frequently and had befriended British guards -- guards who may have helped slip him through the checkpoints that night. Dawes was also a good actor. He'd disappear beneath a big hat and affect the voice of a drunk or a country farmer to allay suspicions. He left Boston around 9:30 p.m.
A half-hour later, Warren sent for Paul Revere. He sent Revere to warn Adams and Hancock by the water route; Revere was to cross the Charles River and then continue on horseback to Lexington. First, Revere needed to carry out some arrangements he'd already made to alert Charlestown of any British movement. He contacted the church's sexton to hold up two lanterns, indicating that the British were going by water.
Two friends rowed Revere across the bay, paddling around warships. On the other side, the patriots were ready for him, having received his signal. He borrowed a horse and set off for Lexington, dodging British patrols and waking up the villages he passed along the way.
Revere arrived in Lexington around midnight to alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They were at first concerned that Dawes had not arrived yet, but he showed up about a half-hour later. The men went to a tavern for an hour, where they decided that the true aim of the British was to attack the supplies at Concord and not the patriots in Lexington. Saddling up again, Revere and Dawes headed out to warn Concord, as well as the homes along the way.
To learn how Samuel Prescott joined the ride and about Revere's run-in with British troops, go to the next page.
The Ride to Concord
A young doctor named Samuel Prescott became a midnight rider by chance when he met Revere and Dawes on their way to Concord. Prescott was on his way home from visiting his fiancée, and he offered to help spread the word because he was a local.
Paul Revere rode ahead of the other two men to check for British patrols. Halfway between Lexington and Concord, the patrols found them. Revere shouted back that there were only a few and that they could fight them off. But when Prescott rode up to help, more troops appeared. Prescott and Revere made a break for it. Prescott veered to the left and jumped a wall to escape. Revere broke right and was cornered by troops. Dawes escaped in the confusion, yelling out in various accents that he had captured some Regulars. As he was riding off, his horse stopped short and threw him off. Dawes lost his watch and his horse. Tired and frustrated, he ended his ride and began walking back to Lexington.
Prescott, who was the most familiar with the area, made his way back to the main road and continued to notify people. He found other riders to join the cause, and he made it to Concord -- the only one of the original midnight riders to do so. Despite carrying out the mission, historians know very little about Prescott. The most detailed account of the night comes from Revere himself. So we'll turn back to his side of the story.
The British patrols were quite pleased they'd captured the famed Paul Revere, and they questioned him at gunpoint. Revere remained calm and told the troops their plans would be foiled, that the whole countryside was marching at that very moment, ready to fight. The troops escorted Revere back to Lexington, where they heard gunfire. It was just militiamen testing their rifles but it unnerved the British. Realizing they could move faster without prisoners, they released Revere but kept his horse.
Revere continued on foot and met up with Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were debating whether to fight with the patriots or head for safety. They decided to retreat to Philadelphia, and Revere was sent to a tavern to retrieve Hancock's trunk. On his errand, he heard the first shots fired on Lexington Green. The Revolutionary War had begun, thanks to Revere and the other midnight riders' success in mobilizing the troops. William Dawes went back to the Concord road and found his watch. He fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and after the war, set up a store. He died in 1799. Samuel Prescott served as a surgeon in the Continental Army and joined the crew of a privateer. He was captured by the Royal Navy and was held prisoner in Halifax. He died there around 1777, and he never got to marry the young woman he had been visiting the night of the midnight ride. Paul Revere had a disastrous military career. But he did find success as an industrialist during the war, constructing the first powder mill and later a copper mill. He remained a prominent citizen of Boston until his death in 1818.
The midnight ride triggered war and a new independent nation. To learn more about the ride, see the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Caes, Charles J. "Midnight Riders." American History. December 2004. (Feb. 13, 2008)http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=4&hid=13&sid=065495e2-4c34-4ec1-9164-4e1f27ee3b79%40sessionmgr8
- Dawes, Reggie. "The William Dawes Who Rode." (Feb. 13, 2008)http://www.colorpro.com/wmdawes/theride.html
- Fischer, David Hackett. "Paul Revere's Ride." Oxford University. 1994.
- Fredericks, Pierce G. "Midnight Confusion." The New York Times. April 13, 1958. (Feb. 13, 2008)http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=0&did=89077324&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=10&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=HNP&TS=1203092815& clientId=11206
- "Revere, Paul." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2008. (Feb. 13, 2008) http://www.library.eb.com/eb/article-6136
- Revere, Paul. "Letter to Jeremy Belknap, 1798." Manuscript Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society. (Feb. 13, 2008)http://www.masshist.org/cabinet/april2002/reveretranscription.htm