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The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Some Other Guys

The midnight ride wasn’t so much a solo operation as it was a relay

Paul Revere gets all the credit, but he had a little help from his friends. (Charles Bush, from the New York Public Library)
smithsonian.com

As the poem which immortalized Paul Revere tells it, there was nobody on his midnight ride but him and his horse.

But there are a few things Henry Wadsworth Longfellow glossed over: namely that Revere wasn’t alone on his famous ride, when he warned American patriots that British troops were on the move, this night in 1776. A more accurate title would have been “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott.”

The ride went like this, according to The Paul Revere House: Revere was asked by patriot Joseph Warren to take news to Lexington that British troops were on the march.

“According to Warren, these troops planned to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were staying at a house in Lexington, and probably continue to the town of Concord, to capture or destroy military stores—gunpowder, ammunition and several cannon—that had been stockpiled there.” Revere sneaked across the river and borrowed a horse in Charlestown, and headed to Lexington to let everyone know that, yes, the British were coming—though he never actually used that phrase. On the way to Lexington, as Revere himself later said, he dodged British troops who were on horseback.

“In Lexington, as he approached the house where Adams and Hancock were staying, a sergeant Monroe, acting as a guard outside the house, requested that he not make so much noise,” the house museum writes. Revere’s response: “Noise! You’ll have noise enough before long! The regulars are coming out!”

In Lexington, while he was eating and drinking in preparation for another grueling ride through the dark to Concord, William Dawes showed up, carrying the same news.

Dawes had come over land, down the narrow spit that at that time connected Boston to the mainland. “Unlike Revere, who awoke town leaders and militia commanders along the way to share his news, Dawes apparently let them sleep, either because he was singularly focused on getting to Lexington as quickly as possible or because he wasn’t as well-connected with the patriots in the countryside,” writes Christopher Klein for History.com.

The two men set out together for Concord. On the road, they bumped into Samuel Prescott, a young doctor who was headed back home to Concord after a visit to his fiancée. Prescott offered to help carry the news.

It was dark and probably cold. The countryside was crawling with British troops who were looking to stop patriots from spreading news. Prescott and Dawes stopped to wake people up at a house along the way, while Revere pushed on. Revere saw two British officers and warned Prescott and Dawes, but was himself captured. 

Dawes used a trick to get away. Writes Klein:

According to family lore, the quick-witted Dawes, knowing his horse was too tired to outrun the two British officers tailing him, cleverly staged a ruse. He pulled up in front of a vacant farmhouse and shouted as if there were patriots inside: “Halloo, boys, I’ve got two of ‘em!” Fearing an ambush, the two Redcoats galloped away, while Dawes reared so quickly he was bucked off his horse. Forced to limp into the moonlit night, he receded into obscurity, and Dawes lost his horse, although he managed to scare the soldiers away.

So of the three, only Prescott finished the midnight ride. The next day was the Battle of Lexington, widely viewed as the start of the American Revolution. Why does Revere get all the credit in a poem that schoolchildren were for years forced to memorize? According to historian Marie Basile McDaniel, it’s possible that Revere got sole billing in the poem because he was so politically active—already better known, when he set out, than either of the other men. Both Dawes and Prescott faded into obscurity, while Revere continued to be a well-known figure until his death at age 76.  

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