CHARLOTTE, N.C., April 18, 2018. In January 1861, the “Atlantic Monthly” published “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a dramatic poem by Harvard College professor and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow’s intended his poem to celebrate this historical event, which actually occurred on April 18, 1775. Longfellow was the most popular American poet of his time. As a result, his new poem helped immortalize Paul Revere as a Revolutionary War hero. But it also left two other riders behind in the black hole of historical oblivion.
Everyone needs a publicist
As in much of life, timing is everything. Centuries before social media would ever become a reality, it paid to have a great poet or writer in your corner for public relations purposes.
Friedrich Schiller honored Swiss national hero William Tell in an 1804 play. Famed composer Gioachino Rossini adapted Schiller’s drama to the musical stage for his opera “William Tell.” Its colorful overture remains popular to this day.
Between these Tells, Lord Byron composed his 392-line 1816 poem entitled “The Prisoner of Chillon.” The poem chronicled the imprisonment of colorful Geneva patriot François Bonivard. His political incarceration lasted from 1532 to 1536. Both Swiss patriots became famous beyond expectations. It helps to have artful promotion.
But what about Paul Revere?
In the same vein, Paul Revere, an outspoken Boston silversmith, was immortalized by Longfellow’s rhyming couplets. As for those other riders, William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott became, as one writer put it, “the Rodney Dangerfields of history.” They get no respect. Revere, however, hit the PR jackpot.
Additional trivia items associated with the epic tale of the American Revolution add considerable color to Longfellow’s famous poem. For instance, the title “Paul Revere’s Ride” was later changed to “The Landlord’s Tale” in a collection called “Tales of a Wayside Inn.” In that collection, an innkeeper relates various stories he had gathered from passing travelers.
Longfellow takes history and reshapes it just a bit
After a visit to the Old North Church in Boston in April 1860, Longfellow was inspired to write his Revere saga after climbing to the top of the church tower.
While many details of his famous poem are historically inaccurate, Longfellow deliberately altered some of the facts for dramatic poetic purposes. For example, take Revere’s famous lantern signal, so familiar to us all: “One if by land, two if by sea.” The poem indicates that it was Revere who received the message that triggered his historic ride. But in reality, it was the other way around. Revere was responsible for arranging the signal instead.
There are other minor inaccuracies in the poem as well. But its most criticized flaws are due to Longfellow’s failure to mention William Dawes and later Dr. Prescott who also participated in the mission.
William Dawes and Dr. Prescott
As British soldiers marched to arrest John Hancock and John Adams, Dawes and Revere rode in different directions to Lexington to warn their fellow patriots. Dawes set out first at approximately 9 p.m. and Revere followed soon after.
Perhaps it was the contrast in style of Revere and Dawes that inspired Longfellow to determine his hero. From accounts of the day, Revere aroused town leaders from their sleep by shouting as he galloped through town, while Dawes was apparently focused solely upon his mission and the need for expediency.
As such, Dawes chose to race to his destination without disrupting the sleeping townspeople, arriving in Lexington about a half-hour after Revere who had traveled a shorter distance. Within 30 minutes, Prescott joined his companions and they raced off again to warn the citizens of Concord which was the site of the militia’s arsenal.
While en route, the trio was stopped by British troops in Lincoln. Ironically, Revere was captured while Prescott jumped a stone wall with his horse and escaped to Concord.
Dawes, on the other hand, realized his horse was too tired to outrun two pursuing British officers. In a moment of inspiration, he stopped at a vacant farmhouse and began shouting as though he had two patriots trapped inside. The bluff worked, the officers left and Dawes managed to get away.
Despite the excitement of the night of April 18, both Dawes and Revere later died in relative anonymity. It wasn’t until Longfellow published his poem at the outset of the Civil War that Revere was immortalized forever thanks to the written word. Meanwhile, Dawes remained virtually unknown.
Of the two, Revere was more prominent in Boston’s politics and business circles which may have also had something to do with Longfellow’s choice.
Even more Revolutionary trivia
But there’s more to this story of daring rides through the New England countryside during the Revolutionary War.
On April 26, 1777, a teenager named Sybil Ludington rode her horse Star some 40 miles to warn approximately 400 militiamen that British troops were on the march in Putnam County, New York. In the end, Ludington’s ride was longer than either of those by Dawes and Revere. But, unlike the legendary tales told of her male counterparts, Ludington’s ride went largely unnoticed for personal and political reasons.
Sybil’s ride began about 9 p.m. and ended at dawn the next day. But her great grandson chronicled the only record of this impressive effort. Prior to her ride, Sybil Ludington had also saved her father from capture by 50 royalist prior to her ride. Her ingenious strategy was to light candles around the house. Meanwhile, her siblings marched in front of the windows in military fashion. The fake tableaux worked. It created the illusion that British troops were guarding their home.
In the end, recorded history tends to support the old adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” When it comes to “midnight rides,” that adage is an accurate assessment of those thrilling equestrian alerts that occurred in the American northeast in the time of Revolution.
Dawes’ and Prescott’s historical mistake was that they were lesser known than the more political Paul Revere. Sybil Ludington, on the other hand, may simply have lacked a name that lends itself well to heroic poetry.
But that midnight ride of Paul Revere lives on. We remember its 243rd anniversary today. #
Headline graphic created circa circa 1942-1945 for the U.S. National Archives’ “Pictures of the Revolutionary War.” Government created image is in the public domain. (Via Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere.)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News