Rewriting the Legend of Paul Revere

Every schoolchild knows the story, but most of it is wrong

''He would be very much surprised by his modern image as the lone rider of the revolution.''

''He would be very much surprised by his modern image as the lone rider of the revolution.''

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Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere." With those words, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in a poem published in 1861, galloped away with the legend of the Boston silversmith who helped start the Revolutionary War. Longfellow's poem, with its romantic image of a lonely rider single-handedly stirring a sleeping countryside to arms, was written more than 40 years after Revere's death for readers facing the specter of another looming conflict. But its simple, inspiring message still resonates: One man, in pursuit of a noble cause, really can make a difference.

The poem has only one flaw, historians say: It is inaccurate in almost every way. "We have heard of poetic license," wrote the town historian of Lexington, Mass., in 1868, "but have always understood that this sort of latitude was to be confined to modes of expression and to the regions of the imagination, and should not extend to historic facts." By abandoning the real story of Paul Revere from beginning to end, Longfellow may have undermined his own message. "He appealed to the evidence of history as a source of patriotic inspiration," writes David Hackett Fischer in Paul Revere's Ride, "but was utterly without scruple in his manipulation of historical fact."

The real-life Paul Revere was not a national hero until Longfellow crafted his poem, though his mythic stature would rise with each passing stanza. In 1775, Revere was one of many Whig activists in Boston who learned that the British garrison was preparing to send troops to seize military supplies in Concord. At the time, Revere was a small but important player in a much larger colonial intelligence network, which dispatched him and one other rider to alert the local militias. The other man, William Dawes, a Boston tanner, took the main road out of town. Revere, meanwhile, arranged with the help of several other people to sneak across the Charles River.

Two if by sea. No part of Longfellow's poem has become more iconic than the image of Revere standing on the riverbank across from Boston, waiting for a signal from the Old North Church. But in fact, Revere's own testimony contradicts this version of the story. In descriptions of his ride he wrote after the battles, Revere himself said he had arranged for the lanterns to be lit while he was still in Boston—two of them, to indicate the British would be traveling by sea—in case he wasn't able to cross the river. The citizens of Charlestown, on the other side, dispatched their own rider to spread the news. Revere was rowed across, found a horse, and followed. He and Dawes arrived in Lexington about 30 minutes apart. Historians aren't sure what became of the third rider.

Later that night, Longfellow's poem describes Revere galloping into Concord to sound the alarm, but Revere said he never made it that far. He left Lexington with Dawes, then met yet another rider, Samuel Prescott, a local doctor, along the way. Before they reached town, the three men were stopped by British officers. Dawes and Prescott got away, but Revere was captured. Prescott was the only one who made it to Concord. Revere, in other words, was neither alone nor the man who completed his mission. "He would be very much surprised by his modern image as the lone rider of the Revolution," writes Fischer.

While Prescott was riding on, Revere spent some anxious moments being interrogated by the British. He defiantly informed his captors that the game was up. "I know what you are after," he told them, "and have alarmed the country all the way up." Revere had been told the British were looking for John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were in Lexington that night, and he tried to keep the British away from the town. When his captors heard gunshots from the Lexington green—probably from a group of men clearing their muskets before entering the local tavern—Revere was released.

Historians say Longfellow probably knew most of this when he wrote his poem. He had access to Revere's written recollections, but he seems to have ignored them. "I think he told it the way he did because it's simpler and more dramatic," says Patrick Leehey, research director at the Paul Revere House in Boston. Until Longfellow made him a hero, Revere had been little more than a local folk legend, but his stature quickly began to grow. "I think it's fair to say Revere's messenger ride wasn't considered to be anywhere near as important then as it's considered to be now," says Leehey.