Everything you know is a lie. “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” The opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s immortal poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” have inspired patriotism and pride in generations of American schoolchildren. The poetic version of the story from 249 years ago this month that took place on April 18 to 19,1775, is well-known. The real story of the “shot heard ‘round the world,” however, is somewhat different than what is traditionally taught.
In 1775, tensions in the American colonies were high. New Englanders were angry at the restrictions imposed by the British Crown concerning taxation to pay for the French and Indian war, viewing them as violations of their rights as British citizens. Meanwhile, the Crown disbanded the General Court of Massachusetts, robbing the state of its elected body of legislators. The colonists of Massachusetts considered this governing entity a central part of their identity as British citizens with British rights; the General Court of Massachusetts had been granted to them by the king in the charter that created the colony. Angry colonists established an illegal replacement that they called the Provincial Congress, which began to stockpile supplies and large arms (such as cannon) in several locations. In Massachusetts, two of the largest stockpiles were in the towns of Worcester and Concord.
The military governor of Massachusetts, Gen. Thomas Gage, felt he needed to destroy the rebellious sentiment. He sent 700 British “redcoat” soldiers to Concord, the location of the nearest stockpile. They left Boston at around midnight, but so did colonial messengers. Although almost every American schoolchild has heard of Paul Revere, the famous midnight rider, there were actually three men carrying warnings that night. Billy Dawes and Paul Revere both left Boston at the same time, but by different routes. Along the way, the two met up with Dr. Samuel Prescott, a colonist who sympathized with their cause. By knocking on prearranged doors and delivering their warning quietly, the three riders were able to activate a pre-existing alarm network that had been used several times in the previous few years alone. Paul Revere certainly didn’t shout anything about the British coming. It would have made no sense to the colonists, as they all considered themselves British. Of the three riders, Prescott was the only one who actually made it to Concord.
The marching redcoats reached Lexington, the town before Concord, early in the morning. There, they saw fewer than 100 Lexington men standing on the green with guns in hand. Although the soldiers did not know it, the Lexington militia were under orders not to fire. They were merely there to make a statement of colonial displeasure and willingness to stand their ground. Suddenly, a shot rang out. Its origin has been disputed for over 200 years, but it prompted the nervous redcoats to fire on the militiamen, killing several of them. The militia managed to return fire, but only a single British soldier was wounded.
Despite their triumph, the British soldiers had lost morale. They continued marching to Concord center, where they split into detachments. The largest remained in the town center and organized a bonfire to burn the few supplies they found. Fortunately for the colonists and unfortunately for General Gage, the Provincial Congress had been well aware that such a raid on their supplies might happen. Paul Revere carried frequent warning messages around the colonies; his midnight trip on April 18th was only one of many. The remaining two hundred redcoats split off to search a farm in the vicinity which was known to house a stockpile of cannon. This farm was connected to the center of Concord by two miles of road and a bridge. In order to maintain that route, about half of the redcoats were left at the bridge, while the remainder went to search the farm where, legend has it, the farmer’s sons had just finished burying the last of the cannon in newly plowed fields.
Meanwhile, about 400 minutemen and militiamen from surrounding communities had gathered on top of the nearby Punkatasset Hill. The colonists saw the smoke from the redcoats’ bonfire in the middle of Concord, and assumed that the British were burning the town. In fact, the bonfire had caught the meeting-house’s roof on fire, but after an elderly woman pointed out the flames and requested that the soldiers put it out, they politely and willingly complied. Unaware of the source of the flames, the nervous colonists decided to march over the bridge to get into the town, but when they tried to cross, the British soldiers fired warning shots into the river.
At this point, the soldiers were tired. They had been marching all night in fear and confusion as they first heard colonial militias assembling in nearby towns, and on high alert from the confrontation in Lexington. They were also mostly young, wet (from an early morning march through the marshes of Cambridge), cold, and tired. Taken out of their ordinary units, they were disorganized and prone to mistakes. When they saw the colonists marching towards them in what one noted as “good military order,” they were taken aback. In fact, colonial militas often had more military experience than the eighteen year old redcoats, despite their uniforms and training. Members of colonial militias were expected to protect their towns from raids by local Native Americans and assist the British Regular Army in its wars. Many colonists had fought in the French and Indian wars, as well as other recent conflicts. Few British regulars at the bridge that day had ever seen battle. Frightened, they fired into the marching colonists.
As the two groups drew closer together, a major in the colonial militia gave the first order to fire against the British forces. Upon that order, the colonists fired the so-called “shot heard ‘round the world” as they committed treason against their king. Three redcoats and two colonists were killed, and several others on each side were wounded. Both sides of the conflict regrouped, and then met again for battle repeatedly on the road back to Boston. Although the British regular column was reinforced in Lexington with 1,000 soldiers, colonial militias continued to gather at an even greater rate. The battle continued along the eighteen mile road to Boston. Finally, near sunset, the redcoats made it back to Boston and to the safety of the guns of the warship Somerset. Colonists encamped outside the city of 16,000 as reinforcements continued to stream in from colonies throughout New England. By the end of the week, over 10,000 colonists surrounded the city in the beginnings of what was to become the Continental Army.
Prior to the engagements at Lexington and Concord on April 19, revolution was only an idea entertained. The decision to commit to it came perhaps more by chance than intentional action.