Midnight rider’s place in history largely forgotten
“isten my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, on the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five…”
These lines from the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are familiar to many of us. We learned about Paul Revere’s ride to warn the colonists that the British were coming. We also learned about the two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church, “one if by land and two if by sea,” to signal which of the two routes the British were taking.
What many of us may not have learned about that famous ride is that Paul Revere was not the sole rider. Dr. Joseph Warren dispatched from Boston that night. Warren had received information through the Boston underground that the British army was planning to raid Concord to seize military supplies and arrest Hancock and Adams. He dispatched two riders by different routes, one by land and one by sea, to ensure at least one of them would succeed in the mission to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were staying in Lexington en route to the Second Continental Congress, and to ride to Concord to alert the Minutemen that the British were coming.
William Dawes Jr. was dispatched by the land route through Boston Neck. Although the guardhouse at Boston Neck was on high alert, he managed to elude the British. Shortly after he passed through, the British halted all travel out of Boston. He rode his 17-mile route in about three hours, arriving in Lexington about a half hour after Revere who traveled a shorter route. Dawes rode through the countryside without waking anyone. Some historians assume he felt the urgent mission was to reach Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams.
Revere was dispatched about a half hour after Dawes to cross the Charles River to Charlestown. He had arranged for the lanterns to be lit in the Old North Church to signal fellow Sons of Liberty across the Charles River in case he was unable to leave Boston. After crossing the river, slipping past the British warship Somerset, he borrowed a horse and set off for Lexington. Revere barely avoided capture just outside of Charlestown. All along his route, he roused the residents shouting, “The Regulars are coming out,” not “the British are coming” as many of the locals still considered themselves British. Revere arrived in Lexington about a half hour before Dawes.
After refreshing themselves, Dawes and Revere mounted their weary steeds and headed for Concord. Not far out of Lexington, they met up with Dr. Samuel Prescott and rode on together since Prescott knew the area residents. The three men were intercepted a short time later by a British patrol and had to split up. Revere was captured but was later released and walked back to Lexington as the British confiscated his horse.
Knowing his horse was too tired to outrun the two British officers chasing him, Dawes rode up to a vacant farmhouse and shouted to imaginary patriots within that he had two of them. The British officers rode off assuming it was a trap. The ruse had worked; but Dawes, who had been thrown from his horse when he halted it so abruptly, had been injured and had to return to Lexington.
Prescott had escaped the patrol when he jumped his horse over a stone wall. His skilled and daring horsemanship along with his knowledge of the terrain were key in his ability to escape capture and complete his mission, the only one of the three that succeeded in making it to Concord.
The midnight rides had actually been pre-planned in prior months as part of an “alarm and muster” system. The system, which was very effective in signaling the militia and citizens, consisted of messages delivered by various methods, including express riders, bells, bonfires, drums, and alarm guns. An estimated 40 riders participated in the midnight rides of April 18 and the rides in the years that followed to muster the Minutemen in various locations.
Of the two riders dispatched from Boston that night, why did Revere receive all the glory while Dawes was basically forgotten? Some say Revere was more prominent in Boston’s political underground and business circles. Also, he had written a personal account of his ride which was widely circulated. Longfellow had immortalized Revere with his poem while excluding Dawes. Although Dawes also wrote an account of his ride, few records of him and his midnight ride exist. He was an ardent patriot who searched the country recruiting for the cause. He organized and aided in the birth of the revolution. As one writer put it, “it’s Revere’s immortal name that has graced a famous ode, a line of copper cookware and even a kitschy 1960s rock band. Dawes, meanwhile, is the Rodney Dangerfield of the American Revolution, getting no respect at all.”