Thanks largely to Longfellow, Paul Revere is one of the better known heroes of the American Revolution.
Paul Revere was not the only messenger to send an alarm that night, nor was he the first. William Dawes had made it across the narrow neck even before Revere had set off. By most accounts, it was the poetic nature of Paul Revere's name that assured his prominent place in history. Certainly, he was deserving, but other equally deserving men are nevertheless unknown to most of us today.
Paul Revere was a skillful engraver, a master silversmith, an American patriot, and a friend to Dr. Joseph Warren, John Hancock, and the Adamses. Warren himself may be unfamiliar to the average reader, although he was one of the most influential early American patriots, perhaps because he was killed early on, during the battle of Bunker Hill. As for Revere, he had also been one of the men dressed as Mohawks who had boarded the Dartmouth during the Boston Tea Party, and later became an official courier of the Provincial Congress.
Revere had a knack for associating himself with historic events. He designed the official seal for the new nation. He engraved the first coins of the Continental Congress. The spikes and copper accessories for Old Ironsides were cast in his foundry, and he made the copper plate for the dome of the Boston State House, as well as for the boilers of Robert Fulton's steam ferryboats.
The battles of Lexington and Concord were an interesting turn of events. In charge of the royal interests in the Massachusetts colony, the British General Gage planned a secret mission to destroy an American arsenal believed to be in Concord, deciding on the night of the 18th for the expedition.
Through their own system of intelligence, the patriots learned of the plan. On the morning of April 16th, Paul Revere was sent to spread the alarm, and to alert the Americans in Concord to disperse the arsenal. It was on his return from Concord that Revere devised the famous agreement for a signal to be sent from the steeple of the North Church: one if by land, two if by sea.
Gage, for his part, knew that the Americans had been alerted, yet determined to pursue the destruction of the arsenal anyhow, the British setting out at about midnight on the 18th. Their mission was a dual one. They were not only to locate and destroy the Ameican arsenal at Concord, but to apprehend John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were thought to be in Lexington, as well.
Late that night, but before the British were underway, Dr. Warren sent William Dawes across the Boston Neck to Cambridge and Lexington, and arranged to have Paul Revere rowed over to Charlestown, where he would continue by horseback. Revere was later to write two accounts of his famous ride: a short one in 1783, and a longer one in a letter to Dr. Jeremy Belknap in 1798.
In his letter to Belknap, Revere says that he was one of about thirty mechanics who had formed themselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers in Boston, as well as gathering information about the Tories.
Even before the British had crossed the Charles River, the alarm was out. Throughout the night, a tolling of bells and a firing of guns indicated that the countryside was awake and ready. Revere and Dawes reached Lexington at around midnight, arriving separately, and found Hancock and Adams at the home of the Reverend Jonas Clark, whose wife was Hancock's cousin.
Perhaps with an understanding of the significance of what was to come, Adams is reported to have said to Hancock, "What a glorious morning this is," and added, "I mean for America."
Shortly before dawn, drums beat the alarm, and about 50 to 70 militiamen made their way to the Lexington common. Some accounts put the number at two or three hundred. After a short wait, six companies of British soldiers arrived, barking orders for the Americans to disperse, orders which were not obeyed.
The Americans were under orders not to fire unless they were fired upon.
Then, out of the dark, there came a cry, "Disperse, ye rebels!" A shot was heard, followed by two musket shots, and then a roll of musketry. It isn't known with any certainty who fired the first shot, but the atmosphere in the colonies was ripe for war, and the war for American Independence had begun.