Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

Mythbuster Friday: “One if by Land, Two if by Sea”

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MythPaul Revere rode his horse throughout Medford, Lexington, and Concord to warn the colonists crying “The British are coming!”   The patriots used the signal “One if by Land, Two if by Sea” by hanging lanterns in the Old North Church and this is how Revere knew how the British troops were planning to attack Concord.  He rode alone all throughout the night and made it all the way to Concord with his message.Paul_Reveres_Ride_BAH-p114

Truth:  We are all familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beloved poem, Paul Revere’s Ride.

He said to his friend, “If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Though this is an excellent poem that was created to instill patriotism in people on the verge of civil war, it unfortunately contains many errors that live on today.

Firstly, Revere was the one who arranged for the lantern signal.  The signal was by him, not for him.  It was to warn the people of Charlestown across the river, who the patriots were unsure of reaching in time.  Two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church, but this was two days before the famous ride.  The poem also states that there were dead bodies in the graveyard all around the church, but in reality there were no corpses there until after the Battle of Lexington.

J_S_Copley_-_Paul_RevereEveryone assumes that Revere was alone in his mission, that he was the only one who spread the alarm.  However, Williams Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott were two other patriots who joined him that night.

Another myth is that Paul Revere cried out “the British are coming!”  Everyone in the 18th century still considered themselves British; this was before the American Revolution began, so this makes sense.  It would not make sense for Revere to shout that “the British” were coming, so he most likely used the term “the Regulars” to describe the British troops.  However, it is also unlikely that he yelled at all.  We do know that Revere did make it to Lexington and successfully warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock, giving them enough time to escape the clutches of the British army.

The “midnight ride of Paul Revere” did not take place on one night.  It took a few days’ time from the night the lanterns were hung to the Battle of Lexington.  Also, contrary to Longfellow’s retelling, Revere only made it to Lexington, not Concord also.  After he warned Adams and Hancock, he and his companions were captured by the British patrol.  Prescott and Dawes escaped, but Revere was interrogated before he was released.  He returned to Lexington and witnessed a small part of the battle.

Though much of what is commonly believed about the famous ride of Paul Revere is false, we should remember that he and his companions did play an important role in the first stirrings of the American Revolution.  In fact, the Revolution began the very next day at Lexington with the “shot heard round the world.”

Read a letter from Paul Revere accounting his ride here.


Photo credits:

“Paul Revere’s ride” by Office of War Information – National Archives’ Pictures of the Revolutionary War — Beginnings in New England, 1775-76

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere in Montgomery’s The Beginner’s American History, 1904

John Singleton Copley, “Portrait of Paul Revere” 1768

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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