Sunday, March 31, 2013

Walking and Drinking Beer on the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Paul Revere statue and Old North Church 
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

When poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those lines in 1862, he was correct -- hardly anyone had heard of Paul Revere.  The early histories of the American Revolution didn’t even mention him.

But the poem changed that.  Overnight, Paul Revere became one of America’s greatest heroes. Today, he is practically an industry in Boston.  You can tour his house, see his portrait, buy reproductions of his silver work, walk the streets he walked, have a drink in his favorite tavern and even leave pennies on his grave.  In a city that spawned a revolution, there is no greater figure than Paul Revere -- a fact that would have surprised every Boston resident in 1775, the modest Paul Revere most of all.

Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley
Why did this practically unknown, stocky, 40-year old silversmith become one of the most cherished icons of freedom?  Perhaps it’s because he did something that few other men have accomplished:  in one evening’s work he changed history.
On a day trip in Boston, it’s quite easy to follow the dramatic story.  Every significant building associated with the famous ride has been preserved and can be toured.
Like many a good story, this one begins in a tavern.                    
In 1775, Boston was a powderkeg.   Three thousand British soldiers patrolled the streets,
trying to crush a growing rebellion, while a rag-tag group of rebels called the Sons of Liberty made their secret headquarters in the Green Dragon Tavern.

The original tavern was torn down in 1854, but a reconstruction has been built nearby at 11 Marshall Street.   Although not an exact reproduction, it does have the feel of a Colonial inn with its dark wood beams and old pub exterior.  A mural inside helps you imagine the Green Dragon as it must have appeared in 1775, filled with rebels engaged in deep discussion while smoking clay pipes and downing tankards of ale.
The Green Dragon Tavern
One of these rebels was a silversmith and engraver named Paul Revere.   An active patriot, he led a group of 30 “mechanics,” as artisans called themselves, whose purpose was to watch the redcoats.  Whenever the British army tried a foray into the countryside, Revere and his men acted as “express riders” to spread the alarm.

On the afternoon of April 18, a 13-year-old boy named Sam Ballard overheard two British officers talking about a raid to Lexington and Concord to arrest revolutionary leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock.  Ballard told the landlord at the Green Dragon, who sent a messenger to Paul Revere’s house. You too can walk to Paul Revere’s house from the Green Dragon in about 10 minutes.  

Paul Revere's house is the oldest in Boston
Built between 1650 and 1680, the Revere House is the oldest dwelling in Boston.  It is the only colonial building of this type to survive in the heart of an American city.   

Paul Revere lived here for 30 years (1770-1800).   The gray dwelling with its second story overhang was restored in 1907 to reflect both its original 17th-century appearance and the later Revere period.

It is now a museum where on self-guided tours, it is possible to rub shoulders with hundreds of international visitors, as you squeeze up narrow stairways to view rooms and exhibits that tell the story.
It was from this house that Paul Revere gathered his spurs and riding boots and set off on a 20-mile ride to Lexington to spread the alarm.  His first stop was right around the corner at the Old North Church.  Built in 1723, it is Boston’s oldest standing church.  Though the steeple has been rebuilt several times, it is today as tall and white against a blue sky as it would have been 225 years ago.  A
small museum continues the tale.

In 1775, Boston was built on a neck of land completely surrounded by water.    If the British sealed off the neck, an express rider would be trapped.

The answer was to send the message across the river by light.  Revere planned for the church sexton, Robert Newman, to hang lanterns in the Old North, which offered the highest steeple in the city.  The code was one lantern if the British were leaving for Lexington by land, two if by sea.   

About 10 p.m., with two lanterns dimly glowing across the water and the moon rising, Revere had himself rowed across the Charles River, directly under the guns of an English ship.  On the other side, associates tipped off by the lanterns provided him with a swift New England saddlebred horse named Brown Beauty, and he set off for Lexington.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all!  And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night.

A sea of suburbia has settled around Boston into what was once farm country with stone walls and twisting dirt lanes.  There is no point retracing the exact route of Paul Revere; it’s easier to follow the Concord Turnpike and head directly to Lexington.  
It was here, at the Hancock-Clarke House, that Paul Revere finally arrived at midnight, his horse’s flanks coated with sweat and blood.  A sergeant guarding the house told him to stop making noise, there were people sleeping.

“Noise!”  Revere shouted.  “You’ll have noise enough before long. The Regulars are coming out!”              

This was as close as he ever came to the famous, “The British are coming!” Actually, that would have been an insane thing to say.  In 1775, everyone in Massachusetts was British. 

The Hancock-Clarke House, Lexington
The pretty yellow house where Hancock and Adams were staying has been preserved with furnishings and portraits owned by the Hancock family.  Of particular interest are exhibits from the coming battle, which include William Diamond’s drum -- the very instrument the young man beat to call the militia to Lexington Green.

         Just a five-minute walk away, Lexington Green is a traditional New England town center, surrounded by white houses and churches.  On the edge of the green is the Buckman Tavern.  It was here that Revere “refreshid” himself (no doubt with a tankard of ale) before setting off yet again, this time to spread the alarm to Concord.  The Buckman Tavern is also where the militia gathered to ward off the cold night waiting for the arrival of the British.

Buckman Tavern
You can stand in this same room today, and look out the window toward the green, trying to imagine what it was like in the pale light of an April morning for a group of minute men to see 700 of the world’s finest troops in their bright red coats as they marched into town. 

       Revere, by this time, was racing for Concord.  Long stretches of the road have been preserved as Minute Man National Historical  Park.  Lined with stonewalls and an occasional 18th Century building or tavern, it’s a wonderful walk where little has changed since 1775.
Battle Road in Minute Man National Historical Park looks like it did in 1775.
Revere’s luck finally ran out when on the pitchblack road he galloped into a party of British cavalry.  An English officer clapped a pistol to his head and threatened to “blow his brains out."   There is a historic marker that indicates the site of his capture. 

But for the British it was too late.  Revere had warned Lexington and his companion riders William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott (left out of the poem because their names are harder to rhyme) got through to Concord.  When the red coats finally arrived in Lexington, there was an small band of minute men waiting for them.

You know the rest.  In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, --
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall.

Depiction of the battle at the Bloody Angle, Minute Man National Historical Park
What happened in the next few hours changed the world.   On Lexington Green, as the redcoats and armed rebels faced each other, someone fired a shot, and the tired British soldiers began shooting, killing eight colonists before they could be ordered to stop.  The redcoats marched on to Concord, but enraged minute men followed, and at the North Bridge, the rebels fired back.  The British began a
Lexington Green
long retreat to Boston, with minute men sniping at them from behind every tree and stonewall.

By nightfall 273 of the King’s troops were killed, wounded or missing, along with 95 casualties among the colonialists.  It is impossible to overestimate the shocking effect the high casualties of this battle had on both sides.  In today’s U.S. population, it would be the equivalent of 30,000 troops killed or wounded in a single day. 

There was no going back.  The American Revolution had begun.   And it had begun to a large extent because of Paul Revere.  His network of express riders were able to spread the message so well, that by the end of the day almost 4,000 militia had mobilized and fought in the battle, coming from as far as 20 miles away. 

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, --
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!

Longfellow's House where he wrote the poem, Cambridge MA
Strangely enough, Paul Revere’s role was forgotten for almost a century.    In 1862, during the bleak days of the Civil War, Longfellow was looking for a subject that would give the Union hope. He  
found his inspiration in the forgotten tale of a silversmith express rider.

Although the poem is a thrilling account of the ride, it is the closing that best captures why Paul Revere’s popularity has endured into the 21st century, and will probably do so forevermore.

For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Old State House on the Freedom Trail
Best Book To Read First: Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press 1994, is the best account of the ride and the fighting at Lexington and Concord.  It reads like a novel with spies, daring escapes and bloody battles.

Freedom Trail,  This 2.5 mile long walk in downtown Boston connects 16 historic sites.  The walk is marked by either a series of red bricks or a painted red stripe down the sidewalk and is easy to follow as you move from the site of the Boston Common to the Boston Massacre and on to Bunker Hill.  An interesting stop is Granary Burying Ground, where Paul Revere, John Hancock and Sam Adams are laid to rest, and the Old State House, built in 1713.   Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are two of the city’s biggest tourist stops, and are along the trail and worth a look.  Don’t assume everything interesting is on the trail – there’s many great things to see a block or two off.  The trail was laid out in the 1950s and many things have changed…but it’s a good start.

Tour group at Paul Revere's grave, Granary Burying Ground
Green Dragon Tavern, 11 Marshall Street,  The historic looking tavern today attracts a young crowd and has live music, but it is still worth a look and a beer.  Better for meals is to head next door to the Union Oyster House,, Opened in 1826, it claims to be America’s oldest restaurant and it’s certainly one of Boston’s most famous seafood houses.  It’s a huge, rambling place with lots of different rooms, creaking wood floorboards and plenty of atmosphere.  Sit at the unique circular raw bar on the main floor and watch them shuck your oysters and clams, or ask to be seated in the Kennedy room (this was John F. Kennedy’s favorite Boston restaurant and there is a plaque at the booth where he often ate).  There are five Irish pubs adjacent or a short walk from Oyster House and this is one of Boston’s most popular streets of bars.
Union Oyster House
The Bell in Hand claims to be America’s oldest continuously operating pub, but it is in name only – the building is brand new.  If you want to go to a bar where Paul Revere actually drank, you have to go to the Warren Tavern in Charleston.  Paul, George and John (Revere, Washington and Hancock) all drank here.  It’s at the base of Bunker Hill and was the first building rebuilt after the British burned the town during the famous battle.  Worth a stop, but the interior is more local pub than historic site.

The Paul Revere House, 19 North Square,  It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but go through the gate there’s an interesting courtyard and the interior rooms are well worth the $3.50 entrance fee.   Some of the rooms have the original floorboards.


Lexington Green
Old North Church, 193 Salem Street,  Open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.  It’s beautiful inside and out.  The Paul Revere statue is located in a park behind the church.  As you walk around Boston and Charleston, always keep an eye out for the church tower.  It was the highest building in Boston in 1775 (which is why it was picked for the signal lamps) and is still one of the most prominent buildings in the North End Italian district. The neighborhood is even better. There are five Italian bakeries within a musket shot, and dozens of Italian restaurants nearby.

Hancock-Clarke House, Lexington contains furnishings and portraits owned by the Hancock and Clarke families and exhibits from the battle of Lexington.  36 Hancock Street, Lexington.

Buckman Tavern, across from Battle Green in Lexington, appears very much today like it did on the fateful morning in 1775.

Old North Bridge, Concord
Minute Man National Historical  Park, preserves 900 acres of land over which the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought. They have done a spectacular job of preserving parts of the road along which the battle took place, and today you can hike or bike five miles of the Battle Road Trail.  It’s particularly nice from the Paul Revere Capture Site to the Minute Man Visitor Center, or from Hartwell Tavern to the Bloody Angle, scene of the most severe fighting.  Walking along the trail here is like strolling into an 18th Century painting.  The North Bridge in Concord is another very pretty area with a nice trail.

Longfellow National Historic Site, preserves the home in which poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived from 1837 to 1882, including the time when he wrote his famous poem about Paul Revere.  George Washington was headquartered here for 16 months from 1775 to 1776.  Located in Cambridge at 105 Brattle St. 

USS Constitution.  Built in 1797, this is the oldest warship still floating in the world. The copper sheathing for the 54-gun frigate was done by Paul Revere, who dabbled in many metal trades including engraving and early dentistry.  Free tours let you stroll the two gun decks.  Next door is the Constitution Museum which has interactive displays on the great battles of “Old Ironsides,” as well as fun exhibits on how she was constructed and how a three-masted frigate was sailed.   Look for a new scrimshaw and cane to be added to the ship's Time Line exhibit.  They belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles Ball. The cane is dated:  July 4, 1841, Bay of Callao -- the day of a notorious party on board where the crew was allowed to get drunk to celebrate the Fourth and their imminent return home.  Certainly an event one of my relatives would think worthy of commemorating!