ON the night of April 18, 1775, in a suburb of Charlestown, just outside of Boston, stood a strong and keen-eyed man beside a restless horse, ready at a moment's notice to mount and ride hard upon some secret mission. His eye was fixed upon the distant steeple of a church, scarcely to be seen in the darkness, as if he expected some signal to make him spring into instant action.
He had not long to wait. Into the night there suddenly flashed the rays from two lanterns; as soon as he saw them, he grasped the reins of the bridle, leaped into the saddle, and rode swiftly away. The man's name was Paul Revere. The signal was from the steeple of the Old North Church, in Boston, and it had been placed there by a friendly hand to let Revere know that the British troops were moving silently out of Boston to capture the military stores which the Patriots of the Revolution had at Concord, about nineteen miles away.
Swiftly his horse bore Revere past Charlestown Neck. Suddenly two British officers appeared in his path.
"Halt! who goes there?" was the stern command.
Revere made no answer, but turned his horse's head, and went flying back to seek another road. The officers started in swift pursuit, calling out, "Halt, or we fire!"
Revere paid no attention to them, but, spurring his horse onward, turned into Medford Road. One of the officers tried to intercept him by a short cut across the field, but, in the darkness, he fell into a clay-pit, where Revere left him as he went thundering by.
On he went, mile after mile, intent upon arousing the people. At every house he stopped, rapped furiously on the door, or called out from the road-side, "Get up, and arm yourselves. The Regulars are marching to Concord!" And then he would dash away, leaving the occupants to rise and hastily dress themselves.
The British marched out of Boston about midnight. Just at that hour, Revere rode into Lexington with a great clatter of hoofs upon the streets. He galloped up to the house of the Rev. Mr. Clarke, where Samuel Adams and John Hancock, two leading Patriots, were asleep.
"Don't make so much noise," called out the guard in front of the house, "you will awake the inmates."
"Noise!" exclaimed Revere. "You'll have noise enough before long. The Regulars are coming!"
At that moment, a window was thrown open, and John Hancock, looking out, inquired what was the matter. Recognizing Revere, he directed the guard to open the door, and admit the messenger, who soon told his startling tale. Hancock and Adams quickly dressed, and, while Revere set out again on his journey, these two Patriots left Lexington to avoid capture.
Revere was now joined by another rider, named Dawes, who had left Boston at the same time by a different route. Upon these two was put the responsibility of arousing the people. From every house the good men of the countryside rushed out when they heard the news. The Minute Men began to gather, with such guns as they had, and by two o'clock in the morning over a hundred of them had met upon the green in Lexington. As no foe was in sight, and as the air was cold, they disbanded to assemble again at the sound of the drum.
Meanwhile, Revere and Dawes rode toward Concord, six miles off. On their way, they fell in with Dr. Samuel Prescott, to whom they told their story as the three rode along. Suddenly, a group of British officers appeared in the road before them, and laid their hands upon Revere and Dawes, who were a little in advance. This occurred so unexpectedly that escape was impossible for those two. But Dr. Prescott urged his horse over a stone wall, and was well away before he could be stopped. He alone bore the news to the people of Concord.
When Prescott arrived, at about two in the morning, he at once gave the alarm. The bells were rung, and the people rushed toward the center square where Dr. Prescott addressed them.
"The Regulars are on their way to capture the stores in the warehouse," he declared. "They may now be in Lexington, and it is certain they will be here before long. Revere and Dawes brought me word. We must remove the stores before the British arrive."
This was enough. It did not take the people of Concord many hours to put the precious stores in a place of safety.
Meantime, the British had come to the outskirts of Lexington. It was about daybreak, and the drum-beat called the Colonists together on the village green. There were about one hundred stern and determined Patriots, facing five or six hundred British troops. The moment was one of intense excitement, for both sides knew it meant war if a shot was fired. Captain John Parker, in command of the militia, said to his men:
"Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."
The British Commander, Major Pitcairn, drew his pistol, and, pointing at the Patriots, cried out:
"Disperse, you villains! Lay down your arms, you rebels, and disperse!"
The Patriots did not move. The British came nearer, as if to surround Parker's men. A shot, fired from the British line, was answered immediately by the Patriots. Then Major Pitcairn drew his pistol, and discharged it, calling out, "Fire." The British then fired upon the Minute Men, killing four of them, after which the others retreated. This was the opening shot of the Revolution, and we shall see how England paid dearly for it.
The British moved on to Concord, reaching there about seven, o'clock. They were too late, however, for most of the stores had been removed. They did what damage they could, by knocking open, sixty barrels of flour, injuring three cannon and setting fire to the court-house.
About midday, the British began their retreat. The Patriots had gathered in haste from the neighboring towns, and were preparing to harass the enemy along the road. Concealing themselves behind houses, barns, roadside walls, and trees, they poured a galling fire into the retreating British. The Red Coats, as the British were called, began to run in order to escape the deadly fire of the farmers, with their rifles and shotguns. The six miles from Concord to Boston were one dreadful ambush. Reaching Lexington, a number of the British fell exhausted on the ground, their tongues parched from fatigue and thirst.
Here they were joined by a large number of fresh British troops, and the whole force proceeded to Boston, pursued by the Patriots up to the very entrance of the city. Altogether, they lost about three hundred men, while the Americans lost only one hundred.
Such was the beginning of the American Revolution. The midnight ride of Paul Revere was a very good beginning for the cause of American freedom.