It was night at Boston, the birthnight of one of the leading events in the history of the world. The weather was balmy and clear. Most of the good citizens of the town were at their homes; many of them doubtless in their beds; for early hours were kept in those early days of our country's history. Yet many were abroad, and from certain streets of the town arose unwonted sounds, the steady tread of marching feet, the occasional click of steel, the rattle of accoutrements. Those who were within view of Boston Common at a late hour of that evening of April 18, 1775, beheld an unusual sight, that of serried ranks of armed men, who had quietly marched thither from their quarters throughout the town, as the starting-point for some secret and mysterious expedition.
At the same hour, in a shaded recess of the suburb of Charlestown, stood a strongly-built and keen-eyed man, with his hand on the bridle of an impatiently waiting horse, his eyes fixed on a distant spire that rose like a shadow through the gloom of the night. Paul Revere was the name of this expectant patriot. He had just before crossed the Charles River in a small boat, rowing needfully through the darkness, for his route lay under the guns of a British man-of-war, the "Somerset," on whose deck, doubtless were watchful eyes on the lookout for midnight prowlers. Fortunately, the dark shadows which lay upon the water hid the solitary rower from view, and he reached the opposite shore unobserved. Here a swift horse had been provided for him, and he was bidden to be keenly on the alert, as a force of mounted British officers were on the road which he might soon have to take.
The Old North Church, Boston.
And still the night moved on in its slow and silent course, while slumber locked the eyes of most of the worthy people of Boston town, and few of the patriots were afoot. But among these was the ardent man who stood with his eyes impatiently fixed on the lofty spire of the Old North Church, and in the town itself others heedfully watched the secret movements of the British troops.
Suddenly a double gleam flashed from the far-off spire. Two lighted candles had been placed in the belfry window of the church, and their feeble glimmer sped swiftly through the intervening air and fell upon the eyes of the expectant messenger. No sooner had the light met his gaze than Paul Revere, with a glad cry of relief, sprang to his saddle, gave his uneasy horse the rein, and dashed away at a swinging pace, the hoof-beats of his horse sounding like the hammer-strokes of fate as he bore away on his vital errand.
A minute or two brought him past Charlestown Neck. But not many steps had he taken on his onward course before peril to his enterprise suddenly confronted him. Two British officers appeared in the road.
"Who goes there? Halt!" was their stern command.
Paul Revere looked at them. They were mounted and armed. Should he attempt to dash past them? It was too risky and his errand too important. But there was another road near by, whose entrance he had just passed. With a quick jerk at the rein he turned his horse, and in an instant was flying back at racing speed.
"Halt, or we will fire!" cried the officers, spurring their horses to swift pursuit.
Heedless of this command the bold rider drove headlong back, his horse quickly proving his mettle by distancing those of his pursuers. A few minutes brought him to the entrance to the Medford Road. Into this he sharply wheeled, and was quickly away again towards his distant goal. Meanwhile one of the officers, finding himself distanced, turned his horse into the fields lying between the two roads, with the purpose of riding across and cutting off the flight of the fugitive. He had not taken many steps, however, before he found his horse floundering in a clay-pit, while Revere on the opposite road shot past, with a ringing shout of triumph as he went.
Leaving him for the present to his journey, we must return to the streets of Boston, and learn the secret of this midnight ride.
For several years previous to 1775 Boston had been in the hands of British troops,—of a foreign foe, we may almost say, for they treated it as though it were a captured town. Many collisions had occurred between the troops and the citizens, the rebellious feeling growing with every hour of occupation, until now the spirit of rebellion, like a contagious fever, had spread far beyond its point of origin, and affected townsmen and farmers widely throughout the colonies. In all New England hostility to British rule had become rampant, minute-men (men pledged to spring to arms at a minute's notice) were everywhere gathering and drilling, and here and there depots of arms and ammunition had hastily been formed. Peace still prevailed, but war was in the air.
Boston itself aided in supplying these warlike stores. Under the very eyes of the British guards cannon-balls and muskets were carried out in carts, covered by loads of manure. Market-women conveyed powder from the city in their panniers, and candle-boxes served as secret receptacles for cartridges. Depots of these munitions were made near Boston. In the preceding February the troops had sought to seize one of these at Salem, but were forced to halt at Salem bridge by a strong body of the people, led by Colonel Pickering. Finding themselves outnumbered, they turned and marched back, no shot being fired and no harm done.
Another depot of stores had now been made at Concord, about nineteen miles away, and this General Gage had determined to destroy, even if blood were shed in so doing. Rebellion, in his opinion, was gaining too great a head; it must be put down by the strong arm of force; the time for mild measures was past.
Yet he was not eager to rouse the colonists to hostility. It was his purpose to surprise the patriots and capture the stores before a party could be gathered to their defence. This was the meaning of the stealthy midnight movement of the troops. But the patriot leaders in Boston were too watchful to be easily deceived; they had their means of obtaining information, and the profound secret of the British general was known to them before the evening had far advanced.
About nine o'clock Lord Percy, one of the British officers, crossed the Common, and in doing so noticed a group of persons in eager chat. He joined these, curious to learn the subject of their conversation. The first words he heard filled him with alarm.
"The British troops will miss their aim," said a garrulous talker.
"What aim?" asked Percy.
"The cannon at Concord," was the reply.
Percy, who was in Gage's confidence, hastened to the head-quarters of the commanding general and informed him of what he had overheard. Gage, startled to learn that his guarded secret was already town's talk, at once set guards on all the avenues leading from the town, with orders to arrest every person who should attempt to leave, while the squad of officers of whom we have spoken were sent forward to patrol the roads.
But the patriots were too keen-witted to be so easily checked in their plans. Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the patriot leaders, fearing arrest, had left town, and were then at Lexington at the house of the Rev. Jonas Clarke. Paul Revere had been sent to Charlestown by the patriotic Dr. Warren, with orders to take to the road the moment the signal lights in the belfry of the old North Church should appear. These lights would indicate that the troops were on the road. We have seen how promptly he obeyed, and how narrowly he escaped capture by General Gages' guards.
On he went, mile by mile, rattling down the Medford Road. At every wayside house he stopped, knocked furiously at the door, and, as the startled inmates came hastily to the windows, shouted, "Up! up! the regulars are coming!" and before his sleepy auditors could fairly grasp his meaning, was away again.
It was about midnight when the British troops left Boston, on their supposed secret march. At a little after the same hour the rattling sound of hoofs broke the quiet of the dusky streets of Lexington, thirteen miles away.
Around the house of the Rev. Mr. Clarke eight minute-men had been stationed as a guard, to protect the patriot leaders within. They started hastily to their feet as the messenger rode up at headlong speed.
"Rouse the house!" cried Revere.
"That we will not," answered the guards. "Orders have been given not to disturb the people within by noise."
"Noise!" exclaimed Revere; "you'll have noise enough before long; the regulars are coming!"
At these startling tidings the guards suffered him to approach and knock at the door. The next minute a window was thrown up and Mr. Clarke looked out.
"Who is there?" he demanded.
"I wish to see Mr. Hancock," was the reply.
"I cannot admit strangers to my house at night without knowing who they are."
Another window opened as he spoke. It was that of John Hancock, who had heard and recognized the messenger's voice. He knew him well.
"Come in, Revere," he cried; "we are not afraid of you."
The door was opened and Revere admitted, to tell his alarming tale, and bid the patriot leaders to flee from that place of danger. His story was quickly confirmed, for shortly afterwards another messenger, William Dawes by name, rode up. He had left Boston at the same time as Revere, but by a different route. Adams was by this time aroused and had joined his friend, and the two patriot leaders, feeling assured that their capture was one of the purposes of the expedition, hastily prepared for retreat to safer quarters. While they did so, Revere and Dawes, now joining company, mounted again, and once more took to the road, on their midnight mission of warning and alarm.
Away they went again, with thunder of hoofs and rattle of harness, while as they left the streets of Lexington behind them a hasty stir succeeded the late silence of that quiet village. From every house men rushed to learn the news; from every window women's heads were thrust; some armed minute-men began to gather, and by two o'clock a hundred and thirty of these were gathered upon the meeting-house green. But no foe appeared, and the air was chilly at this hour of the night, so that, after the roll had been called, they were dismissed, with orders to be ready to assemble at beat of drum.
Meanwhile, Revere and his companion had pushed on towards Concord, six miles beyond. On the road they met Dr. Samuel Prescott, a resident of that town, on his way home from a visit to Lexington. The three rode on together, the messengers telling their startling story to their new companion.
It was a fortunate meeting, as events fell out, for, as they pushed onward, Paul Revere somewhat in advance, the group of British officers of whom he had been told suddenly appeared in the road before him. Before he could make a movement to escape they were around him, and strong hands were upon his shoulders. The gallant scout was a prisoner in British hands.
Dawes, who had been closely behind him, suffered the same fate. Not so Prescott, who had been left a short distance behind by the ardent messengers. He sprang over the road-side wall before the officers could reach him, and hastened away through the fields towards Concord, bearing thither the story he had so opportunely learned.
The officers had already in their custody three Lexington men, who, in order to convey the news, had taken to the road while Revere and Dawes were closeted with the patriot leaders at Mr Clarke's. Riding back with their prisoners to a house near by, they questioned them at point of pistol as to their purpose.
Revere at first gave evasive answers to their questions. But at length, with a show of exultation, he said,—
"Gentlemen, you have missed your aim."
"What aim?" they asked.
"I came from Boston an hour after your troops left it," answered Revere. "And if I had not known that messengers were out in time enough to carry the news for fifty miles, you would not have stopped me without a shot."
The officers, startled by this confident assertion, continued their questions; but now, from a distance, the clang of a bell was heard. The Lexington men cried out at this,—
"The bells are ringing! The towns are alarmed! You are all dead men!"
This assertion, which the sound of the bells appeared to confirm, alarmed the officers. If the people should rise, their position would be a dangerous one. They must make their way back. But, as a measure of precaution, they took Revere's horse and cut the girths and bridles of the others. This done, they rode away at full speed, leaving their late captives on foot in the road. But this the two messengers little heeded, as they knew that their tidings had gone on in safe hands.
While all this was taking place, indeed, Prescott had regained the road, and was pressing onward at speed. He reached Concord about two o'clock in the morning, and immediately gave the alarm. As quickly as possible the bells were set ringing, and from all sides people, roused by the midnight alarum, thronged towards the centre square. As soon as the startling news was heard active measures were taken to remove the stores. All the men, and a fair share of the women, gave their aid, carrying ammunition, muskets, cartridges, and other munitions hastily to the nearest woods. Some of the cannon were buried in trenches, over which a farmer rapidly ran his plough, to give it the aspect of a newly-ploughed field. The militia gathered in all haste from neighboring villages, and at early day a large body of them were assembled, while the bulk of the precious stores had vanished.
The Spirit of '76.
Meanwhile, momentous events were taking place at Lexington. The first shots of the American Revolution had been fired; the first blood had been shed. It was about four o'clock when the marching troops came within sight of the town. Until now they had supposed that their secret was safe, and that they would take the patriots off their guard. But the sound of bells, clashing through the morning air, told a different tale. In some way the people had been aroused. Colonel Smith halted his men, sent a messenger to Boston for re-enforcements, and ordered Major Pitcairn, with six companies, to press on to Concord with all haste and secure the bridges.
News that the troops were at hand quickly reached Lexington. The drums were beaten, the minute-men gathered, and as the coming morning showed its first gray tinge in the east, it gave light to a new spectacle on Lexington green, that of a force of about a hundred armed militiamen facing five or six times their number of scarlet-coated British troops.
It was a critical moment. Neither party wished to fire. Both knew well what the first shot involved. But the moment of prudence did not last. Pitcairn galloped forward, sword in hand, followed quickly by his men, and shouted in ringing tones,—
"Disperse, you villains! Lay down your arms, you rebels, and disperse!"
The patriots did not obey. Not a man of them moved from his ranks. Not a face blanched. Pitcairn galloped back and bade his men surround the rebels in arms. At this instant some shots came from the British line. They were instantly answered from the American ranks. Pitcairn drew his pistol and discharged it.
"Fire!" he cried to his troops.
Instantly a fusillade of musketry rang out upon the morning air, four of the patriots fell dead, and the other, moved by sudden panic, fled. As they retreated another volley was fired, and more men fell. The others hid behind stone walls and buildings and returned the fire, wounding three of the soldiers and Pitcairn's horse.
Such was the opening contest of the American Revolution. Those shots were the signal of a tempest of war which was destined to end in the establishment of one of the greatest nations known to human history. As for the men who lay dead upon Lexington green, the first victims of a great cause, they would be amply revenged before their assailants set foot again on Boston streets.
The troops, elated with their temporary success, now pushed on briskly towards Concord, hoping to be in time to seize the stores. They reached there about seven o'clock, but only to find that they were too late, and that most of the material of war had disappeared. They did what damage they could, knocked open about sixty barrels of flour which they found, injured three cannon, threw some five hundred pounds of balls into wells and the mill-pond, and set fire to the court-house. A Mrs. Moulton put out the flames before they had done much harm.
The time taken in these exercises was destined to be fatal to many of those indulging in them. Militia were now gathering in haste from all the neighboring towns. The Concord force had withdrawn for re-enforcements, but about ten o'clock, being now some four hundred strong, the militia advanced and attacked the enemy on guard at North Bridge. A sharp contest ensued. Captain Isaac Davis and one of his men fell dead. Three of the British were killed, and several wounded and captured. The bridge was taken.
Colonel Smith was in a quandary. Should he stand his ground, or retreat before these despised provincials? Should veteran British troops fly before countrymen who had never fired gun before at anything larger than a rabbit? But these despised countrymen were gathering in hordes. On every side they could be seen hasting forward, musket or rifle in hand. Prudence just then seemed the better part of valor. About twelve o'clock Colonel Smith reluctantly gave the order to retreat.
It began as an orderly march; it ended as a disorderly flight. The story of Lexington had already spread far and wide and, full of revengeful fury, the minute-men hastened to the scene. Reaching the line of retreat, they hid behind houses, barns, and road-side walls, and poured a galling fire upon the troops, some of whom at every moment fell dead. During that dreadful six miles' march to Lexington, the helpless troops ran the gantlet of the most destructive storm of bullets they had ever encountered. On Lexington battle-green several of them fell. It is doubtful if a man of them would have reached Boston alive but for the cautious demand for re-enforcements which Colonel Smith had sent back in the early morning.
Lord Percy, with about nine hundred men, left Boston about nine o'clock in the morning of the 19th, and a short time after two in the afternoon reached the vicinity of Lexington. He was barely in time to rescue the exhausted troops of Colonel Smith. So worn out were they with fatigue that they were obliged to fling themselves on the ground for rest, their tongues hanging from their mouths through drought and weariness.
Little time could be given them for rest. The woods swarmed with militiamen, who scarcely could be kept back by the hollow square and planted cannon of Lord Percy's troops. In a short time the march was resumed. The troops had burned several houses at Lexington, a vandalism which added to the fury of the provincials. As they proceeded, the infuriated soldiers committed other acts of atrocity, particularly in West Cambridge, where houses were plundered and several unoffending persons murdered.
But for all this they paid dearly. The militia pursued them almost to the very streets of Boston, pouring in a hot fire at every available point. On nearing Charlestown the situation of the British troops became critical, for their ammunition was nearly exhausted, and a strong force was marching upon them from several points. Fortunately for them, they succeeded in reaching Charlestown before they could be cut off, and here the pursuit ended as no longer available. The British loss in killed, wounded, and missing in that dreadful march had been nearly three hundred; that of the Americans was about one hundred in all.
It was a day mighty in history, the birthday of the American Revolution; the opening event in the history of the United States of America, which has since grown to so enormous stature, and is perhaps destined to become the greatest nation upon the face of the earth. That midnight ride of Paul Revere was one of the turning-points in the history of mankind.