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Voices of the Revolution: The Five Riders

Thanks to the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere is often credited as the sole rider who alerted the colonies that the British were coming. Yet, despite this tale, there were many riders who went out the night of April 18 and in the years following, warning the colonists of the approach and movement of the British forces. Four men and one woman made late night rides, alerting the early Americans of what dangers lay ahead. They were Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, Israel Bissell, William Dawes, and Sybil Ludington.

Paul Revere

Poets, historians, and schoolbooks have retold the story of the legendary ride of Paul Revere for more than two centuries. The most popular retelling is the poem entitled "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It begins:

Paul Revere, Paul Revere's Ride
Paul Revere's Ride

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.

Thanks to Longfellow, hardly a scholar or school child alive does not know the name of Paul Revere, and why he was important. Although his role has been embellished, it was still a significant one.

Paul Revere, born in Boston in 1734 to a French Huguenot father and Bostonian mother, started his young life training to be a silversmith. After the death of his father in 1754, Paul enlisted in the provincial army to fight in the French and Indian War for the simple fact that it was the best job around.

When the war was over, he returned to Boston to take over his father's silversmith business, only to fall into financial difficulties during the Stamp Act of 1765. Frustrated by this gave him cause to join the Sons of Liberty, a group of men initially responsible for organizing early revolution efforts and develop a close association with Joseph Warren.

On the night of April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren sent Revere to send the signal to Charlestown that the British troops were on the move. Revere rode through northern Boston, through what is now Medford, Somerville, and Arlington warning the American patriots about the enemy's movement.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Paul Revere never shouted the phrase "the British are coming," and instead rode swiftly and in secrecy northward. His journey ended in Lexington where he met other Sons of Liberty John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

Afterwards, after meeting up with William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, the three men went their separate ways to improve their chances of escape from British officers stationed along the road. Revere would be captured by the British, but his comrades would be more successful in their journeys.

Revolutionary War William Dawes
William Dawes

William Dawes

Joseph Warren would not just send out Paul Revere that night, but would commission William Dawes to make the ride to warn the colonial minutemen as well.

In 1896, American poet Helen F. Moore would be among the first to correct this minor oversight of history when she composed a parody of Longfellow's poem with her own version:

Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear-
My name was Dawes and his Revere.

Dawes was born in Boston in 1745, and would become a successful tanner and eventual member of the Boston militia. On the night of April 18, Joseph Warren assigned Dawes, along with Revere, the mission of riding north to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of their impending arrest, and to alert the colonial minutemen that the British were on the move. Dawes would arrive in Lexington approximately half an hour after Revere, because the latter's horse had supposedly been faster.

Israel Bissell Ride to Philadelphia
Israel Bissell Ride to Philadelphia

From the Hancock-Clark house in Lexington, the two men chose to ride onto Concord, meeting Samuel Prescott along the way. Unfortunately, they were met along the road by British soldiers. The three men split up, Dawes riding into the yard of a country house along the way, where his horse threw him off and then ran away. Unable to locate his horse, Dawes was forced to walk back to Lexington.

Samuel Prescott

With permission from Joseph Warren, Paul Revere arranged for Samuel Prescott to meet himself and Dawes on the road from Lexington to Concord the night of April 18. A native of Concord, Massachusetts, Prescott was familiar with the territory and would be able to serve as a guide for the two men on their nighttime journey.

When the three were met along the road to Concord by British officers and were forced to split up, Prescott would be the only one of the three to eventually reach Concord, carrying Warren's news to that part of the state. His knowledge of the terrain, and his daring horsemanship allowed him to reach his destination safely.

Israel Bissell

Unlike the more famous names of Revere, Dawes, and Prescott, Israel Bissell (also known to history as both "Isaac" or "Trail" Bissell) was the man who made the longest ride in mid April 1775, starting around the 13th of that month. According to legend, a professional post rider for the American colonists, Bissell rode four days and six hours along the Old Post Road, covering a total of 345 miles in that time. According to the story, he shouted along the way "To arms, to arms, the war has begun," in the sensationalist manner which would bring the most attention, and most likely make the best newspaper headlines.

Bissell began his journey in Watertown, Massachusetts, just to the west of Boston, and drove his first horse so hard that it died just outside of Worcester, Massachusetts. He continued down to Philadelphia warning the militias along the way.

The American poet and historian, Clay Perry, in the manner of Longfellow, wrote an ode to Bissell with these opening lines:

Listen, my children, to my epistle
Of the long, long ride of Israel Bissell,
Who outrode Paul by miles and time
But didn't rate a poet's rhyme.

Bissell had supposedly carried a message from General Joseph Palmer, which was printed in the newspapers of the day, including a misprint of Bissell's name. It read:

To all the friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade, consisting of about 1,000 to 1,200 men landed at Phip's Farm at Cambridge and marched to Lexington, where they found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired without any provocation and killed six men and wounded four others. By an express from Boston, we find another brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1,000. The Bearer, Tryal Russell, is charged to alarm the country quite to Connecticut and all persons are desired to furnish him with fresh horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded. Pray let the delegates from this colony to Connecticut see this.

Israel Bissell Ride to Philadelphia
The Old Post Road

Interestingly enough, because these rides are so steeped in myth, Israel Bissell himself has become somewhat of a legend. Some historians argue that he never existed, or that "Israel Bissell" was the name given to a number of post riders who made the journey from Boston to Philadelphia. Palmer, who had commissioned Bissell, only dispatched him to as far as Hartford, Connecticut, where he would pass along the message to another courier, who continue along the next leg of the journey. This is the way that the first Postal Service was intended to operate.

After this journey, Bissell enlisted in the Connecticut regiment and would eventually become a sergeant under Colonel Erastus Wolcott, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Even still, by riding from Watertown to Hartford, Bissell (or whatever his name actually was) rode the furthest of the five riders, and should be remembered for this service to the American colonists.

Sybil Ludington

The last of the famous night riders was, surprisingly, a woman. Although she would not make her journey until April 26, 1777, her service to the American forces was remarkable. The daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington, Sybil, at the young age of sixteen, would make a journey double to that of Revere (totaling 40 miles) to warn the colonists at Danbury, Connecticut of the approach of the British.

Sybil Ludington Woman of the Revolution
Statue of Sybil Ludington at Carmel, New York

Commissioned by her father, who knew that Sybil was familiar with the terrain, the young girl set out at 9pm the night of April 26 through Kent to Farmers Mills and then returned back home again, damp from the rain and exhausted, just before dawn. The men she recruited were too late to save the town of Danbury, which had been set aflame by the British, but they were able to drive the enemy troops from the area.

She was later commended by George Washington for her heroism. A statue of her (seen above) was erected along her route in Carmel, New York, along with many other markers of her historic ride.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 3.0

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