Paul Revere’s Ride – David Hackett Fischer


I don’t think I’ve ever read a (an?) historical book that was more well-researched than this one.  The amount of information in the story and its breadth of scope (he tells the story from both the American and British perspectives) are enormously impressive.  The author obviously spent a ton of time researching before he wrote.  The good news is that along with the research he also spent time writing a good story.  It’s not only informative, it’s a good read.

The book really should be entitled “Lexington and Concord” because it’s more about the battle that started the Revolutionary War (the “shot heard round the world” – not to be confused with Bobby Thomson’s home run to win the 1951 NL pennant for the NY Giants) than just Revere’s ride.  Fischer uses the ride as a vehicle to narrate all the events that took place in April 1775 that started the war, but his scope goes way beyond just Paul Revere.

That said, he gives a lot of good information on the famous ride.  Like most Americans (or most Americans who aren’t Millennials) I knew about Paul Revere and his ride.  But – also like most Americans – I couldn’t have told you many details before reading this book and some of the details I thought I knew were actually wrong.  Did you know that he almost certainly did NOT say, “The British are coming!  The British are coming!”?  The reason he wouldn’t have said that is the people he was warning still thought of themselves as British.  He likely said, “The Regulars are coming!” or something like that.  He also didn’t ride alone.  There were several riders that went out, he was just the one who was the most effective.  Another myth surrounds the lanterns in the North Church tower (“one if by land, two if by sea”).  He didn’t wait for a signal and then ride out.  He actually set up the signals himself as a backup plan in case he wasn’t able to get out of Boston.  The signal was meant for the colonists in Charlestown (across the bay from Boston) so they could send out another rider if Revere didn’t make it.  [You have to understand Boston geography to understand what the signal meant.  Boston at that time was on a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a very narrow strip of land called the “Boston Neck” (which doesn’t exist today as they’ve filled in land around it).  To leave Boston, the British had to either march across the Neck to the mainland or get on boats and row across the bay.  Each way had its advantages and disadvantages, but the men spreading the alarm had to know in order to predict where the British were going and how long it would take them to get there.]

Most of the myths surrounding Paul Revere come from Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere’s Ride (which apparently sounded like a really good title to the author of our book).  Longfellow wrote it in 1860 likely as a way to stir up patriotism in the Union leading up to the Civil War.  Before the poem, Revere’s ride really wasn’t that well-known.  Unfortunately, Longfellow wasn’t interested in historical accuracy as much as he was in writing a good poem.  Thus he took several liberties with the story and when the poem became famous (and memorized by thousands of American schoolchildren over the next 100+ years), the “facts” he put into the poem became the dominant narrative.  [I never had to memorize it but I remember my older sister walking around the house trying to recite it and I learned the famous first lines, “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”  BTW – he didn’t ride at midnight.]

If you like American history I’d definitely recommend the book.  You’ll learn a ton and enjoy learning it.  If you’re not into American history (you commie-pinko!), then by all means this isn’t for you.  The good news, even if you don’t read it, is that you’ve read this review and you at least know more about what you didn’t know and know that what you did know was probably wrong.

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