How Historically Accurate Is “Paul Revere’s Ride”?

We can answer this question by comparing Paul Revere’s most detailed account of what he did on April 18-19, 1775, and other historical accounts, with the story that H. W. Longfellow told in verse. In particular:
  • Did Revere wait for a lantern signal from the old North Church?
  • Did Revere row himself across the Charles River, and when?
  • Did Revere enter Medford at midnight, and Lexington at one o’clock?
  • Did Revere come to the “bridge at Concord town” at two o’clock, or at all?
  • Were there other people spreading the alarm that night?
  • Did Revere do other things that night and the next morning?
The fact that Longfellow knew of Revere’s account and deviated from it in so many ways shows, as Charles Bahne argues, that the poet wasn’t trying to be historically accurate. He was trying to create a stirring story, and a new American legend.

Often it is easier to create a compelling story by focusing on one person, rather than the effort of a large, spread-out group. Therefore, Longfellow focused on Paul Revere even though the silversmith had written about and named several confederates. Though Revere’s warning made it to Concord, he didn’t—Dr. Samuel Prescott carried the message the last few miles. But adding more of that historical story would have taken the focus off the poem’s central figure.

Storytelling is also easier when the protagonist has a clear goal, there are clear obstacles in the way, and events work out logically. By boiling down Revere’s goal into spreading the news through Middlesex County, Longfellow skipped his mission to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and his long effort to get those men to safety. He also left out some aspects of the story that are still mysterious: Who told the American activists that the army would march? Why did the British officers who captured Revere let him go? Who fired the first shot at Lexington?

It would be possible to tell a more accurate version of the events of April 18-19, 1775, in verse. That poem would surely be much longer and harder to memorize, and probably less stirring in its storytelling. Would anyone like to try?