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"Paul Revere's Ride"

Illustration and poem, Paul Revere's Ride, ca. 1880

Illustration, Paul Revere's Ride, c. 1880

"Paul Revere's Ride" is one of Longfellow's best known and most widely read poems. First published on the eve of the American Civil War and later the opening tale of the 22 linked narratives that comprise Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn, the poem rescued a minor figure of the Revolutionary War from obscurity and made him into a national hero.

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1859

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1859

"Paul Revere's Ride" first appeared in the December 18, 1860 edition of the "Boston Transcript," and then in the January 1861 "Atlantic Monthly." ("The Transcript" published an incomplete version, prompting Longfellow to write to James Thomas Fields, editor of the "Atlantic Monthly" saying, "In 'Paul Revere' as given in The Transcript I find six lines left out. I hope it is not so in the Atlantic. The lines follow immediately after 'The fate of a nation rode that night,' and are rather essential, I think, to the picture. Perhaps I accidentally omitted them in copying for the press." He then enclosed the omitted lines.)

Paul Revere was a silversmith in Boston and a devoted patriot. He was a participant in the Boston Tea Party and creator of an inflammatory illustration of what became known as the Boston Massacre. Revere was also a family man, fathering eight children with his first wife, and, after her death, eight with his second wife. After the events described in Longfellow's poem, he served with the poet's maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, in the failed Penobscot expedition. By 1860, he and his place in history had been largely forgotten.

The basic premise of Longfellow's poem is historically accurate, but Paul Revere's role is exaggerated. The most glaring inconsistencies between the poem and the historical record are that Revere was not the only rider that night, nor did he make it all the way to Concord, but was captured and then let go (without his horse) in Lexington, where he had stopped to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the impending attack.

Longfellow's intention was not to write a history; it was to create a national hero and he was successful at doing so. During a time of great national upheaval, people seized on Paul Revere as an example of the county's noble past. His is still a household name and today visitors to Boston can visit Revere's house and follow in Revere's footsteps as outlined by Longfellow as they walk along the Freedom Trail.

"Paul Revere's Ride" continues to be widely read and debated. In 2005, the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of its "We The People Bookshelf" provided one thousand libraries nationwide with sets of 15 books relating to the theme of "freedom," including "Paul Revere's Ride." The Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, organized an exhibit in 2004, "Revere's Ride and Longfellow's Legend" that sought, as historians have been doing since the poem was written, to distinguish fact from fiction. The exhibit later traveled to the National Heritage Museum (formerly known as the Museum of Our National Heritage) in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Craigie House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, ca. 1920

Craigie House, Cambridge, Massachusetts

In 1860, although deeply concerned about his country's political situation, Longfellow and his wife, Fanny Appleton, were enjoying a life of familial love and material comforts. They had lost one daughter in infancy 12 years earlier, but their grief was behind them and their other five children were thriving. Longfellow had left Harvard in 1854 to devote himself to writing full time, and had published many of his most popular works, including Evangeline, Hiawatha, and "The Courtship of Miles Standish."

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1862

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1862

Longfellow could not have known how completely his version of the events leading up the Revolutionary War would permeate American culture. By the time his poem was published in book form as the opening of the first volume of Tales of a Wayside Inn in 1863, he may not have cared. In July of 1861, Longfellow's beloved wife, Fanny, had died after her dress caught on fire while at their home in Cambridge. Longfellow was devastated, and spent less time creating original work. Instead, he threw himself into translating Dante's Divine Comedy, which was published in 1867.