Bar Story #5: Alarm & Muster

“The Lexington Minuteman” by sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson (1900)

“The Lexington Minuteman” by sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson (1900)


Bar Story: It was on the evening of April 18th, 1775, that Paul Revere climbed into the rowboat he hid days before along the north shore of Boston, and made his way across the harbor under cover of darkness. Behind him, two lights could be seen hanging in the steeple of the Old North Church, alerting the militia in Charlestown ahead of him. They received him on the banks of the Charles River, where he was provided a horse for his ride.

This is a moment years in the making: New England had already built a reputation of civil disobedience against British rule, with Boston becoming the most notorious. After a decade of insubordination, King George declared the colonies in outright rebellion, and ordered General Gage - commander of the British army occupying Boston - to arrest rebel leaders to stand trial for treason, as well as march his army out to the Massachusetts countryside and seize the arms & supplies of local militias.

However, the people of Massachusetts were prepared: their Provincial Government - led by rebels such as Samuel Adams & John Hancock - had spent the fall of 1774 building a system of routes, riders & militiamen designed to “alarm & muster” a large force trained to “turn out for service at a minute's notice.” In the greater Boston area alone, over 16,000 “minutemen” quietly enlisted and began to train.

As the sun set on the 18th of April, Doctor Joseph Warren of Boston - later General Warren of Bunker Hill fame - received word that the British were making their move, gathering the majority of their troops on the Commons to be ferried to Cambridge. He needed to get word out, but Boston was already under martial law, and with darkness setting in, mounted patrols were out & no one would be allowed to enter or leave the city.

At 9pm, he called on silversmith Paul Revere & tanner William Dawes, giving them instructions to ride to Concord - location of both the Provincial Government & militia stores - and trigger the alarm along the way. Revere was to try and go north across the Charles River, while Dawes would attempt to go south across the Boston Neck.

Contrary to popular belief, the lanterns hung in the Old North Church were not intended to alert Revere, but were Revere’s idea to notify the militia across the river of which route the British were taking in order to coordinate their movements, and in case he didn’t make it out of the city. That evening, on the way to his hidden boat, Revere stopped at the Old North Church and instructed Robert Newman - sextant of the church - to hang the lanterns.

And so it was that, just after 10pm, the lanterns were hung as Paul Revere rowed across the river, successfully sneaking past HMS Somerset sitting at anchor, which was providing protection over the British soldiers landing at Cambridge.

Revere would ride quickly through Charlestown, Somerville, Medford, Arlington and finally into Lexington, where he would arrive right around midnight. At each stop, he cried “the Regulars are coming out!” as minutemen poured into the streets and increasing numbers of riders were dispatched out to further communities. The alarm had been given, and the people mustered.

There were countless other riders, most of whose names have been lost to history, who spread the word across New England and the colonies beyond. Without their planning, determination and effort, the American Revolution would not have been. Riders Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, William Dawes, Israel Bissel and the many others have thus earned their place in our nation’s history.

In addition to other express riders delivering messages, bells, drums, guns, bonfires, and trumpets were used for rapid communication from town to town, notifying the rebels across Massachusetts to muster their militias. This system was so effective that people in towns 25 miles from Boston were aware of the British army's movements while they were still unloading their boats in Cambridge. In matter of days, the news made it all the way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The quickly massing militias caused the British to fail in their mission; they met defeat at the Battle of Concord, and were forced to retreat back to Boston. Following the battle, General Gage offered a pardon to all who would "lay down their arms, and return to the duties of peaceable subjects.” There were no takers.

In the days which followed, militiamen from across New England arrived and surrounded the city, thus beginning a nearly year-long siege. General Washington would arrive & take command later that summer, and the British would finally evacuate Boston in March, 1776.

Fun fact: The Lexington Green hosted the start of the American Revolution for one reason only: it was the site of the Buckman Tavern (still standing), which was a favorite hangout for the Lexington Training Band (militia) after a day of training on the green. So much in fact that the tavern became the rally point for the unit when the alarm was sounded. On the night of April 18th, they mustered at the tavern in the middle of the night, and enjoyed pints of ale as they waited for the British to arrive. They also failed to stop the British advance 🤷‍♂️