Surveying a lack of peace at Concord

Paul Revere's Ride
April 7, 1995

Paul Revere's justified standing as a silversmith - a craft that accompanied many Huguenots into exile - has been, in popular memory, obscured by his raising of the alarm that British troops were marching inland from Boston to seize munitions collected by imminently rebellious colonists. This dramatic episode has, in David Hackett Fischer's opinion, evoked widespread recognition and academic neglect. He has set to work, with undeniable success, to redress the scholars' failing, and in the process to correct misconceptions: the mission to alert Concord was but the most spectacular in a series of some 17 journeys carrying information through the northern colonies; this "Midnight Ride" was not punctuated by cries of "The British are coming". What did occur is documented both profusely and precisely: the state of the tide, the phase of the moon, the weather, even methods of timekeeping are examined and explained. Whatever can be placed under the rule of accuracy has been subjected to that discipline.

Within this framework, a narrative of compelling interest provides much enlightenment although, perhaps inevitably, some issues remain unresolved. No better account of the course of the conflict at Concord and Lexington can be found or required, though readers, like contemporaries, may differ in their assessment of its significance. Is there but one path between the extremes of the pronouncement of Ralph Waldo Emerson - a grandson of the then minister of Concord - that "the embattled farmers" had "Fired the shot heard 'round the world'" and of the reference to a skirmish by worsted British officers? Who fired that first shot is, of course, carefully considered, though even Fischer finds it impossible to bestow blame or credit. The importance of the engagement is more open to debate despite, perhaps because of, the figures ascertainable of those involved. The British numbered, at most, 900 officers and men, of whom almost 100 were reported killed or missing, and a further 180 were wounded. Set against American casualties of 94, there remains no doubt as to which force prevailed on the day. As an imperial reverse, however, it would not appear imposing compared, for instance, to the 1,600 men lost at Isandhlwana to the Zulus a century later.

As a rule, disaster of this kind stemmed from complacent attitudes. Although Thomas Gage, both commander in chief and governor of Massachusetts, should have combined military and civil awareness of the opposition he faced, he seems to have utterly miscalculated its extent and intensity. The column was dispatched with a pitifully inadequate supply of ammunition - that American casualties were so few can be credited to a British inability to inflict them. In contrast, as this account so effectively demonstrates, the colonists revealed a capacity for military organisation and a determination to resist arbitrary rule that both astonished and put to flight Britons imbued with an unchallenged sense of a right to govern. The military consequences of this cultural collision have never been so effectively portrayed in such compulsively pursued detail. This is one battle that will not demand further description.

Away from the fighting, however, some uncertainty persists. We are told that "this inquiry . . . centers on two actors in particular". One is Revere, the other Gage, depicted respectively as "an organiser of collective effort in the American Revolution" and as "truly a tragic figure". In this regard the best efforts of Fischer do not succeed in maintaining the conviction of his military narrative. Revere's was certainly a most active contribution to Massachusetts resistance, a figure important in the systematic and crucial establishment of a rival and superior system that would reduce and then eliminate British authority. How considerable a place this afforded him in the emergent political structures is by no means obvious: for a person of as much significance as he is here declared to be, his career, after the coming of independence, appears singularly modest. Even in the description of his earlier activities, assertions bulk larger than testimony - they may well seem justifiable but are not necessarily confirmable.

For different reasons, Gage does not easily sustain a central role. It is certainly not due to a failure to bequeath written testimony. The military equal of the duke of Newcastle, Gage incessantly committed to paper a vast array of official opinions that stopped short only at personal views. On any military matter, particularly if it had financial implications, he would express a fear. On private matters he remained totally reticent. Fischer confronts this obstacle, determined to overcome it. Declaring that "there is no direct proof but much circumstantial evidence", he credits Margaret Gage, the general's American-born wife, with divulging the decision to march on Concord. Not all readers will be ready to concur in this judgement, particularly when it is buttressed by assertions of the subsequent "failure" of a "shattered marriage", delivered without any supporting evidence. Such issues are of no great weight in assessing the importance of this study, but do detract from its undoubted authority.

That the conflict rapidly and widely acquired profound significance to Americans is evident from their retention and preservation of a range of artefacts, relating to the battle and providing illustrations. The significance of the event was rapidly recognised. This account, furnished with excellent maps, does justice to an encounter whose cost, however unacceptable, was subsequently met.

Peter Marshall is emeritus professor of American history and institutions, University of Manchester.

Paul Revere's Ride

Author - David Hackett Fischer
ISBN - 0 19 508847 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 424pp

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