One Church, Two Lanterns And The Start of The American Revolution

On the night of April 18th, 1775 an unknown number of men in Charlestown were keeping watch. Their subject was the steeple of Boston’s tallest building at the time, the Old North Church. Sometime between 10 pm and midnight two signal lanterns appeared, hovering 165 feet above Boston’s sleeping North End. It was the signal that Paul Revere had promised to send them. The British soldiers were leaving Boston by boat, rowing across the Back Bay to Cambridge.

“The measured tread of the grenadiers”

In 1775 the British army occupied the town of Boston. In April of that year, General Thomas Gage, the leader of the army and Royal Governor of Massachusetts, made secret plans to send a group of his soldiers out of Boston to Lexington and Concord to seize munitions that “rebel” colonists were stockpiling in the countryside. The soldiers were also to arrest John Hancock and Sam Adams, two of the leading members of the Sons of Liberty, a patriotic group

old north church bell tower“But mostly he watched with eager search/The belfry tower of the Old North Church”

Gage’s secret mission was discovered by members of the Sons of Liberty, including Paul Revere. Together, the group formed its own secret plan. Paul Revere and William Dawes were to leave Boston under cover of darkness to warn the countryside of the arrival of the British army. But they needed a backup plan in case both were captured.

On the 16th of April, Paul Revere travelled to the town of Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of General Gage’s plan. On his way back to Boston, Revere stopped in Charlestown to confer with patriot leaders there about how to warn the countryside of the imminent British march. The countryside needed to know when the British troops were headed out and which way they would be leaving Boston. Revere told the patriots of Charlestown to keep watch for a signal from the steeple of the Old North Church. One lantern would be shown if the soldiers were leaving Boston by land and two if they were crossing the river.

Eighty years later this plan would become the inspiration for Longfellow’s famous line “One if by Land, Two if by Sea”.

old north church lanterns“The fate of a nation was riding that night”

On April 18th, the Sons of Liberty received intelligence that the British were lowering boats into the river. They got word to Paul Revere and Paul Revere relayed the word to the men who have been given credit for lighting the lanterns: Captain John Pulling Jr. and Robert Newman. Pulling was a loyal patriot and a church vestryman; Robert Newman was the church sexton – the only man with keys to the building.

Newman and Pulling climbed the eight stories of winding stairs in the dark to the top window of the steeple. They lit two lanterns. They held them high out the Northwest window facing the shores of Charlestown. The lanterns were lit for less than a minute, just enough time for the messengers in Charlestown to see the signal and set off to warn the countryside. About an hour later, Revere made it to Charlestown in a rowboat, picked up a horse, and rode to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams. When the British soldiers arrived in Lexington the next morning, they did not find a sleeping town. The militia had been warned and they were ready to fight.

The American Revolution had begun.