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Intelligence Throughout History: Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

The Intelligence Community today draws wisdom and inspiration from the past. The following article is the first in a series showcasing exceptional intelligence stories from history. This article focuses on Paul Revere and the secret group known as the Mechanics.

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The first Patriot intelligence network on record was a secret group in Boston known as the "Mechanics." Their activities in the 10 years before the outbreak of the Revolution in April 1775 included some of the earliest uses in America of warning, surveillance, and intelligence collection. One of the Mechanics was Boston silversmith Paul Revere.


The Mechanics

The Mechanics apparently grew out of the old Sons of Liberty organization that successfully opposed the hated Stamp Act, passed by Britain's Parliament as a revenue generating measure on March 22, 1765. Although the Stamp Act was repealed following Colonial protests in 1766, some Mechanics, mainly skilled laborers and artisans, continued to organize resistance to Crown authority and gather intelligence on British activities and movements.

In the words of Paul Revere, "in the fall of 1774 and winter of 1775, I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching British soldiers and gaining every intelligence on the movements of the Tories." According to Revere, "We frequently took turns, two and two, to watch the (British) soldiers by patrolling the streets all night."

In addition to their surveillance activities, the Mechanics, also known as the Liberty Boys, sabotaged and stole British military equipment in the Boston area.

Their security practices, however, were amateurish. They met regularly in the same place (the Green Dragon Tavern), and one of their leaders (Dr. Benjamin Church) was a British agent.

Nonetheless, they had good sources of their own, and saw through the cover story the British had devised to mask the march of 700 Redcoats on Concord to seize Patriot stores of munitions and arms.


The Midnight Ride

On April 19, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, chairman of the Boston Committee of Safety, charged Revere with the task of warning Patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock (then at Lexington) that they were also probable targets of the British operation.

Revere arranged for warning lanterns to be hung in the Old North Church, to alert Patriot forces across the river at Charleston, as to the means and route of the British advance. One lantern to indicate that British troops were advancing by land, two to indicate that the choice of route was across the Charles River.

After two lanterns were hung in the church steeple, Paul Revere set off on his famous ride. He notified Adams and Hancock, joined Dr. Samuel Prescott and William Dawes, and rode on toward Concord, only to be apprehended by a British patrol en route. Dawes got away, and Dr. Prescott managed to escape soon afterward to alert the Patriots at Concord, 21 miles west of Boston. Revere was questioned and soon released, after which he returned to Lexington to keep Hancock and Adams apprised of the proximity of British forces.


The Shot Heard 'Round the World

Following a skirmish with 70 American "minutemen" at Lexington, the British column proceeded to Concord, where they burned some gun carriages, entrenching tools, flour, and a liberty pole. The caches of munitions and arms the British expected to find had long since been removed by the alerted Patriots. With the countryside aroused, the British force soon came under sustained attack on its way back to Boston, suffering 73 dead and 174 wounded. Over 4,000 "minutemen" were alleged to have engaged the British at one point on 19 April at Lexington and Concord, or along the route back to Boston.

One of them had fired "the shot heard 'round the world," celebrated decades later in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem. That shot might never have been heard if not for good intelligence work of the Mechanics and the timely warning of Paul Revere and his companions.


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Posted: Apr 01, 2010 12:03 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:36 PM