In American history, a midnight rider goes unsung
Paul Revere gets all the glory for his midnight ride. After all, it’s a stirring tale of patriotism told by a great storyteller.
But one young messenger who called the colonists to arms during a remarkable five-day dash across five states is a mere footnote -- a man mentioned in historical documents that didn’t even get his first name right. They called him Trail.
His name was Israel Bissell, and he is one of the Revolutionary War’s most unheralded heroes.
Bissell, a 23-year-old postal rider when the war broke out on April 19, 1775, rode day and night with little sleep during an exhausting 345-mile journey from Boston’s western edge to Philadelphia. On the first leg, he rode one horse so hard that the animal collapsed and died beneath him as he arrived in Worcester, roughly two hours after leaving Watertown.
“To arms, to arms. The war has begun,” Bissell shouted as he passed through each little town.
Dozens of other messengers also raced on horseback to spread the word, making it likely that Revere was a composite of these brave men, said J.L. Bell, a Massachusetts writer who specializes in Revolutionary War-era Boston.
In response to their cries, church bells were rung and muskets were fired: British redcoats were attacking. The American Revolution had begun.
But there were no bells pealing for Israel Bissell, whose ride was obscured in history’s annals by Revere’s 20-mile gallop, which was so greatly amplified by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His 11-verse poem, first published in 1861 as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” became familiar to generations of American schoolchildren because it was a more dramatic story:
... So through the night rode Paul Revere
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
“Very few people know about poor Israel because Longfellow wasn’t writing a poem about him,” said Kay Westcott, a librarian at the Watertown Free Public Library.
Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and popular culture, said the poem marginalized Bissell’s accomplishment and enhanced Revere’s for reasons that have little to do with fact.
“Paul Revere rhymes with a lot more than Israel Bissell,” he said. “And it is one of those poems that gets in your head and won’t let go. It has a meter like the gallop of a horse. It’s like taking the ride yourself.”
History is built on facts, but Thompson noted that facts could be overwhelmed by the fame spawned by culture, art and fiction.
Christopher Columbus has been credited with discovering the Americas despite ample evidence that Vikings reached North America centuries earlier. And men such as Nikola Tesla and Edwin Armstrong pioneered key developments in radio even though Guglielmo Marconi was credited with inventing it.
“History is not filled with people who got overlooked, but that’s because they got overlooked,” Thompson said.
When he set out on his ride, Bissell carried with him a handwritten letter dated April 19, 1775, and signed by Massachusetts militia Gen. Joseph Palmer.
It read: “To all friends of American liberty, be it known that this morning before the break of day, a brigade consisting of about 1,000 or 1,200 men ... marched to Lexington, where they found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired, without any provocation, and killed 6 men and wounded 4 others. By an express from Boston, we find that another brigade are now upon their march from Boston, supposed to be about 1,000.”
The letter asked those Bissell encountered “to furnish him with fresh horses, as may be needed.”
At each stop along the way, town leaders would keep the document Bissell delivered and hastily transcribe a new version that Bissell would carry to the next city or town. Although Palmer asked Bissell to deliver the news throughout Connecticut, the young messenger pressed ahead.
He arrived on Wall Street in New York City around 4 p.m. on April 23.
Roughly 24 hours later, he reached Philadelphia, where the pealing of what eventually became known as the Liberty Bell drew a crowd of 8,000 who learned that war had begun. By then, the portion of the document bearing Bissell’s name inaccurately listed his first name as Trail.
That document resides today in Philadelphia, in the American manuscripts section of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Bissell made his way back to his home in East Windsor, Conn., eventually joined the army, and served alongside his brother, Justis. After the war, Bissell moved to Middlefield in western Massachusetts, where he bought property and became a sheep farmer. He married Lucy Hancock, and the couple had four children.
He lived his final years in the nearby hamlet of Hinsdale, where his grave is marked by a plain marble stone with the simple inscription, “IN MEMORY of Mr. ISRAEL BISSELL, who died October 24th 1823, Aged Sev’nty One Years.”
Bissell’s plot remained unadorned until 1967, when the Daughters of the American Revolution placed near his headstone a bronze plaque commemorating his participation in the nation’s tumultuous birth.