“One, if by land, and two, if by sea”, the phrase by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, refers to American patriot Paul Revere’s famous lighting signal. According to the Paul Revere History Project, Revere used the code during his historic ride from Boston to Concord before the American Revolutionary War. The lantern signal was intended to alert revolutionaries about British troop movements.
Revere’s light signal was a backup plan designed to warn patriots in Charlestown, a borough across the river from Boston, in case Revere was arrested by the British occupying Boston and thus unable to initiate the ride. Paul Revere left Boston by boat and rode on horseback, so the signal was unnecessary.
The Paul Revere History Project, a website created and maintained by graduate students in history at Boston University, notes that a myth emerged that the lanterns were meant for Revere, who was supposedly waiting for a sign across the river.
The myth is false. Apparently, a few days before the ride, Revere charted the mission, arranging the light signal with three fellow patriots in case the British marched toward Concord. They agreed that one lantern would mean that the Brits were taking the longer land route while two lanterns would mean that the British were traveling the shorter water route, leaving America’s revolutionaries with less time to respond.
Thanks to Paul Revere, America’s first patriots were ready. Robert John Newman, a custodian with access to Boston’s tallest point, the 191-feet tall Old North church, was a fellow revolutionary. Captain John Pulling carried two lanterns to the church’s steeple when Revere started the famous ride. Thomas Bernard stood on the street outside on lookout for enemy forces.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was dispatched to alert Revolutionary War leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Concord that the British were planning to arrest Adams and Hancock, destroy ammunition supplies and crush the rebellion.
Longfellow chose to mythologize Paul Revere’s brave, bold lighting plan in his poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, 95 years after the historic ride.