Like the rest of the kids in my elementary school, I just sat there and listened during history lessons. The teachers laid it down and we soaked it up.
It was presented to us as inevitable, as though what had happened had been bound to happen.
It took a long time to learn how untrue that is, what a close thing matters can be at times, how far from inevitable history is.
History is filled with coincidences, some good, some bad, and some just a little crazy. The same thing is true of our lives, isn’t it? Except for some complete coincidences, my life would have been completely different. And I’m willing to bet that yours might have been very different too. So why not history?
I’ve said this before, but it’s always worth repeating. Except for a long string of unlikely coincidences that happened just over 50 years ago, I would not have been standing on the front porch of a small rental in Pakistan looking up at my beloved wife-to-be. I often think about that. What a blessed lucky day that was for me! What a gift!
The more I read, the more I believe that history is like that too. So often, so very often, luck — good or bad — controls the moment, and sometimes the lives of millions of people.
Here’s a tale I ran across a few years ago. I have read it and reread it, and the only conclusion I can come to is that the “fog of war” is nothing new.
We all know about the midnight ride of Paul Revere, who on April 18, 1775, rode into the Massachusetts countryside to warn the settlers of the coming of British regulars — 1,500 of them, hauled up the Charles River in barges by English warships. We all know that he rode through the night, warning the countryside that the redcoats were coming, a ride which, among other things, saved the lives of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, hiding in a house in Lexington. What is not generally known, however, are two things: One, Revere’s ride through the countryside was detected by the British. Two, he was captured.
In 1783, eight years after that fateful night, Revere wrote the only full account of it. In it he describes what happened as he made his way through the dark. Trotting along near midnight under a bright moon he suddenly saw two dark shapes emerge “from under the shade of a tree in a narrow part of the road.”
Revere thought he was trapped. He was so close to the two British officers who appeared out of the shadows that he could see the cockades on their hats and their large bore pistols. One of them trotted his horse toward Revere while the other dashed around him to head him off should he attempt to turn back and escape.
But Revere, a quick thinker, whipped his horse, turned, and galloped headlong across an empty field. Luckily his horse was fast, and surprise plus quick thinking helped him outdistance the nearer of the two British officers, who galloped after him in pursuit, but could not catch him.
At last reaching Lexington, he was warned by the Minute Men protecting Adams and Hancock not to “make any noise.”
“Noise!” he replied. “You’ll have noise enough here before long — the regulars are coming!”
He then galloped on to warn others, but as luck would have it, he ran straight into the same two British officers who had chased him before. This time they were accompanied by two more British officers and Revere had no chance of escape. The four of them rode up with pistols drawn, one of them saying, “God damn you, stop! If you go an inch farther, you are a dead man.”
Still on horseback, Revere was corralled in a nearby field along with another man, a local man named Prescot. Prescot knew the area well. Telling Revere to cause a distraction, he darted toward a fence, jumped it, and got away.
But when Revere eased over toward the fence no less than six armed British officers rode up, grabbed his bridle, and forced him to dismount.
Just then a high ranking British officer, Major Mitchell of the 5th British Regiment, rode up and asked his name.
“My name is Revere.”
That was that. A well-known rebel caught spying on troop movements. His fate was sealed. He was cursed at and remounted with the reins of his horse tightly gripped by a British officer who shoved him in front of the marching redcoats and told him, “We are now going toward your friends, and if you attempt to run, or we are insulted, we will blow your brains out.”
I remember what I thought when I first read those words.
“Insulted? He’s headed right toward the first battle of the Revolutionary War. He’s a dead man.”
But what happened next is nothing less than amazing. I’ve read this account, in Revere’s own words, at least a dozen times, and the only conclusion I can reach is that it is one of the luckiest coincidences in history — at least for our side.
As Lexington drew within pistol distance, a cannon sounded up ahead. The major rode up and demanded to know what it was. Revere told him it was fired to alert the countryside. The major ordered four other civilians released, but Revere rode on under a sentence of death. On the redcoats marched. Minutes later, with the armed but unseen rebels just a few hundred yards ahead, the major asked a sergeant if his horse was spent. Told yes, he ordered him to take Revere’s horse. And then came an incredible stroke of luck.
Revere, now horseless, and no doubt expecting to be shot at any moment, was left standing there in the road by the sergeant. The armed British officers guarding him, perhaps with thoughts on what lay ahead, simply rode off. My opinion? They just forgot to shoot the “dirty rebel” as they had sworn to do at the first shot.
A cannon shot echoes through the night creating a moment of confusion. A tired horse. A tiny moment of distraction. And an American legend lives to tell his story.