The Midnight Ride of Israel Bissell
Listen, my children to an epistle
About the midnight ride of Israel Bissell.
No shred of memory seems to survive
That Israel Bissell was ever alive.
Israel Bissell was one of several American colonists, including William Dawes and the much better known Paul Revere to be sent out on horseback from Watertown, Massachusetts on April 19,1775 to spread the word that the American Revolutionary War had begun in battle at Lexington, Massachussetts. They were instructed to inform patriots throughout the countryside from Massachusetts through Connecticut about the fight and have colonists take up arms to aid in the battle. Dawes and Revere were both captured after having ridden less than twenty miles, but Bissell continued riding at breakneck pace to Worcester, Massachusetts in the span of two hours, a thirty mile ride which normally took two days. Far surpassing his original goal of riding to Connecticut, Bissell continued to ride for a total of 345 miles through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and finally to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in only five days, averaging approximately 70 miles per day.
Israel Bissell was born in 1752 in East Windsor, Connecticut. He was a postal express rider and was only 23 years old at the time of his ride out of Watertown. After the Revolution, Bissell married his childhood sweetheart, Lucy Hancock, and settled into a life of relative obscurity as a farmer. Upon his death in 1823, he was buried in a small cemetery on Maple Street in Hinsdale, Massachusetts. Very little else is known about his life as he did not achieve any level of fame as a result of his extraordinary efforts.
The Ride: April 19, 1775 (Watertown, MA) - April 24, 1775 (Philadelphia, PA)
April 19, 1775: 10:00 AM: Watertown, Massachusetts
In Watertown, General Joseph Palmer knew that British regular soldiers were anticipated to march due to riders who had seen the signal of Paul Revere. Upon hearing early in the morning of the engagement at Lexington, he realized that it was critical that militias from the surrounding colonies be notified. News reached him that a second brigade of 1,000 regulars was coming to aid the first already fighting the militia, and he quickly wrote up a letter to be dispatched that is now known as the Lexington Alarm.
To all the friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade, consisting of about 1,000 to 1,200 men landed at Phip's Farm at Cambridge and marched to Lexington, where they found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired without any provocation and killed six men and wounded four others. By an express from Boston, we find another brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1,000. The Bearer, Israel Bissell, is charged to alarm the country quite to Connecticut and all persons are desired to furnish him with fresh horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded. Pray let the delegates from this colony to Connecticut see this.
J. Palmer, one of the Committee of Safety.
April 19, 1775: 12:00 PM: Worcester, Massachusetts
Just prior to noon, Bissell arrived in Worcester, and upon arriving, the white horse which had spirited him so quickly along the postal road collapsed dead from the effort. The town's signal cannon was fired and the meetinghouse bells were sounded to alert the surrounding country of the alarm. The town clerk copied General Palmer's letter and added its first signature:
A true copy taken from the original per order of the Committee of Correspondence for Worcester. April 19, 1775. Attest. Nathan Baldwin, Town Clerk.
April 20, 1775: 9:00 AM: Pomfret, Connecticut
In Pomfret, Bissell stopped at the farm of General Israel Putnam, a famous veteran of the French and Indian War. The general was working in the fields with his son Daniel, and after reading the dispatch, quickly left for Boston.
April 20, 1775: 11:00 AM: Brooklyn, Connecticut
In Brooklyn, word had not yet reached the town yet of the sucess of the colonial militia at Lexington; while they lost the battle of Lexington and Concord, the colonists had succeeded at driving back the companies of British infantry toward Boston. News of this turned out to be two days slower than Bissell. So General Palmer's dispatch was signed again:
Brooklyn, Thursday 11 o'clock, above is a true copy received by express from Worcester. Attest. Daniel Tyler, Jun"
April 20, 1775: 4:00 PM: Norwich, Connecticut
Bissell next arrived at the inn of Colonel Christopher Leffingwell, a well-known businessman in the area. The govenor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, happened to be at the inn upon the arrival of the dispatch. Trumbull sent riders to seek out further news from Boston and he returned to his home in Lebanon, Connecticut. There, he converted his store into a supply center for members of the militia who were leaving to help with the fight in Boston.
April 20, 1775: 7:00 PM: New London, Connecticut
Riding into New London, Bissell's carried dispatch caused Captain William Coit and Nathan Hale to call a meeting. Militia men immediately left for Boston. The letter gained another signature:
New London, Thursday evening 7 o'clock, a true copy as by express. Richard Law, Samuel H. Parsons, Nathan Shaw Jun., William Coit Committee.
April 21, 1775: 1:00 AM: Lyme, Connecticut
In the very early hours of the morning, Bissell's horse thundered into Lyme, where he awoke the members of the local town committee who read the letter and also signed it:
Lyme, Friday morning, 1 o'clock, a true copy as received by express. John Laynd, John M'Curdy, William Noyes, Samuel Mather Jr. Committee.
April 21, 1775: 4:00 AM: Saybrook, Connecticut
Saybrook, Friday morning 4 o'clock, a true copy as received by express. Sam Field, John Cockran, Richard Dickenson Committee.
April 21, 1775: 7:00 AM: Killingsworth, Connecticut
April 21, 1775: 8:00 AM: East Guilford, Connecticut
April 21, 1775: 12:00 PM: Branford, Connecticut
April 22, 1775: 4:00 AM: Fairfield, Connecticut
Fairfield, Saturday 22 April 8 o'clock, forwarded as received by express from New Haven G. Sellick Silliman, Thaddeus Burr, Job Bartram, Andrew Roland, Jonathan Sturges Committee.
April 23, 1775: 4:00 PM: New York City, New York
New York Committee Chamber 4 o'clock Sunday afternoon April 23, 1775, received the within account by express and forwarded by express to New Brunswick with directions to stop at Elizabethtown and acquaint the committee there with the forgoing particulars. By order of the Committee, Isaac Law, Chairman.
April 23, 1775: 9:00 PM: Elizabeth, New Jersey
April 24, 1775: 2:00 AM: New Brunswick, New Jersey
New Brunswick, April 24, 2 o'clock in the morning received the above express and forwarded to Princetown by William Oake, James Nielson, Arariah Dunham Committee."
April 24, 1775: 12:00 PM: Trenton, New Jersey
Aptril 24, 1775: 5:00 PM: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
After the ride to Philadelphia was completed, Israel Bissell returned to New England were he was paid two pounds one shilling and given a certificate from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He returned home to East Windsor where he joined the army in July of 1776 with his brother and fought until the death of his father that year made him return home and establish his farm.
At this time, most normal dispatches were delivered in approximately two weeks by regular mail, and Israel Bissell's ride with the Lexington Alarm was completed faster than most expresses for the time. It is extraordinary how much farther he travelled than the other riders carrying similar letters. It is regrettable that his long journey isn't remembered more often, as his name is often missing from many popular recollections of the American Revolution. However, the town where he settled with his family, Hinsdale, Massachusetts, is trying to memorialize him, as he is buried in a cemetery there.