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Here's an expanded version of my April 18, 2004, column....

Heroic horsemen... and women

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of... Dr. Samuel Prescott?

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of American history instantly recalls the night Paul Revere mounted his Narragansett Pacer and made his famous ride on April 18, 1775, when they hear the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem. But how many recall Revere's equally heroic accomplices: William Dawes, Jr., and the man who actually completed the trip, Dr. Samuel Prescott? Dawes took a different route from Boston to Lexington, where he re-joined Revere. Dr. Prescott joined them at Lexington, and succeeded in reaching Concord with the message of the British approach -- after Revere was nabbed by the Redcoats and Dawes got lost in the dark.

In these days of supersonic fighters, mechanized dashes across the Iraqi desert, and numerous acts of military heroism, we may have lost our appreciation of the nearly superhuman feats performed on horseback by the men and women -- yes, women -- whose valor and skill in the saddle purchased the free nation we now enjoy.

Anyone who has spent much time in equestrian activities will testify that a horseback trail ride can be a hazardous undertaking under the best of circumstances. Throw in pitch-black night, adverse weather, extreme fatigue, and a few thousand gun-toting folks who would like to see you dead, and the ride becomes one that would test a superhero's mettle.

The day after Revere's ride, a postal rider named Israel Bissel was ordered to take the news of the attack on Lexington to patriots in Connecticut. After two hours, he arrived at his destination -- where his horse died under him. Acquiring a fresh mount, he proceeded on to Manhattan, arriving four days later. Finally, on April 25, Bissel delivered the news in Philadelphia -- ending a 320 mile horseback marathon.
The horseman portrayed on the Delaware commemorative quarter was 47-year-old Caesar Rodney. On July 1, 1776, Rodney, a Delaware supreme court justice and legislator, began an 80 mile dash to Philadelphia (think from Grand Rapids to Duluth on horseback) in order to vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence. Afflicted with facial cancer and asthma, Rodney nevertheless galloped through summertime heat, thunder, lightning and torrential rain. He slogged over mud-clogged roads and slippery cobblestone streets until -- tired, dusty and caked with mud -- he arrived at Independence Hall on July 2 and cast his vote.

By the way, for many decades horse people have wondered what breed of horse carried Rodney on his epic journey. Click here for the answer.

Delaware quarter
United States Mint image.

At 6 feet 4 inches tall and a muscular 220 pounds, captain Jack Jouett (pronounced "Jew-ett") was a handsome hunk. A captain in the colonial army, Jouett discovered that British Colonel Banastre "the Butcher" Tarleton was leading a cavalry raid aimed at capturing Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison and other colonial leaders. Unable to take the main roads because of the British troops, Jouett raced his bay mare through the night along a network of backwoods trails. Stopping briefly at Monticello, Jouett continued to Charlottesville -- 40 miles from his starting point. His face was torn and bleeding from the tree branches that had lashed him along the way. Jouett wore those scars as badges of honor for the rest of his life. His heroism prevented a premature end of the independence movement in America.

The ladies also had their share of heroic rides.

Sybil Ludington statue at Carmel, New York.
Sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington has been called "the female Paul Revere" because of her 40-mile ride through rural Connecticut to warn the militia that British troops were burning the town of Danbury. Mounting her horse, "Star," she rode through a rainy night over roads and trails infested with British troops, Loyalists, and assorted thugs and robbers. Sybil alerted the militia in time for them to attack the Redcoats as they left Danbury. In 1975 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Sybil Ludington's ride.

By the way, the statue at Carmel, New York (shown at left), is in error on at least one point: it has her wearing a skirt. Before setting out on her daring ride, she actually donned a pair of her father's trousers.

Another teen-ager, Laodicea "Dicey" Langston, heard that Tory partisan "Bloody Bill" Cunningham was about to raid the South Carolina community where her patriot brother was hiding. Dicey mounted up and set out at night from her family's cabin. Pushing through alternating thick woods and dismal swamps, she came to the rain-swollen Tyger River. Up to her neck in the turbulent water, she struggled across, pulled herself up the steep bank, and rode on, arriving in time to warn her brother of the imminent arrival of "Bloody Bill."

A pretty and spirited 16-year-old North Carolina girl named Betsy Dowdy rode her sturdy marsh pony, Black Bess, bareback a distance of 50 miles to warn General William Skinner that British troops were planning to attack her colony. Her primary motivation, however, may have been less one of patriotism than fear about the rumor that the British troops would confiscate her large herd of marsh ponies.

In 1781, when the British took over Susannah Bolling's house at Hopewell, Virginia, as headquarters for Gen. Cornwallis, the teenager overheard British plans to surprise the Marquis de Lafayette and his small patriot command nearby. Susanna slipped away through a tunnel that had been built as an escape during Indian raids. Emerging on the banks of the Potomac River, she rowed to the opposite shore, then borrowed a farmer's horse to deliver her warning to Gen. Lafayette in person.

South Carolinian Emily Grieger was 18 years old in June of 1781, when she heard that American General Greene needed a courier for a dangerous ride through British lines. When none of the men present stepped forward, Emily volunteered. Riding sidesaddle, with her long skirt blowing in the wind, she set off on her mission. On the second day of her trip she was captured by a British patrol. While the Redcoats sent for a woman to search Emily, the teen-ager proceeded to memorize the dispatch she was carrying -- and ate it. The matron, of course, found nothing incriminating, and Emily was allowed to continue on her way. Later that afternoon, Emily was again taken captive and locked up for the night in a farmhouse. At midnight -- with her captors sound asleep -- Emily pried open a window and tip-toed to the corral. Slipping a bridle on her horse, she galloped bareback into the night.

At daybreak Emily arrived at the home of another freedom-fighter, who supplied her with a fresh mount and pointed her toward a safer route. By early afternoon the exhausted Emily reached General Sumter's headquarters and recited her memorized message.

All of us free citizens of the United States owe a great debt of gratitude to these gallant heroes of both genders -- and their faithful four-legged friends.
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Paul Revere

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