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  A Tribute To A Fast White Horse?, by Garry Stauber

“LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear     
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”

April 18th has come and gone, marking another historical anniversary of the now famous ride of Paul Revere.  But why wasn’t Israel Bissell honored with a poem of even greater significance?

“LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Israel Bissell,
Dreary and cold and starting to drizzle,
I’m writing this poem but it’s starting to fizzle.
Sorry it’s just not going to happen, Mr. Bissell.”

From a literary and poetic standpoint, it’s easy to see why Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chose Paul Revere as the subject of his poem. If he had chosen to write about Bissell, I’m sure his poem would have been much better than mine.  But the question remains, why isn’t Israel Bissell famous for his ride? By now you are probably asking yourself, “Who the heck is Israel Bissell?”  And that is exactly my point.

Israel Bissell was a young postman who rode from Watertown on April 19th, the same day that Paul Revere and William Dawes rode their historic rides.  That day, the battle was raging in Lexington, and the three riders were sent to warn patriots in the surrounding countryside that the Revolutionary War had begun. However, Revere and Dawes were both captured after riding less than 20 miles.

Illustration courtesy of David W. Roth

Bissell escaped capture and rode the thirty miles to Worcester in just two hours, what was then considered a two-day ride.  In Worcester his horse fell and died of exhaustion. Bissell mounted another and continued to ride for a total of 345 miles in five days, averaging 69 miles a day. The name of Bissell’s heroic horse is not known today, but historical documents state that it was a “fast white horse.”  If you will bear with me as I conjecture, this anonymous horse was probably the first equestrian casualty of the Revolutionary War, symbolizing the contribution and sacrifice made by horses in the birth of our country.  Historians believe that at least two horses (possibly more) died from his ride.

Bissell’s original goal was to reach Connecticut.  But he rode on to New York City , and then to Trenton, New Jersey and finally to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting. He changed mounts often, bringing the news of the battle with the British to the nation’s new leaders.

Bissell had been dispatched by an important member of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, General Joseph Palmer, with this message:

"Wednesday morning near 10 of the clock - Watertown

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 about1,000. 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."

Success usually breeds fame, but it was never so for Mr. Bissell. After the war he settled down and became a sheep farmer, with little fanfare or fame. When we celebrate Patriots Day, we usually forget this 23-year-old postman who raced from city to city with a “cry to arms” to defend the right of freedom.

But the town of Hindsdale, MA is celebrating its 200th birthday and attempting to renew interest in its town’s local hero, who is buried in their town cemetary. The people of Hindsdale plan a re-enactment of Bissell’s ride by a five member motorcycle team, honoring his accomplishment. They will follow his route as closely as possible.

As an Equestrian and a Long Rider, my question for the Hindsdale Bicentennial Committee is, why motorcycles and not actual horses to re-create this valiant ride? Am I volunteering? Seeing the results of the fame received by the previous rider, and the fate of his horses, I think I’ll pass and leave this journey to the Iron Horsemen on Hogs.   I am grateful to them for reminding all of us of the contributions made by forgotten heroes like Israel Bissell and his “fast white horse,” who gave us the freedom we enjoy today. 

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Copyright Garry Stauber © 2004  All rights reserved. The above article is the property of the Author and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission. Visit Garry on-line at Dream Adventures.   


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