Sybil Ludington: Unsung Heroine of the American Revolutionary War

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Sybil Ludington: Unsung Heroine of the American Revolutionary War

Sometimes we fail to notice the greatest  heroes. Courage and daring can hide even in the smallest of characters, springing up unexpectedly and just i

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Sometimes we fail to notice the greatest  heroes. Courage and daring can hide even in the smallest of characters, springing up unexpectedly and just in the nick of time. Sybil Ludington was just sixteen years old when she risked her life to save others, delivering crucial warnings on the eve of an important battle. An inspiration to girls around the world, her story has been unjustly overlooked, even though it’s about one of the youngest fighters and great  heroinesof the American Revolutionary War. 

War Through the Eyes of a Child: Sybil Ludington Steps Up

On April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was born. She was the first child of first cousins Henry Ludington and Abigail Knowles, and would later have 11 siblings. The town in which she was born was then known as Fredericksburg, in New York. Today it is called Ludingtonville, a hamlet in the larger city of Kent. The Ludingtons were early settlers into  New York , hailing from  Connecticut, and the city was named after them. Her father, Colonel Henry Ludington, was a seasoned military veteran, and had served in the British Army for over sixty years. However, at the time of the emerging American Revolution, Ludington switched his allegiance and had firmly taken up the American Patriot cause.

The American Revolutionary War was erupting like a wildfire in 1775 and the Ludington family were close to the initial action. At the time they lived at a new and large farm in New York’s Dutchess County, which is today known as Putnam County. Local militia units were already forming in earnest, and Sybil’s father – due to his extensive military experience – was drafted as the local commander. The family’s farm and the gristmill that her father owned and operated, was located in a county that lay on the path from the Long Island Sound, making it a logical path for the arriving British Army troops. The danger was quickly recognized.

The story of Sybil Ludington’s daring undertaking begins on April 26, 1777, when a weary and mud-stained messenger arrived at her father’s home. The man had had a long and demanding journey, rushing with urgent news. He informed Colonel Henry Ludington that the British were attacking the nearby city of Danbury, in Connecticut, just 40 kilometers away. 

The British Army colonial officer and 39th governor of New York, Lieutenant General William Tryon, was leading a contingent of 2,000 British troops in an attempt to seize the weapons and ammo reserves that the Patriots kept at the city of Danbury. The resulting action saw the British engaged in heavy fighting, burning and pillaging of the city and the neighboring lands. The outnumbered Patriot troops were in dire need of reinforcements – which Henry Ludington had to supply.

Statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel, New York. ( Public domain )

The British Are Coming: Rallying The Troops

Danbury was a hard blow for the American Patriots. The British managed to destroy a large portion of the stockpiles there, including around 5,000 barrels of fish, beef, pork, and flour; 2,000 bushels of grain; 5,000 pairs of shoes, and many other valuable supplies. Henry Ludington and his militia knew that the British would move in their direction next. Ludington needed to gather all the men at his disposal – some 400 of them – who were on leave at their homes. These soldiers had to be alerted and assembled, and quickly. Otherwise, several towns and villages that lay in the path of the British would suffer the same fate as Danbury.

However, there was a serious problem. Colonel Ludington was short on time and had to remain there to plan the best course of action. With no messenger at hand, he had no way to inform his troops and organize them in time. That is, until Sybil Ludington stepped up to the task. A sprightly girl of sixteen, Sybil volunteered to act as a messenger and rally the troops! 

Some sources state that she did not volunteer, but rather slipped out on her own and proceeded with the task. Either way, she took upon herself a great challenge. She hopped on her horse (later named “Star” to add credibility to the story) and rode some 40 miles (64 km) through a moonless night in order to warn the neighboring villages and alert her father’s troops. 

Her journey was a tough one. The night was rainy and stormy, and the visibility in Putnam County was limited: it is a hilly and forested region that is difficult to traverse. Nevertheless, Ludington rode. Astride a saddleless horse, Sybil carried only a stick with which to prod the beast onwards. When she would reach a farm or a house, she would bang on the window to alarm the residents, informing them of the looting of Danbury and the order for mobilization. Over the night, she reached several key villages and hamlets where the troops were. These included Mahopac, Carmel, Farmer’s Mills, and Kent Cliffs. 

Sybil Ludington’s journey helped to warn the patriots of the British attack.  (A Mighty Girl /  Facebook)

Recounting Sybil Ludington’s Journey Through the Darkness

The journey began early in the night, around 9pm, and it did not end until dawn. The Ludington girl returned to her father’s farm soaked from rain and spattered with mud, weary and spent. But she’d achieved her mission: most of the 400 men under her father’s command were alerted and assembled and ready to march. Such an achievement undoubtedly had great strategic benefits for the Patriots and their cause: it provided them with much needed time to act against the British, as their troops were quickly alerted and assembled literally overnight. 

Still, Colonel Henry Ludington and his militia force were too late to save Danbury. While their troops were assembling and marching, the British general William Tryon continued his engagements beyond Danbury, which erupted into the Battle of Ridgefield on April 27, 1777. But although Ludington and his men did not arrive on time to participate in the battle, they did engage the British afterwards, harassing their retreat toward the Long Island Sound. They managed to inflict considerable casualties on the British, and also to take a number of prisoners as well. And all that thanks to their prompt reaction and the daring ride of a sixteen-year old girl.

The account of Sybil’s ride was only written down in 1880, more than a century later. This, and the lack of proper historical sources, led many scholars to doubt the authenticity of this event. Sybil Ludington’s actions were included in a 1880 book by local New York historian Martha Lamb. When inquired about the sources she relied on when writing about Sybil Ludington, she claimed she had based her account on a number of  letters, court records, wills, sermons, and genealogical compilations. 

Prior to her book, there were no known published accounts of Sybil’s ride. However, further proof exists: the great-grandchildren of Colonel Henry Ludington published a memoir about the man. In it, it is mentioned that Henry asked his young daughter Sybil to ride out into the countryside and alert the troops. Henry Ludington died in 1817 at age 77, and it is likely that the account of Sybil’s ride was dictated by him and remained in the family.

After the end of the American Revolutionary War, Sybil married one Edmund Ogden in 1784 at the age of 23. The couple enjoyed a fruitful and long marriage. Alas, Edmund died from yellow fever in 1799, leaving Sybil a widow. They had only one son. Life afterwards was unkind towards Sybil. She purchased a tavern and helped her son to become a successful lawyer. However, when she was forced to sell the tavern, she struggled financially. The state denied her request for a military pension. When her only son died in 1838, Sybil Ludington was left broken-hearted and quite poor. She died on February 26, 1839, at age 77. She was buried close to her father at the cemetery of the city of Patterson, New York. Her tombstone stands to this day. 

The commemorative Sybil Ludington stamp was issued in 1975. ( Public domain )

Remembering a Brave Young Girl and Her Achievement

Today, visitors to Putnam County in New York can follow the reconstructed route that Sybil Ludington took on that fateful night in 1777. The area’s paths are dotted with route markers that allow anyone to retrace Sybil’s steps: albeit much more easily. Visitors can also admire a stunning life-size statue of Sybil upon her horse, which was erected in 1961 beside Gleneida Lake in the city of Carmel, the historic Route 52, through which Sybil passed. The sculpture was created by the prominent American sculptor, Anna Hyatt Huntington. 

Sybil was also commemorated with a postal stamp in 1973, as a part of the  United States  Bicentennial series entitled “Contributors to the Cause.” This was an attempt to honor and remember the lesser-known heroes and  heroines of the American Revolutionary War. Ever since 1979, a memorial run has also been held in the city of Carmel in New York. Known as the Sybil Ludington 50k Run, it is a 50 km (31 mile) foot race that serves to preserve the memory of her achievement. The route of the race follows closely the historic route taken by Sybil. The race’s finish line is beside Sybil’s statue in Carmel. 

In 2010, a period drama movie centered on Sybil and her exploits was released by the KICKS Flicks productions. Directed by Kim Robinson and starring Micah Morgan as Sybil, the movie attempts to portray the fated night ride and the events surrounding it. The movie, aptly named  Sybil Ludington , was praised for the accuracy in historical costumes, but received criticism for the acting.

Sadly, the story of Sybil Ludington is still scrutinized. Its authenticity is questioned, mostly due to a lack of credible historical sources. In 1996, the national organization called the Daughters of the  American Revolution  announced that there was not enough strong evidence about Sybil’s exploits to support their criteria for a war  heroine. Following this, they removed a book about Sybil Ludington from their headquarters bookstore. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter that operates near Sybil’s historic home disagreed with this decision, saying that her exploit was, in fact, documented. This chapter continues to honor Sybil and her story.

We can approach Sybil’s story from a logical perspective. By gathering the pieces of the puzzle, we can understand that the tale of the night ride was likely passed around by word of mouth. It probably stayed within the Ludington family as a personal memory from the war and was passed on through the generations. By examining historical facts surrounding Colonel Henry Ludington and his force’s involvement in the harassing actions following the Battle of Ridgefield, we can conclude that these troops were indeed notified in time. Without their reinforcing numbers, the Patriots couldn’t have so easily driven the British back to the Long Island Sound.

The grave of Sybil Ludington at Maple Avenue Cemetery in Putnam County, New York. (Anthony22 /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Bravery from a Bygone Era

The story of Sybil Ludington is undoubtedly an inspirational story . It tells us that during times of war and tragedy, both men and  women rise up to the challenge and answer the call of duty. Heroines of the American Revolutionary War have been unjustly overlooked, and deserve their rightful place in the most important pages of  United States  history. Because if it was not for their contribution, the fight would have been much, much harder. 

Top image: Sybil Ludington rode through the night to warn Patriots that the British were coming. Source:  Cattallina / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

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