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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound and it is time that they were given a voice. Sybil Ludington we hear you.
Sybil Ludington was born in 1761 in Dutchess County, New York. Her family owned a mill and the surrounding land, and her father served in His Royal Majesty’s army, acquitting himself admirably in the French and Indian war under the command of General Tryon. So when the revolutionary uprisings began, Tryon appointed Ludington as a captain of his local militia with his area of command falling along an important route between Connecticut and the coast of Long Island Sound. Unfortunately for the British, Ludington’s loyalties fell with the rebels and he resigned his commission. The rebels welcomed him with open arms and he quickly rose to the rank of Colonel and was given charge of the local volunteer militia.
Since his troops were all volunteers and had their homes and farms to tend to, Col Ludington would call them to muster and drill on his land and then let them return to their homes for planting and harvesting seasons. Ludington was also said to have run a network of spies from the mill utilizing the thick woods surrounding them as cover for their comings and goings.
At 16, Sybil was the oldest of twelve children and had more than her share of work around the house helping her mother. However, she took a keen interest in her father’s troops and would watch them drill or bring them refreshments whenever she was able. Eventually she learned all of the men in her father’s charge, if not personally at least by sight and where they were from. As a young woman she was not needed in the war effort, no matter how much she wanted to help. Little did she know, that she would indeed be needed.
There are no surviving written accounts of her actions from her time, in fact the very spelling of her name is often called into question with documents listing her as Sebil, Sibil, Cybil or Sibbel – the spelling that appears on her tombstone. However, legend has it that on April 26, 1777, a British contingent, led by General Tryon, landed in Fairfield, Connecticut and moved inland to Danbury. Local militias had recently moved stores of supplies into Danbury for storage including large quantities of rum. As the British soldiers moved through the town confiscating or destroying supplies and gathering rebels they came upon the rum and instead of destroying it, they drank it. Things quickly escalated and the town of Danbury was soon up in flames. A messenger was sent post haste to alert Col Ludington and call on his men for support.
The messenger arrived at the Ludington’s door in a downpour with the disheartening news. However, he was in for bad news. The Colonel’s men had been sent home for planting season and as such were scattered across the surrounding area. While the messenger could carry on to alert the next militia he would be useless to help with Ludington’s men since he didn’t know where any of them lived. The Colonel couldn’t go himself because he had to remain at the mill to ready whatever troops were able to muster for the march to Danbury, and there were no other men in a reasonable distance that could be trusted with the task. That is when Sybil volunteered to make the ride.
At first horrified by the idea, her parents and the messenger quickly realized that she was their only hope. The Colonel had a horse saddled immediately and Sybil donned a heavy wool cloak, which would do little to keep her dry, but it would hopefully keep her warm. It was already past nine o’clock when Sybil mounted the horse and settled herself side-saddle. Her father instructed her on the best route to take and handed her a large stick so that she could bang on the farm house doors without dismounting, and give her at least a modicum of protection against bandits that she might encounter in the woods.
Sybil rode as fast as the wet conditions and darkness of the night permitted; on roads where they existed and on trails through the forest where it would be quicker. At each farm house she roused the inhabitants with a bang of her stick and cried out that Danbury was burning and all men were called to Colonel Ludington’s. As soon as she was sure the message had been received she took off once more into the night. Her fingers freezing and white knuckled around her stick she never stopped and only slowed her ride in order to bang on a farm house door. At one point a man offered to accompany her for the rest of her journey. She turned him down. The army needed him more, and she refused to wait long enough for him to get ready. So she continued her journey alone.
By the time that Sybil made her way back to her family’s mill, the sun was rising and she had ridden over forty miles. She was freezing, soaked through and exhausted, but she had been successful. There were almost 400 men mustered and starting the long march to Danbury with more men filtering in to bring up the rear. While Colonel Ludington’s men were unable to save Danbury, it had already burned by the time they got there, they engaged the British and were finally able to push them back to their boats in the Battle of Ridgefield. Sybil received sincere thanks from both her community and General George Washington for her ride that night. Having proven her capabilities Sybil was allowed to operate as a messenger for the remainder of the conflict. After the war, Sybil married Edward Ogden. They kept an Inn and had a son named Henry. Upon her death in 1839, she was interred alongside her parents in Patterson, NY.
It is unknown whether news of Sybil’s ride ever reached beyond her community during her lifetime, but in 1912 poet Fred C. Warner immortalized her in his poem “On an April Night 1777” which he modeled after Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” In the 1930’s the New York State Education Department erected trail markers along what is believed to be her route and another poem followed in 1940. In 1961, a memorial was dedicated in Putnam County with a bronze statue of Sybil on her horse by Anna Huntington. Sybil was also adopted as a symbol for the National Women’s Party as they campaigned for equal rights during the Revolutionary Way bicentennial and in 1975 she became the 35th woman to ever be honored on a United States postage stamp.
Sybil Ludington is often referred to as the female Paul Revere. However, as her ride was done alone, was over twice as long, was in the rain, and she wasn’t captured by the British mid-route, maybe he should be called the male Sybil Ludington. Just a thought.
Sybil Ludington this is in your honor. Thank you for all that you did.