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Women in History
feature stories in honor of Women’s History Month
By Melanie Kuntz
“Come and listen, good people, and you shall hear Of a girl who rode, like Paul Revere, Long the borders of Connecticut and New York, Where the Yankees stored rations of flour and pork…”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
But it’s about a girl!
Most history is written by men, for men, and as such, patriotic women and their sacrifices made at the birth of this nation are often forgotten.
Thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, most school children know about Paul Revere’s famous ride. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who knows the name of Sybil Ludington.
Sybil was born in 1761 and grew up in Connecticut.
Her father, Henry Ludington, was a staunch Loyalist and served in the French and Indian War as part of the second regiment of Connecticut. However, by the mid-1770s Henry saw his faith in the king beginning to disintegrate. Unhappy with the king’s treatment of the colonials, Henry officially broke with the crown in 1775 and renounced his position in the Royal Army.
George Washington, who was eager to obtain skilled soldiers for his Continental Army, soon approached Henry to request his service. In 1776 he was named a colonel and given a regiment in Duchess County, along what was then the most direct route from Connecticut to Long Island Sound. This area was then known as the Hudson Highlands.
The statue of Sybil Ludington
Memorial to Sybil Ludington placed by the DAR
Colonel Ludington’s regiment included no professional soldiers. Most of his men were farmers whose homes were sparsely scattered across the rural area and whose weapons and supplies were at best rudimentary. Many of the men resented being called to serve.
Along with responsibility for this ragtag band, Colonel Ludington was also named commander of the patriot supplies. It was his responsibility to protect the stockpile of supplies from the British.
Sybil was the oldest of Colonel Ludington’s twelve children. She grew up on her father’s 230wooded acres and knew many of her neighbors due to both her father’s service and to the fact that their family operated a gristmill.
Her brothers were formally educated, but as was common for the time, Sybil was not. She did learn to read and write, but not well. However, Sybil excelled at other things. She loved horses and was an excellent rider, both sidesaddle and astride. At 15, her father gave her a horse, which she named Star due to the white blaze on his forehead. She loved watching her father’s men conduct their
military drills and grew to know most of them. Due to her riding ability, she was often sent on errands to their homes.
And Sybil was an excellent marksman who became known in her county for her ability to shoot a musket.
In 1776, British General William Howe brought an armada of 130 war and transport ships to the colonies and landed on Staten Island with 9000 troops. By mid-August, over 32,000 troops had taken Staten Island and proceeded to invade Long Island. The war was taking its toll on all of the colonies and New York and Connecticut were no exceptions. By 1777, the colonies were truly suffering and many anticipated defeat. At that time almost every patriot family had a son or father serving in the army or militia.
A US Postage Stamp was issued in Sybil Ludington’s honor in the Bicentennial year of 1976
In April 1777, Sybil was 16 years old. Her family felt the effects of the war just as others did. Her father was gone for days at a time checking the stores and drilling his men. Sybil and her mother, as well as her oldest sister Rebecca, were left in charge of the farm and the mill and the younger children.
April 26, 1777, dawned as any other day, with the lingering feeling of fear and anticipation in the air that had become routine. Sybil and her family went about their daily chores, but remained ever vigilant. As the day came to a close, a thunderstorm came up. At around 8 pm a pounding at the door roused the family. Colonel Ludington opened the door to find a rain-soaked, almost unconscious rider who told the Colonel that the neighboring town of Danbury had been invaded by the British and was being burnt.
Colonel Ludington’s face dropped in shock. In an effort to avoid the British invasion he had just moved a massive amount of supplies from Peekskill, New York, to Danbury. And if the British had invaded Danbury, they could soon overtake the Highlands.
The Colonel was torn. He had to protect the colonial supplies. He also had to call his regiment to arms and wait for their arrival so that he could instruct them on their course of action. And he had to protect his family. Danbury was only 25 miles away from the Ludington home. He insisted that the rider go on to alert the men of his regiment. When the messenger refused the Colonel became enraged. The messenger slumped to the floor, exhausted and began crying.
It was obvious to the Colonel and his family that the rider simply had no strength left to go any further.
And in this moment Sybil Ludington made her own history. She insisted that her father let her ride to alert his regiment. The Colonel refused, but Sybil would not relent and with calm rationality argued her point to her father.
She was the oldest child. She was an excellent rider. She knew her father’s men and they knew and trusted her. And most importantly she knew where they lived and the routes to their homes.
And quite simply, there was no one else.
Despite her mother’s protests, the Colonel uttered only two words in response to her argument.
While her father got her horse, Sybil dressed in a pair of her father’s pants and one of her brother’s shirts. Her mother wrapped a wool cloak around her.
As she mounted Star, her father instructed her to awaken as many of his men as possible and to tell them to be at the Ludington farm by daylight. Her father then handed her a large stick with which to prod Star and to rap at the shutters and doors of the houses she reached.
Not too far from the edge of her father’s property Sybil became worried. Everything looked different in the dark and the rain. She knew the roads in daylight, but had never ridden them in the dark. But Sybil rode on, knowing this was no time for cowardice.
Finding the path, she rode hard, in and out of thickly wooded areas. She knew there should be a large lake to her right, but could not see the water for the blackness of the night. Her fingers were wet and kept slipping on the reins as her other arm grew heavy from the weight of the stick. Water ran down her face and into her eyes, but she had no free hand with which to wipe the rain away.
As she broke through the woods she saw a horrible orange glow on the horizon. She soon realized the glow was Danbury burning in the distance. That meant Carmel, her first destination, was only minutes away. At the first house she rapped at the door and the shutters with the stick, but could raise no one.
Imagine yourself living in these times. There is no flip of the light switch. The only light in your home comes from the embers on the hearth and the candle or lantern you might have by your bed. You have no telephone to call 911 or a friend. Your family lives in constant fear of invasion. You are awakened by a pounding at the door and shutters in the middle of the night. Not knowing if friend or foe awaits you outside, you fear for the lives of your family and for all that you own. Would you be quick to light the candle and open the door?
Getting no response, Sybil began to scream frantically. “Wake up! Wake up! Danbury is burning!” Finally, she recognized the face of one of her father’s men at the door. She yelled her father’s message to him and told him to alert all the men he could.
From Carmel, Sybil rode to Mahopac, stopping at all of the households along the way. From Mahopac she rode into Cold Spring, then finally into Stormville. To her amazement, when she reached Stormville she found many of the houses already a light—her message was spreading on its own by those she had raised earlier.
Sybil turned back to the south and headed home. She was cold, wet and near exhaustion. She rode out of her father’s woods at daybreak.
Two years earlier Paul Revere had made his famous ride. He was forty years old at the time and for a large part of his ride his was in the company of at least one other rider and sometimes two. He traveled well-populated roads in good weather with a full moon. He began his ride at 11 pm. He rode 12 miles into Lexington, where he enjoyed a late supper with Samuel Adams and John Hancock with his boots off. After dinner he enjoyed a glass of flip, a concoction made of brandy or absinthe, eggs, cream and nutmeg. He then proceeded into Concord, where the British arrested him. He had ridden less than fourteen miles in total when he was arrested.
Sybil was 16 years old when she made her little-known ride. She rode alone, through sparsely populated, often-wild areas. She rode in the midst of a thunderstorm without the benefit of the moon or any light at all other than an occasional lightning strike and the glow of Danbury burning in the distance. She left her home at around 10 pm and did not return until dawn. When her ride was over Sybil had covered 40 miles.
Imagine her surprise when she rode out of her father’s woods to find nearly 400 men out of their beds and ready to fight for their freedom and their families. When the men sighted her, a loud cheer rose up from their ranks.
While Sybil rode, the British had continued their sacking of Danbury. General Tyron, under whom Sybil’s father had served in the French and Indian War and who had once been the Governor of New York, led them.
The General’s original plan had been to capture the stores in Danbury and move them onto waiting transport ships. When he realized the extent of the supplies and how much the burden would slow them down, he decided to simply burn everything. Six and twelve pounders sent cannon balls screaming through the town to intimidate resisters.
Buildings owned by Tories were marked with a cross and thus saved. All others were ransacked. Nineteen homes, one church, twenty-two stores and barns were burned to the ground.
A list of the items destroyed in the raid was compiled by General Howe and included:
4000 barrels of beef and pork
100 large tierces of biscuits
89 barrels of rice
120 puncheons of rum
Several large stores of wheat, oats and Indian corn
30 pipes of wine
100 hogsheads of sugar
50 hogsheads of molasses
20 casks of coffee
15 large casks of miscellaneous medicine
10 barrels of saltpeter
1020 tents and marquees
Iron boilers, hospital bedding, engineer’s and carpenter’s tools
A complete printing press
Tar and tallow
5000 pairs of shoes and stockings
In the process of sacking Danbury, however, the British made one fatal mistake.
They got drunk.
As the burning of the town continued, so did the looting, soon followed by the drinking. General Tyron is quoted as saying “Let them have their fun.” Believing he would meet with no resistance in the Highlands, he decided they would wait to move the follow day. The behavior of Tyron’s troops that evening would later be remembered as one of the most shameful displays of British arms during the entire war.
On the morning of April 27, Ludington and his men approached what was left of Danbury. On the move, they were joined by 100 patriots from Bethel and by General Alexander McDougall’s 300 militiamen from Peekskill.
The group marched all day and by nightfall they reached Redding, where patriot generals Wooster, Stillman and Benedict Arnold along with their forces joined them. They were now 1000 strong, but were facing over 2000 British troops.
The forces met at Ridgefield. With what would later be described as “berserk rage” the American militia advanced strategically, engaging in one of the first known battles of guerilla warfare. The British, some still drunk, were surprised and quickly overwhelmed. As they attempted to retreat toward their waiting ships, the American forces pressed forward.
General Arnold had his horse shot out from under him. As he lay trapped beneath the horse, trying to untangle his feet from the stirrups a redcoat rushed at him, shouting “Surrender! You are my prisoner!” Arnold replied “Not yet!” and calmly shot his pursuer.
General Wooster watched as his men were jarred with British artillery fire. As his men hesitated Wooster turned in the saddle and called out, “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!” At that instant a musket ball struck his back. He died from the wound several days later. A Redcoat approached Wooster’s son, who refused to leave his father’s side after he was wounded. Refusing to lay down his musket, he was run through by a sword and died instantly.
In a two-hour stretch, approximately 60 British were killed or wounded. A plaque marking the location of the battle notes, “eight patriots who were laid in these grounds companioned 16 British soldiers, living as their enemies, dying as their guests.”
In the end, the Americans were victorious and no attempt was ever made again to attack the Hudson Highlands.
And what of Sybil? Sometime after the Battle of Ridgefield, General George Washington heard of her bravery and came to her home to personally thank her for her service. Alexander Hamilton wrote to her, praising her deed. But Sybil’s service didn’t end there.
Shortly after the Battle of Ridgefield, General Howe placed a bounty of 300 guineas upon the head of Sybil’s father. This, along with the continuing war efforts, kept the Colonel away from home often.
In the winter of 1777, months after Sybil’s ride, Sybil and Rebecca stood guard nightly while the younger children and their mother slept. On one evening, Sybil was posted at the front of the house while Rebecca was at the back. In the dark, Sybil spotted movement and then saw several men approaching her home. She signaled to Rebecca and they quickly lit a candle in every window of the home, and then pulled their younger brothers and sisters from their beds. Sybil posted the youngest children at the front windows with muskets. She instructed the older children to pace back and forth at the windows with their muskets propped on their shoulders so that their shadows would be seen.
She stood guard at one window, noticing that the men below had slowed their approach. Opening the window slightly, she raised her musket and shot into the air. The men, a group later found to number 50, quickly disbursed. Their leader, Ichabod Prosser, who was intent on capturing Colonel Ludington, later confessed he had been “ignorant of how they had been foiled by clever girls.”
In 1784, at age 23, Sybil married Edmund Ogden. They had four sons and two daughters. They moved to Catskill, where they lived until 1799. That year Edmund died of yellow fever. In 1803, Sybil applied for and was granted an innkeeper’s license, becoming the only woman among twenty-three men licensed in that occupation. She ran the tavern herself until 1811. She died in 1839.
Her story was first publicly told in a memoir of her father published in 1907. However, it was not until 1961 that Sybil received any recognition for her patriotism. In that year the Enoch Chapter of DAR erected a statue of Sybil and Star. In 1975, the US Postal Service issued a stamp of Sybil in their bicentennial series. Yet few people have heard her name.
Sybil’s story is just one of many of female American patriots. Have you heard of Rebecca Stillwell, or her sister Sarah? Of Rosanna Waters Farrow, Dicey Langston, Emily Geiger? What of Deborah Sampson, Anna Marie Lane, Elizabeth Gilmore?
All of these women risked life and property for freedom. And yet few of their names are remembered. We owe each of these women a debt of gratitude for their courage. We can repay it by honoring their memory.
Bohrer, Melissa Lukeman. Glory, Passion and Prejudice: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution. Atria Books, 2003.
Brown, Drollene P. Sybil Rides for Independence.
Cook, Melissa and John Zilliox. “Who Was Sybil Ludington and Why was She Important?” Danbury School System Libraries.
Dacquino, V.T. Sybil Ludington: The Call to Arms
Dacquino, V.T. Sybil Ludington: The Pride of Putnam County.
Danbury Museum and Historical Society. “Sybil Ludington.”
“The History of Putnam County”
Howard, Susan. “In Search of Remarkable Women.”
Martin, James Kirby. Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered. New York University Press, 1997.
Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. “Sybil Ludington.”
Robinson, Wade “Major Ebenezer Robinson of New York.”
Trapani, Carol. “Sybil’s Brave Ride Meets Test of Legends.” Pougkeepsie Journal, 2004.
VanDusen, Albert. Connecticut. 1961.
Editor’s note: One of the sources listed above, Sybil Ludington, The Call to Arms, by Vincent T. Dacquino, can be purchased through Purple Mountain Press. The cost is $15 for the 104 page paperback book, which is the first in a series from “New Yorkers and the Revolution.” This series looks beyond the famous names of the Revolutionary period, and relates stories of lesser-known individuals who contributed to the cause such as the common soldier, women, Native Americans and African Americans. Mail checks to Purple Mountain Press, P.O. Box 309, Fleischmanns, New York 12430-0309