There’s an old saying, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” This adage was rolling around in the back of my mind when I started looking into Sybil Ludington.
Sybil was born April 5, 1761, the first of twelve children to Henry and Abigail Ludington. Her father had served in the British military, but at the time of the American Revolution switched sides to the Patriot cause. When the Revolutionary War began, the Ludingtons were living in Duchess County (now known as Putnam County), New York, and the aging Colonel Ludington was serving as commander of the local county militia.
On April 26, 1777, shortly after Sybil’s 16th birthday, a rider arrived at their home with the news that that the town of Danbury, Connecticut had been attacked and burned by the British militia. Colonel Ludington knew he needed to gather his men and go defend the nearby towns and homes against the advancing British army. Unfortunately, his men had disbanded for the planting season and were scattered around the region on their respective farms and homesteads. Someone needed to alert the men of the attack so they could gather and prepare a defense.
It will never be known for sure if Sybil’s father asked her to make the ride or if she volunteered, but that night she rode out to alert the Colonel’s men of the attack on Danbury. She knew the lay of the land around her father’s farm and knew where many of the men lived, information that would serve her well. She road though the dark, rainy night, returning home around daybreak. By that time, many of the regiment had gathered and were ready to march.
Sybil is said to have ridden around forty miles (approximately triple the distance of Paul Revere), facing precarious weather, terrain and risk of capture. She rode her horse, Star, through the dead of night, into the early morning, warning of the advancing British troops. Thanks to her warnings, the militia were able to move the supply of food and weapons the Continental Army had stored in Danbury and warn the residents of the perilous danger. While they weren’t able to save all of Danbury, thanks to Sybil’s bravery, fewer lives were lost, and it was considered a success by the militiamen.
Sybil married Edmond Ogden in 1784 and they had one son, Henry. Her husband died of yellow fever in 1799. Following his death, Sybil purchased a tavern and used the proceeds to aid her son in his desire to become a lawyer. Sadly, Henry died in 1838. After his death, Sybil applied for a Revolutionary War pension since her husband had served in the military. Claiming insufficient proof of marriage, her pension was denied and she died in poverty in 1839.
She has been called The Female Paul Revere, and while her actions were equally as heroic, I never saw her name in the history books in my school days. The first account of her historic ride was documented by Martha J. Lamb in her 1880 book, History of the City of New York, which has been questioned by some historians because she did not provide documentation. However, Sybil’s father stated in his memoirs that he asked his daughter to ride the countryside and alert the Militia.
Through the years, the legend of Sybil has grown to include tales of her carrying a large stick which she used to knock on doors to wake the militia and to fend off attackers. A statue of Sybil by Anne Hyatt Huntington depicts her with her arm raised, wielding the legendary stick.
We do not know the exact length of her ride, but her journey lasted from dusk to dawn and was most certainly further than Paul Revere rode. And unlike her male counterpart, she was not caught and so finished her mission.
Thanks to the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the legendary ride of Paul Revere is familiar to most school children. But with a little bit of fact checking, you will find the well-known poem has several inaccuracies. Paul Revere did not ride alone, was captured by British troops, and never cried out “The British are coming, the British are coming.” Much poetic license was taken with history and some feel it should be read as more a myth or tale, not as a historical account.
Historian Paula Hunt has provided a detailed historical account of Sybil’s story and how it has been presented to the media. She states that many of the popular details of the story could be “fictions”, such as the horse named Star, the stick in her hand and the 40-mile distance. Hunt writes: “Sybil’s ride embraces the mythical meanings and values express in the country’s founding. As an individual, she represents Americans’ persistent need to find and create heroes who embody prevalent attitudes and beliefs.” These heroes inspired other fighters for independence.
In 1996, the national Daughters of the American Revolution decided the evidence was not strong enough to support their criteria for a war hero and removed a book about Sybil from their headquarters bookstore. The DAR chapter near her historic home disagrees and says that her exploit was documented and continues to honor her. Paula Hunt continues, “The story of the lone teenage girl riding for freedom, it seems, is simply too good not to be believed.”
With all due respect to the national Daughters of the American Revolution, I am sticking with historian Paula Hunt. Sybil’s story is simply too good not to be believed. As with many stories of female exploits and heroism, we are finally beginning to accept that women have played an important part in history and their accounts should taken seriously.