Ludington, Sybil (1761–1839)
Ludington, Sybil (1761–1839)
Ludington, Sybil (1761–1839)
Hero of the American Revolution who rode 40 miles to warn New York militiamen of a British raid in nearby Connecticut. Pronunciation: LUD-ington. Born Sybil Ludington on April 5, 1761, in Fredericksburg, New York; died in New York in 1839; daughter of Henry Ludington (1738–1817, a mill owner and colonel in the New York militia) and Abigail (Luddington) Ludington (1745–1825); married Edward Ogden, in 1784; children: four sons and two daughters.
Very little is known about the life of Sybil Ludington. Except for a single courageous act, she would have escaped the notice of American history. On the night of April 26, 1777, Sybil Ludington, then 16, volunteered to ride 40 miles through the dark countryside of New York State, warning the local militia about a British raid at Danbury, Connecticut. This one extraordinary event, usually compared to the more well-known ride of Paul Revere, is the only historically important act of Ludington's life. Afterward, she once again faded from the view of history texts and her ordinary life merged with the rest of the forgotten women of her era.
Sybil Ludington was born in 1761 to Henry and Abigail Ludington in Fredericksburg, New York. Her father had worked his way up from private in the colonial New York militia to the rank of captain before the American Revolution. In 1760, he married his young cousin Abigail and the couple moved to the small village of Fredericksburg where he leased 200 acres. The mills he built there were the basis for the prosperity of the growing community; Fredericksburg was later re-named Ludington in recognition of his pivotal role in the foundation of the town. During the Revolution, Henry Ludington attained the rank of colonel of the 7th Regiment of the New York militia. He was elected member of the state legislature from 1778 to 1781 and again in 1786. He was a staunch Patriot, and was active during the war in the local committee of safety which prepared the defenses of the area and monitored the loyalty of the members of the community.
Sybil's mother Abigail was only 16 when Sybil, her first child, was born. By 1777, the year of her famous ride, Sybil was the eldest of eight children (her mother eventually gave birth to twelve—six girls, six boys). Abigail's life has also been obscured by the passage of time. As the wife of an important man, and the mother of a large and growing family, she undoubtedly relied heavily upon the assistance of her eldest daughter Sybil to help with cooking, cleaning, and raising the younger children.
In 1775, the American Revolution began when Americans in the colonies, resisting British imperial restrictions, fought British troops at Lexington and Concord. These battles in Massachusetts soon touched the lives of the Ludington family in Fredericksburg, New York, for New York saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Revolution. The former colony was strategically important for both the British and the Americans. The British calculated that if they controlled New York, they could cut New England off from the rest of the American colonies and cripple the budding rebellion. In 1776, British forces overwhelmed the Patriots on Long Island and reasserted British authority in New York City, the capital of the rebellious colony. While the British controlled this strategically important port city, the rest of the colony was engulfed in a civil war where the Patriot forces continued to resist British rule. The backcountry particularly was riven by skirmishes between Patriots and Tories, and community ties were shattered by accusations of treason, espionage, and disloyalty.
Fredericksburg and the sparsely populated surrounding countryside (less than 50 miles north of New York City) experienced all the terrors of the internecine conflict. There was so much contention in the area between Tory and Patriot supporters that in 1777 Colonel Ludington, along with John Jay and others, were appointed commissioners in charge of subduing the insurrections in the neighboring Dutchess and Westchester counties. One traveler on his way to Danbury, Connecticut, stopped at the house of Colonel Ludington and described some of the dangers of living in the middle of the conflict. A member of the First Continental Congress and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, William Ellery arrived at the Ludington household at night and found Abigail and her young children home alone. Abigail described the horse stealers and Tory spies who terrorized the roads at night, and she reported that a guard patrolling the roads had been shot six miles from her home, while another man had also been murdered three miles away. Remembering Abigail's warnings, even Ellery and his two male traveling companions spent a nervous night at the Ludington farm. With Colonel Ludington away much of the time, Abigail had only her elder daughters and two guns (only one of which worked) to help protect her young family from the nightly terrors of the war.
Patriot women like Abigail and Sybil Ludington did not just survive the war behind bolted doors, however. They found many ways actively to support the war effort. For instance, Colonel Ludington and his family were often targets of Tory sympathizers because of his activism on behalf of the Patriot cause. As a result, Sybil and Rebecca , the next eldest Ludington child, protected their family by acting as sentinels during the night to announce any Tory movements near the Ludington farm. Women during the Revolution bolstered their fighting male relatives with words of encouragement, and they provided shelter for Patriot sympathizers. They could even flex their consumer power by refusing to purchase imported English goods. Instead, they made their own clothes and even refused to drink tea. Few had the opportunity to show their support for the cause as dramatically or visibly as Sybil Ludington did on the night of April 26, 1777.
In late April 1777, the British, led by former governor of New York and British general William Tryon, raided the town of Danbury, Connecticut. Danbury was an important regional munitions and supply depot. The 150 militiamen stationed in the town were no match for the 2,000 British and Tory troops who proceeded to set fire to the storehouses; legend has it that "molasses and baconfat ran down the gutters like water." A lone messenger from Danbury reached Colonel Ludington's house 25 miles to the north later that night exhausted but filled with the news of the British raid. The colonel's regiment was sorely needed to assist the few remaining defenders of Danbury. Colonel Ludington's task of raising the 400 militiamen under his command was complicated by the fact that they were scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, each at home to prepare for the spring planting.
With no able man available for the task, the colonel enlisted the aid of his 16-year-old daughter to make the rounds of the countryside to rouse his militiamen. Sybil knew that it was unsafe to go out on the dark roads and ox-cart paths alone at night, but she swallowed any misgivings she may have had and bravely accepted her assignment. Her route was a 40-mile circuit of the neighboring farms and hamlets. Alone on her horse, Star, and equipped only with a stick to bang on the doors of the sleeping militiamen, Sybil traveled down through the hamlets of Carmel, Mahopac, Kent Cliffs, Farmers Mills, and Peekskill. She then passed through parts of two New York counties before heading home through Stormville, reaching her own house at daybreak.
Roused by Sybil, the militiamen gathered at the Ludington farm, and they marched toward Danbury early that morning. They were too late to save that town, but they marched to Ridgefield to meet up with other Patriot forces. Colonel Ludington and his men arrived in time to engage General William Tryon's British and Tory forces. In the ensuing battle, the British suffered 27 fatalities, 120 wounded, and 29 missing men. The Americans lost over 100 men, and 250 men were wounded, while 50 were captured by the British. The burning of Danbury and the subsequent battle at Ridgefield were minor skirmishes in a brutal and extended struggle to control the interior of the former colony of New York. New York City remained occupied by British and Tory forces throughout the rest of the war; however, their control was continually contested by rural Patriots like the Ludington family.
Even though Sybil Ludington's ride did not save the town of Danbury, Connecticut, it was a dramatic and courageous example of the many, less obvious ways in which women were called upon to support the American war effort. Some women surprised their neighbors and friends by surpassing the limits of their traditional gender roles. While Sybil's ride was not as extraordinary as the exploits of a few women who became camp followers or actually disguised themselves as male soldiers in order to participate in the fighting, it did merit the comment of her contemporaries. General George Washington, who knew Colonel Ludington and had visited him in his home, acknowledged the event by sending his congratulations. Alexander Hamilton did the same. Women during the American Revolution were not expected to take such an active and visible role in the conflict. However, with the fighting going on in their own backyard, women like Abigail and Sybil Ludington bravely confronted the terrors of the war on a daily basis.
After the war and her bold ride, Sybil's life once again fades from view. In 1784, at the relatively late age of 23, she married Edward Ogden, a lawyer from Catskill, New York. She later moved with her husband to Unadill, New York, where they had four sons and two daughters. In 1839, Sybil Ludington died at the age of 78.
Sybil Ludington's remarkable ride through the night was commemorated by a statue erected by the town of Carmel, Connecticut, in 1961. A smaller replica of the statue is also on view in Washington, D.C. In 1974, the U.S. Postal Service remembered Sybil's ride by issuing an 8-cent stamp in her honor.
Pelletreau, William S. History of Putnam County, New York. Philadelphia: W.W. Preston, 1886.
Somerville, Mollie. Women and the American Revolution. The National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1974.
DePauw, Linda Grant. Four Traditions: Women of New York During the American Revolution. Albany, NY: New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1974.
Johnson, Willis Fletcher. Colonel Henry Ludington, A Memoir. NY: n.p., 1907.
Jones, Mary Elizabeth. The Midnight Ride of Sybil Ludington. Wilton, CT: Pimpewaug Press, 1976.
Ludington, Ethel Saltus, and Louis Effingham de Forest. Ludington-Saltus Records. n.p.: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1926.
Christine Lambert , Ph.D. candidate, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia