Alright. I can’t think of a better place to start than Sybil Ludington.
I first heard about “The Female Paul Revere” when I was in middle school and I remember thinking the middle school equivalent of “What the hell? This story is WAY more interesting than that Paul Revere nursery rhyme I voluntarily memorized as a kid. Why isn’t this the story read to every elementary school history class?”
Maybe because nothing rhymes with Ludington. I’m sure it was probably also the whole woman thing, too.
Nevertheless, Sybil Ludington gained some popularity, not nearly the amount that she deserved but…you take what you can get, when her story was featured on an episode of my favorite television show, “Drunk History.”
But now it’s time to hear the WHOLE story, including the story behind the story.
The time is 1777. The place is Kent, New York, although, back then it was called Fredericksburgh.
Sybil Ludington, the eldest daughter of Col. Henry and Abigail Ludington, is 16 and living at the family mill with the other 11 Ludington kids.
Her dad was a bit of a big shot. Henry Ludington had served nearly his whole life in the military, including fighting in the French and Indian War. He had been completely loyal to England until he resigned his post as lieutenant in the British Colonial Army in protest when he heard about the Stamp Act. Newly defiant, he became the commander of the 7th regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, comprised of a modest 400 volunteer soldiers from the neighboring towns.
He taught Sybil how to ride a horse at a young age and also taught her and her sister, Rebecca, spy codes and secret signals of the Continental Army. When their father was away, it was the two girls’ job to guard and protect the family and the town.
So, spring of that year, two thousand British soldiers commanded by General Tyron arrive at Fairfield, Connecticut with twenty transports and six war ships. That’s how you know they meant business.
They advanced into a charming, sleepy, little northern town called Danbury a day after they arrived and started to look for stores of supplies they had heard the Continental Army had moved to be stored there. They talked to people of the town, asking questions, searching households and, as they went from door to door, they left a white chalk mark on properties of British loyalists and informers. Then the British soldiers were informed to destroy all properties without chalk marks.
By the time they had set three private home on fire, they found a couple Continental Army storehouses. The army had loaded these stores with hospital cots, tents, clothing, shoes, and cooking utensils and also had a little sugar, a little flour, some beef, some pork, a couple days’ worth of coffee and rice and, oh yeah, several hundred cases of wine and rum. The essentials.
The British burned the shit out of all the other crap but decided to consume the wine and rum rather than destroy it too. Which only made them want to burn stuff even more.
That’s the situation. Danbury needs a savior. Well, a messenger manages to escape the British’s drunken, fiery attention and rides to the Ludington mill to ask Col. Ludington for help in protecting what was left of the town.
The colonel leaps into action grabbing equipment, preparing the mill to receive hundreds of soldiers until he realizes “uh-oh, it’s planting season.”
Obviously the men in the militia weren’t full-time soldiers. Most of them were farmers and spring was prime time for planting seeds. Unfortunately, what this meant was that most of the members of the militia were miles apart from one another without any form of communication. In order to save Danbury, someone would have to ride to each disbandment of men and tell them the news.
Col. Ludington couldn’t do it because he had to prepare for all the soldiers once they arrived and make an attack plan. The messenger couldn’t go because he was tired from the trip to Fredericksburgh and was unfamiliar with the Hudson Valley.
I’m sure you see where this is going.
And so little 16-year-old Sybil (accounts differ on whether she volunteered to go or whether her dad woke her up and was like “Hon, I’m super sorry but I need you to run a quick errand”) threw on a cloak, mounted a horse, and left the mill to rally up support.
Oh, and by this point, it had started to rain.
Thanks to the inside knowledge her father had passed on, Sybil knew who the revolutionary allies in the area were and who would be the most efficient people to tell about the news in Danbury. She also, by contrast, knew who all the loyalists were who could betray the whole plan to the British. She couldn’t simply just yell out, “The British are coming!” She had to be sneaky.
In addition to avoiding loyalists, Sybil had to avoid patrolling Redcoats and “skinners,” who were outlaws with no allegiance to either side in the War. They just liked to fuck with people and steal shit.
A couple accounts claim Sybil rode into one town to tell a group of soldiers about Danbury and a man offered to accompany her the rest of the way. But she essentially told him he would be extra weight and that she was doing just swell on her own and told him to make himself useful and move eastward to let the soldiers in Brewster know to get their asses in gear. I’d like to believe that was true.
Anyhoo, despite the rain, the dark, the danger, Sybil arrived in Danbury early in the morning having successfully rounded up almost all of the 400 members of the 7th regiment. The total trip was 40 miles, twice the length of Paul “My Name Rhymes With Everything” Revere’s famous ride.
After the war, George Washington himself travelled to the mill to personally thank her for her heroism, which was actually pretty cool of him considering the soldiers did nothing to save Danbury. It all still burned to the ground and the British got away.
Regardless, Sybil was successful and fearless in her own personal mission and that is what I choose to take away from her legend.
Here’s the thing, though, about history. Nothing will ever be entirely “historically accurate” and so there aren’t a set of rules that guides us as to how long between an account and an actual event is too long for the account to be accurate so many historians have their own take.
What I mean by this is that many historians don’t think that Sybil’s ride ever took place because the first record of her legend, which was a family story passed down generation to generation, appeared in print in 1880 in a two-volume book called “The History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress.” Some believe that that century-long gap leaves too much room for speculation or exaggeration.
However, when Danbury burned, records do show that Henry and Abigail Ludington’s eldest daughter was, in fact, 16 years old. Coupled with the popularity of messengers at that time, this information makes Sybil’s ride entirely plausible. But, just for the non-believers out there, I thought I would bring to light the story of another epic woman that emerges from the legend of Sybil Ludington.
The author of that two-volume book was a woman named Martha J. Lamb. She was born in 1829 in Plainfield, Massachusetts and from an early age, she exhibited a great love for writing. She began publishing articles in her town’s newspaper, “The Hampshire Gazette” as early as high school. In 1852 she married Charles A. Lamb and moved to Chicago, where Martha found another great passion in charity work. She founded the Home for the Friendless and the Half-Orphan Asylum while serving as secretary to the United States Sanitary Commission.
Already accomplishing far more than what most women were allowed to aspire to do, she broke another social code and divorced Charles in 1866 to move to New York City to make full use of her literary talents. There, she purchased “The Magazine of American History” and installed herself as its editor. She published over 200 works in her life and was elected to membership in fifteen historical and learned societies in America and Europe.
Her last work was “The History of the City of New York” which took her fifteen years of patient labor and research to produce.
In the process of its creation, Martha talked to several descendants of the Ludingtons and mentions “a spirited young girl of sixteen” who “mounted her horse in the dead of night and performed this service” for the cause of the war.
Regardless of whether you believe Sybil’s tale is too awesome to be true, take inspiration from Martha Lamb’s undoubtedly quieter but still groundbreaking tale and know that truly fearless actions will always be legendary.