On April 26, 1777, sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington rode forty miles to warn local militia of an impending British attack on Danbury, Connecticut. Despite her warning, the British managed to burn the town and destroy military supplies. Ludington nevertheless remains a heroic figure of the American Revolution, here commemorated in the form of a bronze statue that has stood since 1961 on the shores of Lake Gleneida. Her ride is often compared to Paul Revere's and is typically seen as more strenuous: Ludington's ride was much longer, and she rode alone as a teenager.
The historical evidence for Ludington's ride remains somewhat elusive. Martha J. Lamb first told the story in her 1880 book on New York history, based in part on correspondence with Ludington's family in addition to various primary sources. Later authors added to narrative, earning Ludington a celebrated place in Revolutionary War history.
Sybil Ludington was born on April 5, 1761, in Fredericksburg, New York. Her father, Henry Ludington, served in the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War, working as a Colonel and aide-de-camp to General George Washington. On April 26, 1777, Colonel Ludington learned that his militia was needed to defend Danbury, Connecticut, against British attacks. Sybil rode into the night to alert local militia. Though Danbury ultimately fell, Colonel Ludington’s militia helped drive the British from town. Sybil went on to marry Edmund Ogden, a Connecticut sergeant, in 1784, and their son, Henry, became an assemblyman in New York. She died in 1839 at the age of 77 and was buried in Patterson Presbyterian Cemetery in Patterson, New York.
Decades after her death, Sybil Ludington gained a national reputation as a Revolutionary War hero. It with Martha Lamb's book, History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, published in 1880. She described Ludington as a spirited young girl of sixteen, noting that despite her quick actions, the British still managed to burn all the dwelling-houses in Danbury (160). Lamb’s book was published in a time when the young nation, amid industrialization, Reconstruction, and a wave of immigration, was grappling with its identity. Americans of used their past to make meaning in their present, erecting monuments, writing history books, forming heritage organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, and preserving historic battlefields and homes like Mount Vernon. Though a century removed from the Revolution, the heroic story of Sybil Ludington resonated with contemporary Americans striving to understand what it meant to be American.
Ludington rose to greater prominence during the early twentieth century, thanks to an article written by her great-nephew, historian Lewis Patrick, and Willis Fletcher Johnson's 1907 book Colonel Henry Ludington: A Memoir. Johnson repeated the same basic narrative as Lamb though he expanded it. In his words:At eight or nine o'clock that evening a jaded horseman reached Colonel Ludington's home with the news [of the fall of Danbury].. . . But what to do? [Ludington's] regiment was disbanded; its members scattered at their homes [for April planting]. He must stay there to muster all who came in. The messenger from Danbury could ride no more, and there was no neighbor within call. In this emergency he turned to his daughter Sybil, who, a few days before, had passed her sixteenth birthday, and bade her to take a horse, ride for the men, and tell them to be at his house by daybreak. One who even rides now from Carmel to Cold Spring will find rugged and dangerous roads . . . but the child performed her task, clinging to a man's saddle, and guiding her steed with only a hempen halter. . . . There is no extravagance in comparing her ride with that of Paul revere and its midnight message. Nor was her errand less efficient than his was. By daybreak, thanks to her daring, nearly the whole regiment was mustered before her father's house at Fredericksburgh, and an hour or two later was on the march [to Danbury] for vengeance on the raiders.(p. 89-91; quoted in Troxler)Berton Braley's 1940 poem, Sybil Ludington's Ride, further showcases Ludington's patriotism. The poem mimics the style and rhythm of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's better-known Paul Revere's Ride, opening with a twist on Longfellow's famous lines:Listen, my children, and you shall hearOf a lovely feminine Paul RevereWho rode an equally famous rideThrough a different part of the countryside,Where Sybil Ludington's name recallsA ride as daring as that of Paul's.(Quoted in Hunt, 200)
Ludington’s story was especially important to New York’s Putnam and Dutchess Counties. In the 1930s, the Enoch Crosby chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution spearheaded historical markers for Sybil and her father. In 1961, they dedicated a larger-than-life bronze statue of Sybil on horseback. The statue, sculpted by DAR member Anna Hyatt Huntington, depicts Sybil making an urgent call to arms, her mouth open, hand grasping a stick to bang on the doors of local militiamen, and her face, along with her horse’s, appearing wide-eyed and expressive.Over the decades, Sybil Ludington has occupied a contested place in American historical memory. Critics hold that the narrative is overly embellished and insufficiently substantiated. Ludington's supporters, however, uphold the veracity of her story and the value of her accomplishments. Though not a household name like Paul Revere, Ludington has received considerable recognition, as historian Paula Hunt enumerates:monuments (in Carmel, as well as in the Danbury Public Library Plaza); a musical entitled Heroine on Horseback: The Ballad of Sybil Ludington;an opera, entitled Sybil of the American Revolution;a board game; multiple television appearances; a movie entitled Sybil Ludington: The Female Paul Revere; and golf balls displaying her image at the Putnam County Golf Course. Throughout the twentieth century, Americans interpreted her legacy in the context of contemporary issues, emphasizing her ability to rise above trying times in the Great Depression, applauding her patriotism and exceptionalism in the Cold War era, and interpreting her story through the lens of feminism in the 1970s American Bicentennial celebration.
As Hunt writes,In the end, Sybil Ludington has embodied the possibilities— courage, individuality, loyalty—that Americans of different genders, generations, and political persuasions have considered to be the highest aspirations for themselves and for their country. The story of the lone, teenage girl riding for freedom, it seems, is simply too good not to be believed.(p. 221-222).