One stormy night in the spring of 1777, two years into the Revolutionary War, a 16-year-old girl mounted her horse (it may or may not have been named Star) and rode hell-for-leather (bareback? sidesaddle? accounts vary) through 40 miles of Hudson Valley countryside, rallying her father’s troops to battle. Perhaps Sybil Ludington even emitted “a high-pitched feminine halloo,” as a 1940 poem says:
“Up, Up there, soldier. You’re needed, come!
The British are marching!” and then the drum
Of her horse’s feet as she rode apace
To bring more men to the meeting place.
Some modern scholars, though, suspect that Ludington, the “female Paul Revere,” uttered nothing of the sort, and that she even may have stayed snug in bed on that historic night like any sensible farm girl. There are no official records or contemporary accounts to support the story; basic facts have proven elusive, down to how the young woman spelled her name. (Historians refer to her variously as Cybal, Sebil or Sybille, and on her gravestone she goes by Sibbell.) But even as questions now surround Ludington’s legendary gallop, new scholarship continues to flesh out the true story of a woman who became a symbol for colonial women’s vital and often veiled role in early American life.
This much we know: On April 26, 1777, British forces torched Danbury, a Patriot stronghold in western Connecticut. Night riders raised the alarm, and armed colonials from both New York and Connecticut, some led by Gen. Israel Putnam, caught up with the redcoats the next day in Ridgefield, Connecticut. A major clash ensued. American Gen. David Wooster was killed, while Gen. Benedict Arnold—then still a revolutionary—had his horse shot out from under him. Still, the British suffered more casualties and continued their retreat to the sea.
Col. Henry Ludington of Kent, New York, was almost certainly in the Ridgefield fray. Yet the story of how his daughter Sybil rode like mad to muster troops disappeared for a century before cropping up in an 1880 history book that cites no sources.
It’s notable that Sybil’s story surfaced early in the colonial revival period—the patriotic upwelling that accompanied the Revolutionary War’s centennial. (Indeed, though the details of Paul Revere’s ride are much more established, he didn’t become truly famous until around the same time.) Amid this surge of public enthusiasm, female folk heroes from the Revolution began to assume a special place in the American imagination: It was following the centennial that the tale of Betsy Ross and her (likely apocryphal) first flag began to circulate, while old family stories took on fresh resonance. It’s important to view these stories, Harvard colonial historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says, “not just in the context of when they supposedly happened, but when they emerged and became popular.” Like most Revolutionary-era women, Ludington didn’t leave behind many official documents. The lack of details about her life has made her a standard-bearer for all kinds of causes. She is a darling to feminist groups, and the National Rifle Association has honored her memory with the Sybil Ludington Women’s Freedom Award, given to a score of women over the years, including former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Vincent Dacquino, a historian in Mahopac, New York, is the author of four Ludington books, including 2019’s Patriot Hero of the Hudson Valley. He unearthed a trove of Ludington documents, including an 1854 letter from Sybil Ludington’s nephew, Charles H. Ludington, asking that she be recognized at an upcoming ceremony for Revolutionary heroes. “My Aunt Sybil,” her nephew wrote, rode “on horseback in the dead of night...through a Country infested with Cowboys and Skinners to inform Gen’l Putnam.” It’s the earliest known account of the episode.
The documents also included revealing letters from Sybil Ludington herself. She doesn’t mention that legendary night, possibly because far more harrowing events later befell her. Edmond Ogden, whom she married in 1784, died young of yellow fever, leaving Ludington a widow with a son, Henry. She kept them afloat by working as an innkeeper in Catskill, New York. Henry grew up to become a prominent lawyer and, in 1819, a New York State assemblyman. Dacquino calls these achievements a testament to Ludington’s quiet heroism and perseverance.
Ludington’s star has risen in recent decades: She’s appeared in Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” had her likeness emblazoned on a U.S. postage stamp and lent her name to an ultramarathon that follows in the hoof prints of her possibly fictional ride. Sybil’s supposed route through Putnam County has long been marked by official road signs.
Just before she died in 1839, primary sources show that the impoverished Ludington requested a pension in the name of her veteran husband. Her application was denied because she could not produce her marriage certificate. Even in life, her story was tough to prove.
Often-overlooked heroes of the Revolution
By Lila Thulin