One stormy night in the spring of 1777, two years into the Revolutionary War, a 16-year-old girl rode a horse (he may or may not have been called Star) and rode hell for leather (at believed? vary) across 40 miles of the Hudson Valley countryside, rallying his father’s troops into battle. Perhaps Sybil Ludington even emitted “a high-pitched female halloo,” as a 1940 poem put it:
“Up, up, soldier. We need you, come!
The British are marching! then the drum
From her horse’s feet as she rode fast
Bring more men to the meeting place.
Some modern scholars, however, suspect that Ludington, the “Paul Revere wife”, said no such thing, and that she may even have stayed in bed that historic night like any sensible farmer’s wife. There are no official documents or contemporary accounts to back up the story; the basic facts proved elusive, down to how the young woman spelled her name. (Historians call her variously Cybal, Sebil, or Sybille, and on her tombstone she bears the name Sibbell.) But even as questions now surround Ludington’s legendary gallop, new studies continue to flesh out the story. true story of a woman who became a symbol for colonial women’s vital and often veiled role in the lives of early Americans.
What we know: On April 26, 1777, British forces burned down Danbury, a Patriot stronghold in western Connecticut. The Night Riders sounded the alarm, and armed settlers from New York and Connecticut, some led by General Israel Putnam, caught up with the Redcoats the following day at Ridgefield, Connecticut. A major confrontation ensued. US General David Wooster was killed, while General Benedict Arnold – then still a revolutionary – was shot. Still, the British suffered more casualties and continued their retreat to the sea.
Colonel Henry Ludington of Kent, New York, was almost certainly in Ridgefield’s fray. Yet the story of how his daughter Sybil rode like mad to muster troops vanished for a century before surfacing in an 1880 history book that cites no source.
*Editor’s Note, 3/1/2022: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect caption that stated Sybil Ludington lived in Connecticut. In fact, she was from New York.
It should be noted that Sybil’s story surfaced at the start of the colonial revival period – the patriotic upsurge that accompanied the centenary of the Revolutionary War. (Indeed, although the details of Paul Revere’s ride are much more established, he did not become truly famous until around the same time.) American Imagination: It was in the wake of the centennial that the he story of Betsy Ross and her (probably apocryphal) first flag began circulating, as old family stories took on new resonance. It’s important to see these stories, says Harvard colonial historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “not just in the context of when they supposedly happened, but when they emerged and became popular.” Like most Revolutionary-era women, Ludington did not leave many official records. The lack of details about her life has made her a standard bearer for all sorts of causes. She is the darling of feminist groups, and the National Rifle Association has honored her memory with the Sybil Ludington Women’s Freedom Award, given to about 20 women over the years, including the former vice-presidential candidate and governor of Alaska Sarah Palin.
Vincent Dacquino, a historian in Mahopac, New York, is the author of four Ludington books, including the 2019 one Patriot Heroes of the Hudson Valley. He unearthed a trove of Ludington documents, including an 1854 letter from Sybil Ludington’s nephew, Charles H. Ludington, requesting that she be recognized at an upcoming ceremony for Revolutionary Heroes. “My aunt Sybil”, wrote her nephew, rode “on horseback in the dead of night … through a country infested with cowboys and skinners to inform General Putnam”. This is the earliest known account of the episode.
The documents also included telltale letters from Sybil Ludington herself. She does not mention that legendary night, perhaps because far more heartbreaking events happened to her later. 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 to become a prominent lawyer and, in 1819, a member of the New York State Assembly. Dacquino calls these accomplishments a testament to Ludington’s quiet heroism and perseverance.
Ludington’s star has risen in recent decades: she’s appeared in “The Story of Drunkenness” from Comedy Central had his likeness engraved on a US postage stamp and lent its name to an ultramarathon that follows in the hoof prints of its possibly fictional run. Sybil’s supposed route through Putnam County has long been marked by official road signs.
Just before her death in 1839, primary sources show that poor Ludington applied for a pension on behalf of her veteran husband. Her application was denied because she could not produce her marriage certificate. Even in life, his story was hard to prove.
Often Unsung Heroes of the Revolution
By Lila Thulin
Native ally: Nanyehi
The Cherokee chief, also known as Nancy Ward, warned settlers in North Carolina of impending raids by his cousin, war chief Dragging Canoe, who sided with the loyalists.
(Wo)man of Action: Deborah Sampson
At 21, she joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment disguised as a man and served for 17 months. When she fell ill, a military doctor found out her gender. Sampson was honorably discharged.
Secret Agent: Anna Smith Strong
She worked with Abraham Woodhull, a member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. Some historians say that Strong, of Setauket, New York, was the famous “355” spy, who Woodhull said would help “outsmart them all”.
Board game: Lydia Darragh
The Irish-born Quaker was nearly 50 when the Redcoats commandeered her Philadelphia parlor as a meeting hall in 1777. Hearing of their plans to attack a Patriot camp, she rode it 12 miles to warn Continental troops.
Hidden Figures: Patience Lovell Wright
An American artist living in London, Wright was known for her life-size wax sculptures. Before war broke out, she allegedly listened to the elite Britons, hid the information in wax figures, and sent them home.