The British were coming.
On April 25, 1777, British ships delivered upward of 1,500 troops to Compo Beach (today part of Westport). Their target was a military supply depot in Danbury, but as they marched inland that night and the next day, news of their arrival spread.
By the early morning hours of April 26, word had crossed the border to New York where, in what is today Carmel, it reached Henry Ludington, a colonel in the Dutchess County Militia. According to local lore, he turned to his 16-year-old daughter, Sybil Ludington, to spread the word to the approximately 400 men under his command who were spread across the countryside. Sybil road about 40 miles — several times the distance of Paul Revere’s more famous ride — through the dark night, heroically sounding the alarm and alerting the men under her father’s command.
So why, as we celebrate Independence Day this month, is Sybil’s name not as well known as Revere’s or the other, mostly male, heroes of the American Revolution?
According to some, it’s another example of society marginalizing the contributions of women. But others argue that, despite markers of her supposed route through New York, and statues in her honor in New York and Connecticut including in front of the Danbury Library, there’s a question of whether her legendary ride really occurred.
The first known reference of Sybil’s ride is found in an 1880 work by Martha J. Lamb called History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress. Lamb evidently spoke with members of the Ludington family. The book’s mention of Sybil, though brief, paints a courageous picture. When word reached Col. Ludington, Lamb writes, his “men were at their homes scattered over the distance of many miles; no one being at hand to call them, his daughter Sybil Ludington, a spirited young girl of sixteen, mounted her horse in the dead of night and performed this service, and by the next morning the whole regiment was on its rapid march to Danbury.”
The New York militia arrived too late to stop the burning of supplies at Danbury. Even still, Sybil’s story took hold with certain segments of the population. In 1907, a biography called Colonel Henry Ludington was published by Henry Ludington’s grandchildren, Charles H. and Lavinia Elizabeth Ludington, and written by Willis Fletcher Johnson. Again, it mentioned the dramatic ride of the colonel’s daughter.
Paula Hunt, a post-doctoral fellow in the journalism and communication department at Utah State University, wrote an article called “Sybil Ludington, the Female Paul Revere: The Making of a Revolutionary War Heroine,” for New England Quarterly in June 2015. She says there are reasons some are skeptical of the story of the ride. The British raid on Danbury was a famous event in the war. Benedict Arnold, who had not yet switched sides, was called from New Haven and organized the local militia to harass the British on their return to the ships waiting for them in Westport, winning acclaim at the Battle of Ridgefield.
Despite Arnold’s exploits being celebrated, and many written accounts of the raid, there are no contemporary mentions of Sybil.
“Essentially there is not a shred of contemporary evidence that would support this,” Hunt says. She also notes that when, in 1838, Sybil, now an adult and a widow, applied for a widow’s pension based on her husband’s military service, there was no mention of the ride. There were also documented methods in place to muster the militia. These involved a system of beacons and not a 16-year-old riding alone through the night.
However, Hunt cautions none of this disproves the story.
“There’s reason to believe that this happened and it seems that it was a story in the Ludington family about this night when Col. Ludington sent his daughter Sybil on this ride to alert his men, so it’s certainly possible,” Hunt says.
The Enoch Crosby chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Carmel, New York, has long celebrated Sybil’s exploits, but the national DAR chapter stopped recognizing her ride in the 1990s.
To Hunt, the more interesting area of inquiry is not whether or not the ride actually took place, but when and how the story of the ride has been told.
“She is a very malleable character because we don’t know a lot about her. So she can be molded into contemporary events and concerns,” Hunt says.
This has happened throughout much of the 20th century. In the 1960s Sybil became a focus because of the shift in history to look at events from the bottom up. Hunt says “she captures the imagination of the women’s movement,” and is honored on a U.S. stamp in 1975.
Prior to that, on the eve of America’s entrance into World War II, she was featured in a widely circulated poem by Berton Braley that mirrored Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The poem began, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of a lovely feminine Paul Revere.”
Of course, like Sybil, Revere’s legacy has changed with the times, and the myth and legend surrounding the ride has sometimes outpaced reality. As Hunt writes, “while Paul Revere was recognized as a patriot among his peers, not until Longfellow immortalized him in a poem published almost ninety years later did he become famous for a ride little noted in his own lifetime.”