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On a dark April night in 1777, as cold rain lashed, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington embarked on a lonely and very adult journey. The daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington is a relatively unknown heroine of the American Revolutionary War. However she, like the much-celebrated Paul Revere, rode solo through the night to alert American forces of the British approach. And at 40 miles, her ride was twice that of Paul Revere’s.
Once a perfectly ordinary girl, Sybil transformed herself into a heroine whose swift, fearless actions supported America’s battle for independence from the Crown.
Born in 1761 in what was then known as Fredericksburg and is now known as Kent, Sybil (also "Sibyl" and "Sibbell") was the oldest of 12 children. Her father was a farmer, but also held various positions in the military. As Colonel, he commanded the Seventh Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, a volunteer cadre established during the Revolutionary War.
On April 25, 1777, the British attacked Danbury, Conn., about 20 miles from Sybil’s hometown. The 2,000-member force, included 20 transport vehicles and six warships, which docked near the mouth of the Saugatuck River in Fairfield, Conn. The British army swept through Danbury, burning storehouses that held essential Continental Army supplies, foodstuffs, clothing and medical supplies. British soldiers also found several hundred cases of wine and rum, which they began to consume on the spot. After the soldiers became intoxicated, army discipline broke down and they set fire to private residences and warehouses in the area.
Messengers were sent to nearby towns to beg help from local militias. When a messenger arrived at his home, Colonel Ludington attempted to organize a contingent of men, but his regiment had been disbanded for the planting season; his soldiers were scattered across several miles of dark woods, hilly terrain and farmland.
The Colonel was too busy planning the attack to venture out and physically gather the troops. Sybil, who had just turned 16, agreed to leave and gather the troops herself.
She set out on her horse, Star, at 9 p.m. All night through rugged horseback terrain, she rode 40 miles between Kent, Mahopac and Stormville. Some accounts report that a man volunteered to join her on the ride but she rejected the offer, sending him eastward to Brewster to gather yet more men.
Thanks to her efforts, men gathered just after daybreak at the Ludington home to march to Danbury and fight the British soldiers and raiders. In the meantime, British commander General Tryon managed to gather some of the raided supplies and successfully escape to the Long Island Sound, with Colonel Ludington and his men fighting the English as they withdrew.
After the battle, George Washington stopped at the Ludington home to personally thank Sybil for her efforts.
Sybil Ludington's U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp. Photo: USAPostageStamps.com
Perhaps Sybil’s ride didn’t shift the tide of the war, but the tale of her bravery is a source of regional pride in Putnam and Dutchess County. She is an endless source of inspiration for other seemingly ordinary young women and men, whose imaginations and ambitions are inflamed by her transformative act of selflessness. In 1975, she became the 35th woman to appear on a United States postage stamp; it is now a collector’s item.
In 1784, Sybil married and had one son, Henry. She died in 1839, and was buried next to her father in the cemetery at the Presbyterian Church in Patterson. Her route can be retraced by following historical markers on roads and byways throughout Putnam and Dutchess County. A sculpture created in 1971 by noted American artist Anna Huntington (1876-1973) imagined Sybil’s likeness resides on the shore of Lake Gleneida on Route 52 in Carmel. Smaller versions of the statue are also on the grounds of the Daughters of the American Revolution Headquarters in Washington, DC; at the public library in Danbury, Conn.; and in the Elliot and Rosemary Offner museum at Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.
Thanks to Huntington’s sculpture and the efforts of local historians, Sybil’s legacy as an exemplar of grit and fearlessness lives on in the Hudson Valley and beyond.
Curious about her route? Check out the Taconic Road Runners Sybil Ludington 50K race, scheduled for April 26, 2014, which follows her historic path.
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