If you travel to Putnam County, New York, you will hear the story of Sybil Ludington. You will see a larger than life statue of a wild-eyed girl on horseback erected in honor of her, and you will see signposts along the roads indicating her possible route on 26 April 1777. On that night, some believe that the 16-year-old Sybil volunteered when her father, Colonel Henry Ludington, learned that the British were headed toward Danbury, Connecticut to seize or destroy colonial military provisions. Her father, lacking a more appropriate messenger, sent his daughter to ride through dangerous country to raise the alarm.
Danbury was burned, and the supplies destroyed. However, the gathered militia was able to drive the British back to Long Island before they could raze their next target. The lack of successful mission has not made Sybil’s story less intriguing. She is remembered as a brave young woman who was willing to risk her life for the American cause of liberty.
After the war, Sybil was married on 21 October 1784 to Edmund Ogden, who had also served in the Revolutionary War. When he died, Sybil applied for a pension based on his service, never mentioning her own activity. Even when it was necessary to appeal the denial of her pension, Sybil did not mention her midnight ride. This is one of the facts that has led some historians to question whether or not it ever happened.
The first mention of Sybil’s midnight ride is found in Martha J Lamb’s 1880 History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress. It was then elaborated upon in Willis Fletcher Johnson's biography of Sybil's father, Colonel Henry Ludington. It was Johnson who gave Sybil star power by claiming, ‘There is no extravagance in comparing her ride with that of Paul Revere.’
According to historian Paula D Hunt, Sybil’s current fame can be traced back to a local effort to increase tourism in Putnam County, New York that resulted in the aforementioned historic markers. In her article, Sybil Ludington, The Female Paul Revere: The Making of a Revolutionary War Heroine, Hunt demonstrates that other books, pamphlets, articles, local events, and even commemorative statues grew from the historic route markers until no one any longer questioned whether Sybil’s ride actually happened.
Many women were compelled to step up and perform courageous acts that they would not have done otherwise during the American Revolution. Like Sybil, they filled a need, took on a role that would have normally been filled by a man, and did what was necessary for the sake of their country. Some of their stories are better documented even if they do not enjoy the level of fame that Sybil enjoys today.
Through the eight years of armed conflict, it is safe to assume that every woman in America was tested, had their life changed, and was forced to do something they might not have otherwise done. There can have been few whose daily lives were not touched by the hardships of war.
Some women, like Sybil, have become the stuff of legend. Betsy Ross, who may or may not have designed and sewed the American flag that we all recognize today, has become a similarly romanticized figure. Molly Pitcher, who is most likely a compilation of women who stepped in to assist men at the front, is another. So many other stories remain largely untold.
Women in America led varied lives before the American Revolution and took on just as varied of roles during the war. Some are remembered as heroines. Some paid the ultimate price. Many are not remembered at all. It is for those that the legend of Sybil Ludington lives on, inspiring generations of women to do more than they thought themselves capable.
Women of the American Revolution by Samantha Wilcoxson coming July 2022 from Pen & Sword.