Her “Midnight Ride”: I’m Pissed I Never Learned About 16-Year-Old American Hero Sybil Ludington

History 25 Comments

By Jen Jones – I’m a 45-year-old woman; college educated, insatiably curious, and perpetually pissed over the fact that the history I was taught failed me and the women who made it. Case in point, the famed “Midnight Ride” of the American Revolution. The only heroic horse-riding messenger I ever heard about was Paul Revere… “The British are coming. The British are coming.” That was until two years ago, well into my adulthood, when I learned of the kickass 16-year-old girl who made her own perilous “Midnight Ride” – in a dress and sidesaddle, traveling twice the distance of the 40-year-old Revere – 240 years ago today on April 26, 1777. Her name was Sybil Ludington and this is what I now know about her.

First, here’s some context for my historical frame of reference, which is largely from childhood. On the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere set out on horseback from Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts to warn the Minutemen of a British invasion. His name is synonymous with the American Revolution and American patriotism. I think the other top level, punch points I (and presumably many others) were taught about Revere came from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1861 poem, which, historic accounts show, took some creative license when it came to the details of his “Midnight Ride”.

As a young adult, I eventually learned that Revere’s “Midnight Ride” did not happen “solo” at the poetic stroke of 12, nor was it voluntary. He was ordered to make the trip, and there was another man, William Dawes, who headed out with him (they split up and took separate routes for safety). Once in Lexington, they were joined by a 3rd man, Samuel Prescott, who rode with them to Concord. And here’s how the story ends… a British patrol captured Revere, Dawes lost his horse, and Prescott escaped and rode on to Concord to deliver the warning.

My steady vexation with the sanitized, hole-filled, only-white-men-did-anything-important version of history I was fed in school boiled over, once again, in 2015 when, at age 43, I happened upon the story of another heroic, American Revolutionary “Midnight Rider”, whose extraordinary journey was altogether erased from what I had been taught. That’s when Sybil Ludington came into my life. 

My steady vexation with the sanitized, hole-filled, only-white-men-did-anything-important version of history I was fed in school boiled over, once again, in 2015 when, at age 43, I happened upon the story of another heroic “Midnight Rider”, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington.

Born in 1761, Sybil was the 16-year-old daughter of Lt. Colonel Henry Ludington, who rode nearly 40 miles of backwoods roads from New York to Connecticut in the dark of night on April 26, 1777. Her mission was to alert American colonial troops under her father’s command of an imminent attack by the British on Danbury with the goal of rallying them to march to meet the British army at what became the Battle of Ridgefield.

Unlike Revere, Sybil was not ordered to make her perilous night ride; she VOLUNTEERED. And I will reiterate… this fearless 16-year-old rode twice the distance he had, in a dress and sidesaddle, and the horse she made the ride on is said to have been a large, bay yearling gelding, named Star, which she trained herself. 

Because of Sybil, almost the entire regiment was gathered by daybreak to fight the British. After the battle at Danbury, George Washington went to the Ludington home to personally thank Sybil for her bravery. After the war she married and had a son. She died in 1839.

So knowing what I now know, I understand why some people get irked when Sybil Ludington is referred to as “the female Paul Revere”. She has her own story, which is part of the fiber of American history, and it should be valued on its own, for its own merits. But I take that phrase as an offering of context versus comparison. It’s what sent me, someone who had never heard Sybil Ludington’s name or story prior to 2015, digging for more information about her, and helped me realize the magnitude of this brave young patriot’s undertaking. And rather than position her in Revere’s shadow, for me the phrase cast a giant spotlight on Sybil Ludington’s achievements. It was my inspiration for getting to know her, and I am so glad I did.

Honoring Sybil Ludington

Sybil’s contributions to American history have not gone entirely unrecognized. As the NWHM notes, “Although Sybil never gained the widespread fame that Paul Revere did in America’s history, she was honored with a stamp by the Postal Service in 1975.” There is also a statue of her by Lake Gleneida in Carmel, New York (pictured above), and another in the Danbury Public Library Plaza in Danbury, Connecticut. Pioneering sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington is the woman behind both.

Huntington was once considered one of New York City’s most prominent sculptors (at a time when very few women were successful sculptors). Her original, larger-than-life bronze statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel was dedicated in 1961. The Danbury Public Library’s statue of Sybil (pictured right) is a smaller version of Huntington’s original and was given to the library in 1971, when Huntington was 95. She died in 1973 at age 97.

Jen Jones is the co-founder of Women You Should Know and Women You Should Fund.

  • Patricia Moore

    Thanks, Jen. I’m 77 years old from California and I’ve never heard of her either. Guess I missed the postage stamp!!!

  • NaturallyCurlyHair

    Longfellow is the one to blame — before he wrote his poem, Revere’s ride was delegated to its normal place in history, as a side-note to other heroic happenings. But the poem caught the public’s imagination, and the rest, well, is history. 🙁

  • ConstanceEve

    Revere’s name is easy to rhyme!

  • Gimi

    I am thrilled to know this and will ensure my granddaughter does, too. I certainly hope, however, that her horse was not literally a “yearling” – way too young for that.

    • Colleen Humphreys

      They made up this in the 19th C. OTOH, Scituate girls, Abigail and Rebecca Bates, told their own story, during the war of 1812, of hiding in the dunes and scathing away a British ship. Not everyone believes the story, but it’s documented that **they** themselves told it in period. So, I choose to believe them, and it’s not some nostalgia made up in
      the middle of the 19th C. (Even had Sybil’s ride happened, she would have been too late to make a difference).

  • Chris Brown

    There is a lot of contention regarding whether Sybil Luddington did any of the above. The biggest one is that there is no contemporaneous written record of the supposed exploits. The first written account of her story does not occur until 1907, several generations after her death.

    • Sheila Dehner

      Well, given that women historically, and to this day, are marginalized to be less significant then men, it doesn’t surprise me that this kind of competitive bravery would not come to light.

      • Colleen Humphreys

        Check out Scituate and Abigail and Rebecca Bates and the Scituate Light, from the warnof 1812. That story was told by the girls **themselves**, at the time. So, it’s documented. On the other hand, there isn’t a scrap of Sybil’s story until the middle of the 19th C. The story appears to have been made up, completely, during the history revival of the 19th C. They did a **lot** of that, then.

        • Romulus

          So the absence of evidence is the proof? Right.

  • SirLizard

    I’m sure the omission is partly because of misogyny, but also because Revere’s exploits took place in Boston, but the burning of Danbury isn’t exactly well-known either. One of the only reasons that any people know about it today is if they’re from Danbury, as I am, or because they’ve now heard of Sybil Ludington’s story. I’d imagine there are countless Revolutionary Ware tales, legends, and true stories from many small towns that are only known to those towns’ locals.

  • Rosa

    great history lesson right here.

  • Eileen O Malley Callahan

    I’m quite pissed off I never heard of her!

  • Eileen O Malley Callahan

    But of course, one has to check and double-check to make sure, “so we won’t get fooled again.”

  • Jan Carson

    I certainly hope the story is wrong about her riding a yearling.

    • Colleen Humphreys

      This story can’t be documented as being told earlier than by the Victorians, who seem to have made up a lot of things. Seriously, there is no primary/period/contemporary documentation for this story, at all.

      But, check out Abigail and Rebeca Bates, of Scituate and the light. They wrote about their own exploits, which were published in a period newspaper, although there was controversy, it is a primary source of controversy!

  • Louise Duspiva

    Why wasn’t she included in our history, at least now when women should have more of the stories about them in this day & age. It is still the old men’s club.

    • Colleen Humphreys

      Check out Abigail and Rebecca Bates of Scituate light. There is primarily documentation for that, unlike Sybil, whose story was probably made up in the 19th C. No documentation for Sybil’s ride, which, given the story, wouldn’t even have done any good,the story’s timing has her arriving *after* everything was over.

  • g biloba

    So sorry you got pissed. To pick up your spirits, open your eyes, and learn about many other women you’ve never heard of, I recommend you buy a copy of Gail Collins’ >500 page book “America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines.” Women and American history are of interest to this old guy, and it’s a very easy, delightful read thanks to the story-telling skills of Ms. Collins. However, she does not mention Sybil Ludington.

    • Colleen Humphreys

      That might be because there isn’t any documentation for Sybil. The Victorians romantic ideas of history probably struck again.

      • g biloba

        There are undoubtedly countless heroes from history, men and women, whose stories never come down to us. Such is life.

  • This is why so many of us worked so hard decades ago to establish women’s studies programs. We taught about Sybil Ludington. Sadly, mainstream history courses still do not.

  • Jonathan Kohler

    Love the story. I also understand why you need to mention the whole “only white men” thing. Even though I read the whole thing the little sprinkle of negativity kind of killed my excitement and it became more of a chore to read after that. I really only finished it out of respect for Sybil. At that point the author lost me. I was excited to read about something positive and empowering.

    Like I said though I understand why this needs to be addressed. Can’t we find ways to talk about these things and not be so negative about them though? Or save those comments for a piece more appropriate? It does illustrate the times but it does nothing to empower Sybil, rather it’s a chance to complain for the author.

    • Was the article too long for you?

  • JHolland

    I agree with Jonathan. It is a wonderful story and should be included in school children’s texts. There is more to learn about women’s contributions besides “Eve” and the usual heads of state and the usual female villains. Stop the negativity.

  • Linda Spencer

    Lt. Colonel Henry Ludington had a brother Samuel who was my ancestor. I have been aware of Sybil’s story for many years in my own family. Her cousin William,14, Samuel’s son went with the militia to Danbury and Ridgefield. In 1832 Revolutionary War veterans were offered a pension and we were able get a copy of all the paper work regarding his application. Amazing reading!