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 – 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 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 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 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.