Sybil's Story


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Reproduced from Sybil Ludington: The Call to Arms by V. T. Dacquino[1]

YBIL LUDINGTON was the eldest of the 12 children of Abigail and Henry Ludington. Henry was born in Branford, Connecticut, on May 25, 1739, the son of William and Mary (Knowles) Ludington.[2] Abigail, his first cousin, was born in Rumbout Patent in Southern Dutchess County on May 8, 1745. She was the daughter of Elisha, the tenth child of the Colonel’s uncle.[3]

Henry met Abigail when he was on his way to Quebec with Connecticut troops during the French and Indian War. A somewhat romantic account of their meeting was included in Willis Fletcher Johnson’s memoir of Colonel Ludington in 1907:

As the Connecticut troops on their way to that war marched across Dutchess County, New York, through Dover [Plains] and Amenia, it is to be presumed that Henry Ludington on that momentous journey called at his uncle’s home, and saw his cousin, afterward to be his wife, who… was at that time consequently a child of about ten years… but we may easily imagine the boy soldier’s carrying with him into the northern wilderness an affectionate memory of his little cousin, perhaps the last of his kin to bid him good‑by, and also her cherishing a romantic regard for the lad whom she had seen march away with his comrades.[4]

After the Canadian campaign, on May 1, 1760, Henry and Abigail were married. The following April, Sybil was born, and soon after the young family moved to Dutchess County, New York, and settled on 229 acres of undeveloped land in the Philipse Patent. Later the Patent became the Fredericksburgh Precinct of Dutchess County. In 1812, it became part of the Town of Kent in Putnam County.

When the Ludingtons arrived, they were surrounded by dense wilderness. The land was fertile and cheap, pasture for the stock abundant, and the water good; overall, the place was healthy, pleasant, and free from many of the problems of other new settlements. With persistence, determination, and the co­operation of their growing family, Henry and Abigail struggled to make the new land their home. While young Abigail rose to her duties as mother and wife, Henry occupied a position of influence, respect, and authority.

Little is known of Abigail’s life other than the fact that she bore 11 more children after Sybil. Her courage was crucial to the development of their wilderness life during one of colonial America’s most difficult times. Her everyday struggles did not defeat her—she raised 12 children and stood by Henry as he played his role as soldier and citizen. She lived to be 80 years old in a time when many people died before they were 50. Abigail died on August 3, 1825.

Henry was a prominent figure and a subject of interest to historians. “The Colonel,” as he was known for most of his life, appears to us in numerous accounts of the times. Above medium height, with blue eyes, he was a husky man with military bearing. As a businessman, he was successful, irreproachable, and determined. In spite of the demands of his mill, his farm, and his family, he was diligent in fulfilling his civic and military duties. He was a member of the New York Assembly from 1777 to 1781, and again in 1786. He was a justice of the peace, town supervisor, and overseer of the poor. He also served as sub‑sheriff and church trustee for many years, and as a member of the Committee of Safety, which was considered the law in many places.

Henry Ludington even became involved with spies. “John Jay was the acting judge for this section of Dutchess. Jay and Ludington employed several secret agents to ferret out Tory activities and many prisoners were taken to judge Jay. Enoch Crosby, who was made famous by James Fenimore Cooper as Harvey Birch in The Spy, spent much time at the Ludington home and had a code of secret signals known to Sybil and her sister Rebecca, who were always on guard during their father’s absence.[5]

In all, Henry served his community and country for more than 60 years. His military career began when he was 17 years old, in 1756, when he enlisted in the 2nd Regiment of Connecticut—troops in the service of the king. He took part in the French and Indian War from 1756 to 1769 and participated in the Battle of Lake George in 1755, where he witnessed the horrors of war. His uncle and a cousin were mortally wounded as they fought by his side. Still, he re-enlisted and in 1759 was detailed to escort a company of invalid soldiers from Canada to Boston. The march was made in the dead of winter, and on many nights, with only a blanket for protection, he was forced to dig himself into snowdrifts to avoid freezing. When his rations finally ran out, he ate the bark and twigs of birch trees and berries that he scavenged from the frozen countryside. Nonetheless, he survived to complete his mission.[6]

Soon after Henry arrived in Dutchess County in 1761, he became sub‑sheriff and swore an oath to remain faithful to the king, “to defend Him against all traitorous conspiracies and attempts against his person, crown, and dignity to the utmost of his power, and particularly to uphold the succession of the crown against the claims of the pretended Prince of Wales, who had styled himself King of England under the name of James the Third.”[7]

William Tryon, the captain‑general and governor of the Province of New York, appointed Henry as Captain of the Fifth Company of the Second Battalion of the Fredericksburgh Regiment of Militia in Dutchess County. On February 13, 1773, Henry accepted a commission as captain in Colonel Beverly Robinson’s Dutchess County regiment. Soon after, his loyalty to the king dwindled and he resigned his commission in favor of the revolutionary cause.

It was a period in American history when enemies could live next door or hide waiting and armed behind trees or near an outhouse. Real battles with loss of life occurred in taverns and in skirmishes in back yards between revolutionaries and their royalist neighbors and former friends. Family arguments began in one‑room schoolhouses and in April planting fields, where men tended the land, ready in an instant to respond to the call for battle in defense of their families.

Henry’s military experience influenced the Patriot’s Provincial Congress of the Colony of New York to appoint him to the rank of colonel in the summer of 1776. A new provincial congress, calling itself the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York, also commissioned Henry as a colonel. His regiment, the Seventh of the Dutchess County militia, was thereafter referred to as Colonel Ludington’s regiment.

Colonel Ludington’s area of command in Dutchess County was along the most direct route the British might take to and from Connecticut and the coast on Long Island Sound. He was forced to bring his regiment into “active and constant service in the counties of Dutchess and Westchester, either to assist the regular troops, or to quell the turbulent Tory spirit of that section, or to repress the vicious and exasperating conduct of the ‘Cowboys and Skinners….’”[8]

One record described the Colonel’s section as “deplorable.” “Small parties of volunteers on one side, and parties of Royalists and Tories on the other, constantly harassed the inhabitants and plundered without mercy friend and foe alike. To guard against surprise required the utmost vigilance. Within this territory resided many friends of the American cause, whose situation exposed them to continual ravages by Tories, horse thieves, and cowboys, who robbed them indiscriminately and mercilessly, while the personal abuse and punishment were almost incredible.”[9]

Colonel Ludington and his regiment often prevented marauders from obtaining supplies for the British forces. Much of General Howe’s cattle and grain came from Cowboys and thieves. The Colonel’s success enraged Howe who put a price on Colonel Ludington’s head of 300 English guineas, “dead or alive!”[10]

Henry was also deeply involved in his family life and in the workings of his farm and his gristmill and sawmill. Erected in 1776, the gristmill was the first in the region. It enjoyed a fine reputation for quality milling and had the distinction of being built almost solely by women because most of the men were away in military service.[11]

Henry and Abigail raised 12 children in the Ludington house. Their births were recorded in the Colonel’s family register and inscribed on the flyleaf of one of the ledgers he used in his many capacities as a public servant:

Sibyl, April 5, 1761. Rebecca, January 24, 1763. Mary, July 31, 1765. Archibald, July 5, 1767. Henry, March 28, 1769. Derick, February 17, 1771. Tertullus, Monday Night, April 19, 1773. Abigail, Monday Morning, February 26, 1776. Anna, at sunset, March 14, 1778. Frederick, June 10, 1782. Sophia, May 16, 1784. Lewis, June 25, 1786.[12]

On the surface, Sybil’s life was free from many of the hardships of the time. Her parents were far from poor, and her father had great influence in the county. However, she bore many burdens on her young shoulders. The oldest of 12 children, she was expected to take a prominent role in raising her siblings. In addition, she had to face the reality that her father might leave home some morning and never return or that a shot could ring out at any time and take him as he sat at the family table. Sybil’s world of “simple country‑girl prosperity” was actually a complex maze of uncertainty, fear and bravery. Given the turmoil of the times, Sybil was compelled to take a leading role in protecting her father, who was a wanted man. An incident recounted by Lewis S. Patrick illustrates the extent of her commitment toward this end.

One night Ichabod Prosser, a notorious Tory, came with hopes of getting the large reward posted on the Colonel’s head. Prosser’s men surrounded the house and prepared to attack, but Sybil and her sister Rebecca outsmarted them:

These fearless girls, with guns in hand were acting as sentinels, pacing the piazza to and fro in true military style and grit to guard their father against surprise and to give him warning of any approaching danger. They discovered Prosser and his men and gave the alarm. In a flash, candles were lighted in every room of the house and the few occupants marched and counter‑marched before the windows and from this simple and clever ruse, Prosser was led to believe that the house was strongly guarded and did not dare to make an attack. He kept his men concealed behind the trees and fences until daybreak, when with yells they resumed their march and hastened southwards toward New York City, ignorant of how they had been foiled by clever girls. The Colonel’s most vigilant and watchful companion was his sentinel daughter, Sibbell. Her constant care and thoughtfulness, combined with fortuitous circumstances, prevented the fruition of many an intrigue against his life and capture.[13]

Into this tense situation, a chain of events began that challenged Sybil’s courage to the utmost—the British march on Danbury, Connecticut, and the subsequent burning of that city.

The commissioners of the Continental Army had been using Danbury as a depot for military stores, and British General William Tryon was assigned to prevent their use by enemies of the king. On April 24, 1777, 20 transports and six war vessels left New York Harbor for Compo Beach in Connecticut. Troops reached Compo the next day and debarked, ready to begin the long march to Danbury. Tryon’s men proceeded as if on parade. One soldier was described in detail:

Upon his head a metallic cap, sword‑proof, surmounted by a Cone, from which a long, chestnut‑colored plume fell to his shoulders. Upon the front of the cap was a death’s head, under which was inscribed the words: “Or Glory.” A red coat faced with white, an epaulette on each shoulder, buckskin breeches of a bright yellow, black knee boots, and spurs completing the costume. A long sword swung at his side, and a carbine was carried, muzzle down, in a socket at his stirrup. These were models of discipline and military splendor, and mounted on handsome chargers, sixteen hands high.[14]

Another detachment, the 64th Foot—a grenadier regiment—wore “high grenadier caps and red coats faced with black.” This “parade” of the king’s forces marched steadily through Connecticut toward an unsuspecting Danbury.

Word spread ahead of the British, and Connecticut revolutionaries mustered to resist as best they could along the route of the march. Generals David Wooster and Benedict Arnold, receiving intelligence at New Haven, gathered a small escort and pushed westward, picking up various militia companies as they advanced. Meanwhile, General Gold Selleck Silliman with 500 militiamen was already on the trail of Tryon. Colonel Henry Ludington came in from New York with 400 reinforcements.

One Connecticut regiment, known as “The Gallant Seventeen,” hid in the shadows of the moonlit night waiting to ambush the advancing column. They struck out of the darkness, killing a number of soldiers, with only one American slightly wounded, but they did not stop the march. The British loaded their dead and wounded in an oxcart, sent them back to the ships, and continued on. After passing what is now called Aspetuck, the royalist troops stopped in the parish of Weston, where they probably rested.

Rumors spread like wildfire among the threatened citizens. One story that reached Redding held that General Tryon was out to kill young boys because they would grow into soldiers. “The women of Redding had heard of this propensity and at his approach gathered all the boys of thirteen and under… and conveyed them to a secluded place near[by] where they were left under the charge of one Gershom Barlow. Here they remained until the invader had regained his ships, provisions being cooked and sent to them daily.”[15]

One Redding mother, Rebecca Sanford Barlow, earned a place in history because she stayed with her sick children to face the enemy while most of her neighbors fled in fear. “The terrified inhabitants resolved on instant flight. Each family gathered together such of their effects as they could take with them and quickly quit the village, traveling the whole night to reach a place of refuge. Mrs. Barlow had two sick children and could not carry them away. To leave them was out of the question, so she and her family remained alone to face the enemy, deserted by all her neighbors.”[16] Some hid in barns and forests, others escaped the area with all the goods they could gather in carts and wagons. Parents had to face the horrifying decision whether to accompany their families to safety or stay and do what they could to secure their homes against the enemy.

In a place called Couch’s Rock in Weston, Connecticut, a small regiment of revolutionaries under Captain Zalmon Read met with British troops in full force and was immediately taken captive with no fatalities, sending a clear message that this was an enemy to be reckoned with. From there, the British troops moved across the Weston border into Redding and proceeded through the town causing no destruction or casualties. At Redding’s Ridge, they stopped for breakfast and relaxed in the comfort of royalist hospitality. At the time, Redding was known as “Tory country.” Although no buildings were destroyed, several prisoners were taken.

Before reaching Danbury, the 2,000‑man British force had to pass through Bethel, Connecticut. Rain fell heavily through the night causing difficult conditions for soldiers on both sides. A man named Luther Holcomb put the British army on edge by marching to the top of a hill pretending to be followed by a number of troops. “Halt the whole universe! Break off by kingdoms and prepare to attack!” he shouted. The British be1ieved him enough to prepare for battle, but when it was realized that there would be no attack, they marched quietly out of Bethel in the rain without incident. As they left, American troops slipped in quietly behind them at 11:30 P.M. under the direction of Generals Benedict Arnold, David Wooster, and Gold Selleck Silliman. Together they ordered 600 men to prepare to fight the British in the pouring rain with muskets that could barely shoot in dry weather. They waited in Bethel for the return of the British, hoping for a surprise attack, but Tryon brought his troops back through Ridgefield after his night in Danbury.

On the following afternoon, the enemy reached Danbury in sunshine between two and three o’clock, but another storm was on its way bringing the additional heavy rains that Sybil could be forced to ride through that night. As the afternoon continued, a few incidents occurred. British soldiers chased one horseman through the streets. He escaped when he unrolled a bolt of cloth he was carrying and frightened a pursuer’s horse. A second incident involved four young men who shot into a column of soldiers from the house of Captain Ezra Starr, which was raided immediately after the shots rang out. The house was burned along with the bodies of the men who had been accused of the shooting.

As the day proceeded, British soldiers continued to take control of Danbury. “As the British troops reached a point near the present location of the court‑house their artillery was discharged and the heavy balls, six and twelve‑pounders, flew screaming up the street, carrying terror to the hearts of the women and children, and dismay to the heads of the homes thus endangered.”[17]

John Porter came into the village to see what was happening. Porter was “a man of powerful build, with muscles like steel, and a movement that was a very good substitute for lightning.” When he was to told to halt, he stood tall against them, and asked, “What for?” He advanced on them, and they said, “You are our prisoner.” He continued his move on them. “Guess not,” he said. They were close upon him, but there was a gully behind them. In a flash he had the foremost trooper in his grasp. In the next instant, he hurled him against the other two, and the three of them tumbled into the gully in a demoralized heap. The rest of the squad, seeing the disaster, immediately surrounded and subdued Porter. Porter and a man named Barnum are believed to be the only prisoners the enemy carried away from Danbury. They were thrown into a New York prison called Sugar House Prison. Porter was released eventually, but Barnum later died there of starvation.[18]

British troops remained in Danbury all day destroying patriot military stores. Those goods found in a Church of England and goods found in the homes of royalists were taken into the street to be burned and their buildings spared, but houses owned by revolutionaries used as storehouses for grain and meat were burned to the ground. “It is said that the fat from the burning meat ran ankle‑deep in the street. No less free ran the rum and wine, although not in the same direction!”

As night began, drunken brawls and loud laughter became more frequent. “The drunken men went up and down Main Street in squads, singing army songs, shouting coarse speeches, hugging each other, swearing, yelling, and otherwise conducting themselves as becomes an invader when he is very, very drunk.”[19]

During some of the day and most of the night, Connecticut farmers sneaked back into the enemy camp to kill an occasional soldier. All around them revolutionary troops were being mustered until finally, General Tryon gave an order to move out.

By midnight, three Danbury buildings had been burned and many of the drunken revelers were sleeping soundly. By about one o’clock Sunday morning, Tryon ordered the gathering of soldiers and the work of real destruction began. More buildings were burned. Those owned by Tories were marked with a cross, which protected them; houses without crosses were torched. In the meantime, as the flames filled a rainy night sky, dispatchers rode frantically in all directions, and American troops rallied to a belated defense of Danbury.

Before long, a rider roused the Ludington household, and Sybil was galloping into the night on her way to muster the Colonel’s regiment. W. F. Johnson told the story of her ride in 1907. It is presumed that he based his information on the records of Lewis S. Patrick, the Colonel’s great‑grandson.[20]

According to Johnson:

At eight or nine o’clock that evening a jaded horseman reached Colonel Ludington’s home with the news. We may imagine the fire that flashed through the veteran’s veins at the report of the dastardly act of his former chief. [General Tryon, the last of the British governors of New York, had appointed Colonel Ludington a captain in a colonial regiment before the Colonel became a revolutionary.] But what to do? His regiment was disbanded; its members scattered at their homes, many at considerable distances. [It was April, planting season, and the farmers needed to tend their fields and were granted leaves to get their farm work done.] He must stay there to muster all who came in. The messenger from Danbury could ride no more, and there was no neighbor within call. In this emergency he turned to his daughter Sybil, who, a few days before, had passed her sixteenth birthday, and bade her to take a horse, ride for the men, and tell them to be at his house by daybreak. One who even rides now from Carmel to Cold Spring will find rugged and dangerous roads, with lonely stretches. Imagination only can picture what it was a quarter and a century ago [now over two centuries ago] on a dark night, with reckless bands of “Cowboys” and “Skinners” abroad in the land. But the child performed her task, clinging to a man’s saddle, and guiding her steed with only a hempen halter, as she rode through the night, bearing the news of the sack of Danbury. There is no extravagance in comparing her ride with that of Paul Revere and its midnight message. Nor was her errand less efficient than his was. By daybreak, thanks to her daring, nearly the whole regiment was mustered before her father’s house at Fredericksburgh, and an hour or two later was on the march for vengeance on the raiders.[21]

In this dramatic rendition of Sybil’s ride, Johnson is not correct when he refers to Sybil as a “child.” Sybil’s world wasn’t the world we live in today. Sybil’s mother, Abigail, for example, was only fifteen when she married Henry.

Sybil was a very capable young woman at sixteen and was engaged in the revolutionary cause beyond just helping to protect her father or doing domestic chores. The story of her conspiring with Enoch Crosby, a notorious spy, attests to this fact. Sybil also knew the roads and where the men lived, perhaps as a result of riding with her father along the narrow, dirt roads of Mahopac and Carmel. They undoubtedly laid out the best route to be used to muster the regiment in times of emergency. It is doubtful that she had to rouse each of the men individually. Key people in each village heard her banging on their shutters, and in turn, alerted the local contingent while she rode on to complete her mission. In the morning, Colonel Ludington’s regiment was gathered in his yard, preparing to face the enemy.

During the night, Tryon was forced to make several decisions. Earlier hopes to take captured supplies to New York City for British use were abandoned. Additional supplies would slow him down and make it impossible to fight those on their way to engage him. He chose instead to burn as much of the stores as possible to prevent their use by the revolutionaries. He was also forced to abandon any plans of invading Dutchess and Westchester Counties. The next morning, Sunday, April 27, it was clear to General Tyron that he would have to make it back to Compo by way of Ridgefield and get his men aboard the ships as quickly as possible to avoid the troops at Bethel.[22] General Alexander McDougall was marching in from Peekskill, and Colonel Ludington was on his way from Dutchess County. By this time, however, the troops from Bethel had crossed over into Ridgefield. McDougall had 1,200 men to support the 600 to 800 from Bethel. Behind them were the troops from Dutchess County consisting of another 400 men. Johnson described them this way:

They were a motley company, some without arms, some half dressed, but all filled with a certain berserk rage. That night they reached Redding and joined Arnold, Wooster, and Silliman. The next morning they encountered the British at Ridgefield. They were short of ammunition and were out­numbered by the British three to one. But they practiced the same tactics that Paul Revere’s levies at Lexington and Concord found so effective. Their scattering sharpshooter fire from behind trees and fences and stone walls, harassed the British sorely, and made their retreat to their ships at Compo resemble a rout. Nor were instances of individual heroism in conflict lacking. Arnold had his horse shot from under him as, almost alone, he furiously charged the enemy, and the gallant Wooster received a wound from which he died a few days later. There were far greater operations in the war than this, but there was scarcely one more expeditious, intrepid and successful. Writing of it to Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton said, “I congratulate you on the Danbury expedition. The stores destroyed there have been purchased at a high price to the enemy. The spirit of the people on the occasion does them great honor‑is a pleasing proof that they have lost nothing of that primitive zeal with which they began the contest, and will be a galling discouragement to the enemy from repeating attempts of the kind. The people of New York considered the affair in the light of a defeat to the troops.”[23]

Tryon reached Ridgefield more slowly than he had expected, and after burning a mill belonging to Isaac Keeler, stopped his troops for lunch and rest just outside North Salem. At that point, General Wooster attacked Tryon but was counterattacked. Wooster retreated but returned. On his return and attack of the rear guard, he was fatally wounded.

Captain Stephen Rowe Bradley assumed command of Wooster’s troops. His company went on to join General Arnold, who was still highly respected; it would be three years until his infamous betrayal. During the battle, a cannonball was fired into the nearby Keeler Tavern.

Not far from the tavern is a memorial to the soldiers from Ridgefield who fought in the battle of 1777. It commemorates: “eight Patriots, who were laid in these grounds, companioned by sixteen British soldiers living, their enemies; dying their guests.”

Tryon burned several homes in Ridgefield and went on to burn more houses and destroy more supplies in Wilton before making his way to the Saugatuck River and Compo Beach. General Tryon’s officers, however, reported 50 to 60 enlisted men and five officers killed or wounded in the two‑hour battle at Ridgefield alone.

For Further Reading

General Reference

 

Dacquino, Vincent. Sybil Ludington: The Call to Arms. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2000. ISBN: 193009809X

Children’s Books

 

Amstel, Marsha. Illus. by Ellen Beier. Sybil Ludington’s Midnight Ride. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 2000. ISBN: 1575052113

Hominick, Judy and Jeanne Spreier. Ride for Freedom: The Story of Sybil Ludington. New York, NY: Silver Moon Press, 2001. ISBN: 1893110249

Winnick, Karen. Illus. by the author. Sybil’s Night Ride. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, Inc., 2000. ISBN: 1563976978

[1]Published by Purple Mountain Press, P.O. Box 309, Fleischmanns, NY 12430-0309; email: purple@catskill.net; URL: http://www.catskill.net/purple; tel: 845-254-4062; fax: 845-254-4476. This excerpt from chapter one is reprinted by permission.

[2]William S. Pelletreau, History of Putnam County, New York, 1886, p. 691. Pelletreau also mentions here that the Ludington house in Branford was destroyed by fire on May 20, 1754. Rebecca and Anne, the Colonel's younger sisters, perished in the fire.

[3]Willis Fletcher Johnson, Colonel Henry Ludington: A Memoir, 1907, p. 35. (Pelletreau, on page 691 of his History of Putnam County, also called Elisha “son of William 3d.”)

[4]Ibid. pp. 35-36.

[5]Dutchess County Historical Society Year Book, Vol. 25, 1940, p. 80.

[6]Louis S. Patrick, “Secret Service of the American Revolution,” The Connecticut Magazine. Vol. 11, No. 2, 1907, p. 266. See also: Johnson, pp. 30-31.

[7]Ibid., p. 267.

[8]Ibid., p. 268.

[9]Ibid., p. 268.

[10]Dutchess County Historical Society Year Book, Vol. 30, 1945, p. 76.

[11]Patrick, p. 274.

[12]Johnson, p. 45.

[13]Patrick, p. 269.

[14]James R. Case, Tryon’s Raid, 1927, p. 13.

[15]Ibid., p. 16.

[16]Lincoln Diamant, Revolutionary Women in the War for American Independence, 1998, pp. 67-68.

[17]James Montgomery Bailey, History of Danbury 1684-1896, 1896, p. 68.

[18]Ibid., pp. 68-69.

[19]Case, p. 24.

[20]Patrick (see sidebar on page 24).

[21]Johnson, pp. 89-91.

[22]George L. Rockwell, The History of Ridgefield, Connecticut, 1923, pp. 103-119.

[23]Johnson, pp. 89-91.

 


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