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Wind wailed around the house as Sybil Ludington peered out the window into the dark yard. She could have sworn she heard something, and not just the late April storm, either. This sounded like a horse.
Sybil started, then shook her head. It was just the grandfather clock chiming nine o’clock. Of all the times to be jumpy! The War for Independence—and more importantly, her father, Colonel Henry Ludington—needed her nerves to be steady. Especially if she really just heard hoof beats.
There! A shadow darted across the yard, a horse at the gate momentarily outlined by lightning.
“Henry, Go get Father.” she said to her eight-year-old brother. He glanced up from his game of marbles, a pout forming on his face. She scowled. This was no time for arguments. “Now!” she hissed, “Someone’s here!” The stubborn glint in his eyes widened into terror and he fled the room. Little wonder, as it was no secret that her father’s archenemy was the British commander-in-chief General Howe. Too many local British sympathizers were enthralled with the 300-guinea bounty on her father’s head.
Sybil grabbed her father’s rifle, hanging above the door. When she had first heard of that reward, she had sworn to herself that it would never be paid, no matter what it took. She cocked the hammer, glad to see that there was one shot left. She closed the rifle with a click that rang with finality.
No sooner had she stepped out on the front porch than she lifted the rifle to her shoulder, pointing it at the young stranger’s rain-soaked chest. “Excuse me, sir? State your business.”
The man was panting and shivering. He didn’t seem to even care that the business end of the rifle was aimed at him. “Colonel Ludington,” he gasped.
Sybil placed her finger on the trigger. “He’s a popular man. Give me one reason why I should let you speak to him instead of my long friend here.”
“Danbury! Under siege! General Tryon—and 2000 men!” The young man stumbled against the house and coughed. Sybil lowered her gun, but before she could answer, Father had one hand wrapped around the young man’s shoulders and half-carried him into the parlor.
“Sybil! Pull a chair to the fire,” he commanded.
The man was shivering so much he could hardly speak. Sybil quickly obeyed her father and handed the man a blanket before walking around the corner into the kitchen to prepare a hot drink for the poor man.
“Tryon m-marched int-t-o Danbury this afternoon,” The man said. “Been wreaking havoc ever s-s-since. Began by burning Patriots’ homes. No way knowing h-h-how much damage has ensued since I left. We’re afraid they’ll seize the f-food and arms the army hid there!”
Sybil grabbed a pewter mug from the cabinet, slamming it on the counter. Of all the times to be attacked! She added some of their last dried chamomile and cornflowers before adding steaming water from the kettle over the kitchen fire. The local militia were scattered for a two-day leave for spring planting, leaving the area largely vulnerable to British invaders. Of course the lobster-backs, so called for their bright red uniforms, had been nowhere close when the militia disbanded.
“Has word been sent to General Arnold?” Father asked from the other room.
“Aye. Zebadiah Paterson left for New Haven the same time I did. The Bethel Militia and General McDougall have been alerted as well.”
Sybil walked into the parlor in time to watch her father nod. “Thank you, soldier. You’ve done well. Rest and get warm while I gather my men.”
“Thank you, miss,” The man murmured gratefully as took the herbal tea that Sybil offered.
Father turned to leave the room, indicating for Sybil to follow him. By the stairwell in the hall, he stopped. “Abigail? Come down, please.”
A moment later, Sybil’s Mama descended the stairs, her expression darkening when she saw her husband’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“The British are attacking Danbury. Without my militia, the patriot families and the army’s supplies are vulnerable.”
Mama’s shoulders slumped. “How many?”
“You need more than just the local farmers, then.”
“If the local militias can unite with General Arnold’s regiment, we’ll have a chance at routing them. But I must stay here to organize the men so we can leave no later than dawn. I need you to make something for the men to eat before we leave. That leaves Sybil to alert the men and tell them to gather here.” Sybil squared her shoulders, pride swelling in her breast at her father’s confidence.
Mama’s eyes widened. “Henry! Are you mad? She’s only sixteen!”
“But Mama, no one else can go!” Sybil argued. “I’m the best rider in Putnam County and next to Father, I’m the best shot, too. I know where all the men live; but more importantly, they all know and trust me. I know the roads backwards and forwards. Even in the storm, I know I can find my way!”
Mama glared at Sybil for a long minute before her shoulders slumped. “I know. But I don’t like it. ”
“Sybil, tell the men to meet me here by dawn. We march on Danbury as soon as the sun rises.”
Sybil saluted, trying not to grin too widely. “You can count on me, sir!”
Father wrapped her in a strong hug and Sybil was surprised to feel his hands shake. “We will be praying for you until your return,” he murmured huskily. “I would much rather turn myself in to Howe than have something happen to you.”
Sybil pulled away so she could look him in the eye. He was the image of composure. Having been in the military since he was 17, she marveled that he could still be afraid after all this time. Mama pulled Sybil into a tight hug, too. She, too, was strong—a wife of a soldier had to be. Nonetheless, as Sybil pulled away, tears filled her mother’s eyes. “Don’t worry, either of you. I will be home by dawn, and then we’ll keep Father safe through the rest of the war.
Mama smiled tremulously and Father nodded. “I admire your optimism, but we can speak of this later.” He opened the nearby wardrobe, pulling out a pistol in its holster and handing it to her. “Go saddle Star.”
“Yes, sir!” Sybil strapped the holster to her slender waist, grabbed her cloak hanging on the wall, then ran out the door.
Sybil’s teeth chattered as she gripped the makeshift hemp halter, thankful that she had decided on it instead of the leather one. Her hands would be extra calloused and blistered by morning from holding the rough rope, but at least she didn’t have to worry about the wet reigns slipping from her grasp at a full gallop.
She squinted into the pouring darkness, wishing she had more light than the occasional flashes of lightning. It was as black as death out here. She feared she’d miss her road but there was no time to slow down. “Faster, Star,” she murmured, digging her heels into his withers.
Suddenly, the road came to an abrupt end. Sybil pull up hard, nearly getting bucked off as Star tried to avoid running off the road. Looking around, she recognized her surroundings. The road forked: to her left, the trails led to Danbury and to Carmel on the right. Glancing left, her throat constricted. Even from here, she could see a flickering red glow that was reflecting off the clouds. “Danbury’s still burning, Star,” she whispered. “Even in the storm.” Thunder rumbled overhead as she turned to the right. “Hi-yah!”
Rain dropped from her hairline into her eyes. The cold wind blasting her face until her head pounded with a vicious headache. Numbly, she tried to wrap her fingers around the hemp more tightly. Although she was determined to reach all her father’s men before daylight, she was worried that the task was impossible. At least she only had to reach one man in every town, who would then contact his neighbors. Nonetheless, with over fifty miles of road to travel, she wasn’t sure she could reach all of those key men with enough time for all the soldiers to make it to her home by daybreak.
She raced down the main street of Carmel to the church. Stopping at the vicarage, she pounded on the door, yelling, “Reverend Pruitt! Wake up! The British are sacking Danbury! Sound the alarm!”
The door opened suddenly, a man in a nightshift peered out with a candle in his hand. “Miss Ludington? Good heavens, girl! Come in and get warm.”
She stepped inside, instantly relieved from the rain and wind. “The British are burning Danbury, terrorizing our people and looking for supplies. Father wants his men to meet him at the Ludington Homestead by dawn and they’ll march to meet General Arnold.”
Reverend Pruitt threw on his coat and shoes. “I’ll ring the church bell to alert the town. You curl up by the fire and get warm, then head on home. I’ll ride around to the rest of the militia. New York’s backroads are no place for a young lady such as yourself.”
Sybil gazed at the fireplace. The fire was banked, but within minutes it could be roaring and crackling merrily. She could warm up with a cup of Mrs. Pruitt’s famous hot cider, then head home. If she took his offer, she could be in bed before midnight. She already felt exhausted and her toes were numb with cold, and this was only her first stop. On the other hand, her father was depending on her– not someone else– because she knew every house on the route. What if Reverend Pruitt couldn’t find everyone? No. She had to go on by herself. Then again, if he took part of the route…
“Thanks for the offer Reverend, but we’ll be able to reach more of the men if we work in tandem. Ride east to Brewster, and I’ll head southwest to Mahopac.” Reverend Pruitt’s brow crumpled, but before he could argue with her, she ran out the door and leaped onto Star, “I’ll see you at dawn!” she called, then urged Star back on to main road.
The next several hours passed in a cold blur. When a branch fell from a tree directly behind her, Sybil stopped long enough to break off a long stick. At the rest of the houses, she didn’t dismount, only beat on the door and shutters crying, “Wake up! The British are attacking Danbury! Meet Colonel Ludington at his home by dawn!” She stayed only long enough to be sure that the message was received, then guided Star back into the darkness.
Finally the rain stopped, but the wind continued to blow, chilling Sybil to the bone. Suddenly, Star tripped and nearly fell. Heart beating, Sybil dismounted to feel his legs. If any of his legs were broken, she wasn’t sure what she would do. Finally, she stood and sighed, grateful that he was fine. “What happened, boy? Tired?” She asked then cleared her sore throat. She wasn’t sure if she had a cold coming on, but after a night of yelling and riding in a driving rain, she wouldn’t be surprised.
Star, still breathing hard, snorted and pawed the ground.
Sybil took that for a yes. She pet his neck then stretched her aching back and legs. “Sorry, but we still have far to go. Fortunately, we’re only a few miles from Stormville. After that, it’s six miles to home.” She hoisted herself into the saddle, and continued in a sing-song voice, “Then I’ll rub you down and get you some oats. After you’re taken care of, I’ll go inside, eat a large, hot breakfast with honey-sweetened elderberry tea. Then, I’m going to–”
Ahead of her, Sybil heard horses coming toward her on the muddy path. At this time of night, the chances of meeting a thief or some other scoundrel were pretty high. Likely as not, it would be a mob of cowboys or skinners. Cowboys typically claimed to be loyal to England and skinners often said they believed in the American cause. Ultimately, though, they were all shameless marauding thieves and spies, spending most of their time chasing each other and terrorizing anyone that got in their way. Wordlessly, she urged Star into a stand of trees along the road, ducking to avoid branches. Just as the horses came into view, she pulled out the pistol and cocked it, hoping it wasn’t too wet to use.
As the men cantered past her, she recognized a couple as known cowboys, men who would certainly recognize her and know who her father was. If they caught her, they would certainly send a ransom note to Father, demanding his life for hers. Oh Lord, hear my prayer. She prayed. Don’t allow these hooligans to see me here. Set a hedge of protection around me… She held her breath as she watched then dozen or so men canter past. Much to her relief, none of them looked her way.
Still, she waited until she could no longer hear the horses before returning to the road. She blinked. The road had rocks she hadn’t seen before. Panic seized her throat as she glanced at the sky. The clouds were no longer black. They were grey! “Star,” she whimpered, “It’s getting brighter! Dawn’s soon!” She drove her heels into Star’s flank, sending him flying down the road.
A couple miles later, she rode into Stormville. Although color had not begun to streak the sky, light shined from the houses of known patriots. She rapped her stick on the first house she reached. “Danbury’s under siege! Meet the militia at Colonel—”
The door swung open, and a fully dressed man barely dodged Sybil’s stick. He grinned up at her. “We’ve already heard, Miss Ludington! Captain Farrow from Farmer’s Mill has been through and woken all the local militiamen. Head on to Pecksville!”
Sybil grinned, new strength seeping into her limbs. Her message was spreading on its own– and she only had one more town on her circuit! Her heart galloping as fast as Star, she raced to Peckville and delivered her message the last time. As her last contact ran inside his house, Sybil sagged against Star’s mane. “Let’s go home, boy,” she whispered.
The cloudy sky was turning a yellowish grey when Sybil trotted out of the woods next to her house. She could hear the men who had gathered, but couldn’t see them until she turned the corner around her house. In the yard were hundreds of men, standing at the ready, faces determined and ready for battle. Only a few were talking as they munched on cornbread and cups of water and coffee were passed around.
A lump formed in Sybil’s throat as she stared at the fruits of her labor. One man looked up at her then turned to face the crowd in the yard. “Miss Sybil Ludington has returned!” He yelled.
“Three cheers for the female Paul Revere!” Called another man.
“Hip hip, Horray!” The men shouted, shaking their guns in admiration above their heads. The lump in Sybil’s throat broke, and she buried her head in Star’s mane, sobbing in happy exhaustion.
As the cheering died away, Sybil felt strong arms surround her. “Come here, my brave girl,” Father said quietly. She wrapped her arms around his neck as he peeled her from Star’s back and carried her inside. “Abigail, Sybil’s back!” He called. Gently, he set her on the sofa and wrapped a blanket around her.
Mama ran into the parlor and asked, “Is she okay?”
“I think she’s just tired. Give her something hot to drink then put her to bed.” Father commanded gently before kissing Mama on the head and rejoining his troops.
Mama gathered Sybil in her arms. “Shh,” she crooned, rocking back and forth. “It’s over. You’ve done it. Almost all of the men are here, and it’s all thanks to you.”
Sybil relaxed into Mama, her sobs slowly subsiding into hiccups. She had ridden over forty miles in eight hours, but she had succeeded.
“Then the lobster-backs ran, and we had the pleasure of chasing them all the way back to New York!” Father recounted for his family around the dinner table several months later. He had been gone for weeks and, as usual, told his family about his exploits his first evening back.
Sybil’s elbows rested on the kitchen table, staring out the window at the barn. Typically, she loved to listen to Father’s stories; but just then, she was thinking about the letter in her pocket. Captain Alexander Hamilton, one of General Washington’s aides, had written to Father, praising him for his quick response to the burning of Danbury. The letter didn’t mention her at all, but Father had said that she deserved to hear the praise for her bravery. Already, she had read the letter four times, amazed that someone as important as Captain Hamilton would think that the militia’s quick response was something worth commending.
“Did ya capture anyone, Father?” Ten-year-old Archie asked admiringly.
“As a matter of fact, we found Captain–“
Knock, knock, knock. Sybil’s heart stopped as it always did when anyone came to the door. Fortunately, people on a manhunt typically didn’t waste time on common curtsy like knocking before entering. “I’ll get it,” she said, grabbing the pistol in the middle of the table before walking to the door.
Peeking out the window, she saw a man facing away from her, tricorner hat in hand. Two more men sat on horses beyond the fence, one holding the reigns to a third horse. All three of the men wore blue uniforms. She sighed in relief before calling back to the kitchen, “There are three of them, and they’re from the Continental army!”
Father was by her side in a moment. “By heavens,” he said, glancing out the window, “That’s George Washington!” He threw open the door and stepped to the side. “General Washington,” he bowed slightly as their tall guest walked inside. “Please, come in. This is my daughter, Sybil,” Father gestured to her before turning to the doorway to the kitchen, where Mama was standing. “And my wife Abigail.”
Mama curtsied. “It’s an honor, General.”
“The honor is mine, Mistress Ludington,” General Washington drawled with a bow. “Colonel Ludington, I’m here about your march on Danbury. I understand that Captain Hamilton sent you a letter a couple weeks ago commending your leadership skills, but I have since discovered that there is one other person that deserves recognition.” He looked down at Sybil. “Miss Ludington, I owe you a debt of gratitude for what you did that night. Thanks to you, your father’s men and others like them limited the damage that General Tryon meant inflict on the Connecticut and New York countryside. The British paid dearly for destroying Danbury, and it’s largely because of you.” He extended his hand to her.
Sybil shook it dumbly. Never in her wildest dreams did she think that General Washington would take notice of her. “Th-thank you, sir. I-I just did my part, though,” She stammered. “Anyone would have done the same.”
General Washington smiled. “Modesty and humility are beautiful virtues, especially when demonstrated by the fairer sex. However, don’t underestimate your achievement. When I heard what you had done, you were described as the female Paul Revere.” Sybil grinned, her face warming at his comparison. “But the fact is that Master Revere only rode about twenty miles in clear weather, and was even able to stop half-way to sup with Master Hancock. Your route was twice that, in inclement weather, and lasted the entire night. I think that even he would admit that your exploits were more daring and impressive.”
I was unable to find the names of any of Sybil’s contacts, therefore Zebadiah Paterson, Reverend Pruitt, and Captain Farrow are fictional names. However, the parts they played in this historic venture were very real.
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For Further Exploration…
Sybil’s Story from Sybil Ludington: The Call to Arms by V. T. Dacquino
Sybil Ludington by Historic Patterson, New York
Sybil Ludington by Pioneer Times USA
Sybil Ludington by Esther Pavao
Ludington’s Ride Map by Women’s History Month
Cowboys and Skinners by Encyclopedia.com