With all due respect to Paul Revere, the most famous midnight rider in American history may have been a teenage girl named Sybil Ludington.
The story goes that during this month, 245 years ago, 16-year-old Ludington heard fighting and saw flames in Danbury, CT, from her home in what was then southern Dutchess County (now Putnam County). The daughter (and oldest of 12 children) of a militia colonel named Henry Ludington, Sybil mounted her horse and, in the darkness of night, rode 40 miles through neighboring towns to alert her father’s sleeping troops of the Red Coats’ attack and prod them to defend Danbury, the site of a Continental Army weapon depot. Although the militia arrived too late to save it, they did force the British troops to retreat to their ships, harbored in Long Island Sound.
Like many legends, there are some holes, most notably detected by historian Paula Hunt in a 2015 New England Quarterly article. For one, there’s no evidence that the event occurred; Sybil’s story wasn’t reported anywhere until over a century later in an 1880 book on New York history. Although author Martha J. Lamb based her recounting in part on correspondence with Ludington’s family, newspapers at the time suggested the militia already knew that the British were advancing without any mention of a teen messenger.
Yet the narrative—whether true or not—has become real thanks to persistent retellings and embellishments, such as the poem written by Berton Braley in 1940, in the style of Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of a lovely feminine Paul Revere // Who rode an equally famous ride / Through a different part of the countryside, // Where Sybil Ludington’s name recalls / A ride as daring as that of Paul’s.”
Sybil Ludington is grandly commemorated with a bronze statue on the shores of Lake Gleneida in Carmel, a permanent reminder of her heroic role in Revolutionary War history. As Hunt wrote, “The story of the lone, teenage girl riding for freedom, it seems, is simply too good not to be believed.”