Listen to the tale of a truly remarkable person – someone brave and fierce and a true patriot – someone who loves their country very much. The date is April 26, 1777, in rural New York. It is spring. Farmers are in their fields preparing the land for new crops. The sun glimmers across green pastures and small wooden homes surrounded by picket fences. In the middle of town, a gleaming white church with a heavy bell tolls the afternoon hour. But this is no ordinary day. This is a truly momentous day. On this day, New York is invaded by British soldiers. Two years earlier, the British attacked Massachusetts, setting Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride to warn citizens of the invading army by sea.
Now, Danbury, New York, is being invaded by sea. And who will warn the citizens of this invasion and help save the city? A rugged farmer? A battle-trained officer? A seasoned spy? NO! The hero of this story is a 16-year-old girl! Sybil Ludington is a spunky teenager living on a farm in Paterson, NY, with her parents and 12 siblings. She is strong and lively – she has to be with that many family members to support and feed! She works the farm with her family after school and becomes an expert horsewoman. She loves to ride through the hills and trails around her home. Her favorite horse is called Star and they go everywhere – into town for supplies, across the rolling green hills of neighboring farms, or through the deep woods. She loves riding in the fall when the forests are aflame with red, gold, and orange leaves. Now it is spring and tiny green leaves are just sprouting from trees. The days are crisp and sunny; the nights cold and moonlit.
Colonel Henry Ludington
This day, April 26, 1777, starts out like any other with chores to be completed and a riot of noisy siblings to supervise and feed. Sybil’s father, Colonel Henry Ludington, is a farmer. He is also the commander of local militiamen and volunteers who guard the towns. They are called “Citizen Soldiers” and they help the Colonial Army in times of need, such as battles with the British. These 400 New York Citizen Soldiers are ordinary folk – farmers and shopkeepers and local workmen. They do not own fancy military supplies or uniforms. They carry old muskets used by their fathers and grandfathers.
Evening arrives and the sun sinks below the trees. A knock is heard on the Ludington door. Sybil’s father, the Colonel, opens the door to find a panting and exhausted rider leaning against the doorframe. He quickly tells the colonel that the British have invaded Danbury, 25 miles away, and the city is under attack. They must stop the British from taking over the city and surrounding towns.
The rider and his horse are exhausted; they can go no further. The Colonel knows he must send a new rider to warn his neighbors and rally them to Danbury’s aid. But who to send? He knows he must stay at his farm to command the troops and march to Danbury. Sixteen-year-old Sybil, who has been listening to this discussion, quickly volunteers to make the dangerous ride. Her mother argues, stating the woods at night are no place for a young girl. Who would help her if she was knocked off her horse by a hanging tree branch or fell into a shadowy ditch? Sybil argues that she knows the woods like the back of her hands and has never fallen from her trusty horse, Star. She can do this – she knows she can. Besides, her siblings are too young and they certainly aren’t as good on a horse! The colonel thinks about it and convinces his wife to let Sybil ride.
Sybil is ecstatic – and a little nervous, too. She races around the house, gathering a coat and her father’s musket. Next, she dashes to the stable and saddles Star. The last thing she does is pick up a long, sturdy branch. She can use it to whack on the doors of homes while saying on her horse, saving valuable time during the long, dark ride. She has no lamp or torch; she will have to ride by moonlight and memory.
Sybil Sets Off
She jumps on Star, yells farewell to her family, and gallops away, racing across their fields into the woods beyond. Her first stop is her neighbor. She races into their yard. Their lights are still on. She bangs her stick against the door and yells the news: The British are attacking Danbury; everyone needs to meet at her father’s farm. And off she rides to the next house, and the next, and the next.
The night gets colder and her fingers tingle on the reins. She has to keep a firm grip or risk falling off Star and not completing the ride. She has warned all her neighbors in Paterson. She must now ride to the neighboring towns of Carmel, Mahopac, Kent Cliffs, Stormville, and Peckville. She and Star race into more forests, following familiar dirt trails. It is pitch dark and Star suddenly rears and whinnies. A dark figure jumps out of the woods and demands money. Sybil grabs her musket, heart pounding, and points the barrel at the man, telling him she will shoot if she has to. The man can tell she is serious and darts away. Sybil looks behind her. She can see flames rising from Danbury and can smell smoke in the chilly night air. She must hurry.
Sybil Spreads the News
On Sybil races with Star. Door after door, and town after town, they spread the news that the British are here! She rides all night, a total of 40 miles, twice the distance covered by Paul Revere in Massachusetts two years earlier!
She arrives home at dawn, shaking and exhausted. Scores of men have gathered at her father’s farm and marched to Danbury, driving the British back to the coast. During the night, the British destroyed many of the town’s food, weapons, and supplies, including cots, boots, and tents. They drank barrels of rum and set the town on fire. However, the brave militia from neighboring towns pushed the British back to the coast and stopped them from advancing any further or invading more towns. New York is saved – and much of it is owed to 16-year-old Sybil Ludington and her courageous midnight ride.
Sybil Ludington may not be as famous as Paul Revere; however, she is just as heroic. Many are amazed that such a young girl could ride 40 miles alone in total darkness without getting lost or hurt during a momentous invasion. Due to Sybil’s bravery, horsemanship, and courage, she saved many towns and people that night.
After her famous ride, she returned to farm life, helped raise her siblings, then married and had one child Henry. She worked on her husband’s farm and started an inn. She passed away at 78 years old.
A statute now stands in the center of Paterson, NY, showing a teenage girl astride a charging horse, her arm raised and her ponytail flying. Every year, Sybil’s ancestors hold a celebration at the statue to honor her historic ride.
What do you think of Sybil and her midnight ride to save rural New York? Can you imagine riding a horse alone for 40 miles through dark forests riddled with thieves and deserters? Today people can spread news in seconds thanks to cell phones, social media, and the web.
I think this story tells us that anyone can be a hero, no matter how young or old, male or female. Every person has worth, and skills, and value. By doing what is right and acting in the service of others, people can achieve great things. When you are feeling sad or unsure or afraid, think of Sybil and her midnight ride. How can you tap into YOUR strengths and pursue YOUR midnight ride?