The smoke lifted through the air as the houses burned, undoubtedly seen across the border in Dutchess County, New York. Earlier that day 2,000 British soldiers, marching from Fairfield, Connecticut under the command of Willian Tryon, Royal Governor of New York and Major General of the Provincials, had arrived in Danbury. Searching for rebel weapons and supplies, they would start to mark the homes of Loyalists. It wasn’t just that were going to deprive the enemy of guns and food. No, they were going to send a message. The unmarked homes, homes of Patriots would be set on fire.
As word reached Colonel Henry Ludington, commander of the local militia, fresh returned from a three-day ride with his troops to shore up supplies, a sinking feeling had to come over him. The Patriots had only recently moved their supplies to Danbury in the belief that they would be safe there. Now they gone. Worse yet though, the veteran of the French and Indian Wars had to know that it was only a matter of time before the British Army crossed the border. Had the 400 men under his command been assembled they could perhaps, at the very least, put up a fight. But they weren’t. They were furloughed, on leave at their homes, believing little, if nothing had changed. He had to gather the troops. Yet the messenger who brought word at about nine that evening didn’t know the terrain, not well enough to bring word to the men scattered throughout the county.
No, this task had to fall on the shoulders of someone who knew the territory and terrain, someone who knew the homes and the families along the road.The task would fall on the shoulders of the oldest of Colonel Ludington’s eight children, the 16 year old Sybil.
Fiercely independent, she had watched her father train and drill his soldiers, and felt her own patriotism to the cause grow. Brave beyond her years, she had often served as a sentinal for her father. More than that though she knew the countryside, well versed in the terrain and the towns a messenger would have to ride. She would be the only choice.
As the rain fell amidst the thundering of that night on April 26th, 1777 she would mount her horse with her father’s musket at her side, and she would ride. She would ride hard into the night. The ground beneath would have been soft and murky, having stormed all day, but she wouldn’t let it slow her. Her route would take her as far south as Mahopac and then to the North to Stormville. A treacherous path, she not only would have to avoid loyalists, but also roaming bandits with no allegiance to either side of the war.
Yet she would be undeterred and undaunted. Not even the attack of a highwayman she would have to fend off would stop her. As she reached Carmel yelling “The British are burning Danbury” the Church bells would ring the alarm. Knowing the treacherous road she faced one of the men of Carmel would offer to ride the rest of the route with her. She knew the territory, and she had no fear for what might come. Dispatching him to spread word to the East, with the words “Tell them to join my father at Ludington Mill”, she would continue alone.
Even as she rode word would reach Tryon that the Revolutionary forces were on the move. By this point, having found supply of whiskey, order broke down as the British troops stumbled through the streets of Danbury, looting homes as the people of the town watched in horror. Knowing that it wouldn’t be long before General David Wooster, and General Benedict Arnold arrived from Bethel, Tryon ordered they burn even more of the houses. The sky would burn orange into the night as the smoke lifted higher. Yet what they would soon find is that Arnold and Wooster were not their only problems as Ludington’s men began to assemble.
In the course of that night, through mud and mist, rain and dark, against all obstacles, Sybil would cover forty miles before returning home in the early hours of that morning.
Just over two years to the day of Paul Revere’s famous ride into the countryside of Boston she had rode twice as far to raise up the 400 men that would chase the British as they hurriedly exited Danbury that morning. Though they would not be able to save Danbury from the British they would be a part of the larger forces that would engage them at the strategic American victory at the Battle of Ridgefield. A short time later Colonel Ludington would receive praise from General Alexander Hamilton for his efforts, writing, “I congratulate you on the Danbury expedition. The stores destroyed have been purchased at a pretty high price to the enemy” with his daughter receiving personal notes of thank you from both the Comte Rochambeau and General Washington.
Never really claiming her share of the glory a short time later she would slowly fade to the realm of the obscure, a part of lost history of the American Revolution, for over 100 years. Even today, while names like Paul Revere or William Dawes invoke a stir, hers remains largely unknown in the pantheon of early American heroes.