J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sybil Ludington: woman of legend

In February, I gave a paper on "grandmothers' tales" about Revolutionary heroes at the University of Connecticut. (See this earlier posting for download instructions if you're inclined.) Since state resources seemed to be paying for my hotel room (and a nice room it turned out to be), I decided I should include a Connecticut example. I was also hoping to find a few more examples of good stories from the Revolution that also had good historical documentation.

So I dug into the story of Sybil Ludington. I'd first heard about her from a publishing colleague who's a Ludington by birth, but Sybil's story has now been told in many a website, children's book, and episode of Liberty's Kids. She was the sixteen-year-old eldest child of Henry Ludington, a militia colonel in Dutchess County, New York. On 26 April 1777, British troops raided the Connecticut town of Danbury, destroying supplies for the Continental Army and some houses. An exhausted rider carried word of the British landing to Col. Ludington. Sybil volunteered to ride on through the stormy night to summon his militiamen from their farms. She thus allowed them and her father to participate in a counterattack the next day.

As I noted in my paper, this story has a pleasing structure: an individual protagonist, clear goal and obstacles, and success. For the purposes of inspiring children, it featured a young person—and a young woman at that. But was that how events actually unfolded in 1777, or the shape into which storytellers had (wittingly or unwittingly) massaged those events in subsequent years?

So I looked for the earliest version of Sybil Ludington's tale. All paths seemed to lead back to a single book: Colonel Henry Ludington: A Memoir, written by Willis Fletcher Johnson and published in 1907. There aren't a lot of copies of that book around, and as I searched for one I kept seeing red flags. The biography was published by two of Col. Ludington's grandchildren, not an independent press. Although Johnson wrote other histories, he did so as a writer for hire, not an independent researcher. (He also wrote several political biographies.) And of course it's not a good sign when the earliest published source for a story dates from 125 years after the event.

Last week I tracked down a copy of that book at the New-York Historical Society (a copy donated by one of the Ludingtons who published it). Johnson's introduction states:

The most copious and important data have been secured from the manuscript collections of two of Henry Ludington’s descendants, Mr. Lewis S. Patrick, of Marinette, Wisconsin, who has devoted much time and painstaking labor to the work of searching for and securing authentic information of his distinguished ancestor, and Mr. Charles Henry Ludington, of New York, who has received many valuable papers and original documents and records from a descendant of Sibyl Ludington Ogden, Henry Ludington’s first-born child.
So for a moment things were looking up: Sybil or her children left "valuable papers and original documents and records." Did they include a first- or second-hand account of her ride in 1777? Yet Johnson's information on Sybil also had big holes: he didn't have solid evidence about the first name of her husband, referring to him as Edward, Edmund, or Henry Osgood. Johnson also consistently spelled her name as "Sibyl," apparently relying on a page from the family Bible, while most authors today use "Sybil." Her gravestone says "Sibbell," and gives her husband's name as "Edmond."

Alas, when I read Johnson's description of Sybil's ride, I found no quotations from those "original documents" or citations of them. The same applied to all the book's other anecdotes about her activities during the Revolution. Apparently Johnson based those accounts on what his introduction calls "some oral traditions of whose authenticity there is substantial evidence"—though he described none of that evidence nor how those traditions came to him.

Furthermore, when Johnson did present documentation, his analysis went well beyond what those records support. He reprinted celebrated spy Enoch Crosby's 1832 pension application, which mentions Col. Ludington twice among other contacts and American officers. But then he added unsupported statements that Ludington "furnished numerous other members of the Secret Service," and sent their reports "to the Committee of Safety and some to the headquarters of General Washington." (The Library of Congress's online collection of George Washington's papers turns up three likely references to Col. "Luddington" from 1779 on, none involving espionage.) Johnson wrote that Sybil and her sister "were also privy to Crosby’s doings, and had a code of signals, by means of which they frequently admitted him in secrecy and safety to the house." Yet Crosby's pension application, which was required by law to state details about his Revolutionary service and commanding officers, said nothing about taking frequent refuge in Col. Ludington's house.

In short, I have to classify the story of Sybil Ludington as legend, not a documented Revolutionary event. Maybe she rode to alert the county militia in April 1777, and did the other things that Johnson's book ascribes to her. But maybe, like other grandmothers I discussed in my paper, she told inspiring but not necessarily accurate stories to her children (or to customers at her tavern), never intending that they'd end up in the collections of the New-York Historical Society and similar organizations.

The thin evidence in Johnson's book and elsewhere hasn't stopped twentieth-century Sybil Ludington fans from spinning off new statements about her. Though Johnson and his sources never stated the length or route of her ride, there are now maps of it. The Danbury library has a 1961 statue of her. Some accounts give her horse the name Star, and include direct quotes of what she yelled as she rode. But does any version cite sources for that information that go back more than one century?

ADDENDUM: How did the Ludingtons affect the Danbury raid?


Unknown said...

I have a connection to the Sybil Ludington statue on the shore of Lake Gleneida in Carmel, NY, and the replica of the statue in the Sewell-Belmont House in Washington, DC. I would be glad to learn more from you about your research into this remarkable young woman.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, as you can see in this posting and the next, I’m not convinced that Sybil Luddington was that remarkable. At least, the evidence for her fabled ride is slight, and its effect minor. I see her as a revealing symbol of how 20th-century America was ready for a physically active female heroine.

wavelengths said...

I have done a report about her but now i have a Historical Fiction to do so now i'm choosing to do it on her again... yes you "J.L. Bell" she is a remarkable brave woman that chose to ride by HERSELF

J. L. Bell said...

In this posting I quoted a Continental Army officer’s memoir about a young female spy in December 1777.

That’s an eyewitness account of a desperate ride by a brave young woman, in contrast to the Sybil Ludington story, which appeared in print only 125 years after the event with no sources specified. Furthermore, the spy was in danger of being captured by the enemy on top of the risk of falling off the horse.

While we don’t know the spy’s name or mission, those unknowns actually create an opportunity for someone writing historical fiction.

Kiki said...

sybil is very intresting. i disagree that she is not so remarkable. she has done so much and i find that she is very brave. i am doing a porject on her. and i have come to this site many times.

Anonymous said...

im writing a paper on sybil ludington in school and we have to find 45 facts about someone famous (oviously i picked her) and there is a only 20 facts i found about her and we need childhood, teenage years/ why there famous, and adulthood
there isnt much on sybil ludington

J. L. Bell said...

No, there aren’t. Pretty much all we know comes from this book, and I don’t think it’s fully reliable.

Samuel Wilson said...

There are pre-1907 references to the Ludington girls, though not many. The earliest I've found is in Martha J. Lamb's History of the City of New York which dates back to the early 1880s. It mention the ride on page 160 (google away) and reports on page 212 that Sibyl and her sister Rebecca served as or pretended to be armed guards to ward off Loyalist attacks on the Colonel. Lamb's sources for these stories are unclear, but a few writers between 1880 and 1907 referred to the ride with Lamb as their source. The question now becomes where or from whom Lamb got her information.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that reference! The 1880 edition I found on Google Books was digitized in 2010, which explains why Google didn’t find it for me when I wrote this post.

Now indeed to analyze Lamb’s possible sources. Personally, I suspect the story was something Sibbell Edmond told to customers at her tavern, quite possibly based on a real event but growing, either in her retelling or others’, over the years. Lamb’s version is actually much more solid than Johnson’s.

James Kabala said...

The links from eleven years ago are now dead, but the legend lives on in Sybil's terrible Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sybil_Ludington My favorite (so to speak) part is the set of eight footnotes to back up a claim that Washington personally thanked Sybil - all from websites or children's books, at least one clearly plagiarized from one of the others, and one anachronistically claiming that Rochambeau was also present! Most Wikipedia articles these days are pretty good, but on niche topics some really bad stuff does slip through.

James Kabala said...

P.S. Another interesting point is that at some point the legend (at least in the Wikipedia version) moved Sibyl's ride from after the attack on Danbury to before it.

James Kabala said...

Since I wrote the above, the Wikipedia entry has been cleaned up and fixed quite a bit but is still less than ideal.