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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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Going Back to Sybil Ludington

Back in June 2006, less than a month after launching Boston 1775, I wrote my first analysis of the story of Sybil Ludington. I posted a complete quote from Willis Fletcher Johnson’s Colonel Henry Ludington: A Memoir (1907) that November.

Back then, I read that book the old-fashioned way: by tracking down a rare printed copy in a library. Today I don’t even have to stand up to read it. (This does not bode well for my cardiovascular fitness.)

I thought Johnson’s book was the earliest source of the Sybil Ludington tale. He didn’t mention any previous source, and neither did any of the twentieth-century books I’d found about her.

This week, the pseudonymous Samuel Wilson kindly alerted me to an earlier appearance of the story: in the second volume of Martha J. Lamb’s History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, published in 1880. Google Books digitized that volume in 2010.

While describing the British army raid on a Continental storage depot in Danbury, Connecticut, Lamb wrote on pages 159-60:
The country was aroused far and near. [Gen. David] Wooster and [Gen. Benedict] Arnold were both in New Haven on furloughs, but were quickly speeding by a forced march to the rescue, and [Gen. Gold Selleck] Silliman was on the wing. Late in the evening a flying messenger for aid reached Colonel [Henry] Ludington in Carmel, New York, whose men were at their homes scattered over the distance of many miles; no one being at hand to call them, his daughter Sibyl Ludington, a spirited young girl of sixteen, mounted her horse in the dead of night and performed this service, and by breakfast-time the next morning the whole regiment was on its rapid march to Danbury. But the mischief had been accomplished.
Lamb’s book also has versions of the Ludington family tales of Sybil [to use the usual modern spelling, odd as it is] and her sister Rebecca guarding the homestead, “guns in their hands on the piazza,” and of the family hosting spy Enoch Crosby. Both those tales resurface in Johnson’s book.

This makes the Sybil Ludington legend a little more credible because:
  • There’s only a 103-year lag between the ride and the earliest known written description of it, instead of 125 years. (Also in 1907, the story appeared in an issue of The Connecticut Magazine.)
  • Lamb published for a national readership while Johnson published for the Ludington family, an uncritical audience.
  • Lamb didn’t claim that Sybil’s ride turned out to be important, which fits the contemporaneous record. The Danbury raid was a success for the British army, and there still doesn’t seem to be any record of Col. Ludington’s militia unit getting into the fight.
That said, Lamb clearly relied on stories from the Ludington family; she mentioned no other sources, and lauded the colonel. Lamb didn’t cite documents to support most of her statements.

For example, Lamb wrote about Col. Ludington working closely with Gen. George Washington. The family claimed he was an “aide” to the commander at the Battle of White Plains in 1776. But the Ludington name appears in the commander-in-chief’s papers only three times, all after 1778 and all referring to the man’s house, not the man.

Lamb stated that Gen. William Howe offered a “large reward” for Ludington’s capture or killing. Johnson and later authors specified that the reward was 300 guineas. But no one seems to have provided a source for such a specific statement.

So I’m still skeptical until more solid evidence turns up.


Anonymous said...

Have you posted on Abigail (Smith) Stafford being an alarm rider as a young girl on the night of April 18, 1775? Her story is in A Memoir of Mrs. Abigail Stafford and Her Times upon her death on 9 Aug. 1861, published in Proceedings of the New Jersey HIstorical Society, Vol. IX, 1860-1864 (1864), pages 86-90,at pp. 86-87, available on Google Books.

Abigail Smith is also mentioned as a rider in Thomas Sawin and Descendants by Horace Mann, published in A Review of the First Fourteen Years of the Historical, Natural hHistory and Library Society of South Natick, Mass., (1884) pages 52-56 at p.54, also available on Google Books.

I am curious as to whether you think Abigail Smith's story may be true or if it is just an old family story. Have you researched other female riders on the night of April 18-19, 1775?

J. L. Bell said...

Abigail Smith is part of my “Lost and Legendary Riders” talk.

Bottom line: The earliest recordings of that family’s lore have some ring of truth for me but not enough definite details to provide confirmation. However, the family also made some demonstrably false claims about an early flag, complete with a forged document, so their credibility is low.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response. I thought if Abigail Smith's story was true there should be more information about it.

druzhba57 said...

Next thing you know, you'll be teling us the Bedford Flag wasn't carried at the North Bridge, and that Betsy Ross didn't really sew the first US flag! Pop goes the myth, one by one!

J. L. Bell said...

One irony is that the Abigail Smith story could be true in some way, but that we’re extremely wary of it because the family went too far in another tale.

Anonymous said...

It appears Abigail Smith's story is highly improbable since her mother, Phebe Bacon, daughter of Ephraim Bacon, was born on Nov. 3, 1757 and thus was herself only 17 years old in April 1775, according to Thomwas W. Baldwin's Michael Bacon of Dedham, 1640, and his Descendants (Cambridge: 1915) at page 195. It does sound like Abigal Smith's story could be true though, if only her mother was born ten years or so earlier.