THE WIND IN HER HAIR:
"But she was too tired when she got home,
to realize the worth of the deed she had done."
Marjorie Barstow Greenbie
Putnam County, New York 1777
On a cold and cloudless winter night, Sybil Ludington blew out the candle in her brother’s bedroom and fearfully tightened her grip on her rifle’s stock. She leaned forward and peered out the large window; a deep darkness had enveloped the whole of her father’s grounds. There was no moon that night, nothing at all to see by. She strained anyway, looking south, out past the house and into the extended lot. Nothing but craggy black shapes, which she knew—prayed—to be trees. She pulled back, leaving the window ajar, so as to hear any ominous sound. She tiptoed out of the room, the floor boards creaking, trying not to wake her six younger siblings or her mother, who was sleeping with the newest baby, two month old Abigail; and with a solemn nod she joined her waiting sister in the hall.
The news had at first come as a shock, but the longer she dwelled on it, the more she realized the inevitability of British soldiers coming after her father. Not only was he a colonel, not only was he protector of crucial Patriot supplies, not only was he the key to conquering the strategic Hudson Highlands, but, above all, he used to be one of them. A Loyalist. The utmost vengeance, Sybil had come to learn in her short, hard life, was always reserved for one of your own. Indeed, General Howe himself had placed the bounty on her father’s head: 300 guineas. A shocking sum. Enough to buy their whole town.
It all started the summer before. General Howe had landed on Staten Island with 9,000 troops; with him, under his brother’s command, came a British fleet from Halifax and an armada of 130 warships and transports. By mid August 1776, 32,000 fully equipped, highly trained British and German soldiers had taken Staten Island and proceeded to invade Long Island.
General George Washington immediately saw the danger. He knew that saving Long Island was hopeless at this point, but he also knew that supplies were in as much demand as men, and if he could save their critical stash of food and ammunition in White Plains—which surely the British were aiming for—then he could at least have a partial victory, and would be able to rally for a comeback at a later date. Without it, the entire Northeast could be in jeopardy. He called upon the Patriot’s most skilled defender of supplies—Colonel Ludington—to defend this most critical stash. Ludington obliged. Despite a terrible and bloody defeat at White Plains, the supplies remained virtually untouched. Immediately following the battle, General Howe put a price on Ludington’s head, dead or alive.
Sybil and her sister strained their eyes in the darkness. Though their property was a sprawling 230 acres, much of it was wooded. The clearing in the back stretched to about half an acre, gently sloping, leading to a stream, on the other side of which stood thick woods. From her vantage point at the window, she could see her father’s gristmill and the corral, the only other structures on the property. It was possible the enemy could be hiding behind these, but unlikely: should anyone approach due east, the horses were sure to make noise. No, they would come from here—from the south.
Sybil was fighting sleep when she heard the sound of breaking twigs and cracking ice; she came to attention and listened. Hurried footsteps followed, scurrying over the frozen, winter earth. The sounds came from the gristmill. She leaned forward, heart pounding, and saw silhouettes of armed dark figures emerging slowly from behind its walls. Muffled, urgent voices followed. A never ending supply of men seemed to creep out from behind the building. They were heading for the house.
She could feel the muscles in her body tighten. Bounding up the stairs, she ran for Rebecca, but saw Rebecca running for her. Her heart sank even more. This could only mean they were approaching from the back, too. Noises suddenly rose up all around them, confirming what she already knew: she and her family were surrounded.
Quickly lighting candles in every room, Sybil and Rebecca ran noisily throughout the house, waking their ten younger brothers and sisters. They shoved weapons and candles in their hands, yanking them out of their beds. They dropped the younger ones in front of windows and bid the older ones to pace, guns held high, as they had rehearsed. Sybil ran to her post. As she watched, the men seemed to slow and then stop, looking at the windows. Their noises died down. They now seemed unsure.
Sybil raised her musket with a shaking hand and leaned it against her shoulder as her father had taught her. She squatted, aimed the rifle to the sky, and held her breath. She squeezed the trigger. The shot crackled with a deafening noise, and the kick knocked her back to the floor. She scrambled to her knees and looked out the window. The men were running.
Records indicate that Sybil had in fact spotted Ichobod Prosser and his men, a notorious Tory who had come after her father in hopes of the reward. His band of Tories, estimated at some 50 men strong, had been armed and had planned to abduct the colonel, torture him, bring him back, collect the reward and watch as he was put to death. After seeing the many windows light up in the colonel’s home and the figures marching in almost every window, they had second thoughts. Years later, when they learned that it was, in fact, Sybil and her siblings, they confessed to be “ignorant of how they had been foiled by clever girls.” (1)
Sybil’s ruse had worked and was the beginning of a “constant care and thoughtfulness towards her father that prevented the fruition of many an intrigue against his life and capture.” (2)
Arriving in 1761 as a staunch Loyalist, Henry Ludington served in the French and Indian war as part of the 2nd Regiment of Connecticut troops in the service of the King. He also fought in the Battle of Lake George. But by the mid 1770s, Ludington’s loyalty to the King was shaken, as was many of his neighbors’ and friends’. This was not particularly unusual, as many colonists were becomingly increasingly angered and dismayed by the continual taxation heaped upon them by the British. Voices were starting to be heard decrying the notion of “taxation without representation.” Newspapers printed many stories of abuse by British soldiers towards Americans. Many loyalists began to question their commitment to a King who was so heavy-handed, so petrified of his subjects yearning for a small degree of self-determination. Many, including Henry Ludington, began to embrace the idea of independence. In 1775, Henry Ludington officially broke from the King, renouncing his position in the Royal army. His reputation preceding him, he was immediately embraced by General George Washington, who needed men exactly like him.
It was 1776 when Henry Ludington was named colonel and given a regiment in Dutchess County along what was then the most direct route between Connecticut and the Long Island Sound. It was a strategic site and one of the most crucial for the Patriots. The Hudson Highlands were the key to defending a huge territory. If they fell, the entire northeast could be divided. It was also the most dangerous area to defend: sandwiched on both sides by deep and dense woods, the small province of Fredericksburg was easy prey to gangs of Tories and Royalists on the one side and small bands of rogues on the other. The townsfolk were increasingly harassed, threatened, and robbed by these outlaws, sometimes even kidnapped and killed.
Ludington’s regiment consisted of 400 men, all farmers whose homes were scattered about the sparsely settled area of the nearby towns. He was forced to bring them into active and constant service, although none were professional soldiers and some resented the duty. The system of communication was poor, and weapons and supplies rudimentary.
Colonel Ludington’s importance in the small precinct of Fredericksburg grew gradually over the years. He and his wife went on to have twelve children, the oldest daughter, Sybil, born in 1761. By all accounts, Sybil was a feisty, independent girl who spent her childhood tending to her many younger siblings. From the time she was old enough for chores, Sybil worked in her home sewing, weaving, cleaning, cooking-- embracing all the domesticity required of her sex. Never given a formal education as were her brothers, Sybil did learn to read and write, though not exceptionally. Education was apparent in the Ludington home, for the children were literate; but its value and importance was measured with the boys and almost nonexistent with Sybil and her sisters. Sybil’s brothers were sent to school and practiced their lessons at home; Sybil and her sisters, on the other hand, were educated in domesticity, reared for their expected roles as mothers and wives. Besides, a house filled with twelve children could only spare so much time for reading and writing, and this usually took place around the hearth, with the whole family assembled together at night.
Sybil was impatient with education anyway; her real love was the outdoors, horses, and her father’s activities. In fact, her mother commented more than once that her oldest was quite a tomboy. In what little spare time she had, Sybil rode horseback, becoming quite expert at it, riding both straight and astride, surprising those who knew her with her speed, agility, and love for it. She would ride her father’s big bay, a husky male thoroughbred, traveling the many fields and paths through the woods and on into neighboring towns. At age 15 she was given her own horse, a one- year old colt she named Star (for the white patch on his nose). Watching his daughter ride horseback, with her hearty laughter and seeming abandon, her long auburn hair flying away in the wind, her father more than once marveled at Sybil’s independence.
When her father was given his own regiment, Sybil would spend hours watching him train his militia on the farm. Observing throughout the entire summer, fall, and winter of 1776, she developed a deeper understanding of what was at stake for all of them. With a keen and interested eye, she learned about her father’s men, frequently journeying with them to their homes or on some errand, and found herself increasingly emboldened by their patriotism. Sybil yearned to take part in the events surrounding her. On the night of April 26, 1777, she found a way to do just that.