Honoring a Local Hero: Sybil Ludington, Revolutionary War Heroine

I had a free day today, a rare thing, so my fiancé and I decided to take a drive. I had wanted to find and visit the grave of Sybil Ludington (April 5, 1761 – February 26, 1839) ever since a friend told me a couple of weeks ago that she was buried in Patterson, NY (a town only about twenty five minutes from my home). So this afternoon, after running all of our errands we set out to find the cemetery. It was a beautiful autumn day, perfect day for a drive, and I was excited from the very beginning by the sudden, startling glimpses of orange, saffron, and gold that I finally started to see, breaking out from amongst the green.

We made good time to Route 311, and I stopped at the first Presbyterian Church that I found. My friend had told me she was buried in the cemetery right across from it. That cemetery had a heavy chain over the opening in the wrought iron fence, but I ducked right under, took offerings of fresh water and apples and started walking the graves, paying my respects. It was lovely, well maintained, and very peaceful. It was not however, the correct cemetery. After looking at all the gravestones that could possibly be from the nineteenth century, I left my offerings, pouring out the water (taking the container with me), and got back into the car. Sybil was nowhere to be found.

My partner suggested that we keep driving. It was a nice day and maybe there was another church and cemetery farther along. He is a wise man. After another maybe ten minutes, we drove past an Episcopal Church actually in Patterson and low and behold, there was a marker commemorating the Revolutionary War heroes: Henry Ludington and his daughter Sybil.

Ludington marker on street

My friend had been correct: there was a Presbyterian church right across the street too. I saw two workmen doing repairs on the church and asked one of them, who turned out to be very sweet and very helpful, if he knew where Sybil Ludington’s grave was. He said he’d only been there three weeks and wasn’t sure. Then as I thanked him, he thought for a moment and pointed off to our left, saying that an awful lot of people come to photograph there so it’s probably that way. He was right and within seconds I was standing in front of Sybil’s grave.

sybil luddington grave1

(note the different spelling Sybil vs. Sibbell. The spelling of names really wasn’t standardized in the US until the early 20th century with the advent of social security and the need for consistent record keeping. One source  notes that she preferred to spell her name Sebal!)

Firstly, it’s meticulously kept, which was a joy to see. In fact, this cemetery is a lovely, serene place, obviously used to visitors. Secondly, both Sybil’s grave and her father’s were marked with several flags, and her father had special markers, one affixed to his stone, and one in the ground next to it, naming him as a Revolutionary War soldier. I like that. It’s right and proper. I was happy to see them remembered in such a manner.

father grave

Sybil is there with her family. To her left is a woman whose stone was a bit too difficult for me to read, but I did note that the last name was Ludington. Then there is her father’s grave, and to his left, her mother’s.

mother grave

It was lovely. I knelt and poured out the water that I had brought as offering and thanked her for her service, for her courage, and told her that she was an inspiration for many of us today. I said that I would write about her, and tell more people about her act of valor during the war and it seemed to me that she was pleased. (Yes, I talk to the dead and sometimes they answer). I didn’t stay too long after that, but took a few photographs, thanked the workmen, and went back to the car to start on the way home. We actually followed the path that she rode for at least a half hour, maybe longer before veering off.

For those who don’t know who Sybil Ludington is, and are reading this going “What’s the big deal? What did she do?” let me give a little background.

Sybil and her father lived about 25 miles from the town of Danbury Connecticut in 1777 when the Revolutionary War had been raging for about a year. Her dad was a colonel in the local militia and had also fought in the French and Indian War of 1756. On the night of April 26, 1777, her father received word that the British forces had landed in Connecticut and were attacking. Because she knew the area, and where the majority of militia were located, Sybil mounted her horse Star and set off around 9pm to rouse them to muster. She rode over forty miles (longer than Paul Revere and in worse weather!), alone and in the dark. She was sixteen years old and she rode through dawn of the next day, eluding both British patrols in the area and British loyalists. One source (This site says that after she warned the militia in Carmel, one of the militiamen offered to ride with her but she turned him down, instead telling him to go to the town of Brewster to warn people there. This, dear readers, is valor.

Colonel Ludington and his troops did not arrive in time to save Danbury but they did fight the British troops out of the area. After the battle of Danbury, George Washington himself came to the Ludington home to thank Sybil for her service and courage.

I think it’s important to remember our local heroes, even if we are not related to them by blood. It’s part of building a strong, vibrant community rooted in the wisdom and experience of the past, reaching toward a healthy future. We need strong roots to blossom. I talk about this a little bit in my opening piece in Walking the Worlds (issue 2). This is regional cultus and it’s crucial toward building a strong tradition.

So find out who your local heroes are. Learn about them, learn their stories and why they are considered so relevant, so important. It’s shared community building and that’s a good thing.

Here are a few more links about Sybil Ludington:

  1. there’s a rather nice write up at her entry at findagrave.com.
  2. The national women’s history museum provides this bio.
  3. And here is the American national bio.

ludington episcopal church

(all photos are mine, taking September 28, 2015. Please do not use without permission)

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Bringing Our Dead Home

This is a long article, but it’s worth reading all the way through. This is so important. It’s also hitting a very personal nerve with me.

My grandfather wandered away in 1991 (he was estranged from the rest of the family but had a primary care giver) and died of hypothermia in Carlisle, PA. He most likely had dementia. I was 19 at the time and had never met him. My family didn’t talk about him. I found this out only in my forties when I started doing genealogy research into my family. I was surprised and it has rather eerie parallels with other events in my life. He was found after a rather short period of time and easily identified but there are so many factors that could have ensured that wasn’t the case. My grandfather could be lying in an unmarked John Doe grave right now, unmarked, unmourned, and unremembered. .. and even if our ancestors were less than we hoped, it’s important to remember them, to listen to their stories both good and bad, to learn from them. It would have been so easy for my grandfather to have ended up a missing person, unidentified for decades more. Fortunately for him that was not the case, but others have not been so lucky.

We have an obligation as human beings to bring our dead home, to give them names, to remember their stories. It is up to us to speak for the dead, as hopefully someone will one day speak for us. This is all the more important when they die of violence, names and families unknown. We are called upon to bring them home.

There are organizations that do this. In addition to the ones mentioned in the above article, there’s the Doe Network , volunteers from memory vigil programs, groups like History Flight dedicated to bringing WWII airmen home. There are men and women all over the world who give precious hours and days, weeks, months, and years of their lives to bringing our lost and forgotten dead home, to restoring to them their names, their stories, and their families. I would like to encourage all of my readers to look to what you can do in your communities to support such work. Start a fundraiser, donate your time, encourage others to research. Whatever we can do for the dead benefits our own humanity.

Another Book Recommendation

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Speaking of books, I also found this book mesmerizing. It’s a lyrical, at times confessional read written by the late Denise Inge. I was intensely moved by this woman’s words. I initially picked up the book because I am working on a book on pilgrimage and I wanted to read accounts of people who had made a similar journey to the one I took in July. There was almost nothing, save this book, available. I started reading it because, just as I did, she made a personal pilgrimage to four ossuaries. The first two stops on her journey, were the first two on mine: Czermna and Sedlec. In her case, she was journeying to face the fear of her own mortality summoned forth when she discovered that she lived in a parish house that held an ossuary in its basement (I would be in absolute heaven were I so fortunate as to be gifted with care of an ossuary!).

While she and I may have stepped in the same places, submitted ourselves to experience of the same skulls and bones, our responses were markedly different. She wrestled with terror and I was brought to my knees by sublimity; at the same time her language is thoughtful and introspective and it made me more thoughtful and introspective about my pilgrimage too. I wish I could have had the opportunity to speak with her about her pilgrimage and mine and all the places we might have met in the middle. There is a simplicity in bone after all that reflects back everything we do not wish to allow ourselves to see. There is a profound truth in the stark realities of bone. She talks of the bare beauty of bone and my heart sings.

“The dead are not far from us, they cling in some strange way to what is most still and deep within us.” – W.B. Yeats

Two Book Recommendations

Here are two awesome books about ossuaries and decorated skeletons–the Catacomb Saints so popular during the Counter-Reformation. I cannot recommend these books highly enough. The author has done an invaluable service in bringing these beauties to light once more. He approaches them as works of art — which I agree, they are—but opens the door to tasting and touching again the breath of the sacred, something ineffably profound, that led to their construction in the first place, and with that, a glimpse, perhaps a means toward reclaiming our sense of enchantment in the world.

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Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris

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The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris