James Caldwell was born in April 1734, in Cub Creek in Charlotte County, Virginia. He graduated from Princeton in 1759, and was ordained the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown in 1762. Caldwell served as Third Battalion of Company No. 1, New Jersey Volunteers during the Revolutionary War, and was also Commissary to the troops in New Jersey. He was known as the “fighting parson.”
On January 25, 1780, Reverend Caldwell’s church was burned down by the enemy. He moved his family to the parsonage at Connecticut Farms (now Union), New Jersey so that they might enjoy a safer life. Unfortunately, this was not to pass.
On June 6, 1780, General Knyphausen crossed over from Staten Island into New Jersey with six to seven thousand German soldiers. The goal was to reach Morristown, where the Rebels had their quarters and supplies. On the seventh, Knyphausen’s command marched to Elizabethtown where he drove the Rebel soldiers back. Stephan Popp, a Hessian soldier present at this time, wrote that they “marched close to Springfield, burned down many houses on the way and destroyed very much. On our side many were also killed and wounded.” They retreated by way of Connecticut Farms.
On the retreat, they set fire first to the house of Deacon Caleb Wade, and then the Presbyterian Church. (They also set fire to other buildings.)
The New-Jersey Journal of June 14th reported that Hannah Caldwell, the Reverend’s wife, “with a babe of eight months, and one of three years old, with the housekeeper and a little maid, were left. Mrs. Caldwell having dressed herself, and put her house in order, retired into a back room[….]One of the barbarians advancing around the house, took the advantage of a small space, through which the room was accessable [sic], and fired two balls into that amiable lady, so well directed that they ended her life in a moment.” Hannah was then stripped of part of her clothing and the house pilfered before it was set ablaze. Eleven more houses were also set on fire. The Hessian, Popp, recorded in his diary that three boats of wounded Englishmen and Germans were brought back to New York the following day, while another Hessian soldier reported over 300 killed and wounded.
The British did not take kindly to this defeat, and at the end of the month, they appeared at Elizabethtown, Connecticut Farms and Springfield again. The combined British-Hessian force under Knyphausen, with artillery, was able to push the Americans back to Springfield, but not without losses. It was at Springfield that the Americans ran out of paper wadding to load the bullets into their weapons. Reverend Caldwell went into the Presbyterian Church and came out with as many Isaac Watts hymnals as he could carry. He ran among the troops, handing out the hymnals to them yelling, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!” Caldwell’s heroism and resourcefulness could only last so long; the English and Hessians charged with bayonets and chased the Americans out of Springfield. Springfield was plundered on the orders of the commanding general and was set afire (there were no longer any inhabitants). A Hessian soldier recorded in his diary, “The first fire was set by the English in the beautiful Reformed Church, which, with its steeple, soon was destroyed by the flames, because it was built mostly of wood. Springfield, of sixty or seventy buildings mostly of wood, in a period of half an hour was laid entirely in ashes. Six American men, whose legs had been shot off, unfortunately were burned to death in a house.”
Stephan Popp claimed that about one hundred men perished in the burning of the church, as they were not allowed out of the building. If the fire was set to cover the retreat of the British and Hessians, it was not successful. They were pursued by the Americans to Elizabethtown, and suffered heavy losses. The combined British-Hessian forces lost 400-500 men, mostly on the retreat. The loss of the Americans in killed and wounded was 600-700 men.
Caldwell remained involved throughout the war in the cause of the Patriots. On November 24, 1781, only about a month after the defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, Caldwell was at Elizabethtown Point, picking up a Miss Murray, who had come from New York, under a flag of truce. After walking her to his carriage, he returned to the boat to retrieve a package that was left behind. On the return back to his carriage, an American sentinel, named Morgan, challenged him, asking what was in the package. Caldwell attempted to proceed to the proper officer with the package, but as he attempted to move away, the sentinel, just relieved from duty, fired his musket, killing the Reverend Caldwell with two balls. Morgan was arrested and tried for the murder of Caldwell; he was condemned for his crime and executed.
The Reverend Caldwell and his wife were buried in the churchyard of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown. Sixty-four years after his death, on November 24, 1845, James Caldwell became the first person in Elizabethtown to have a monument dedicated to him, done so by the Sons of Cincinnati. Hannah was also honored, in a different manner. The seal of union County, New Jersey, features the murder of Hannah Caldwell.
The seal of Union County, NJ, featuring the death of Hannah Caldwell, from ucnj.org