This is the latest installment in a series of posts I began more than a year ago on Knyphausen's Raid into New Jersey in 1780.
The American Revolution was fought as often with the pen as with the sword. Sometimes what was written was quite literally worth battalions to the Patriot cause. Thomas Paine's American Crisis stiffened revolutionary resolve in the face of a series of military reverses in 1776. The murder of Jenny McCrea by two of Burgoyne's native allies the following year brought out the militia in unprecedented numbers to confront the British at Saratoga. It did not matter that the unfortunate Miss McRea was the fiancee of a loyalist officer; what was done to her could have been done to any American woman and that was good enough for the patriot press and its readership.
Another incident occurred in 1780 that became as notorious in patriot memory as the death of McCrea. This tragedy, occurring on June 7th at Connecticut Farms (now Union), New Jersey during Knyphausen's Raid, was kept alive for many months afterward in the press as a symbol of royalist barbarity, Once again, an American woman was killed, but this time she was not only a staunch patriot but also the minister's wife. Her name was Hannah (Ogden) Caldwell - a very distant relative of mine - and responsibility for her death was laid squarely on the British. It is not altogether clear that this was the case, but there was little doubt in the minds of the revolutionaries at the time - or indeed of their descendants and subsequent chroniclers - that she was deliberately and foully murdered by the royalist invaders.
The seal of Union County, New Jersey depicts the traditional version of her death at the hands of a red-coated soldier. It is notoriously difficult to separate fact from fiction in the fog of war, and especially complicated with this conflict, when what was recorded - and by whom - may be just as significant as the gaps in the historic record (and there are many).
Hannah (Ogden) Caldwell was third cousin to my ancestor Aaron Ogden and his brother Matthias, both of whom fought at Connecticut Farms on the day she was killed. She was the wife of James Caldwell, the Presbyterian minister in Elizabeth Town. Reverend Caldwell was chaplain in my ancestor Elias Dayton's Third New Jersey Continental Regiment in its 1st establishment, and subsequently served as a Deputy Quartermaster General.
We tend to overlook that the Revolution was in many ways a religious war as well as a civil one. The evangelical "Great Awakening" of the previous generation challenged traditional church hierarchies and helped establish the underpinning of many of the democratic principles of the Revolution. The Congregationalists of New England, the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies and the Methodists and Baptists of the Tidewater and back county were particularly affected by this revival and many of their congregations strongly supported the patriot cause. George III, on the other hand, was the "Defender of the Faith" for the Episcopal church, while the Dutch Reformed church split into factions in reaction to the Great Awakening that foreshadowed where the loyalties of their parishioners would lie in the Revolution.
The foremost patriots in Elizabeth Town, and hence in New Jersey, were members of Reverend Caldwell's Congregation. His parish house was burned by Tory raiders. In January, 1780, the church was burned as well by a raiding party from loyalist Staten Island guided by fellow townsman Cornelius Hatfield, whose own father was a noted parishoner.Caldwell subsequently moved his family to Connecticut Farms, a settlement 4 miles outside the town center, and continued his ministry while also helping to acquire supplies for Washington's encampment in the Highlands at Morristown. There are accounts that he preached with loaded pistols before him, and with good reason. One of the loyalists who burned the church in Elizabeth Town later expressed his regret that "the black-coated rebel, Caldwell, was not then in his pulpit."
As a prominent patriot, Reverend Caldwell was certainly a ripe target for kidnapping, if not worse, by loyalist 'refugees". But even he considered his family safe from deliberate attack. As it turned out, they were in great peril at Connecticut Farms, but whether from a stray bullet or intentional murder is an open question.
On the morning of Knyphausen's initial advance on Connecticut Farms, Hannah Caldwell was at home with several of her youngest children, an unrelated girl named Abigail Lennington who may have been a housemaid, and a nurse named Constance Benward. Her other children had been bundled off in a commissary wagon and her husband had encouraged her to follow, but she insisted that she would stay to protect their property. It was her misfortune that the battle developed near her home and the patriot defenders held off the royalists for several hours before they were pushed back through the little village. She had lowered some of her valuables down the well and filled her pockets with other precious items, then sat on her bed near the window to wait out the battle, saying "Don't worry, baby will be our protection. They will respect a mother."
At some time during the ebb and flow of the battle that day, someone shot Mrs. Caldwell. Abigail Lennington and one of the servants subsequently gave testimony before a magistrate as to what occurred. Numerous histories have referenced that testimony, although I have not yet had the opportunity to go to the source. According to these accounts, Lennington was near the window when she saw a soldier come toward the house, raise his rifle, and fire through the window. Two balls struck Mrs. Caldwell in the breast, killing her instantly, while broken glass cut Abigail's face. Sometimes in these histories the soldier is described as "a shot squatty soldier in a red coat."
Reportedly the British entered the house and rifled the clothes of the dead woman to get at her valuables. The body was removed while the house was plundered and then most of the buildings in Connecticut Farms were burned (the parsonage among them, despite this account to the contrary). It is difficult to know precisely what happened from contemporary writing filled with hyperbole. There was such outrage, in fact, that the royalists in New York felt obliged to file their own accounts in rebuttal. Rivington's Royal Gazette ran one such refutation by an anonymous British officer:
"Whilst the troops were advancing to Connecticut Farms, the rebels fired out of the houses, agreeable to their usual practice, from which circumstance, Mrs. Caldwell had the misfortune to be shot my a random ball. What heightened the singularity of this unhappy Lady's fate, is, that upon Enquiry it appears, beyond a Doubt, that the shot was fired by the rebels themselves, as it entered the side of the House from their direction, and lodged in the Wall nearest the Troops then advancing."
This source is hardly less biased than the patriot press, and one wonders whether there was time enough between the killing and the burning of the Town upon the British withdrawal to go inspecting the wall for errant musketballs that may or may not have passed through the breast of Mrs. Caldwell. Some accounts claim her body was left half exposed in the streets for several hours, while others claim a British officer covered it with his cloak and had it removed to another house.
The argument over what happened to Mrs Caldwell raged long after the smoke had cleared from the burning village. More than anything else, her death inflamed the revolutionary arbor of the defenders of New Jersey, who readily believed her killing was intentional.
Ebenezer Foster, a loyalist and former colonial Justice of the Peace, wrote his own account of the Caldwell murder for publication. We will discuss its merits in a subsequent post.