"Let us remember...in order to add vigour to our genius, and force to our descending swords, that we are avenging the cause of virgin innocence" said a student at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). The death of Mrs. Caldwell, wife of Rev. James Caldwell, reportedly at the hands of the Royalist army during Knyphausen's Raid, sparked outrage throughout Revolutionary America. As discussed in the previous post, the circumstances of her death may never be precisely known, but the accusation that it was a deliberate murder did more to harm the British cause than even the muskets of the patriot forces.
In the weeks and months that followed her killing, a barrage of outrage and charges of the most unforgivable behavior were leveled against the Royalists in connection with the death of Hannah Caldwell. Her grieving widower, no stranger to the power of the pulpit, wrote a letter for publication in which he dismissed British claims that her killing was no assassination, calling it "a violation of tender feeling, without provocation, deliberately committed in open day, nor was it ever frowned on by the commander."
It was the custom in those times to publish letters anonymously or with a pseudonym, but there was one loyalist who wrote an account of Mrs. Caldwell's death for newspaper publication under his own name. Ebenezer Foster was a former Justice of the peace from Woodbridge, New Jersey and among the Tory 'refugees" who crossed over from Staten Island in the wake of Knyphausen's invasion force. Approaching the parsonage in Connecticut Farms, he writes:
"I soon saw a group of soldiers in and about said House, and on my nearer approach, heard some of them mention, (rather piteously), a woman's being shot in the house, as soon as the crowd dispersed, I entered the house and not without difficulty , found her laying on her back on a bed that stood in a small, dark, back bedroom, (for I don't recollect that it had any window) tho' it had two doors that opened into other apartments. She was to appearance death, and had a cloth carelessly thrown over her face, which I did not remove but left her, expecting the troops would soon march, when her friends might take care of her..
...[I] did not return in less than three hours, when some person who was near Mr. Caldwell's house, told me the woman was stripped, and thrown off the bed, but that a British officer's coming in, had prevented the soldiers from carrying off her cloaths: On entering the house I found her laying on her face on the floor beside the bed, and most of what cloaths had been pulled off by her side. I concluded that she had been taken off the bed that the bedding might be taken from under her..."
Foster's account is intriguing as much for what he confirms in the patriot claims about her death as what he contradicts. Regardless of how she died, there is no doubt that her corpse was mistreated and her personal effects plundered along with the house. Foster is scrupulous not to identify any specific unit with this shabby looting, implying that it happened sometime between when the British advanced beyond Connecticut Farms and when they returned. He claimed that he and another loyalist made a close inspection to determine the cause of Mrs. Caldwell's death:
"We found that on account of a pantry that was building on the back side of the house, a small spot of covering had been pulled off opposite to the bed whereon the Lady sat, the only ball we could discover that had touched the house was the one that killed her: It appeared to have come from a northern direction (in the course of the Rebel fire) and passed between the joints of the plastered wall, it seemed to have passed so far above the bed as to have hit her above the girdle and its passing through her left breast, I account for by supposing her to have been in a stooping posture..."
There is no mention of broken glass such as reportedly cut the face of young Abigail Lennington as she watched the soldier shoot through the window: no confirmation that there was even a window at all. Mr. Foster's reputation as "a Gentleman of great integrity" as well as a very loyal subject was cited in the newspaper account to give weight to his evidence, but whether or not it is factual reporting on his part the court of public opinion was already convinced that the killing had been deliberate. Furthermore, the outrages perpetrated in the burning of the village and looting of its houses were there for all to see, right down to the roads strewn with he stuffing of feather beds.
And what of the claim that the shot came from the American lines to the north? That is an odd direction. Maxwell's men were initially arrayed along a ravine running roughly southwest to northeast and facing a royalist advance from the southeast. The patriots then withdrew to the northwest along a road toward Springfield as their left flank was turned by another royalist column that advanced from the east or northeast of their position. Shots "from the north" could therefore have come from either side.
Samuel Steele Smith's out of print Winter at Morristown 1779-1780: The Darkest Hour (1979) includes several surprises for students of Knyphausen's Raid in the form of material not generally encountered elsewhere. Sometimes, as with the complete order of battle that appears in the Appendices, the information is indispensable. At least once, Smith confuses the actions of one unit with another (but we will address that matter in due course). Smith dispenses with the killing of Mrs Caldwell in a single line as he describes the melee at Connecticut Farms, but later returns to it when addressing how news of her death spread throughout the countryside. He then includes this startling paragraph:
"Some years later, there was an admission. A New Jersey militiaman, Private Frazee Craig, of Captain Amos Morse's Company, of Colonel Jaques Essex County Regiments, testified that he was 'at the Farms [Connecticut Farms] when Mrs. Caldwell was shot by one of Capt. [John] Craig's men', also of Col. Jaques regiment. The shooting by an American, if indeed, he did it, surely was accidental."
Smith's source is supposedly testimony given by Craig while applying for a veteran's pension in the early 1830s before Judge Lewis Condit. I have read a subsequent publication of the Condit testimony that includes an account from Craig, but while discussing Connecticut Farms it makes no mention of Mrs. Caldwell. Assuming he did make such a statement, what are we to make of it? It was certainly not a welcome revision to the conventional narrative. When Elizabeth native Capt. William C. deHart, an aide to Winfield Scott who returned from Mexico sick and dying, attempted to make an impartial investigation into the evidence surrounding Mrs. Caldwell's death, he was pilloried for his efforts by his fellow townsmen.
In the end, whatever the cause of her homicide, Mrs. Caldwell's death became a symbol of what was at stake in America's fight for independence. A year later, her husband was shot by a sentry, and their nine children - "baptised in blood" - were fostered out, including their eldest son whose education in France was sponsored by Lafayette.
Rev Caldwell's statue, at right, may be seen on Walnut St. in Philadelphia.