July 15th was a hot and sweltery day but it could not quench the enthusiasm of the militia in Elizabethtown, NJ. News had just arrived that Richard Henry Lee had made a motion for independence which was seconded by John Adams. Thomas Jefferson then composed the document making the official declaration. The crowd gathered around “the old red barn,” an affectionate name given the church pastored by James Caldwell and the declaration was read aloud with hearty enthusiasm.
Caldwell was a patriotic preacher who did double duty as the chaplain of the militia. He, like other chaplains of the era, wasn’t limited to praying and reciting Scripture. Parson Caldwell was a fully vested soldier engaged in the battle. Those who knew him were confident that “no two or four men would take him alive.” It was said that when it came time to preach, he would remove his brace of pistols, lay them upon the table and take up his Bible. He never saw a conflict between serving God and serving country. In fact, he understood the harmony of serving both. It is no wonder that his congregation was populated by quality patriots such as Elias Boudinot, William Livington, Francis Barber, the Ogdens, and Colonel Dayton.
Caldwell’s home became a headquarters for the militia and the old red barn a hospital for wounded soldiers. His ability to motivate the troops for the righteous cause of liberty was so legendary that the British put a bounty on his head. In an attempt to silence the preacher, his church was burned to the ground. When caught, the culprit complained that his only regret was that the black coated rebel wasn’t burned in his own pulpit.
Alas, on June 24th, 1780, the parson was aroused from his sleep with the news that the British were approaching. He quickly dawned his uniform, kicked his spurs into his trusty steed, and began a hasty gallop towards his troops. Yet an awful feeling seized upon his soul and he could not shake it off. Knowing that time was precious, he reversed course and returned home to his wife Hannah.
She greeted him with a warm cup of coffee to send him again on his way. Meanwhile, he pled with her to gather the children and accompany him. She was a brave patriot and she assured him that they would be fine. The Red Coats would not harm a mother and her children. They had been through this before. She was brave and confident. She also knew that they would encumber him and be a distraction. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the British approaching. The time for debate was over, he returned the empty cup. Still uneasy, he assured her of his love and once again thrust his spurs into the sides of his horse.
It wasn’t long after arriving at camp that Parson Caldwell began hearing the name of his love among the whispers of the troops. None wanted to break the dreadful news to their beloved chaplain.
A redcoat passed through the fence into the yard, saw Hannah through a window, took aim, and pierced her heart with a round from his musket before engulfing the home in flames. Only by extreme efforts was her body rescued from the inferno. Upon hearing the news, it was reported that the devoted husband stumbled like a smitten ox. He murmured an unintelligible prayer and dismissed himself from their company.
After caring for his wife’s funeral and placing the children in the care of his parishioners, he returned to the battle now at Springfield. There he found the troops slacking in returning fire. When he enquired as to the cause, he learned that they were lacking wadding for their primitive firearms. Spying the local Presbyterian church nearby, Caldwell dashed in, seized all of the Isaac Watts Hymnals that he could carry. Returning to the battle, he tossed the hymnals to the militia cheering them on, “Give ’em Watts, boys! Put Watts into them!”
While Caldwell was serving as commissary, a drunkard of the New Jersey militia spotted Caldwell after being relieved of duty as a sentinel. He took aim and delivered a musket ball to the chaplain’s heart, sending him immediately to meet his bride, creating nine Caldwell orphans. The debate has never been settled as to whether James Morgan had been bribed by the British or was simply angry because he had not been paid.
The famed Elias Boudinot, who would one day sign the Treaty of Paris ending the war, gently consoled the Caldwell children as he brought them before their father’s casket. He then assumed personal responsibility for placing each of them in fine homes. The third son, John, was placed in the care of the famed French general, Marquis de Lafayette, who was like a son to General George Washington.
The sacrifices of the Caldwell’s were an immediate inspiration to the troops and a ballad telling their story was composed and often sung among the troops. Even today, they are remembered in Union County, NJ. The county seal recalls the murder of Hannah and is the only seal that depicts a homicide.
While the names of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and so forth justly remembered on Independence Day, Parson James Caldwell and his dear wife, Hannah, remind us that everyday people like you and I, make a difference. Just as ordinary people of faith, people of passion, people integrity, and sacrifice were responsible for winning our liberty, like-minded people are still responsible for preserving our liberties today.