When the Continental Congress issued a Call to Arms for the Thirteen Colonies, Rev. James Caldwell, Parson of the Elizabethtown, NJ Presbyterian Church, agreed to serve as Chaplain to the 3rd NJ Regiment, commanded by Col. Elias Dayton.
Caldwell, with the support of his wife, Hannah, spoke out against King George III and the British government’s policies of taxation without representation, unfair religious laws, and limited public speech. Thus, Caldwell became a preacher for independence – angering the British who placed a price on his head – and endangering his family.
America’s struggle for independence was fought from 1775 to 1783. Many of the battles against British and Hessian forces were waged in New Jersey, which became known as the Crossroads of the American Revolution. An important battle took place on June 7, 1780 in the Township of Union, NJ, then known as Connecticut Farms.
BEFORE COLONISTS CAME to this area, the land had been inhabited by the Lenni Lenape— part of the Algonquin nation, later known as the Delaware. The tribe was divided into three clans—the one that lived here was Pokekooungo (the Crawling Turtle Clan). Union did not become a township until 1808. Before that, its name was Connecticut Farms—a part of Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth)— because it had been settled by farm families from Connecticut in 1667.
Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen ordered the destruction of Gen. George Washington’s camp at Morristown, NJ. His spies informed him that Washington’s soldiers, encamped at Jockey Hollow, Morristown, were unhappy with their poor living conditions. They were not paid on time, and the value of a Continental paper dollar had decreased to 30 cents. Many officers resigned their commissions and returned home. On December 2, 1779, there were over 10,000 troops in the camp; by June 1780, only 4,000 remained.
Connecticut Farms was on the route to Morristown. The Americans were determined to prevent the enemy from reaching its objective. The heaviest fighting took place on present-day Chestnut Street and Stuyvesant Avenue after the British and Hessian columns turned right from present-day Colonial Avenue. Brig. Gen. Willliam Maxwell ordered his 1,500 Continental troops and militia to hide in the woods and fire at the advancing enemy of about 5,000. They fought here and at the defile below Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church from 8 am until 11:30 am. At about 2:30 pm a three-pounder cannon shot duel took place between Col. Dayton’s men at the Rahway River Bridge, firing east toward Liberty Avenue, and a British cannon, firing west on Morris Avenue.
British and Hessian troops had met heavy musket and cannon fire from Gen. William Maxwell’s NJ Brigade at Connecticut Farms and failed to cross the Rahway River bridge that separated Connecticut Farms from Springfield, NJ. Thus, the British attempt to reach and destroy Washington’s camp in Morristown failed.
Gen. Maxwell wrote Gov. William Livingston that about 50 of his men were killed, wounded or missing. For June 7 and 8, 1780, Gen. von Knyphausen reported 193 casualties – 11 killed, 145 wounded, 37 missing. On June 8, local farmers and militia found 47 of the enemies dead and buried them in a common grave in Connecticut Farms Presbyterian cemetery.
When the alarm guns sounded on the 7th of June, Rev. Caldwell told his wife, Hannah, to prepare to leave the parsonage with the children to accompany him to safety in Springfield. She replied that they must trust Providence and she would not be harmed. After her husband left, Hannah went to the back bedroom, which was thought to be the safest, since it had only one window. With her were a nurse, Catherine Benward, who assisted in caring for Maria, the Caldwell’s eight-month-old daughter; young Abigail Lennington, who did some housekeeping; and Elias, the Caldwell’s four-year-old son.
According to testimony, a squat soldier wearing a red coat left the road, then crossed diagonally to reach the house. Elias was constantly peering out the window at the British soldiers passing by. Abigail had been instructed to keep the boy away from the window, but she could not. So Hannah moved to pull him to safety at the precise moment the soldier approached and fired his musket. Seconds later, Hannah lay dead on her bed.
Rev. Caldwell returned to take Hannah’s body to the Presbyterian Church graveyard in Elizabethtown for burial and to give the eulogy at her funeral. Saddened and outraged by Hannah’s murder, Caldwell spread the word of the event on horseback and from his pulpit. The reaction to his news was a call to arms throughout the countryside. Hannah’s tragic death increased the resolve of the colonists to continue their fight for independence.
Rev. James Caldwell said of his wife, Hannah, “she was of so sweet a temper, so prudent, benevolent, and soft in her manners, that I verily believe she had not upon earth one personal enemy.” Her personal appearance conveyed a complexion of singular fairness. Hannah was described as being of medium height, with dark grey eyes and auburn hair.
At the Battle of Springfield, June 23, 1780, just 16 days after the Battle of Connecticut Farms and the shooting of Hannah, the British and Hessian forces made another attempt to reach Washington’s camp at Morristown and destroy it. Rev. Caldwell learned that some of the troops had run out of paper wadding for their muskets. He rode to the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, where he had preached, and gathered up as many Watts’ hymnals as he could. Pages from the hymnals were then used as wadding by the Continental soldiers and militia, who halted the enemy’s march. The Americans, some of whom sought to avenge Hannah’s death, were commanded by General Nathaniel Greene. The British retreated, but not before torching Springfield as they had done to Connecticut Farms just days before.
For all intents and purposes, the war ended the following year with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. That same year Rev. Caldwell was shot by an American sentry, James Morgan, who was convicted of murder and hanged at Gallows Hill in present-day Westfield.
The scene on the seal of the County of Union, New Jersey, shows the killing of Hannah Caldwell by a British soldier on June 7, 1780. Although she was shot while she was inside the parsonage, county seal artwork shows the artist’s dramatization of this significant historical event. Union County was formed on March 19, 1857, by municipalities that had seceded from Essex County.