Hannah Caldwell Full Biography
I was born in 1737 to Judge John and Hannah Sayre Ogden of Newark. In 1763, when I was 26 years old, I married Rev. James Caldwell, the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown. James had grown up on the Virginia frontier before attending college at Princeton and graduating in 1758. We settled into the pastor’s house in Elizabethtown to begin our family, which over time grew to nine children.
When the Revolution broke out James played an active role in the protests against the acts of Parliament and then in the movement for independence. Early in the war he was chaplain for the Third New Jersey Battalion led by Colonel Elias Dayton, a member of James’ congregation. When the Declaration of Independence was read to the soldiers, he offered a toast wishing “Harmony, virtue, honor, and all propriety to the free and independent United States of America. Wise Legislatures, brave and victorious Armies, both by sea and land, to the American States.” James returned home from the army in September 1776, but when General Washington began his retreat across New Jersey with the British in hot pursuit, Elizabethtown was a prime raiding spot for the Redcoats stationed across the Arthur Kill on Staten Island. Many residents fled to avoid raiding parties stealing livestock and supplies, and James sent me and the children to New Providence for two months.
When we returned in January 1777, we found the town ransacked by the British. Because James, like many Presbyterian ministers, was a spokesperson for the Patriot cause, the British placed a price on his head and targeted his Church, smashing the door, overturning pews, breaking windows and ripping hymnals. Raiding parties continued to terrorize residents, so in 1780 James decided to move our family to nearby Connecticut Farms. On January 25, 1780 a raiding party burned James’ church in Elizabethtown to the ground.
The children and I settled into a small house with a nurse and a young maid. James was now serving as deputy quartermaster for the Army, so he was often away at his office or on the road seeking livestock and supplies from area farmers for the Continental Army, while I cared for the children.
During that winter, General Washington’s 10,000 troops set up camp at Jockey Hollow near Morristown where they endured bitter cold, deep snow, and hunger. Many soldiers left the army and by June 1780, only 4,000 troops remained. The British saw this as an opportunity to attack and destroy our army. On the evening of June 6, 1780, 6,000 British troops from New York landed at Elizabethtown planning to march towards Morristown in the hope that Washington would bring his army out to fight them. American troops attempted to stop them in Elizabethtown, but could not and retreated along Galloping Hill Road to Connecticut Farms.
The attack alarm sounded and James packed up our older children to take them to safety. I told my husband I would wait out the battle in the house, to protect it from being burned by the British. I convinced James that I’d be safe inside the house with our 9-month-old baby, our four-year old son, the nurse and a female friend. Reluctantly, James left for nearby Springfield to wait out the battle.
The fighting at Connecticut Farms was furious and lasted three hours. I locked myself, the other women and two children in a small bedroom with only one window to wait out the battle. While there are different theories explaining my fate, there is agreement that a British soldier passed by the bedroom window, aimed his gun and fired two shots through the window, killing me instantly.
According to eye witnesses, British soldiers then broke into the house. Neighbors carried my body outside while the British burned down the house. Hearing the news in Springfield, James broke down and then rushed back to Connecticut Farms.
The Patriots were outraged at what they considered my murder. Word spread quickly and the Patriot cause was energized as I became a symbol for the fight for independence. Today, the Union County Seal memorializes my death. Just a few weeks later the Americans fought valiantly, halting the British advance in Springfield. An inspiring legend grew that James, on hearing the men were running out of wadding for their muskets, ran into the Church, grabbed some hymnals written by Isaac Watts, and brought them to the troops to tear apart for wadding. “Give ’em Watts, boys!” he is said to have shouted. The Americans were victorious and many believe that the Battle at Springfield was a turning point of the war. In November 1781, another tragedy for our family occurred when James was inexplicably shot to death by an American soldier. James and I were buried in the churchyard and the parsonage was rebuilt on the original foundations in 1782. Today the parsonage is owned by the Union Township Historical Society.
Brydon, Norman F. Reverend James Caldwell, Patriot, 1734-1781. Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Centennial Committee, 1976.
Caldwell, Rev. James, “Certain Facts Relating to the Tragic Death of Hannah Caldwell,” September 1780. (reprinted Elizabeth, NJ: 1934)
DeHart, William C. The Caldwell Controversy. Elizabeth: The Essex Standard, 1846.
Fleming, Thomas. The Forgotten Victory: The Battle for New Jersey –1780. New York: Readers Digest Press, 1973.
Richord, F.W., ed., History of Union County. Newark: East Jersey History Company, 1897.
Thayer, Theodore, As We Were: The Story of Old Elizabethtown. Elizabeth: Grassmann Publishing Company, 1964.