“Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion: it is nothing more or less than a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Rebellion.”

Unknown Hessian officer, 17781Ronnie Hanna, Land of the Free (Lurgan, Co. Armagh, N. Ireland: Ulster Society Publications Limited, 1992), p.1

“Who’s that riding in on horse-back? Parson Caldwell, boys; Hooray! Red-coats call him “Fighting Chaplain,” How they hate him! Well they may!2Charles D. Platt, “Parson Caldwell at Springfield,” in Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 17341781, Norman F. Brydon (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.77

The American War for Independence was on the edge of disaster entering 1780. “Not worth a Continental” had entered the lexicon due to the staggering devaluation of the American currency. More than six hundred had deserted Washington’s army in Morristown, New Jersey, helped along by a more severe winter than that suffered at Valley Forge. Pockets of mutiny had sprung up throughout the winter and into the spring. Then, in May, 1780, Charleston, South Carolina, fell to British General Charles Cornwallis.

Emboldened by the General’s success, and intelligence that suggested the colonial militia would not turn out, Loyalists urged the British commanders to mount an invasion and with one stoke inflict a mortal wound that would end the five-year old war. The British agreed and launch an invasion in June.

Worried that Clinton might strike West Point, Washington led a train of wagons to resupply the post, leaving General Nathanel Greene in charge. Clinton sent Lieutenant General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen, a Hessian general, towards Springfield, five thousand strong. As Knyphausen marches down the main turnpike, he is met by American Colonel Israel Angell, bunkered down in an apple grove across the Rahway River. The Redcoats move up and let loose a furious volley, using 6 artillery pieces. The broadside tears off chunks of the apple trees and kills the Regiment’s lone artillery gunner. Despite the crucial loss, Colonel Angell held off a force five times larger then his own for twenty-five minutes. In the middle of the battle, an out-of-place figure—a chaplain, no less— strode up and down behind the line, shouting encouragement. When the marksmen ran low on wadding for their muskets, Rev. James Caldwell raced on his horse back to town, entered the Presbyterian church, grabbing stacks of hymnals (of which most of the songs had been written by Isaac Watts). Returning to the front line, Caldwell handed out the hymnals shouting, “Here, give ‘em Watts, boys. Put Watts into them, boys!”3Washington Irving, “The Life of George Washington.” in ibid., p.54 The boys responded and poured lead into the oncoming enemy.

Battle of Springfield
Map of the Battle of Springfield. Courttesy Springfield Historical Society

James Caldwell’s legendary deed did not turn the course of battle that day. At best, it delayed the invasion of Springfield by a few minutes. But the event stirred such patriotic fervor that those who witnessed it passed it on to succeeding generations until Washington Irving recorded it in his biography of George Washington. For the “Fighting Chaplain,” it was just one more selfless act in a life full of courage, patriotism, and disinterested service to others and God.

James Caldwell arrived at the end of a hundred-year journey for religious freedom. His ancestors had fled France after the fall of La Rochelle to Richelieu’s army in 1628. They migrated to Scotland, settling on an estate known as Cold Well, named for its cold well water (hence, the origins of the family name). Episcopacy was on the rise in Scotland, so they left for Ireland, sometime prior to 1649. But civil strife involving conflicts between Scotch and Irish; economic restrictions enacted by Parliament; limitations on Presbyterian activities, and a famine which began in 1725, combined to push the Caldwells out of Ireland into the New World.

Watts-Give Em
Illustration from the print Give ‘em Watts courtesy of Gray’s Watercolors. www.grayswatercolors.com

His parents landed at New Castle, Delaware, on December 10, 1727, and eventually made their way to the edge of the frontier in Charlotte County, Virginia. But their longed for religious freedoms were not quite within their grasp. The Church of England dominated that part of the county, so his father, John Caldwell and others helped send a delegation to the Governor to seek permission to settle at Cub Creek and worship as Presbyterians. The petitioned was granted and a church was organized in 1738. Services were held under a tree, and then a log church was built. By then James was part of the family, having been born on April 14, 1734.

Not much is known about James Caldwell’s youth, but as part of a family living on the frontier in the early 1730s he would have spent much of his time working: clearing land, feeding livestock, harvesting crops, cutting wood, hunting game and fishing. His father, as one the leaders in the church (and in the community, serving as one of the first judges), would have conducted family devotions and taken his family to church. At some point during these years James felt the call of God upon his life and declared his desire to serve in the ministry. To help him prepare for college, he was sent to a local Classics School. In 1755, he entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and graduated three years later with seventeen others, completing classes in Greek, Hebrew, rhetoric, logic, and so forth.

Cub Creek Church memorial sign. James Caldwell’s father helped start the church.

Following the procedures of the Presbyterian Church, James spent the next several months studying the Bible and preparing sermons under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel Davies, then president of the College of New Jersey. He was presented for licensure examinations on March 11, 1760. After delivering the last of three required sermons on September 17, he was ordained and promptly began searching for a ministerial position. One such opening was in Elizabeth Town, New Jersey. During the eighteen months the church had been without a pastor, twenty men had candidated for the office. Like those before him, he preached a trial sermon. We have the recollection of one who heard him preach, many years after his trial sermon:

“His superior capacity for extemporaneous speaking, his animated, impressive and captivating eloquence in the pulpit, and his fervent piety, rendered him uncommonly interesting to every audience, and excited for him, high esteem, both at home and abroad….”4Robert Finley, D. D.,”Memoirs of the Reverend Robert Finely, D.D.,” in ibid., p. 20

Such qualities surely were on display when he preached his trial sermon for he was offered the position. He was installed with a salary of one hundred and sixty pounds in March, 1762. He was 27 yearsold. One year later, he added the last piece to the foundation of his life, marrying Hannah Ogden on March 14, 1763.

The next twelve years would be the “salad years” of his life, mostly unspotted by the looming shadows of war. The church at Elizabeth Town was one of the oldest in the country, having been constructed in 1667. It was a congregation made up of laborers, shopkeepers, farmers, political figures and future military leaders. By God’s grace, Caldwell’s energy and forceful preaching contributed to the growth of the congregation. They soon added a sixteen-foot extension to the rear of the church. By 1776, there
were 345 “pew renters.” His days were filled with the standard pastoral duties: visiting the sick; conducting weddings and funerals, attending to building matters, helping to plant new churches. He preached two sermons every Sunday, pouring out his heart and soul: “As a preacher, he was unconsciously eloquent and pathetic; rarely preaching without weeping himself, and at times he would melt his whole audience into tears.”5William B. Sprague, “Annals of the American Pulpit”, in ibid. p.74

First Presbyterian Church, Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where James Caldwell served as pastor. The original building was burned by the British. The present structure was built in 1786. Photo courtesy of Damiel Rosa.

To his church duties add denominational responsibilities. He maintained close connections with his alma mater, serving as a trustee. With Rev. John Witherspoon, he traveled through Virginia raising funds for the college. He was a founder of several societies including the verbosely titled “Society for the Better Support of the Widows and the Education of Children of Deceased Presbyterian Ministers in Communion with the Present Established Church of Scotland.” He served on a committee to promote missionary work among Indians; he was on a committee to select, procure and distribute religious books and hymnals; and, a committee to encourage missionary work in Africa and examine the church’s position on Negro slavery. And he served…as a faithful husband and father to ten children.

By the early 1770’s the rumors of war began to buzz the ears of Elizabeth Town, and colonists began to agitate for freedom. Rev. Caldwell helped contribute to the agitation. In 1770, he was part of yet another committee, one appointed to compile a record of Episcopalian oppression that included, 1) Permits were required in order to build a church and to preach the Gospel; 2) the doors of churches were to remain open (presumably so that spies could listen in), 3) a ban on preaching in private homes; 3) imprisonment of dissenting ministers, and, 4) members of dissenting congregations were taxed to support the established church. Such persecutions spurred the Presbyterians to push for religious freedoms. Between 1774-1785, the Presbytery sent six requests to the Virginia Legislature pleading for religious liberty.

From the start James Caldwell was an ardent revolutionist, and was not ashamed to proclaim so from the pulpit. Most of his congregation and the town sided with him, but not everyone. One who opposed Caldwell was Reverend Thomas Chandler of Saint John’s Episcopal Church. Reverend Chandler was a staunch loyalist. Like James Caldwell, he was not reticent in proclaiming his views. Their differences were so strong that, despite the bonds of brotherhood in Christ, they would keep to opposing sides of the street to avoid meeting each other. Chandler describes Caldwell charitably, however, in one of his letters: “The Dissenting Teacher of this place is a man of some parts and of a popular address and has the appearance of great Zeal and Piety…He gives an evening lecture every Thursday in the Meeting-house; many of my people of course fall in with his Evening lectures, and it is natural to suppose that some of them are captivated with the appearance of so much Zeal and Piety.”6Ellison, “Church of the Founding Fathers,” in ibid., p.26

The Caldwell Parsonage was constructed in 1782 upon the foundation of the original 1730 parsonage, which was burned by the British and Hessians during the Revolutionary War. Photo courtesy of Daniel Rosa.

When the recriminations, protestations and tensions finally broke out into flying musket balls and cannon fire on the fields of Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, James Caldwell was ready. At a meeting of the Presbyterian Synod in May he again served with Rev. Witherspoon and was appointed to a committee to formally urge the Presbyterian churches to support the rebellion.. These actions made the Presbyterians, and especially their clergy, targets for revenge. Back home he preached thunderous sermons, pleading for loyalty to the cause. Thirty-one officers and fifty-two enlisted men were to come out of the Elizabeth Town Presbyterian church. Though it was common for ministers to preach the cause of liberty, few stepped out of the pulpit into the line of duty. James Caldwell was one of the few. He had already been working for the budding Revolution as a member of the Committees of Correspondence, which had helped disseminate news about anti-British activities prior to the war, and then once hostilities broke out helped recruit soldiers, materials and arms (Caldwell was a member of the Essex County committee, and the Council of Safety which succeeded it, serving as chairman during 1779). In June, he was elected chaplain of the Third New Jersey Brigade under Colonel Elias Dayton (one of the members of his congregation).

As chaplain, he went wherever his troops went. This meant that he was in a position to minister, not only to the soldiers, but also to the residents of nearby towns. He preached, held baptisms, and too often, funerals. As he had in his home town, he quickly gained a reputation for his preaching: “His countenance has a pensive, placid cast; but when excited, was expressive of high resolution and energy. His voice was sweet and musical, and yet so strong that, when needful, he would make himself heard above the notes of the drum and fife.”7William B. Sprague, “Annals of the American Pulpit”, in ibid. p.74

When his brigade received news of the July Fourth Declaration of Independence, Lieutenant Elmer recorded the event: “About twelve o’clock an assembly was beat for the men to parade in order to receive a treat and drink the State’s health. When having made a barrel of grog, the Declaration was read and the following toast given by Parson Caldwell— ’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.’ When three hearty cheers were given and the grog flew round….”8New Jersey Historical Society, “Proceedings” in ibid., p.29

In September of 1776, he left the brigade and returned home. He did not stay long. Fort Washington fell to the British. Washington began his long retreat across New Jersey. With Cornwallis hot after him, residents evacuated Elizabeth Town, including Caldwell and his family. While on the run he provided intelligence to the army, writing letters to Gen. Charles Lee. When he returned home a month later he found the town in shambles. Orchards were destroyed. The town plundered. His study ransacked, papers missing and the church vandalized. With willing hands the church was quickly restored. He held services the next Sunday. He mounted the pulpit, pulled out loaded pistols and sat them next to his Bible “while sentries were posted on the belfry to watch for enemy raiders. He had been labeled “The Rebel Priest” and “The High Priest of the Rebellion” by the enemy and a price placed on his capture and delivery to the British in New York.”9Norman F. Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 1734-1781, (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.31

With the dawn of 1777 came a new responsibility: Assistant Commissary General. If there was a more thankless, distressing and pitiful position in the entire Continental Army he could not have found it. As an assistant quartermaster he was to obtain food, supplies, clothing and arms for the soldiers. In a day without railroads, modern factories, reliable and speedy means of communications, and the supply and distribution of a modern economy, this was a daunting task. Stir in dealing with private individuals, not corporations; sometimes apathetic support from the population; and, the abasing Continental dollar and the
task becomes a nightmare. At one point the situation became so dire that he resorted personally to borrowing money, at interest, to pay some of the accounts: “Solemn promises were made to me upon entering the New Department of a supply of money. I have been obliged to pay considerable sums of money to those from whom I borrowed interest, because I could not obtain the Certificates at the time promised. And must I yet wait longer? I hope not.”10Ibid., p.36

Particularly pitiable was the lack of shoes. The affliction was common from privates to Generals. “Dear Sir: My old boots will neither keep out wind or water; if you can help me with a pair I would come down some day to have my measure taken. I have never had a pair of Boots or Shoes from the Publik yet, but it seems now that those who serve the Publick have no other place to go for these necessarys, or at least are not able to go any other place. I am, Dear Sir, You Most Obedient Humble Servant, [General] Wm. Maxwell.”11“Archives of the State of New Jersey, Newspaper Extracts,” in Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 17341781, Norman F. Brydon (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.37

Rev. Caldwell would look high and low for supplies, negotiating with individual farmers, contracting with tradesmen, searching cities and rural areas, and placing advertisements:

“Advertises for good strong shoes for the Army. Will pay in hides, where agreeable, and give cash for the remainder. Those who have shoes on hand will serve their country by bringing them immediately. Springfield, May 8, 1779, James Caldwell”12Ibid., p.37

Despite such deprivations and discouragements, he continued to trust the Lord, along with displaying a healthy dose of patriotic fortitude: “…the enemy may from the situation of Head Quarters, effectually ruin this fine Country before Winter—Cut off the source of many supplies to the Army and reduce to absolute poverty several thousand families most faithful in the good cause—But Jehovah reigns, and I am sure all will be well. We do not despond—We are determined to yield our Country but by inches, and sell them dear.”13Ibid., p.34, 35 1780 proved to be a year of suffering and sorrow. First, a night raid by the British against the town left the courthouse and Presbyterian church burnt to the ground. Caldwell loses many personal papers, as well as church records and documents.

Then, Cornwallis’s invasion. Knyphausen had landed and was on his way to Springfield, but first there was a skirmish at Connecticut Farms where Caldwell had earlier re-located his family. When word reached the town of the invasion, Caldwell made arrangements to once again move his family. His wife, however, did not wish to leave. It is speculated that she did not want to travel with the young children, or that she felt safer in her house than out on the open road. Whatever the reason, she stayed behind while the older children were sent to friends in another town. James then rode off to join his brigade. It was a fateful decision. While the noises of war—whizzing musket balls, braying horses, shouting troops—filled the air, Hannah made a few nervous preparations. She hid several items in a bucket, lowering them into the well; she pocketed some silverware. She put on nicer clothes, in case she would have to address a British officer, and then retreated to her bedroom with her youngest children. “Mrs. Caldwell felt confident that no one would have the heart to do injury to the inhabitants of the house. Again and again she had said, ‘They will respect a mother.’”14Lincoln Diamant, Ed., Revolutionary Women in the War for American Independence: A One-Volume Revised Edition of Elizabeth Ellet’s 1848 Landmark Series (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998), p.93 She was wrong. As the British marched into town a redcoat jumped the fence, came up to the house and shot through the window, splattering glass, killing Hannah Caldwell with a ball through the chest. Other soldiers poured into the house. They pilfered her pockets, looted the house and took five hundreds sermons James had written out in longhand. Thankfully, her body was removed before they torched the home. For several hours she was left exposed in the open air, clothes torn and disheveled, until neighbors took her in. The day ended with the British setting fire to the village.

James was with General Lafayette on the heights near Springfield. When he saw the smoke he said, “Thank God! The fire is not in the direction of my house.”15Ibid., p.94 He was wrong, and soon overheard the truth from returning soldiers. He rushed back to the town to find his wife, and the mother of his ten children, gone. The funeral was held that afternoon.

The news of the murder lit up the country with indignation, but for James, there was no time to mourn. Indeed, in a mere two weeks he would be riding the countryside, sounding the alarm of the British advancement on Springfield, helping push Watts hymnals down musket barrels. Following the death of his wife, James Caldwell made provisions for his children then continued his duties. He kept on preaching, attending to the troops, finding shoes. On November 24, 1781, he went to greet Beulah Murray who was scheduled under a flag of truce to visit some relatives. She had rendered service to American prisoners in the prison ships in New York and was held in esteem. He drove a chaise to Elizabeth Town Point along Newark Bay to bring her to town. He could not find her. He went on board the sloop. Upon debarking with a bag, a sentry ordered him to stop. American authorities were battling smugglers of British goods from New York to New Jersey. Strict orders had been issued to all sentries to look for illicit trading. Caldwell stopped, but the sentry, James Morgan, shot him any way. James Caldwell, the “Fighting Chaplain,” dropped dead.

Commander Lieutenant Woodruff immediately arrested James Morgan. Two months later he was tried for murder. At the trial, a guard on duty at the time of the shooting testified that, shortly after James Caldwell’s arrival, he had told Morgan that he had no business on board ship. Morgan had been relieved earlier in the day and was off duty. Testimony at the trial pointed to British involvement, but there was no real proof. What was certain was that James Morgan, by his own admission, had shot Caldwell, even though the Reverend had obeyed his order. Morgan was found guilty and hung a few days later.

Close friend and executor of Caldwell’s estate, Elias Boudinot, pictured here in a painting by Samuel Lovett Waldo and Frederick Stiles Jewett. Courtesy American Bible Society Archives

James Caldwell’s death was a severe providence. It was a blow deeply felt and deeply mourned by his church, community and children. As his body was returned to his home, many lined the streets and openly wept. As he was killed on a Saturday, many of his parishioners did not know of his death until they arrived for church the next day. He was buried in the graveyard near his church. There was great concern for his children. Many offers poured in from around the country, including from the Marquis de Lafayette. The executor of his estate and longtime friend, Elias Boudinot (the future President of the Continental Congress, Congressman from New Jersey and a founder of the American Bible Society), supplied assistance. General George Washington gave one hundred dollars.

James Caldwell lived a full life. One marvels at the breadth of his service to his country and his Savior. It is easy to imagine that he might have gone on to serve his country in the new Republic as one of the Founding Fathers. “What distinguishes James Caldwell from most other clergymen of his day is that, while he continued his ministerial activities during the struggle for freedom, he also performed other services demonstrating his devotion to that cause. Others, from many different walks of life, exhibited the same devotion and made sacrifices. But James Caldwell, as the minister who stood with the fighting men in the midst of battle, who rallied others to continue the war when the situation appeared hopeless, who unwittingly sacrificed
the life of his wife when he considered it his duty to be with the troops, and who met his own death while performing a helpful service for someone else, stands out above many others.”16Norman F. Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 1734-1781 (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.76


1 Ronnie Hanna, Land of the Free (Lurgan, Co. Armagh, N. Ireland: Ulster Society Publications Limited, 1992), p.1
2 Charles D. Platt, “Parson Caldwell at Springfield,” in Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 17341781, Norman F. Brydon (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.77
3 Washington Irving, “The Life of George Washington.” in ibid., p.54
4 Robert Finley, D. D.,”Memoirs of the Reverend Robert Finely, D.D.,” in ibid., p. 20
5, 7 William B. Sprague, “Annals of the American Pulpit”, in ibid. p.74
6 Ellison, “Church of the Founding Fathers,” in ibid., p.26
8 New Jersey Historical Society, “Proceedings” in ibid., p.29
9 Norman F. Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 1734-1781, (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.31
10 Ibid., p.36
11 “Archives of the State of New Jersey, Newspaper Extracts,” in Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 17341781, Norman F. Brydon (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.37
12 Ibid., p.37
13 Ibid., p.34, 35
14 Lincoln Diamant, Ed., Revolutionary Women in the War for American Independence: A One-Volume Revised Edition of Elizabeth Ellet’s 1848 Landmark Series (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998), p.93
15 Ibid., p.94
16 Norman F. Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot 1734-1781 (Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Bicentennial Committee, 1976), p.76