Hannah Caldwell Biography | Women of the Revolution


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    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Few occurrences in the history of ancient or modern warfare have so strongly influenced the public feeling – have excited so universal a sentiment of horror, or such deep resentment towards the authors of the crime – as the deliberate and barbarous murder of Mrs. Caldwell. It was perpetrated not only as an act of vengeance upon an individual, but with the design of striking terror into the country, and compelling the inhabitants to submission. So far, however, from producing this effect, it but roused the indignation of the whole community, filling all with one spirit – one desire to avenge the deed, and drive the invaders from their soil. It animated the brave with new energy, inspired the timid to feats of heroism, and determined the irresolute to throng to the standard of liberty. One of the journals of the day says: “The Caldwell tragedy has raised the resolution of the country to the highest pitch. They are ready almost to swear everlasting enmity to the name of a Briton.”

      The Rev. James Caldwell, pastor of the First Presbyterian church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, was descended of a Huguenot family, and born in Virginia. He married in 1763, Hannah, the daughter of John Ogden of Newark. Her mother was Miss Sayre, a descendant of the Pilgrims. Her brothers were all staunch whigs, with the exception of Jonathan, who subsequently held the offices of Surgeon General in the British army, and judge of Newfoundland.

      Shortly after the settlement of Mr. Caldwell at Elizabethtown, the war broke out; and inheriting from his ancestors a feeling of opposition to tyranny, he warmly espoused the cause of his country. He acted as chaplain of those portions of the American army that successively occupied New Jersey; joined Colonel Dayton’s regiment, and accompanied the Jersey brigade to the northern lines. He was stationed some time at Johnstown, New York, and was afterwards appointed assistant commissary to the army; stood high in the confidence of Washington; and by his eloquent and patriotic appeals, contributed greatly in times of despondency to excite and sustain the drooping spirits of the soldiers. All the influence commanded by his character and talents – his energy, and his unbounded popularity in the community – was devoted to the cause of American freedom.

      This zeal and activity did not fail to render him obnoxious to the enemy, and no effort was spared to do him injury. A price was set upon his head; and it is said that while preaching the gospel of peace to his people, he was often forced to lay his loaded pistols by his side in the pulpit. On account of the predatory incursions of the British, he was compelled to leave his home, for a temporary residence at Springfield, New Jersey. The parsonage, thus deserted, and the church in which he preached, were used as a hospital for the sick and wounded of the American army. It’s bell sounded the alarm through the town on the approach of the enemy; the weary soldiers often slept upon its floor, and ate their hurried and scanty meals from the seats of the pews; so that worshippers on the Sabbath were not unfrequently compelled to stand through the service. Even of this shelter the British and tories, who cherished implacable enmity towards the pastor of the church, determined to deprive the soldiers; it was burnt, with the parsonage, on the night of January 25th, 1780.

      Finding the situation at Springfield inconvenient, and the distance too great from his church, Mr. Caldwell again removed to “Connecticut Farms,” four miles from Elizabethtown. It was during his residence at this place that the British troops from New York, under the command of the Hessian General Knyphausen, landed at Elizabethtown, before daylight, on the seventh of June.

      Their march into the interior was marked by cruelty and devastation. Several houses were fired, and the inhabitants left destitute of provisions or shelter. When informed of the enemy’s approach, Mr. Caldwell put his elder children into a baggage wagon in his possession as commissary, and sent them to some of his friends for protection. Three of the younger ones – Josiah Flint, Elias Boudinot, and Maria, an infant about eight months old, remained with their mother in the house. Mr. Caldwell had no fears for the safety of his wife and young family; for he believed it impossible that resentment could be extended to a mother watching over her little ones. He had that morning taken an early breakfast, intending to join the force collecting to oppose the enemy. Having in vain endeavored to persuade his wife to go with him, he returned to make a last effort to induce her to change her determination; but she remained firm. She handed him a cup of coffee, which he drank as he sat on horseback. Seeing the gleam of British arms at a distance, he put spurs to his horse, and in a few moments was out of sight. The nurse also remained, and a little girl named Abigail Lennington, a soldier’s daughter, whom Mr. Caldwell had taken into his family. She is still living at Elizabethtown. Immediately after the tragedy she, with the nurse, gave deposition as to the facts before a magistrate.

      Mrs. Caldwell herself felt no alarm. She had hid several articles of value in a bucket and let it down into the well; and had filled her pockets with silver and jewelry. She saw that the house was put in order, and then dressed herself with care, that should the enemy enter her dwelling, she might, to use her own expression, “receive them as a lady.” She then took the infant in her arms, retired to her chamber, the window of which commanded a view of the road, towards which the end of the house stood, and seated herself upon the bed. The alarm was given that the soldiers were at hand. But she felt confidence that no one could have the heart to do injury to the helpless inmates of her house. Again and again she said “They will respect a mother.” She had just nursed the infant and given it to the nurse, who was in the room. The girl, Abigail, was standing by the window. A soldier left the road, and crossing a space of ground diagonally to reach the house, came to the window of the room, put his gun close to it, and fired. Two balls entered the breast of Mrs. Caldwell; she fell back on the bed, and in a moment expired. He wore a red coat, and is generally supposed to have been a British soldier. Some have attributed the act to a refugee. The little girl received in her face some of the glass when the two balls entered, both of which took such deadly effect.

      After the murder, Mrs. Caldwell’s dress was cut open, and her pockets were rifled by the soldiers. Her remains were conveyed to a house on the other side of the road; the dwelling was then fired and reduced to ashes with all the furniture. The ruthless soldiers went on in their work of destruction, pillaging and setting fire to the houses, piling beds and clothing in the street and destroying them, till the village was laid waste.

      Let it be imagined what were the feelings of the husband, when the terrible news was communicated to him. It is said that he overheard some soldiers in a house where he stopped, speaking of the occurrence; and by questioning them, learned the truth. La Fayette, on his last visit to America, informed one of the family, that Mr. Caldwell was with him that morning on the heights near Springfield, and saw, by the aid of a spy-glass, the smoke ascending from the burning houses. “Thank God,” he exclaimed “the fire is not in the direction of my house.” He was fatally mistaken !

      Mr. Josiah F. Caldwell, one of the sons – the sixth of the nine children who were thus bereaved of a mother – relates what he remembers of the event. He was at the time six years of age. About sunrise, when it was announced that the British were coming, he went into the street and joined the people who were driving their cattle to Springfield. There he saw his father with a field-piece – a six pounder, which had formerly been used as an alarm piece. Thence the little boy proceeded to Bottle Hill, and found his second sister, Hannah, at the house of Mr. Sayre; and a day or two after, both the children set off on foot for Connecticut Farms, to see their mother. On their way, they were met by the nurse, Katy, with the two youngest children, in a chair belonging to Mr. Caldwell; she informed the young orphans of their mother’s death, and insisted that they should return with her to Bottle Hill. The sister yielded, and was taken into the carriage; the little brother refused to go till he had taken a last look at his beloved parent, and pursued his way to the Farms. On his arrival he was conducted to the house where his mother’s remains were laid. His father, who had arrived a short time before, was standing beside the bed on which reposed the lifeless form of this victim of political hatred. What a meeting for the heart-stricken mourner, and the child scarce able to comprehend his irreparable loss!

      Some attempts were made by the royalist party to escape the odium of this sanguinary transaction by pretending that Mrs. Caldwell had been killed by a chance shot. The actual evidence, however, sets the fact beyond question that one of the enemy was the murderer; and there is too much reason to believe that the deed was deliberately ordered by those high in command. A letter to General Knyphausen, published in the New Jersey Journal, in reproaching him for the outrages of his army, unhesitatingly casts the blame of the murder on him, as committed (Rivington’s Royal Gazette, 1780) designedly by one of his men: and the various rumors that went abroad amidst the popular excitement on the subject, and were mentioned in the papers of the day, show that such was the prevalent opinion.

      The Hon. Samuel L. Southard, alluding to Mrs. Caldwell’s death, in connection with a memorial presented to the U. S. Senate for the church and property destroyed, says “her children were baptized to piety and patriotism in a mother’s blood.” Mr. Caldwell himself presented an address to the public, showing that the murder of his wife had been a deliberate act, committed at the instigation of those in authority. “Mrs. Caldwell,” he says, “was of so sweet a temper, and so prudent, benevolent and soft in her manners, that I verily believe she had not upon earth one personal enemy; and whatever rancor the enemy felt against myself for my public conduct and political character, I have no reason to believe there was any person among them under the influence of any personal difference, or private revenge. I cannot therefore esteem it the private action of an individual. No officer interfered to preserve the corpse from being stripped or burnt, nor to relieve the babes left thus desolate among them. Many officers, indeed, showed their abhorrence of the murder, and their tenderness for the babes; why did they not set a sentinel over the corpse, till the neighboring women could have been called? They knew she was a lady of amiable character and reputable family; yet she was left half the day stripped in part, and tumbled about by the rude soldiery; and at last was removed from the house before it was burnt, by the aid of those who were not of the army. From this I conclude the army knew the will of their superiors; and that those who had benevolence dared not show it to this devoted lady.” Pennsylvania journal, October 4, 1780.

      The children were left at different places, till Mr. Caldwell bought a small farm at Turkey, now called New Providence, where he collected his family together, under the care of the faithful nurse, Katy. The remains of Mrs. Caldwell were interred in the burial-ground of the Presbyterian Church at Elizabethtown, and the congregation placed above the grave a neat freestone slab, on which is an inscription recording her bright virtues, and her melancholy fate. The memory of this martyr to American liberty will long be revered by the inhabitants of the land with whose soil her shed blood has mingled!

      Her personal appearance is described as conveying the abiding impression of benevolence, serenity, and peculiar sweetness of disposition. She was about the medium height, with dark gray eyes, auburn hair, and complexion of singular fairness; of pleasing countenance, and quiet, gentle, and winning manners.

      The tragedy was not yet complete. On the 24th of November, 1781, Mr. Caldwell went to Elizabethtown Point for a Miss Murray, who came under the protection of a flag of truce from New York, where she had shown great kindness to some of the sick soldiers. Mr. Caldwell conducted her to his gig, and then went back into the boat for her bundle containing some articles of clothing. As he came on shore he was challenged by the American sentinel, who demanded what “contraband goods” he had there. Unwilling then to dispute the matter, he turned back to leave the bundle with the officer; and at that moment was shot by a man named Morgan, who had just been relieved from duty as a sentinel. This man is supposed to have been bribed by British gold to the deed. Mr. Caldwell fell, pierced by two balls; and his body was borne to Mrs. Noel’s house in Elizabethtown. Morgan, who fired upon him, was afterwards tried, found guilty of murder, and executed. The remains of Mr. Caldwell were laid in the same grave-yard with those of his wife; and the “Caldwell monument,” at the inauguration ceremonies of which Dr. Miller and Hon. William L. Dayton delivered their eloquent addresses in 1846, was erected to their memory.

      Mrs. Noel, the steadfast friend of the family, took the children under her protection, assembled their friends, and consulted upon measures to be taken for the care of them. All lived to become eminent and useful members of society. The eldest son, John Edwards, was taken by La Fayette to France, where he was educated; and in after years was foremost in New York in benevolent enterprises, and editor of one of the first religious periodicals in the country. The fifth son, Elias Boudinot, was taken by the Hon. Elias Boudinot, President of the first Congress; and was afterwards Clerk of the United States Supreme Court, and one of the originators of the Colonization Society. Mrs. Noel adopted the youngest child – a daughter – who is still living in New York.

      The Rev. Dr. Murray of Elizabethtown, who has thoroughly investigated the subject, has prepared an accurate account of the death of the devoted patriot and pastor, which will shortly be given to the public.

      On the 28th of February, 1779, a party of British troops from New York landed at Elizabethtown Point, for the purpose of capturing the Governor of New Jersey, and surprising the force stationed in the village under General Maxwell. One detachment marched at night to “Liberty Hall,” the residence of Governor Livingston, and forced an entrance; but failed of their object – for it happened that he had left home some hours previously. Disappointed in the expectation of securing his prisoner, the British officer demanded the Governor’s papers. Miss Livingston assented to the demand; but appealing to him as a gentleman, requested that a box standing in the parlor, which she claimed as containing her private property, should be secured from molestation. A guard was accordingly stationed over it, while the library was thrown open to the soldiers, who filled their foraging bags with worthless law papers and departed. The box, which had been sedulously guarded, contained all the Governor’s correspondence with Congress, with the Commander-in-chief, and the State officers; the young lady’s stratagem thus preserving what would have proved a most valuable prize to the plunderers.

      A repartee made by one of Lord Dorchester’s aids to Miss Susan Livingston, has been celebrated. When the British were evacuating New York, she expressed a wish to him that their departure might be hastened, “for among your incarcerated belles, the scarlet fever must rage till you are gone.” Major Upham, the aid, replied that he feared, if freed from the prevailing malady, “they would be tormented by a worse – the blue devils.”

      All the letters of Livingston to his daughters show the sympathy that existed between them, and his confidence in the strength of their republican principles. His opinions and wishes on all subjects are openly expressed to them. In a letter to the Earl of Stirling, he says he has entrusted to his daughter Catharine his despatches to his correspondents in Spain. He writes at one time to her, noticing the favor shown to the British captives – “I know there are a number of flirts in Philadelphia, who will triumph in our over-complaisance to the red-coat prisoners lately arrived in that metropolis. I hope none of my connections will imitate them, either in the dress of their heads, or the still more tory feelings of their hearts.”

      Catharine, the second daughter, afterwards married Matthew Ridley, of Baltimore. He was at Nantes in 1778, in the American commission business. She took a deep interest in public affairs. Her friend, Lady Catharine Alexander, writes from Valley Forge, after the cheering news of the alliance with France – “We have nothing here but rejoicings; every one looks happy and seems proud of the share he has had in humbling the pride of Britain, and of establishing the name of America as a nation.” The following note, addressed to her by Washington from the same place, has never before been published: “General Washington having been informed lately of the honor done him by Miss Kitty Livingston in wishing for a lock of his hair, takes the liberty of inclosing one, accompanied by his most respectful compliments. Camp, Valley Forge, 18th Mar., 1778.”

      The wife of William Livingston was Susannah, the daughter of Philip French, and grand-daughter, by the mother’s side, of Anthony Brockholst, Lieutenant Governor, under Andross, of the Colony of New York, and subsequently its chief magistrate. Simple and unpretending in manners, she was endowed with a strong intellect and a warm and tender heart. The letters of her husband show his high respect as well as love for her. When the British troops made the memorable incursion into New Jersey by Elizabethtown, the Governor, being absent from his family, suffered intense anxiety on their account. But while the neighboring villages were seen in flames, the enemy respected “Liberty Hall,” and treated its inmates with courtesy.

      A correspondent of Rivington’s Gazette accounts for this by saying that one of the British officers received a rose from Miss Susan Livingston on his visit to the house, as a memento of a promise of protection. An anecdote connected with this invasion has been traditionally preserved, which, if proved authentic, would furnish curious evidence as to the agency concerned in the murder of Mrs. Caldwell. After a day of alarm, the flames of Springfield and Connecticut Farms being in view, and soldiers continually passing the house, Mrs. Livingston and her daughters were at a late hour surprised by the entrance of several British officers, who announced their intention of lodging there. Their presence was felt to be a protection, and the ladies retired. About midnight the officers left the house, called away by some startling news; and not long afterwards a band of straggling soldiers, intoxicated, rushed with oaths and threats into the hall. “The maid-servant – all the males in the establishment having taken refuge in the woods early in the day to avoid being made prisoners – fastened herself in the kitchen; and the ladies crowding together like frightened deer, locked themselves in another apartment. Their place of retreat was soon discovered by the ruffians; and afraid to exasperate them by refusing to come out, one of Governor Livingston’s daughters opened the door. A drunken soldier seized her by the arm. She grasped the villain’s collar, and at the very moment a flash of lightning illumining the hall and falling full upon her white dress – he staggered back, exclaiming, with an oath – ‘It’s Mrs. Caldwell, that we killed to-day!’ One of the party was at length recognized, and the house by his intervention finally cleared of the assailants.”

      The influence of Mrs. Livingston over her husband, in spite of his unyielding and irritable temper, is repeatedly noticed by his biographer. This influence was secured by her strong good sense, her sympathy, and unselfish tenderness. She shared his thoughts in time of war, and his joy when allowed to relinquish his wandering life, and return to his home; to enter once more his deserted library, and superintend his long neglected garden. In his simple and rural occupations she was his constant and faithful companion; and his letters evince the solicitude with which he watched over her health, with the warm affection he cherished for her through years of absence and absorbing occupation. She died on the 17th of July, 1789.

      The following copy of an order sent to Nantes, rather curiously shows the precariousness of transportation in those times. It is extracted from a MS. letter of John Jay, dated Madrid, Jan. 21st, 1782, which expresses a hope that one of the parcels may meet its destination:

      “Be pleased to send for Miss Kitty W. Livingston, to the care of Hon. R. Morris, Esq., at Philadelphia, by the first three good vessels bound there, the three following parcels, viz:

      “No. 1 to contain
      2 White embroidered patterns for shoes. 4 Pair silk stockings.
      A pattern for a negligeé of light pink colored silk, with a set of ribbons suitable to it.
      6 Pair of kid gloves.
      6 Yards of catgut, and cap-wire in proportion.
      6 Yards of white silk gauze.

      “No. 2 to contain
      The same as above, except that the silk for the negligeé must not be pink-colored, but of any other color that Mrs. Johnson may think fashionable and pretty. The shoes and ribbons may be adapted to it.

      “No. 3 to contain
      The same as above, except that the silk for the negligleé must be of a different color from the other two, and the shoes and ribbons of a proper color to be worn with it.”

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