The American War for Independence was on the edge of disaster entering 1780. More than 600 had deserted Washington’s army in Morristown, N.J., 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, S.C., 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 stroke inflict a mortal wound that would end the five-year-old war. The British agreed and launched an invasion in June.
Worried that British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton might strike West Point, American General George Washington led a train of wagons to resupply the post, leaving General Nathanael Greene in charge. Clinton sent Lieutenant General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen, a Hessian general, towards Springfield, 5,000 strong. As Knyphausen marched down the main turnpike, he met American Colonel Israel Angell, bunkered down in an apple grove across the Rahway River. The Redcoats moved up and let loose a furious volley, using 6 artillery pieces. The broadside tore off chunks of the apple trees and killed the American regiment’s lone artillery gunner.
Despite the crucial loss, Colonel Angell held off a force five times larger than his own for 25 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!”
The boys responded and poured lead into the oncoming enemy.
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.
From the start Caldwell was an ardent revolutionist and was not ashamed to proclaim so from the pulpit. 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 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 Caldwell preached thunderous sermons, pleading for loyalty to the cause.
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.
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, as was written of him: “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.”
The year 1780 proved to be a year of suffering and sorrow for the “Rebel Priest.” First, a night raid by the British against the town left the courthouse and Presbyterian Church burnt to the ground. Caldwell lost many personal papers, as well as church records and documents.
Then, Cornwallis’ invasion. Knyphausen had landed and was on his way to Springfield, but first there was a skirmish at Connecticut Farms, where Caldwell had earlier relocated 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; 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. 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 500 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.”
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, Caldwell made provisions for his children then continued his duties. He kept on preaching and attending to the troops.
On Nov. 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.
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.