This Day in History: The “Fighting Chaplain,” another forgotten Revolutionary War hero
On this day in 1781, the “Fighting Chaplain” is killed. Reverend James Caldwell had long been a thorn in the side of the British. Indeed, the British even put out a reward for his capture or death—and a ballad was soon composed about him!
“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!”
When the Revolution began, Caldwell was a Presbyterian minister in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He supported the Patriot cause early—and often. I guess you could say there wasn’t too much separation between his religion and his politics? Some members of his congregation were also members of the local militia—and he was a military chaplain. He was also an assistant commissary in charge of obtaining supplies for his men. When Caldwell’s church was burned down by the British, he began holding services in one of the commissary storehouses instead. On at least one occasion, Caldwell brought his guns and laid them on either side of the Bible in his pulpit.
The New Jersey Historical Society wrote of him: “He was one day preaching to the battalion, the next providing the ways and means for their support, the next marching with them to battle; if defeated, assisting to conduct their retreat; if victorious, offering their united thanksgivings to God; and the next, offering the consolations of the gospel to some dying parishioner . . . .”
Caldwell ended up losing nearly all that he had for the Patriot cause. After his church was burnt down, he sent his wife Hannah and their children away from Elizabethtown. He felt that they would be safer elsewhere. Unfortunately, the move proved to be fatal. On June 7, 1780, Hannah was killed during the Battle of Connecticut Farms. She had been hiding with one or more of her children in the back of a parsonage. The British shot at her through a window, possibly to get back at Caldwell.
Only two weeks later, Caldwell was at the Battle of Springfield, actively helping the Patriots. In that battle, the Patriots were running out of paper wadding, which was needed to load bullets into their muskets. Caldwell ran toward a church and grabbed some Isaac Watts hymnals. As he ripped out pages to be used as wadding, he yelled at the soldiers: “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”
Caldwell’s death on November 24, 1781, was rather unexpected—and certainly senseless. An off-duty American sentry spotted Caldwell and demanded that he stop. Caldwell stopped, but the sentry fired at him anyway. Caldwell was killed instantly. Had the sentry been bribed to assassinate Caldwell? Some people thought so. The sentry was later found guilty of murder and hanged.
Caldwell was buried near his wife, and a monument to their memory was erected. Of Caldwell, it says: “This Monument is erected to the memory of the Rev. James Caldwell, the pious and fervent Christian, the zealous and faithful Minister, the eloquent Preacher, and a prominent leader among the worthies who secured the independence of his country.”
And yet, today, he is another (almost) forgotten hero of our Revolution.
Charles Davis Platt, Ballads of New Jersey in the Revolution (1896) (reprint available HERE)
Everett Titsworth Tomlinson, A Short History of the American Revolution (1901)
Maxine N. Lurie & Marc Mappen, Encyclopedia of New Jersey (2004)
Norman F. Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell, patriot, 1734-1781 (1976)
Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (new series; Vols. 1-2) (1916)
William Buell Sprague, Annals of the American pulpit (1859) (Vol. 3)