An Unusual Damage Claim Sheds Some Light on the Battle of Connecticut Farms

plaque

This summer, when I am not writing about the court evangelicals, I have been working on a book on the American Revolution.  On a good day I get in about five hours of research, and I am fortunate to have a couple of former students helping me.

One of my research assistants, Abigail, is transcribing damage claim reports from the Revolution.  These virtually untapped sources (at least for New Jersey, where I am working right now) tell us a lot about the kinds of goods ordinary people owned at the time of the Revolution.  They also give us a glimpse of the damage and destruction caused by both the Continental and British armies as they rolled through local communities.

Nearly all of the damage claims in New Jersey were filed by individual property owners, but every now and then we find a break in this pattern.  Today, as I was reading through the material Abigail transcribed, I found a note calling my attention to a claim from the Presbyterian “parish” at Connecticut Farms.  Here it is (with Abigail’s not to me embedded):

Damage Claim No. 22 (NJ0407) made at Connecticut Farms on May 28, 1789, for damage done on June 7, 1780. [Dr. Fea, this claim is for the Connecticut Farms parish (including a meeting house, parsonage house, barn, and chair and school houses) and not a person/family—very different from the other claims so far.]

§ “Inventory and Apprisal of the Property of the Parish of Connecticut Farms Burnt, taken and destroyed by the British Army or their Adherents on the 7th of June 1780”

· Items: 1 large well finished meeting house burnt (1500 L), 1 bell (65 L), 1 large Bible (1 L, 10 S), 1 velvet cushion for the pulpit (2 L), parsonage house 40 by 24 (250 L), 1 barn 24 by 24 (30 L), chair house (10 L), school house (15 L), sundry sacramental vessels, de—[?], 1 large silver cup (6 L), 2 large black tin cups (10 L), 2 large pewter platters (1 L, 4 S), 1 basin (3 S), 1 fine diaper table cloth (16 S), and cloth used at buryings (3 L), for a total of 1885 pounds, 3 shillings.

June 7, 1780 was the date of the Battle of Connecticut Farms.  The British planned for one final attack on Washington’s troops in the North.  Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen received a report that Washington’s army in Morristown had been reduced, through illness and desertions, to about 3500 men. Spies had informed him that mutinies were occurring in the ranks and morale was at an all-time low.  Knyphausen thought that the time was right to attack Morristown, capture Washington’s army, and perhaps bring an end to the war.

With approximately 6000 men from three different divisions under his command, Knyphausen’s army crossed Staten Island by boat on June 6, 1780 and landed at Elizabeth-Town Point. The following morning the British forces were met by Continental troops from New Jersey under the command of Colonel Elias Dayton whose troops slowed the British advance, but they were eventually forced to retreat to Connecticut Farms later in the morning.  By 8am, Knyphausen troops and the New Jersey Brigade under the command of William Maxwell clashed in Connecticut Farms.  With superior numbers, the British forced Maxwell to retreat to Springfield.  Knyphausen’s troops moved into Connecticut Farms, set part of the town on fire, and eventually halted his attack as the sun set.  At some time during the day George Washington arrived from Morristown and employed his personal guard in an attempt to stop the British advance.

The destruction of the parish property sheds light on one of the great mysteries of the battle. During the battle, Hannah Caldwell, the wife of the Elizabeth-Town Presbyterian clergyman James Caldwell, was shot to death by a British soldier as she stood in the window of the Presbyterian parsonage. News of Hannah’s death spread quickly.  New jersey Governor William Livingston received the news in a letter from brigadier-general Nathaniel Heard.  Greene informed Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth in Springfield that Hannah had been shot in a “barbarous manner.”

A rather lengthy letter describing the battle and Hannah’s death was published in the June 13, 1780 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet.  The unidentified author of the article believed that Hannah’s death was an attempt to punish James Caldwell, “an object worthy of the enemy’s keenest resentment,” for his patriotic activity and zeal.  The article implies that clergyman had a target on his back, but had always “evaded every attempt to injure him.”  Earlier in the day, the author claimed, a woman on the street in Connecticut Farms was approached by a British soldier who put a bayonet to her breast and threatened to kill her because she was the wife of James Caldwell.  The woman was spared when a young officer who knew her told the soldier that she was not Hannah Caldwell. Eventually, however, they did find the real Hannah. The author of the Pennsylvania Packet story described a British soldier coming to the window of the room of the Connecticut Farms parsonage where Hannah, her maid, and some of her smaller children were seated, and shooting Hannah in the lungs. Immediately following the shooting, a British officer and two Hessians dug a hole, placed the body inside it, and set the house on fire.  All of James Caldwell’s personal effects and papers were lost in the fire. Later an American officer managed to pull Hannah’s body from the grave and bring it to a “small house in the neighborhood.”  There was also a rumor circulating that the soldier who shot Hannah was later seen bragging about the killing.

Seal_of_Union_County,_New_Jersey

The seal of Union County, New Jersey represents the “murder” of Hannah Caldwell

There is more to this story, and I hope to tell it soon.  But this damage claim is going to help me flesh out the impact of the American Revolution on religious life in this New Jersey town.  Not only was the church and the outbuildings burned, but the British troops desecrated several of the church’s sacred and sacramental objects. This was not an unusual practice, but such detailed damage claims, at least for New Jersey, are rather rare.