There’s nothing like the murder of a young, innocent woman to get patriotic fervor in an uproar. The death of Jane McCrea in 1777, supposedly at the hands of Indians commissioned by British Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne, outraged Patriots and led to a huge surge of recruiting in New York. The story then went down in American folklore. Aside from being the inspiration for the character of Cora Munro in the early classic The Last of the Mohicans, the legendary 1804 painting The Death of Jane McCrea still makes its way into videos and textbooks on the American Revolution.
But just three years later, another tragic death happened to an innocent New Jersey woman. Not quite getting the huge play Jane McCrea’s death did, the death of Hannah Caldwell nevertheless sparked widespread anger with Patriots. And although not a famous painting hanging in a museum, Hannah’s death is still to this day depicted on the seal of Union County, New Jersey. The (inaccurate) image shows a woman standing in her home’s doorway being shot point-blank by a British redcoat soldier. Poor Hannah may have died, but the legend of how she died is very hard to kill. As recently as 2005, a popular-selling book said,
Poorly trained or callous soldiers sometimes entered homes firing their weapons randomly at residents. One of their victims was Hannah Ogden Caldwell, the wife of a patriot clergyman, who was killed by a soldier entering the bedroom where she and her nine children had gathered. His shot tore open her chest and punctured her lung.
Pretty heavy stuff, but a little short on facts – no matter which story you believe. Only one fact is for sure – Hannah Caldwell, inside of her own home that day in 1780, was killed by a musket bullet… or two. However, past those details, how accurate is the story of her terrible murder? Well, maybe not much. Here are both sides of the story and you can be the judge.
The Battle and the Caldwells
By the summer of 1780, the Revolutionary War had already shifted its focus to the southern half of the rebel states. But Hessian Gen. Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen, commander of the British garrison in New York City, still wanted a crack at Gen. George Washington’s army near Morristown, New Jersey. Before dawn on June 7, 1780, he moved his 6,000 troops from Staten Island across Newark Bay to Elizabethtown Point, New Jersey. But General Knyphausen ran right into New Jersey militia and a brigade of the New Jersey Continental line. The ensuing battle slowly pushed back the Americans, as both sides fought through the small village of Connecticut Farms (now Union Township, New Jersey). The Battle of Connecticut Farms is known in American history as being one of the last Revolutionary War battles in the northern front. It’s also known for what happened to Hannah Caldwell there.
When the war broke out, Rev. Mr. James Caldwell had been pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown. But strongly believing in the American cause, Caldwell joined the Patriot army and became chaplain of the New Jersey line. When his church and home were burned by Loyalists in January 1780, he moved his wife and nine children four miles inland to Connecticut Farms and then left for duty at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown.
Rev. Mr. Caldwell was away from home that morning of June 7, 1780 when the advancing British and Hessian troops moved through Connecticut Farms, chasing American troops, setting fires, and shooting back at Patriots firing from their open doorways and windows. Rev. Mr. Caldwell’s wife, Hannah Caldwell, was in the parsonage home with their two youngest children, a four-year old toddler and their sick nine-month old, Maria. The other seven children had been moved out of the area already. Seeing the battling militia and enemy troops approach down the road, Hannah rounded up some of the Caldwell’s valuables like silverware and lockets. Many valuables were lowered down the well; others she stashed inside her pockets, then she returned inside the house. Also in the house with Hannah and her two children were a nurse, Constance Benward (sometimes called “Katy”) and a housekeeper that the couple had taken in named Abigail Lennington.
The Case for Murder
Hearing the battle coming closer and closer, Hannah and the others went “to a back room, which was considered secure, with stone walls on three sides and one window on the north side.” Hannah reportedly sat on the bed with little Maria, telling the two other women present, “Don’t worry, baby will be our protection. They will respect a mother.” Hannah handed the baby to Katy. Abigail went to look out of the single window in the house. She testified that she saw a “short thick man wearing a red coat” come to the window, look in and point his musket to the window. Abigail heard a crash and a boom accompanied by shards of broken glass being blasted into her face. Then, looking over toward the bed – she saw Mrs. Caldwell lying with her back on the bed. Hannah appeared to be dead with a bleeding bullet wound in her chest.
In a deposition, Katy states that the soldiers then entered the house looking for anything of value. They found Hannah’s body and cut open her dress, discovering more valuables inside the pockets of the dead woman. They pulled the body to the floor and took the sheets and covers from the bed. Hannah’s body was removed from the house by local friends just before the British troops burned the house. “The soldiers burned nine other homes, as well as the schoolhouse, barns, and shops, before leaving the village.”
Depositions concerning Hannah Caldwell’s death were gathered and published in newspapers as well as in a pamphlet just three months later. In the pamphlet, an angry and distraught Rev. Mr. Caldwell summed up her death as the work of the Royal Army carrying out the implied orders of General Knyphausen: “This was a violation of every tender feeling; without provocation, deliberately committed in open day; nor was it ever frowned on by the commander.” Public patriotic outrage mirrored Rev. Mr. Caldwell’s claim:
Some attempts were made by the Royalist party to escape the odium of the frightful outrage by pretending that Mrs. Caldwell had been killed by a chance shot. The actual evidence, however, sets beyond question the fact that one of the enemy was the murderer and there is much reason to believe that the deed was deliberately ordered by those high in authority.
So shortly after the event, the Patriot story spin began in high speed… each version with its own variation of the heinous, outrageous murder. A noteworthy adaptation came from none other than famed Founding Era historian Mercy Otis Warren:
This lady was sitting in her own house, with her little domestic circle around her, and her infant in her arms; unapprehensive of danger, shrouded by the consciousness of her own innocence and virtue; when a British barbarian pointed his musquet into the window of her room, and instantly shot her through the lungs. A hole was dug, the body thrown in, and the house of this excellent lady set on fire, and consumed with all the property it contained.
Another celebrity of the time mentioned “Poor Parson Caldwell…,” none other than Maj. John Andre, who had just included a non-sentimental word about the traitorous Rev. Mr. Caldwell in an epic-ballad about a battle at Bull’s Ferry, New Jersey in July 1780. The third and final part of his poem The Cow Chace, a Poem in Three Cantos was in fact running in The Royal Gazette the day after Andre was captured as a spy in cahoots with Benedict Arnold. Who says history doesn’t take strange turns? In the book version of Andre’s poem mentioning Rev. Mr. Caldwell, end notes actually give a passing nod of sentimentality toward Mrs. Caldwell herself:
… whose Wife was barbarously shot by a newly enlisted Soldier of Knyphausen’s command in the preceding Summer, on no other Provocation, as was alleged, than that she vituperated [insulted] him from her Window as he passed.
An even worse spin, totally inaccurate, and sickeningly melodramatic was this account of Rev. Mr. Caldwell: “Returning to his home one day, he found his wife shot on his step-stone, and her babe creeping around in its mother’s gore. He took the child in his hands, held it aloft toward heaven, baptized it in its mother’s blood, and swore eternal hostility to a foe that would not spare women or children.”
The newspapers wasted no time in giving alarming accounts of the innocent mother’s murder. The June 14 and 21, 1780 issues of The New-Jersey Gazette printed details: “… a Soldier came to the House, and putting his Gun to the Window of the Room where this worthy Woman was sitting… shot her through the Lungs dead on the Spot.” After more lurid details, the newspaper editorialized that at least she was killed instantly before her house was set on fire, so that’s some consolation. “One of the barbarians advancing round the house, took the advantage of a small space, through which the room was accessible, and fired two balls into that amiable lady, so well directed that they ended her life in a moment.”
The article in the second newspaper closed the final paragraph proclaiming, “This Melancholy Affair, with their cruel Burnings, has raised the Resentment of the whole Country to the highest Pitch.
The Case for a Tragic Accident
Almost immediately after Hannah Caldwell was killed and her house burned, the hurricane of American public fury began against the enemy. The British felt the other side of the story needed to be told quickly! In a letter dated June 20, 1780, an anonymous British soldier requested that the British Army’s version of what happened be published in The Royal Gazette to correct the “many Falsehoods” of the rebels’ story about Mrs. Caldwell’s death:
Whilst the troops were advancing to Connecticut Farms, the rebels fired out of the houses, agreeable to their usual practice, from which circumstance, Mrs. Caldwell had the misfortune to be shot by a random ball. What heightened the singularity of this unhappy Lady’s fate, is, that upon Enquiry it appears, beyond a Doubt, that the shot was fired by the rebels themselves, as it entered the side of the House from their direction, and lodged in the Wall nearest the Troops then advancing.
If a murder trial of Hannah Caldwell had actually happened, a plausible witness for the defense would have been Ebenezer Foster, a Loyalist who returned to New Jersey that day under the protection of General Knyphausen’s soldiers (although the prosecution would’ve labeled Foster as a looter). Foster had been a justice of the peace in nearby Woodbridge, New Jersey and his eyewitness account of the Hannah Caldwell incident, printed in the August 5, 1780 issue of The Royal Gazette, paints a compelling testimony,
I soon saw a Group of Soldiers in and about said House, and on my nearer Approach, heard some of them mention, (rather piteously), a Woman’s being shot in the house, as soon as the Crowd dispersed, I entered the House and not without Difficulty, found her laying on her Back on a Bed that stood in a small, dark, back Bed room, (for I don’t recollect that it had any Window) tho’ it had two Doors that opened into other Apartments. She was to Appearance death, and had a Cloth carelessly thrown over her Face, which I did not remove but left her, expecting the Troops would soon march, when her Friends might take Care of her… I followed, and did not return in less than three Hours, when some Person who was near Mr. Caldwell’s House, told me the Woman was stripped, and thrown off the Bed, but that a British officer’s coming in, had prevented the soldiers from carrying off her Cloaths. On entering the House I found her laying on her Face on the Floor beside the Bed, and most of what Cloaths had been pulled off by her Side. I concluded that she had been taken off the Bed that the Bedding might be taken from under her …
Foster goes on to describe his crime scene investigation and from that examination, drew an inevitable Loyalist conclusion:
We then examined every Circumstance in our Power, in order if possible, to discover the Cause of the Lady’s Death, who by this Time we had heard was Mrs. Caldwell. We found that on Account of a Pantry that was building on the back Side of the House, a small Spot of Covering had been pulled off opposite to the Bed whereon the Lady sat, the only Ball we could discover that had touched the House was the one that killed her. It appeared to have come from a northern Direction (in the Course of the Rebel fire) and passed between the Joints of the plastered Wall, it seemed to have passed so far above the Bed as to have hit her above the Girdle and its passing through her left Breast, I account for by supposing her to have been in a stooping Posture …
Foster’s account couldn’t be contradicted because the evidence (the Caldwell house) had been burned to ashes. The fire started by the British destroyed any evidence indicating the musket ball’s point of entry – whether through the window or the side wall. But Foster insisted that the shot that killed Hannah came from a northerly direction and therefore irrefutably showed that Mrs. Caldwell had been killed by friendly American fire.
However, a prominent American countered that the Foster theory was really just a lame excuse to cover up murder. Who said that? A source from on-high: the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall. Writing some years later, Marshall recounted the incident of “Mrs. Caldwell, the wife of the clergyman…” and severely scolded the British for their pathetic cover-up story:
Ashamed of an act so universally execrated, it contended by the British, that this lady was a victim of a random shot, and even that the fatal ball had proceeded from the militia; in proof of which last assertion, they insisted that the ball had entered on that side which looked towards the retreating Americans. But it was notorious that the militia made no stand at the farms, and a pathetic representation of the fact, made to the public by the afflicted husband, received universal credence and excited universal indignation.
Discounting the British claim that the American Mrs. Caldwell was killed by American friendly fire, Chief Justice Marshall said the American militia, in the northern direction from the Caldwell house, was running from the British and Hessian troops. But was the Battle of Connecticut Farms near the Caldwell house that simplistic?
Tim Abbott is a Litchfield Hills, New Jersey resident with an interest in the Revolutionary War and Knyphausen’s 1780 raid in particular. In reading Foster’s slightly-slanted conclusion, Abbott has written,
And what of the claim that the shot came from the American lines to the north? That is an odd direction. Maxwell’s men [Continental Army Brig. Gen. William Maxwell] were initially arrayed along a ravine running roughly southwest to northeast and facing a royalist advance from the southeast. The patriots then withdrew to the northwest along a road toward Springfield as their left flank was turned by another royalist column that advanced from the east or northeast of their position. Shots ‘from the north’ could therefore have come from either side.
So Abbott is saying that the positions of the two armies around the Caldwell house were fluid and were always shifting places back and forth as the battle happened. Bullets were flying north and south from both sides as soldiers moved. Assuming that the outright window murder of Hannah Caldwell didn’t happen, and that she was tragically killed by a random ball entering a wall and striking her during the battle… then the musket ball in reality could’ve been fired from either a Patriot gun or a Royal gun.
After reading Rev. Mr. Caldwell’s own 1780 pamphlet laying out the testimony of the two witnesses and a neighbor in his case for murder, historian Thomas Fleming expressed the opinion, “A reading 200 years after the event, without the hatreds engendered by a civil war, makes it clear that it was a military accident.” Maybe…
… Or Were the Caldwells Targeted in a New Jersey Hit?
After Rev. Mr. Caldwell’s wife was killed and their house burned, there were whispered conspiracy theories abounding that the Caldwells had been targeted for assassination by Loyalists because of allegiance to the American rebellion. The New-Jersey Gazette of June 21, 1780 fanned those now-spoken claims,
In the Neighborhood lived the Rev. James Caldwell, whose Zeal and Activity in the Cause of his Country had rendered him an Object worthy of the Enemy’s keenest Resentment. His Vigilance and Attention had always evaded every Attempt to injure him, and therefore it was now determined to wound him in an unguarded Part… He had been warned of their utmost Hatred of him.
Murder contract or not, in 1781 (a little over a year past the killing of his wife), Rev. Mr. James Caldwell was shot and killed by a sentry, who was arrested, put on trial and hung for murder. The prosecution could never produce any evidence showing that the sentry had been hired by the British or Loyalists to kill Caldwell.
Was Hannah Caldwell murdered or just the unlucky victim of an army musket ball? Was James Caldwell murdered or just an accidental casualty of an untrained sentry? Unless some unknown, absolute document surfaces somewhere, the controversy will rage on.
The County Seal Controversy Also Rages On
The New Jersey village of Connecticut Farms, where Hannah Caldwell died, became Union Township in 1808. As the area grew in the nineteenth century, Union Township was absorbed into the new Union County in 1857. Every good county needs a seal, an emblem symbolizing an aspect of the county. Not wanting the usual depictions of wheat stalks or fish, Union County of course decided to show Hannah Caldwell being murdered.
So, since 1857, the logo of Union County, New Jersey shows Hannah standing outside of her house (since showing her inside the house would be hard to illustrate) and a redcoat soldier shooting her like it’s the opening of deer season.
Over the years, some people have objected to the seal on the grounds that it’s the only municipal seal that shows a “homicide” or that it’s historically inaccurate. True and true. But instead, a 2011 battle erupted between Union County and a political activist who used the county seal in her public TV broadcasts. The county said she couldn’t use the trademarked seal. The whole thing became a First Amendments Rights case, which was just settled last year in federal court. The court ruled that as an insignia of a U.S. municipality, the graphic belonged to “the people”.
No mention was ever made in the court ruling that the seal still shows poor Hannah Caldwell being shot to death on purpose. What’s still with that? Justice really is blind sometimes.
 Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 37.
 Different accounts of Hannah’s death speak of one or two musket balls hitting her in her chest. In support of the “redcoat soldier firing through the window” theory, it was supposed that two balls were “double loaded” into the musket barrel.
 Union County Historical Society Proceedings, Vol. 2, (1923-24), 10-15. The case for Hannah’s deliberate murder was made by her husband, Rev. Mr. James Caldwell just three months after her death. In September 1780, he published the well-read pamphlet Certain Facts Relating to the Death of Hannah Caldwell, Wife of Rev. James Caldwell. It contained depositions (supposedly given to a magistrate) testifying to Hannah’s murder. The statements were from witnesses Abigail Lennington and Catherine Benward, along with neighbor Mrs. Patience Wade (to whose house Hannah’s body was carried) and wife to Deacon Caleb Wade. The pamphlet is at the Union County [N.J.] Historical Society.
 Joan N. Burstyn, ed., and The Women’s Project of New Jersey, Inc., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990), 13-14; detail of the inside of the house also confirmed in Thomas J. Fleming, The Forgotten Victory – The Battle for New Jersey 1780 (New York: Reader’s Digest Press, 1973), 161.
 Certain Facts Relating to the Death of Hannah Caldwell, Wife of Rev. James Caldwell.
 In a different reference to the supposed testimony (endnote 3), the soldier was described as “a shot [short] squatty soldier in a red coat.”
 Burstyn, Past and Promise, 13.
 Ellen Mackay Hutchinson Cortissoz, Arthur Stedman, ed., A Library of American Literature: Vol. 3 – Literature of the Revolutionary Period (New York, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1888), 123; “The Death of Parson Caldwell’s Wife.”
 Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, The Part Taken by Women in American History (Wilmington, DE: Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, 1912), 173.
 Lester H. Cohen, ed., History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observation, Vol. 1, by Mercy Otis Warren (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1988), 327-328.
 Maj. John Andre, The Cow Chace, a Poem in Three Cantos (London, 1781; reprinted Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1866), 43. The endnotes of the printed London book version of Andre’s poem actually document much of the “evidence” for the innocence of the British in Mrs. Caldwell’s death. Andre’s poem ran initially in three issues of The Royal Gazette (New York) in 1780. The poem was then printed in book form by John Fielding of London in 1781, the year following the deaths of John Andre and Hannah Caldwell. The 1866 edition, from where the references in this article are culled, is a direct copy of the 1781 London edition. The preface of the 1866 version reads, “The present Edition is printed from the first, as it appeared at Intervals in the Columns of Rivington’s Royal Gazette [no italics], of New York City. The original Notes as printed in that Paper, are here preserved as Foot Notes, while all the additional Notes are given at the End, with the Authorities from whence derived.”
 Andre, The Cow Chace, 51; “This Canto was first printed in Rivington’s Royal Gazette, No. 416, September 24, 1780.”
 Andre, The Cow Chace, 52.
 Matthew Hale Smith, Bulls and Bears of New York: With the Crisis of 1873 and the Cause (Hartford, CT: J. B. Burr & Company, 1875), 535.
 The New-Jersey Journal, June 21, 1780; and Andre, The Cow Chace, 54.
 The New-Jersey Journal, June 14, 1780; The New Jersey State Library Digital Collections, 312: http://www.njstatelib.org/slic_files/imported/NJ_Information/Digital_Collections/NJInTheAmericanRevolution1763-1783/9.9.pdf
(accessed June 10, 2015).
 The New-Jersey Journal, June 21, 1780; and Andre, The Cow Chace, 54.
 The Royal Gazette, No. 389, June 21, 1780; also Andre, The Cow Chace, 58.
 The Royal Gazette, No. 389, June 21, 1780; also Andre, The Cow Chace, 59-60.
 Ebenezer Foster was described by James Rivington, the Royal Gazette publisher, as a “Gentleman of great Integrity, and a very loyal Subject.” Andre, The Cow Chace, 58.
 The Royal Gazette, No. 402, August 5, 1780; also Andre, The Cow Chace, 56; and William Scudder Stryker and William Nelson, ed’s., Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, Vol. IV – Archives of the State of New Jersey, (1914), 564-566.
 The Royal Gazette, No. 402, August 5, 1780; also Andre, The Cow Chace, 57; and Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, 564-566.
 John Marshall, The Life of George Washington: Commander in Chief of the American Forces (London: T. Gillet, 1805), 276.
 Walking the Berkshires, “We are Avenging the Cause of Virgin Innocence,” http://greensleeves.typepad.com/berkshires/knyphausens_raid_1780/ (accessed June 10, 2015).
 Thomas J. Fleming, New Jersey – A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984), 77.
 The New-Jersey Gazette, June 21, 1780; and Andre, The Cow Chace, 53.
 Nj.com, “Union County unable to prohibit critic from using its seal, federal judge rules” http://www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2014/06/union_county_must_allow_critic_to_use_it_logo_federal_judge_rules.html (accessed June 13, 2015).