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Hannah Ogden Caldwell 1733 ~ 1780


Hannah Ogden Caldwell

Not numbered among the heroic, the strong, the dashing or the prominent in the records of the Revolution but held in memory as one of its martyrs, is the name of Hannah Caldwell, whose barbarous murder was perpetrated not 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 from producing this effect, however, the crime aroused the whole community to a state of belligerency before unknown. 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 enmity to the name of Britain."

And yet, there was probably no one in all the colonies who was leading a quieter or more peaceful life than Hannah Caldwell. She was the daughter of John Ogden of Newark, and Hannah Sayre, a descendant of the Pilgrims. Her brothers were all stout Whigs, and in 1763 she married the Rev. James Caldwell, pastor of the first Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown (the Elizabeth of today) New Jersey, and he was one of the earliest to espouse the cause of this country. Her husband acted as chaplain of the Americans who occupied New Jersey, and his zeal in throwing the influence of his eloquence for the cause of freedom rendered him obnoxious to the enemy, and at length a price was put upon his head. It is said that while preaching the Gospel to his people he was often forced to lay his loaded pistols by his side in the pulpit. The church in which he preached became a hospital for the sick and wounded of the American army and the weary soldiers often slept upon its floor and ate their hurried and scanty meals from the seats of the pews so that worshippers were not infrequently compelled to stand through the service. But even this shelter the British and Tories, because of their anger toward the pastor of the church, determined to destroy, and accordingly it was burned with the parsonage on the night of January 25, 1780.

The wife, Hannah Caldwell, fled into the interior of the state with her nine children, but even here there seemed no peace, for a body of Hessian and British troops had landed on the New Jersey coasts and were proceeding to spread devastation and terror throughout the colony. When informed of the enemy's approach, the pastor put his elder children into a baggage wagon which was in his possession as commissary, and sent them to some of his friends for protection. But three of the youngest, with an infant about eight months old, remained with their mother in the house, Mr. Caldwell having no fears for the safety of his wife and young family since he believed it impossible that "resentment could be extended to a mother watching over her little ones." He was called to join the force collecting to oppose the British marauders, and early in the morning; while his wife was handing him a cup of coffee, which he drank as he sat on horseback, he saw the gleam of British arms in the distance, and he put spurs to his horse. What followed is best given in the simple terrible account of the crime. Mrs. Caldwell herself felt no alarm. She placed several articles of value in a bucket and let it down into the well, and 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, and seated herself upon the bed. The alarm was given that the soldiers were at hand.

 But she felt confident 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 maid. 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.

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, but the ruthless soldiers evidently desired her death to be known, that such a fate might intimidate the countryside.

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.

It seems peculiarly sad that such an end should have been the fate of a woman known as Hannah Caldwell was for her benevolence, serenity and sweetness of disposition, but the memory of this martyr to American liberty will long be revered by the inhabitants of the land, with whose soil her blood has mingled.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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