New Jersey was the crossroads of the American Revolution, with more battles fought here than anywhere else during the battle for independence. The last of those battles occurred 231 years ago this month in Union County, including my home town of Union. A few weeks ago, Ivan and I visited two sites key to that -- the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church and the Caldwell Parsonage.
Here’s the story: in June 1780, General George Washington and his troops were still in Morristown after their second and most brutal winter encampment there. Many of the remaining troops were disenchanted with military life and on the brink of mutiny, having waited months for pay which hadn’t yet come. The British, having taken New York some time before, were stationed on Staten Island, within a reasonable rowing distance of Elizabeth. They’d made occasional forays into New Jersey and thought they’d capitalize on the discontent of the colonial forces to make a raid on Washington and his staff, plus their remaining supplies.
By this time, civilian New Jerseyans had mixed feelings about the rebellion against the crown. They’d endured several raids and battles, destruction of farms and theft of livestock, and the assumption was that they were too tired to put up much of a resistance to an incursion. With that in mind, the British, fortified by elite German Jaegers, planned to land in Elizabeth on June 7 and take the path of present day Morris Avenue (State Route 82) up to Hobart Gap and then on to Morristown.
What they didn’t count on was the effect of the colonists’ frustration, stirred to a frenzy by local Presbyterian minister James Caldwell. Known to the British as the High Priest of the Revolution, Caldwell was based at Elizabeth’s Presbyterian church but also preached before congregations in Springfield and Connecticut Farms (now known as Union). He was also chaplain for the Third New Jersey Regiment, better known as the Jersey Blues. Caldwell regularly used his pulpit to promote the cause of freedom and foment against the crown, making him a prized target for British forces and loyalists.
After landing in Elizabeth, over 5000 British and Hessian troops and their artillery began the advance westward, expecting little to get in their way. They were confronted by 800 Jerseymen and a host of angry local farmers, prepared to fight for their land. The patriots fought valiantly against the invaders, holding them back for three hours. Ultimately, the British forces pushed the locals west toward Springfield, but realized they faced much more resistance than they’d anticipated. Vowing to return another day, they finally retreated back to Staten Island, pillaging and burning the village of Connecticut Farms as they left. They’d make another foray on June 23, this time to Springfield, but that’s another blog entry.
The Battle of Connecticut Farms gave Union County what’s probably one of the most gruesome government seals in the country: an image of a woman being shot by a British soldier as she runs from a cabin. It’s meant to represent Reverend Caldwell’s wife, Hannah, who, according to legend, was killed by British gunfire as she fled the Presbyterian parsonage. In truth, she was sitting inside the house and was the victim of a stray bullet which might have even come from a colonist’s musket. Regardless of where the bullet originated, she was seen by many as a martyr to the cause, and her death brought a rallying cry for revolutionary forces eager to avenge her death.
The parsonage and church were torched as the British left, along with the rest of the village, but the congregation soon rebuilt both, and those ‘new’ buildings still stand today. As Union has grown more and more urban, places like these remind residents and visitors of the town’s rural colonial heritage. The high school’s sports teams aren’t known as the Fighting Farmers for nothing.
The Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church stands beside a busy intersection near Union Center, with a congregation proud of its colonial heritage. Its churchyard holds many Revolutionary-era headstones and a mass grave of Hessians killed in the battle; you can contact the church to arrange a visit. In my youth, the church also had a small room with artifacts including a cannon ball that pierced the church’s wall.
Caldwell Parsonage is a few blocks away, on Caldwell Avenue. Once standing in farmland, it’s now shoehorned between other homes of more recent vintages, making it a bit difficult to imagine how a stray gunshot could have possibly gotten anywhere near the window where Hannah sat. The building now serves as the Union Township museum, displaying the town’s full history from first settlement to today. It’s a bit jumbled inside, but well worth a visit if you’re interested in obscure Jerseyana. It’s open on the third Sunday of the month, from 2-4 p.m.
There’s plenty more to say about these last battles… and a few more great sites to visit. Stay tuned!