Saturday, November 10, 2012

First stop on the Cannon Ball run? Springfield!

An internet search of "Cannon Ball House" reveals a number of historic houses in America that had the misfortune of being hit by large-caliber ammunition, either during the Revolution or the Civil War. There's even a Cannonball Malt Shop in Gettysburg, a town that probably holds the U.S. record for number of structures marred by embedded ordnance. While the concept itself isn't all that rare, Union County is probably unique in New Jersey for having two such houses: the Osborne home in Scotch Plains, which was hit during the 1777 Battle of the Short Hills, and the Springfield Cannon Ball House, struck during the 1780 Battle of Springfield.

I’ve passed the Springfield house far too many times without ever stopping to visit. It’s only open for special occasions, so when I heard it was a participating site on Union County’s Four Centuries Weekend, I made it my first stop of the day.

The mustard-colored, Georgian style house was built sometime around 1760 on a plot of land that was substantially larger than the approximately suburban-tract-house sized lot it occupies now. Importantly, it was on the main road west from Elizabeth – the same track British troops took in their second attempt to capture Washington and his troops at Morristown. On June 23, 1780, those troops were met by an American militia as fierce as the one they’d faced two weeks earlier in Connecticut Farms, spurred on by a spirited Rev. James Caldwell. In addition to acting as the chaplain for the Third New Jersey Regiment, Caldwell was a fierce proponent of independence. When the troops began to run out of paper wadding for their muskets, he took Watts hymnals from the nearby Presbyterian church, shouting, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”

Though outmatched and outnumbered, the Americans repulsed the combined British and Hessian troops, and the Battle of Springfield was the last major Revolutionary War battle fought on northern soil. The small village was decimated as the opposing forces burned down the church and all but four homes before they left. It’s theorized that the Cannon Ball House survived only because it was used as a hospital for injured soldiers.

The Springfield cannonball.
The house stayed in private hands for several years, likely no more distinctive than any of the other surviving colonial-era houses. Then, sometime in the 1920s, a previously unknown cannon ball fell out of the western wall, lending its name and provenance to the abode. Since no cannon presumably had been fired in town since 1780, the ball had to have gotten there during the battle, right? Local lore stated that it was of British origin, though common sense would suppose it came from an American cannon, given that the locals were protecting the town from westbound invaders.

You might visit the Cannon Ball House to check out the story, but you’ll find much more when you get there. The Springfield Historical Society maintains the property and a range of artifacts to tell the story of the town and notable residents. While I was there, they had an extensive Civil War exhibit featuring Captain Edward Wade, a Springfielder who fought at Antietam and died from wounds suffered in battle. Other exhibits told the story of two brothers who’d grown up in town, one who fought on the Union side and the other for the Confederate. They even had a remarkably well-preserved piece of hardtack.

As I mentioned, the Cannon Ball House is open only for occasional special events and by appointment. If you'd like to check it out, contact the Historical Society at 973-376-4784.

1 comment:

  1. History and birds are good. I never thought of cannonball houses before though...:)


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