With Independence Day just around the corner I thought I’d tell the back story of how a hymnal became paper wading for muskets during a Revolutionary War battle.

Isaac Watts was an English churchman who wrote a hymnal that was later published by Ben Franklin. The most familiar hymn in the hymnal was, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.


Watts was what was called in those days, a non-comformist. His father had been jailed twice for his non-conforming views. This meant in 18th century England one did not conform to the Church of England. Most non-conformists were Calvinistic in their theology and further known as Puritans. The hymnal Watts wrote was as common as Bibles were in many New England churches.

Puritan influence on New England churches (Presbyterian and Congregational) was strong during the Revolution and many clergy served in the ranks of the militia and in the Continental Army as soldiers and chaplains. One pastor who served as a chaplain was the Presbyterian, James Caldwell who was stationed with the Continental Army at Morristown, New Jersey.

Prior to this Caldwell had been the pastor of a church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Caldwell’s sympathies were with the rebels\patriots as were most Calvinists and his home and church were burned to the ground by Loyalists in 1780. Animosity between Loyalist and Patriot  ran high and the American Revolution was more of a Civil War than a revolution and that may have been a factor in what happened next.

When Caldwell was with the Continental Army at Morristown, British, Hessian and Loyalist units moved through the area where Mrs. Caldwell lived with their children including a three-year toddler on their way to the Battle of Connecticut Farms (June 7th, 1780). The circumstances remain murky but Mrs. Caldwell was shot through the window of the family home as the units moved through the area.

Shortly after her death,  the British engaged the Continental Army at the Battle of Springfield (June 23rd, 1780). The Reverend Caldwell was present.

A mounted James Caldwell handing out Watts to Continental soldiers.

A mounted James Caldwell handing out Watts to Continental soldiers.

The better known painting of Caldwell handing out Watts!

The better known painting of Caldwell handing out Watts!

During the battle the Continentals ran low on the paper wading that was used to pack the powder and ball in the musket. The Reverend Caldwell rushed into a church and grabbed Watts’ hymnal and shouted “Give them Watts’ boys” as the soldiers tore up pages to make wadding.

The Battle of  Springfield was the last major engagement in the northern colonies and it was a Continental victory.

Caldwell himself was killed a short time later, not by the British or a Loyalist by a Continental sentry when Caldwell refused to let the sentry inspect a package.

The sentry was hanged and it was rumored he had been bribed to kill the somewhat famous chaplain-a distinct possibility given the hatred between Loyalists and Patriots at the time.

The Caldwell’s none children were thus orphaned and raised by the extended family.