Plans to change Union County seal depicting Revolutionary War killing has some historians fighting back
The official seal of Union County has long been a quirky subject of fascination and even pride among residents for its unique, albeit grisly, design: It's widely believed to be the only government seal in the United States that depicts a murder in progress.
The seal depicts a British soldier shooting Hannah Caldwell in 1780, a pivotal moment in New Jersey’s Revolutionary War history.
Caldwell, the wife of patriot and preacher James Caldwell, was gunned down in her family's home as British troops moved from Staten Island in an advance on George Washington's camp in Morristown.
Historians say outrage over her killing swelled the ranks and inspired the local militia, which turned the British back at the Battle of Springfield 16 days later.
But the scene depicting Hanna Caldwell's killing may not be on Union County the seal for long. Union County officials confirmed to News 12 New Jersey that they are planning a redesign.
In a written statement, Union County Commissioners Chairman Sergio Granados said the artist's depiction of the killing is historically inaccurate because Hanna Caldwell was shot through the window of her bedroom, not standing in the doorway.
Granados also cited other factors including, "the fact that our seal contains the brutal murder of Hannah Caldwell could be viewed as insensitive to today's climate, involving awareness of gun violence or violence against women."
"We believe that as a county there is a much better way we can honor and pay tribute to our rich history and impact of Hannah Caldwell's tragic death," Granados' statement continues.
But those who work to preserve and educate the public about local history want to keep the seal as it is.
"I'm obviously very concerned from a historic point of view,'' said Barbara La Mort, president of the Union Township Historical Society, which runs the Caldwell Parsonage, a museum inside the preserved home where Hannah Caldwell died.
"The seal doesn't depict the exact circumstance of her death. It does depict her death. And because she died, more young men and teenage boys enlisted in the New Jersey militia and that made a difference,'' she added.
Besides being a martyr whose death may have saved the American war effort, La Mort says Hannah Caldwell still stands as a timeless example of female courage and grit.
"It shows a woman as a hero,'' she said of the current county seal.
Caldwell had remained in the house with her children and refused to leave, as the British advanced - even after the couple's previous home in Elizabeth had been burned to the ground by the British.
"So she's a great symbol for modern women," La Mort said. "Defending their homes. Defending their children, defending their values. Don't take this away."
The county says it will be enlisting the help of residents in choosing a new county seal in the coming weeks.
They will likely be hearing from folks like La Mort and others who work to protect Hanna Caldwell's legacy, and who want this depiction of her final moments to stay right where it's been since 1933 - front and center on the county seal.