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David Caldwell; Preacher, Physician, and Patriot.

Updated on March 7, 2013
Bust of David Caldwell by Michiel Van der Sommen
Bust of David Caldwell by Michiel Van der Sommen | Source

The Army Approaches

In March of 1781 general Charles Cornwallis led 4,000 British troops on his mission to quell the Colonist rebellion in North Carolina. In several days he would commence the fateful Battle of Guilford Courthouse, one of the decisive battles of the American Revolution. This battle would prove a pyrrhic victory for Cornwallis; the British troops would win but not without sustaining heavy losses that helped to cripple his campaign. “Another such victory,” British Parliamentarian Charles James Fox told the House of Commons, “would ruin the British army.” Before the battle, however, was a matter that the General felt needed attention. He would need to silence one of the area's main rabble rousing insurgents, one David Caldwell.

Bust of Rachel Caldwell by Michiel Van der Sommen.
Bust of Rachel Caldwell by Michiel Van der Sommen. | Source

David and Rachel Caldwell

David Caldwell was born in Lancaster Pennsylvania in 1725, graduated from what is now Princeton University, and entered the Presbyterian ministry. In 1765 at the age of 40, he was assigned by the church to the backwoods of North Carolina, and subsequently became the pastor for the Alamance and Buffalo Church congregations. He held this post for sixty years, living until quite nearly one hundred years old. In those years he would prove to be a prominent force in the development of North Carolina and the American Revolution while exemplifying the independent spirit that forged the American Character.

In 1766 Caldwell married the twenty-four year old Rachel Craighead, born to three generations of Presbyterian ministers in Mecklunburg county Pennsylvania, and they settled on the 550 acres of land that had been deeded to Caldwell. By all accounts it was a marriage of love, but more than that, the Caldwells made a formidable team. Rachel shared an equal footing in the couples' affairs, and was beyond a doubt a source of strength and support in the many difficult years of political unrest and upheaval that were to come. They produced nine children that survived to adulthood.

In what is now Greensboro, North Carolina, the Caldwells established their ministry in a sparsely settled frontier environment, and David expanded his duties to include tending for the education and the health of his flock. On a spot that is now occupied by the David and Rachel Caldwell Historical Center in Bicentennial Park, the Caldwells built the Log College to educate area young men in theology and classical studies. It became one of the leading schools of higher education in the South, and was the alma mater to five U.S. Governors and many congressmen, lawyers, judges and ministers. To provide for his ever growing family, David cultivated his 550 acres of land and was a successful farmer. In addition to all this, he became a self-taught practicing physician for the Guilford County area by borrowing and studying medical books from Philadelphia.

Statue commemorating the Battle of Alamance.
Statue commemorating the Battle of Alamance. | Source

War of the Regulation

North Carolina's War of the Regulation may have served to galvanize Caldwell's active participation as a Patriot rebel. The Regulator movement was an American Revolution in microcosm, albeit a failed one, that took place in central North Carolina and was entirely based on the colony's concerns. An uprising by about 2,000 “Regulator” colonists to protest unfair taxation and corrupt government erupted into what became the Battle of Alamance in May of 1771, when they were confronted by British troops led by Governor Tryon. Tryon had apparently misjudged the vehemence and violent mood of the Regulators and was strategically unprepared for the violent escalation that followed although his 1,000 troops were a more than adequate force against the barely organized Regulators. Caldwell made a famous attempt at brokering a non-violent agreement between the two sides, or at least a cool-down of aggression. That he was unsuccessful was apparent when the shooting started. The uprising was handily put down by the British with light casualties on each side, but seven of the Regulators were hanged. Caldwell's reaction to the next uprising would be more hawkish.

Nathaniel Greene, for whom Greensboro, North Carolina was named.
Nathaniel Greene, for whom Greensboro, North Carolina was named. | Source

The Revolution and British Occupation

Caldwell was active in the politics of the Revolution and outspoken in his support for the rebellion. He represented Guilford county at the Provincial Congress that created the North Carolina Constitution, and spoke from the pulpit to rally support for the cause. When Cornwallis' army came to North Carolina in March of 1781, it was with a bounty of two hundred pounds on Caldwell's head. The British commandeered the Caldwell home, forcing Rachel and the children out of the house and into the shelter of the smokehouse, where they survived for two days with only the dried peaches that Rachel was able to carry with her. David took to the woods, well aware that his capture would cost him his life.

On the Ides of March, 1781, Cornwallis and the British forces met the Patriot army led by Nathaniel Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The American guerrilla fighting style kept rebel casualties low while inflicting heavy losses on the British; when Greene retreated after two and a half hours of battle, he had killed or wounded twenty-five percent of Cornwallis's army and suffering only about six percent losses from his own. "I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons" wrote Cornwallis. This erosion of the British resources, characteristic of the Southern campaign, was a contributing factor in the eventual American victory. Caldwell entered the field in the aftermath, tending to the wounded of both sides. One source describes the many emergency amputations that he performed.

On his return to home, Caldwell found his family unharmed, but his property entirely ruined. All his books and papers had been burned, including his Bible. Every scrap of food, clothing, or valuable material were gone. This occupation of his home was not an isolated incident. The British returned several times during their occupation of the territory to raid the Caldwell home, forcing David into repeated cycles of flight and reconstruction. That they endured this siege until the end of the war is ample testimony of the strength and resolve of both David and Rachel Caldwell, and the superb teamwork that their marriage made.

Bicentennial Park, Greensboro, NC.
Bicentennial Park, Greensboro, NC. | Source

Subsequent Life

In 1794 Caldwell was offered the presidency of the University of North Carolina which he declined in order to continue teaching at his Log College. He continued to preach until 1890 when he was ninety-five years old. At eighty-eight, he was called upon to shore up flagging enlistment numbers for troops to fight in the War of 1812. "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one" preached Caldwell from a public forum, and a surplus of volunteers came forward. He lived to be ninety-nine. He was buried in 1824 at the Buffalo Church, and Rachel followed him one year later.


Astoundingly, no physical representations of David Caldwell exist. The single iconic portrait of Caldwell by Lottie P. Leonard was painted from verbal descriptions and comparisons to family resemblance. This is also the case with the busts of David and Rachel sculpted by Michiel Van der Sommen that are displayed at the David and Rachel Caldwell Historical Center in Greensboro.

Portrait of David Caldwell by Lottie P Leonard.
Portrait of David Caldwell by Lottie P Leonard. | Source


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