Chaplain John Rosbrugh was the first U.S. Army chaplain killed in battle. He perished in the Battle of Assunpink Creek during the Revolutionary War on January 2, 1777. (Rev John Rosbrugh link to shorter PDF file)
In 1880 the Rev John C. Clyde in his book Rosbrugh, A Tale of the Revolution wrote “John Rosbrugh tasted of that sweetness, and had the patriot’s glory, lies unmarked grave deserves a tribute of respect from every true American who is in the enjoyment of the liberties, which he died to serve. His name and record are worthy of a place, not only in the archives of written history, but in the thankful remembrance of every lover of human liberty, along with the other Revolutionary patriots who died that a nation might be born and live.” He continued in his opening page, “This man’s record is unique in that whilst he was a noncombatant, he met, we may perhaps truly say, the most cruel death of them all, in his efforts to subserve with them the great cause of American freedom.”
Born in 1714 in Northern Ireland, he came to New Jersey with his older brother. He appears to have learned a trade, but he was also capable of teaching school. In 1733, he married but we know very little of his life from this time. Two things we are aware of are his wife and first child died during the child’s birth, and we know his older brother died after which John took care of the younger of his nephews. During these years he began his pilgrimage of faith. In 1761, at the age of 47 he graduated from the College of New Jersey (Now Princeton University) and took his trails with New Brunswick Presbytery in 1762. He was licensed to preach in August of 1763 and in December of that year he was ordained. In 1766, he married his second wife Jane Ralston. Jane and John had several children.
With the outbreak of war and the defeat of the revolutionary forces at Fort Washington, George Washington wrote a letter to the citizens of Northampton Pennsylvania calling on them to assist the Continental Army. Reverend Rosbrugh read the letter to his congregation, followed by a sermon featuring Judges 5:23. “Curse ye Meroz, saith the angel of the Lord; curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof, because they came not to the help of the Lord against the mighty.”
Rosbrugh had inspired several of the men in the congregation to join the Continental Army, but they laid one condition on their volunteering. The condition was they would do so only with Reverend Rosbrugh leading them as their commander. The now 63 year old minister reluctantly agreed to their request. After joining up with Washington’s army, Captain John Hays was named the unit commander and Reverend Rosbrugh gladly agreed to remain on as the unit’s chaplain.
On the morning of December 26, 1777 the first battle of Trenton took place following Washington’s troops famous crossing of the Delaware River. Reverend Rosbrugh and the 3rd Northampton Militia had been left across the river in Pennsylvania to serve as reinforcements for the initial attack force. On December 27, 1977 Chaplain Rosbrugh wrote to his wife in his last communication home seven days before his death.
He wrote “I am still yours but I haven’t a minute to tell you that by God’s grace our company, are all well. We are going over to New Jersey. You would think strange to see your Husband, an old man, riding with a French fusee slung at his back. This may be ye last letter ye shall receive from you Husband. I have counted myself yours, and have been enlarged of our mutual love to God. As I am out of doors I cannot at present write more. I send my compliments to you, my dear, and children. Friends, pray for us. From your loving Husband, John Rosbrugh”
Washington expecting a counter-attack sent the 3rd Northampton Militia to Assunpink Creek to established a defensive position. On January 2, 1777 General Cornwallis’ forces were repulsed three times by the defenders at Assunpink Creek, during one of these skirmishes, Chaplain Rosbrugh was captured.
Rosbrugh was dinning at a public house when they were warned of an immediate Hessians attack. Ongoing out he found that his horse was gone and he was quickly captured. Once the Hessians identified him as Presbyterian Minister, he was bayonetted to death on the spot. His body was stripped and left naked in the snow. Conflicting report exist as to the location of his body, but it is believed that Captain John Hays who replaced him as commander recovered Chaplain Rosbrugh’s body and hastily buried it. The next morning a fellow Presbyterian pastor, Rev George Duffield was said to have exhumed the body and moved it to the graveyard at Frist Presbyterian Church of Trenton. The exact location of his burial spot is complicated by Jane Ralston Rosbrugh tombstone which implies that John is buried with her in East Allen Township Cemetery.
Work cited: Parker C. Thompson, The United States Army Chaplaincy, Vol. I (Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, Washington DC, 1978) pp. 148-151.
John C Clyde, Rosbrugh, ATale of the Revolution, 1880. (http://archive.org/stream/rosbrughtaleofre00clyd/rosbrughtaleofre00clyd_djvu.txt )