JABEZ ROCKWELL'S POWDER-HORN
By Ralph D. Paine
"Pooh, you are not tall enough to carry a musket! Go with the
drums, and tootle on that fife you blew at the Battle of Saratoga.
Away with you, little Jabez, crying for a powder-horn, when grown
men like me have not a pouch amongst them for a single charge of
A tall, gaunt Vermonter, whose uniform was a woolen bedcover draped
to his knees, laughed loudly from the doorway of his log hut as he
flung these taunts at the stripling soldier.
A little way down the snowy street of these rude cabins a group
of ragged comrades was crowding at the heels of a man who hugged
a leather apron to his chest with both arms. Jabez Rockwell was in
hot haste to join the chase; nevertheless he halted to cry back at
"It's a lie! I put my fife in my pocket at Saratoga, and I fought
with a musket as long and ugly as yourself. And a redcoat shot me
through the arm. If the camp butcher has powder-horns to give away,
I deserve one more than those raw militia recruits, so wait until
you are a veteran of the Connecticut line before you laugh at us
The youngster stooped to tighten the clumsy wrappings of rags which
served him for shoes, and hurried on after the little, shouting
mob which had followed the butcher down to the steep hillside of
Valley Forge, where he stood at bay with his back to the cliff.
"There are thirty of you desperate villains," puffed the fat
fugitive, "and I have only ten horns, which have been saved from
the choicest of all the cattle I've killed these two months gone.
I would I had my maul and skinning-knife here to defend myself.
Take me to headquarters, if there is no other way to end this riot.
I want no pay for the horns. They are my gift to the troops, but,
Heaven help me! who is to decide how to divide them amongst so
"Stand him on his bald head, and loose the horns from the apron. As
they fall, he who finds keeps!" roared one of the boisterous party.
"Toss them all in the air and let us fight for them," was another
The hapless butcher glared round him with growing dismay.
At this rate half the American army would soon be clamoring round
him, drawn by the chance to add to their poor equipment.
By this time Jabez Rockwell had wriggled under the arms of the
shouting soldiers, twisting like an uncommonly active eel, until
he was close to the red-faced butcher. With ready wit the youngster
piped up a plan for breaking the deadlock:
"There are thirty of us, you say, that put you to rout, Master
Ritter. Let us divide the ten horns by lot. Then you can return to
your cow-pens with a whole skin and a clean conscience."
"There is more sense in that little carcass of yours than in all
those big, hulking troopers, that could spit you on a bayonet like
a sparrow!" rumbled Master Ritter. "How shall the lots be drawn?"
"Away with your lottery!" cried a burly rifleman, whose long
hunting-shirt whipped in the bitter wind. "The road up the valley
is well beaten down. The old forge is half a mile away. Do you
mark a line, old beef-killing Jack, and we will run for our lives.
The first ten to touch the stone wall of the smithy will take the
Some yelled approval, others fiercely opposed, and the wrangling
was louder than before. Master Ritter, who had plucked up heart,
began to steal warily from the hillside, hoping to escape in the
A dozen hands clutched his collar and leather apron, and jerked
him headlong back into the argument.
Young Jabez scrambled to the top of the nearest boulder, and ruffled
with importance like a turkey-cock as he waved his arms to command
"The guard will be turned out and we shall end this fray by cooling
our heels in the prison huts on the hill," he declaimed. "If we
run a foot-race, who is to say which of us first reaches the forge?
Again,—and I say I never served with such thick-witted troops
when I fought under General Arnold at Saratoga,—those with shoes
to their feet have the advantage over those that are bound up in
bits of cloth and clumsy patches of hide. Draw lots, I say, before
the picket is down upon us!"
The good-natured crowd cheered the boy orator, and hauled him from
his perch with such hearty thumps that he feared they would break
him in two.
Suddenly the noise was hushed as if the wranglers had been stricken
dumb. Fur-capped heads turned to face down the winding valley,
and without need of an order, the company spread itself along the
roadside in a rude, uneven line. Every man stood at attention, his
head up, his shoulders thrown back, hands at his sides. Thus they
stood while they watched a little group of horsemen trot toward
In front rode a commanding figure in buff and blue. The tall, lithe
frame sat the saddle with the graceful ease of the hard-riding
Virginia fox-hunter. The stern, smooth-shaven face, reddened and
roughened by exposure to all weathers, lighted with an amiable
curiosity at sight of this motley and expectant party, the central
figure of which was the butcher, Master Ritter, who had dropped to
his knees, as if praying for his life.
General Washington turned to a sprightly-looking, red-haired youth
who rode at his side, as if calling his attention to this singular
tableau. The Marquis de Lafayette shrugged his shoulders after the
French manner, and said, laughingly:
"It ees vat you t'ink? Vill they make ready to kill 'im? Vat they
Just behind them pounded General Muhlenberg, the clergyman who had
doffed his gown for the uniform of a brigadier, stalwart, swarthy,
laughter in his piercing eyes as he commented:
"To the rescue. The victim is a worthy member of my old Pennsylvania
flock. This doth savor of a soldier's court martial for honest
The cavalcade halted, and the soldiers saluted, tongue-tied
and embarrassed, scuffling, and prodding one another's ribs in an
attempt to urge a spokesman forward, while General Washington gazed
down at them as if demanding an explanation.
The butcher was about to make a stammering attempt when the string
of his apron parted, and the ten cow-horns were scattered in the
snow. He dived in pursuit of them, and his speech was never made.
Because Jabez Rockwell was too light and slender to make much
resistance, he was first to be pushed into the foreground, and
found himself nearest the commander-in-chief. He made the best of
a bad matter, and his frank young face flushed hotly as he doffed
his battered cap and bowed low.
"May it please the general, we were in a good-natured dispute
touching the matter of those ten cow-horns which the butcher brought
amongst us to his peril. There are more muskets than pouches in our
street, and we are debating a fair way to divide them. It is—it
is exceeding bold, sir, but dare we ask you to suggest a way out
of the trouble which preys sorely on the butcher's mind and body?"
A fleeting frown troubled the noble face of the chief, and his mouth
twitched, not with anger but in pain, for the incident brought home
to him anew that his soldiers, these brave, cheerful, half-clothed,
freezing followers were without even the simplest tools of warfare.
The cloud cleared and he smiled, such a proud, affectionate smile
as a father shows to sons of his who have deemed no sacrifice too
great for duty's sake. His eyes softened as he looked down at the
straight stripling at his bridle-rein, and replied:
"You have asked my advice as a third party, and it is meet that I
share in the distribution. Follow me to the nearest hut."
His officers wheeled and rode after him, while the bewildered
soldiers trailed behind, two and two, down the narrow road, greatly
wondering whether reward or punishment was to be their lot.
As for Jabez Rockwell, he strode proudly in the van as guide to the
log cabin, and felt his heart flutter as he jumped to the head of
the charger, while the general dismounted with the agility of a
Turning to the soldiers, who hung abashed in the road, Washington
"Come in, as many of you as can find room!"
The company filled the hut, and made room for those behind by
climbing into the tiers of bunks filled with boughs to soften the
In one corner a wood-fire smoldered in a rough stone fireplace,
whose smoke made even the general cough and sneeze. He stood behind
a bench of barked logs, and took from his pocket a folded document.
Then he picked up from the hearth a bit of charcoal, and announced:
"I will write down a number between fifteen hundred and two thousand,
and the ten that guess nearest this number shall be declared the
winners of the ten horns."
He carefully tore the document into strips, and then into small
squares, which were passed along the delighted audience. There
was a busy whispering and scratching of heads. Over in one corner,
jammed against the wall until he gasped for breath, Jabez Rockwell
said to himself:
"I must guess shrewdly. Methinks he will choose a number half-way
between fifteen hundred and two thousand. I will write down seventeen
hundred and fifty. But, stay! Seventeen seventy-six may come first
into his mind, the glorious year when the independence of the
colonies was declared. But he will surely take it that we, too,
are thinking of that number, wherefore I will pass it by."
As if reading his thoughts, a comrade curled up in a bunk at Rockwell's
elbow muttered, "Seventeen seventy-six, I haven't a doubt of it!"
Alas for the cunning surmise of Jabez, the chief did write down
the Independence year, "1776," and when this verdict was read aloud
the boy felt deep disappointment. This was turned to joy, however,
when his guess of "1750" was found to be among the ten nearest the
fateful choice, and one of the powder-horns fell to him.
The soldiers pressed back to make way for General Washington as he
went out of the hut, stooping low that his head might escape the
roof-beams. Before the party mounted, the boyish Lafayette swung
his hat round his head and shouted:
"A huzza for ze wise general!"
The soldiers cheered lustily, and General Mühlenberg followed with:
"Now a cheer for the Declaration of Independence and for the soldier
who wrote down 'Seventeen seventy-six.'"
General Washington bowed in his saddle, and the shouting followed
his clattering train up the valley on his daily tour of inspection.
He left behind him a new-fledged hero in the person of Jabez
Rockwell, whose bold tactics had won him a powder-horn and given
his comrades the rarest hour of the dreary winter at Valley Forge.
In his leisure time he scraped and polished the horn, fitted it
with a wooden stopper and cord, and with greatest care and labor
scratched upon its gleaming surface these words:
Jabez Rockwell, Ridgeway, Conn—His Horn
Made in Camp at Valley Forge
Thin and pale, but with unbroken spirit, this sixteen-year-old
veteran drilled and marched and braved picket duty in zero weather,
often without a scrap of meat to brace his ration for a week on
end; but he survived with no worse damage than sundry frost-bites.
In early spring he was assigned to duty as a sentinel of the company
which guarded the path that led up the hill to the headquarters of
the commander-in-chief. Here he learned much to make the condition
of his comrades seem more hopeless and forlorn than ever.
Hard-riding scouting parties came into camp with reports of forays
as far as the suburbs of Philadelphia, twenty miles away. Spies,
disguised as farmers, returned with stories of visits into the heart
of the capital city held by the enemy. This gossip and information,
Which the young sentinel picked up bit by bit, he pieced together
to make a picture of an invincible, veteran British army, waiting
to fall upon the huddled mob of "rebels" at Valley Forge, and
sweep them away like chaff. He heard it over and over again, that
the Hessians, with their tall and gleaming brass hats and fierce
mustaches, "were dreadful to look upon," that the British Grenadiers,
who tramped the Philadelphia streets in legions, "were like moving
ranks of stone wall."
Then Jabez would look out across the valley, and perhaps see an
American regiment at drill, without uniforms, ranks half-filled,
looking like an array of scarecrows. His heart would sink, dfespite
his memories of Saratoga; and in such dark hours he could not
believe it possible even for General Washington to win a battle in
the coming summer campaign.
It was on a bright day of June that Capt. Allan McLane, the leader
of scouts, galloped past the huts of the sentinels, and shouted as
"The British have marched out of Philadelphia! I have just cut my
way through their skirmishers over in New Jersey!"
A little later orderlies were buzzing out of the old stone house
at headquarters like bees from a hive, with orders for the troops
to be ready to march. As Jabez Rockwell hurried to rejoin his
regiment, men were shouting the glad news along the green valley,
with songs and cheers and laughter. They fell in as a fighting
army, and left behind them the tragic story of their winter at
Valley Forge, as the trailing columns swept beyond the Schuylkill
into the wide and smiling farm lands of Pennsylvania.
Summer heat now blistered the dusty faces that had been for so long
blue and pinched with hunger and cold. A week of glad marching and
full rations carried Washington's awakened army into New Jersey,
by which time the troops knew their chief was leading them to block
the British retreat from Philadelphia.
Jabez Rockwell, marching with the Connecticut Brigade, had forgotten
his fears of the brass-capped Hessians and the stone-wall Grenadiers.
One night they camped near Monmouth village, and scouts brought in
the tidings that the British were within sight. In the long summer
twilight Jabez climbed a little knoll hard by, and caught a glimpse
of the white tents of the Queen's Hangers, hardly beyond musket-shot.
Before daybreak a rattle of firing woke him, and he scrambled out
to find that the pickets were already exchanging shots.
He picked up his old musket, and chewing a hunk of dry bread for
breakfast, joined his company drawn up in a pasture. Knapsacks were
piled near Freehold meeting-house, and the troops marched ahead,
not knowing where they were sent.
Across the wooded fields Jabez saw the lines of red splotches which
gleamed in the early sunlight, and he knew these were British troops.
The rattling musket-fire became a grinding roar, and the deeper
note of artillery boomed into the tumult. A battle had begun, yet
the Connecticut Brigade was stewing in the heat hour after hour,
impatient, troubled, wondering why they had no part to play. As
the forenoon dragged along the men became sullen and weary.
When at last an order came it was not to advance, but to retreat.
Falling back, they found themselves near their camping-place.
Valley Forge had not quenched the faith of Jabez Rockwell in General
Washington's power to conquer any odds, but now he felt such dismay
as brought hot tears to his eyes. On both sides of his regiment
American troops were streaming to the rear, their columns broken
and straggling. It seemed as if the whole army was fleeing from
the veterans of Clinton and Cornwallis.
Jabez flung himself into a cornfield, and hid his face in his arms.
Round him his comrades were muttering their anger and despair. He
fumbled for his canteen, and his fingers closed round his powder-horn.
"General Washington did not give you to me to run away with," he
whispered; and then his parched lips moved in a little prayer:
"Dear Lord, help us to beat the British this day, and give me a
chance to empty my powder-horn before night. Thou hast been with
General Washington and me ever since last year. Please don't desert
Nor was he surprised when, as if in direct answer to his petition,
he rose to see the chief riding through the troop lines, but such
a chief as he had never known before. The kindly face was aflame
with anger, and streaked with dust and sweat. The powerful horse
he rode was lathered, and its heaving flanks were scarred from
As the commander passed the regiment, his staff in a whirlwind at
his heels, Jabez heard him shout in a great voice vibrant with rage
"I cannot believe the army is retreating. I ordered a general
advance. Who dared to give such an order? Advance those lines—"
"It was General Lee's order to retreat," Jabez heard an officer
stammer in reply.
Washington vanished in a moment, with a storm of cheers in his wake.
Jabez was content to wait for orders now. He believed the Battle
of Monmouth as good as won.
His recollection of the next few hours was jumbled and hazy. He
knew that the regiment went forward, and then the white smoke of
musket-fire closed down before him. Now and then the summer breeze
made rifts in this stifling cloud, and he saw it streaked with
spouting fire. He aimed his old musket at that other foggy line
beyond the rail fence, whose top was lined with men in coats of
red and green and black.
Suddenly his officers began running to and fro, and a shout ran
down the thin line:
"Stand steady, Connecticut! Save your fire! Aim low! Here comes
A tidal wave of red and brass broke through the gaps in the rail
fence, and the sunlight rippled along a wavering line of British
bayonets. They crept nearer, nearer, until Jabez could see the grim
ferocity, the bared teeth, the staring eyes of the dreaded Grenadiers.
At the command to fire he pulled trigger, and the kick of his musket
made him grunt with pain. Pulling the stopper from his powder-horn
with his teeth, Jabez poured in a charge, and was ramming the
bullet home when he felt his right leg double under him and burn
as if red-hot iron had seared it.
Then the charging tide of Grenadiers swept over him. He felt their
hobnailed heels bite into his back; then his head felt queer, and
he closed his eyes. When he found himself trying to rise, he saw,
as through a mist, his regiment falling back, driven from their
ground by the first shock of the charge. He groaned in agony of
spirit. What would General Washington say?
Jabez was now behind the headlong British column, which heeded him
not. He was in a little part of the field cleared of fighting for
the moment, except for the wounded who dotted the trampled grass.
The smoke had drifted away, for the swaying lines in front of him
were locked in the frightful embrace of cold steel.
The boy staggered to his feet, with his musket as a crutch, and
his wound was forgotten. He was given strength to his need by the
spirit of a great purpose.
Alone he stood and reeled, while he beckoned, passionately,
imploringly, his arm outstretched toward his broken regiment. The
lull in the firing made a moment of strange quiet, broken only by
groans and the hard, gasping curses of men locked in the death-grip.
Therefore the shrill young voice carried far, as he shouted:
"Come back, Connecticut! I'm waiting for you!"
His captain heard the boy, and waved his sword with hoarse cries
to his men. They caught sight of the lonely little figure in the
background, and his cry went to their hearts, and a great wave of
rage and shame swept the line like a prairie fire. Like a landslide
the men of Connecticut swept forward to recapture the ground they
had yielded. Back fell the British before a countercharge they could
not withstand, back beyond the rail fence. Nor was there refuge
even there, for, shattered and spent, they were smashed to fragments
in a flank attack driven home in the nick of time by the American
From a low hill to the right of this action General Washington had
paused to view the charge just when his line gave way. He sent an
officer in hot haste for reserves, and waited for them where he
Thus it happened that his eye swept the littered field from which
Jabez Rockwell rose, as one from the dead, to rally his comrades,
alone, undaunted, pathetic beyond words. A little later two privates
were carrying to the rear the wounded lad, who had been picked up
alive and conscious. They halted to salute their Commander-in-chief,
and laid their burden down as the general drew rein and said:
"Take this man to my quarters, and see to it that he has every
possible attention. I saw him save a regiment and retake a position."
The limp figure on the litter of boughs raised itself on an elbow,
and said very feebly:
"I didn't want to see that powder-horn disgraced, sir."
With a smile of recognition General Washington responded:
"The powder-horn? I remember. You are the lad who led the
powder-horn rebellion at Valley Forge. And I wrote down 'Seventeen
seventy-six.' You have used it well, my boy. I will not forget."
When Jabez Rockwell was able to rejoin his company he scratched
upon the powder-horn this addition to the legend he had carved at
First Used at Monmouth
June 28, 1778.
A hundred years later the grandson of Jabez Rockwell hung the
powder-horn in the old stone house at Valley Forge which had been
General Washington's headquarters. And if you should chance to see
it there you will find that the young soldier added one more line
to the rough inscription:
Last Used at Yorktown, 1781.