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 powder!"

A tall, gaunt Vermonter, whose uniform was a woollen 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 his critic:

"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 old soldiers."

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 many?"

"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 suggestion.

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 ten prizes."

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 confusion.

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 attention.

"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 them.

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 do?"

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:

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"To the rescue. The victim is a worthy member of my old Pennsylvania flock. This does savor of a soldier's court martial for honest Jacob Ritter."

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 boy.

Turning to the soldiers, who hung abashed in the road, Washington called:

"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 rough-hewn planks.

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. I think 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 firs 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 Muhlenberg 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, despite 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 he rode:

"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. You have been with General Washington and me ever since last year. Please don't desert us now."

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 hard-driven spurs.

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 and grief:

"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.

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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 charge!"

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 reserves.

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 was.

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 Valley Forge:

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.

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