Monday, January 7, 2013

“THE DEATH OF PACKINHAM” A Powder Horn Carried at the Battle of New Orleans

By M.E. Hubbs

January 8th marks the 198th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.  I'll not try to repeat the story of that important, one-sided victory for the fledgling United States.  That has been chronicled by many others.  Instead here is the story of one man who was there, and the powder horn that he carried into battle.

Early powder horns with good provenance to the War of 1812 and earlier eras are quite rare.  Many that have survived did so because of well executed inscribing and carving that propelled the horn into the realm of folk art as much as historic artifact.  Other horns only survived by chance. Simple horns, carried by common soldiers are the rarest and are usually the most difficult to document.  The horn that is the subject of this article has an impeccable provenance, yet it is a simple horn, carried by an ordinary man during an extraordinary moment in history.

Thomas Whitwell was the quintessential American frontiersman of the late 18th and early 19th century.  He is remarkable only by the extraordinary amount of documentation pertaining to him that was recorded in legal and governmental records of his time.  In an era when few left a trace on the written record, evidence of Whitwell’s life stretches from Massachusetts to Louisiana and several states in between.  Most of the details of Thomas Whitwell’s life have been discovered through the diligent research of his fourth Great-Grandson, Dr. David Whitwell.  That research, coupled with family oral traditions, has pieced together a compelling story of tragedy and adventure.

Thomas was born in 1774 and was only a toddler when he was “bound out” to his maternal Grandfather at Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia.  His father had died suddenly and his newly remarried mother left him and his older brother in the care of relatives when she departed for the Kentucky wilderness with her new husband.    In 1791, when Thomas was seventeen he was either released or fled an apprenticeship with William Johnson.  Family oral traditions are that Thomas was “shanghaied” and later jumped ship in Boston.  On 12 December 1791 the Boston Gazette reported that the ship Generous Friends had arrived in Boston from Africa.  A few weeks later a Thomas Whitwell received two official “warnings” from Boston authorities to leave the city. Thomas was listed as “white” and his last residence as “Africa”.  The family stories of abduction and jumping ship appear to be true, and on a slaver no less!

Thomas next appears in Mercer County, Kentucky where he joined his older brother, Mother and Stepfather.  He married Polly Anderson there in 1798.  By 1802 he was in Barron County, Kentucky.  Just before the War of 1812, Thomas moves again to recently opened lands along Yellow Creek in Dickson County, Tennessee.  It is here in 1814, at the age of thirty nine that he and his brother-in-law and best friend, Elkanah Anderson, would join Captain Ellis’s Company of Militia.

Ellis’s company was one of about thirty companies of West Tennessee militia that were raised in the autumn of 1814.  William Carroll of Jackson’s staff was sent home to recruit a new force to assist in the defense of New Orleans.  Carroll succeeded in raising three regiments.  Ellis’s Company, raised in Dickson County, was made a part of Colonel John Cocke’s 2nd Regiment.  (This John Cocke is not to be confused with General John Cocke of the East Tennessee Militia during the Creek Indian War.) Carroll’s command made a torturous 1,300 mile, month long journey down the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi rivers and reached New Orleans on December 20, 1814.

Carroll’s three regiments were placed near the center of the American line along the Rodriguez Canal.  They took part in the fighting on 27 and 31 December and the climatic battle on 8 January 1815.  Carroll’s regiments occupied the line just opposite of where Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham was killed on 8 January.   Family tradition states that Thomas’s brother-in-law, Elkanah Anderson, was killed in the famous battle.  Muster rolls from Ellis’s company show that Elkanah died on 15 January 1815 in New Orleans.  It is not clear if the death was due to wounds received during the engagement, or from other causes.

Thomas Whitwell's Powder Horn (Photo: Shane McKinnon)

The horn is rather small in size with a total length of approximately 9 inches.  Though relatively small, the volume of the horn would comfortably hold the one quarter pound of powder that militiamen armed with rifles were required to provide for themselves under the Militia Act of 1792.   The base of the horn is 9 inches in circumference and the hardwood base cap appears to have been originally attached to the horn body with metal tacks.  Although the tacks are missing from the 14 evenly spaced holes, the tale-tale signs of the tack heads are visible around the holes.  The base cap is not lathe turned but is hand carved with the base and sling button carved from a single piece of wood. 

To prevent (or to repair) cracks the horn spout has been reinforced with lead.  It appears that the spout was cast and bored then slid over the spout mouth atop a previous sheet lead repair.  There is no way of determining if the lead spout was applied when the horn was in use by Mr. Whitwell.  The horn lacks a stopper or sling. 

Inscriptions on the horn body are rather crude.  The various lines of the 1812 era inscription appear to have been added in stages.  There is also speculation that the horn originally belonged to Mr. Whitwell’s father, also named Thomas.  This is due to the date “1775” which seems to be out of context with the rest of the inscription on the horn. This is a year after the birth of Thomas Jr. and the year of Thomas Sr.’s death.

The lines are inscribed from the base towards the spout and are generally justified on the left near the base cap.  They read:

Drawing of War of 1812 Inscriptions on the Powder Horn
Close-up of Inscription (Photo: Shane McKinnon)
The War of 1812 era inscription is followed by this:

Wm. WHiTWELL 1818

William Whitwell was Thomas’s oldest son.  It is not clear whether the “This is my father’s horn” was carved by Thomas, referring to Thomas Sr., or by William in reference to Thomas Jr.  Changes in the style of carving suggest it is the former.  From Thomas down, the horn passed through a five-generation un-broken line of descent.  Each descendant-owner inscribed a line on the horn to celebrate their generation.  Some put their names and date of acquisition; others added their name and birth date.  The last descendant-owner that appears on the horn is also the only female.  She added her name and birthday:


Leta Whitwell Johnson inherited the horn sometime after the death of her father in 1947.  After many years of correspondence with Dr. David Whitwell, who descends from Thomas through a different line, she decided to pass the horn to him to keep it in possession of a Whitwell.  David was granted the horn in 1975 and drove from California to Oklahoma to secure the treasure.  It was rescued from the Johnson family barn.  The loose base cap and long cracks in the horn are the result if it being stepped on by a cow at some time before its rescue! The horn also shows signs of earlier repairs.

Although some may be disappointed that additional lines and names were added to this horn after its first historic inscription, those carvings are indicative of the significance and importance each succeeding generation has placed on this treasured family heirloom.  Without that family perception of importance this artifact may never have survived to surpass its standing of heirloom, to become an artifact of national significance.

Acknowledgments:  My thanks to Dr. David Whitwell for remaining patient with my many emails concerning Thomas Whitwell and his horn.  And most of all for the diligent research that he as done on our common Fourth Great-Grandfather.

This article originally appeared in: Military Collector & Historian; Spring 2008, Vol. 60 Issue 1, p2 (the journal of the Company of Military Historians)


  1. I am a descendant of Thomas Whitwell and loved your article! I have known about the horn for years, but you provided a lot more information. Thanks!!

    drleeds at sbcglobal dot net
    You mention so many things that I'd like to know more about... like this "bound out” to his maternal Grandfather at Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia". Do you know the name of his maternal grandfather? Or someone I could talk to?

    Also, I've seen a lot of photos of the horn, but none that are as complete as these images. Is there a way I could get ahold of the photographer and get permission to repost these photos?

    I'm excited by all that you shared! It's an amazing story that has filled in some of the story of my ancestors! Thank you!

    1. Cousin Dana, It is nice to hear from you. I'm very pleased that you found the article helpful. I'm also a descendent of Thomas Whitwell. He was my 4th Great Grandfather. Much of the Whitwell geneology was done by David Whitwell, the owner of the horn. He provided the photos also. Contact me via email if you would like,

  2. Great stuff Mark, I always enjoy reading your stuff. Thanks for posting, I hope all is well. Ryan Meyer