Saturday, February 13, 2010

Died in America: John Wilkins, 4th Regiment of Foot

John Wilkins was a seasoned soldier in the 4th (King's Own) Regiment of Foot. He was a private soldier in the regiment when it arrived in Boston in 1774, and at the end of 1776 was among those selected for the regiment's light infantry company. This company was formed of experienced troops who were limber, quick and well suited for rapid movement and open-order skirmishing. The 4th's light company was among those that fought on the opening day of hostilities on 19 April 1775, and then suffered terribly in the abortive flanking movement at Bunker Hill the following June. Brought up to strength by transferring experienced soldiers from the regiment's eight battalion companies, the lights became part of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, a corps that was in the forefront of the spectacularly successful campaign around New York and into New Jersey in the fall of 1776. Although repeatedly victorious, the companies in the battalion had suffered numerous casualties in their roll at the vanguard of the army. They were replenished again at the end of 1776, with John Wilkins among the replacements.

The battalion remained active throughout 1777, first during campaigning in New Jersey and then during the aggressive campaign to Philadelphia in August and September. The battalion almost met with disaster when their encampment was suprised by an overwhelming American force at Germantown outside of Philadelphia on 4 October 1777. The American attack fell into confusion and the arrival of substantial British reinforcements turned the tide, prevent a rout of the light infantry. The 4th's light company suffered three men killed and several wounded in the fight. It was on the night after this famous action that John Wilkins was shot and killed, but the circumstances were quite different than we might expect from finding him listed as "died" on the regiment's muster rolls.

At midnight on the night of 4-5 October, trooper Alexander Sheppard of the 16th (Queen's) Light Dragoons was posted sentry over the troops horses that were tied on a picket line in Germantown. About a half hour later one of the horses got loose, and Sheppard quickly went to secure it. As he was doing so, someone came towards him in the darkness and said, "You bougre, are you sentry over those horses?"

Sheppard replied that he was. The stranger then said, "If I can get to you, I'll give you a good licking."

Sheppard told the man to go about his business, as he had nothing to say to him. Sheppard then secured the horse, took it to the line and tied it up. As he was doing so, the man who'd accosted him untied the leftmost horse in the line and made off with it. After Sheppard tied up the loose horse he went along the line to see that the rest were secure. When he found that the end horse was missing, he saw the stranger running off with it and called to him. The stranger responded, "Kiss my arse, you bougre," and continued leading the horse away.

Sheppard guessed that the man was a rebel prisoner who had gotten loose and wanted the horse to speed his escape. He quickly woke the corporal of the guard, Roger Thorne; Thorne suggested that the thief was "the foolish man called Billy the Ram," apparently referring to a colorful local character who bore this common sobriquet. Sheppard said that Billy the Ram would not have used such language, and told Thorne to get a carbine or pistol and follow him after the fleeing stranger.

Sheppard then gave chase, calling for the horse thief to stop. The thief continued to respond with abusive language. They ran along the road out of town and up a hill, then turned into an orchard were Sheppard managed to catch the thief and began to struggle with him. As they struggled, Corporal Thorne arrived, having himself grabbed one of his pistols and given chase. Thorne had a particular interest in recovering the horse; some time before, when he was a Lance Corporal (a private soldier doing a corporal's duty) he had been tried by a regimental court martial because a horse had gotten loose from some sentries that he commanded. This time he was determined not to be humiliated. Rather than join the struggle between Sheppard and the thief, he told Sheppard to back off and then shot the thief in the chest from about six feet away.

The thief staggered backwards and began saying "I ask you pardon," then fell. Having more interest in recovering a lost horse than in assisting an escaped rebel prisoner turned horse thief, Thorne and Sheppard left him there. Thorne went to report the incident to the serjeant-major of the regiment, but the serjeant-major had not stayed in his usual lodgings that night and Thorne could not find him. Instead Thorne gave his report first thing in the morning. In the mean time, Sheppard had gone back to the orchard during the night and seen that the thief had died.

The dead man was not an escaped prisoner, nor was it Billy the Ram. It was John Wilkins, private soldier in the light infantry company of the 4th Regiment of Foot. On Monday, 6 October, Corporal Thorne was tried by a general court martial for the murder of a fellow soldier.

At the trial, Alexander Sheppard gave his account of the events. The court asked if he could see Wilkins' uniform, but Sheppard testified that it was too dark. The serjeant-major explained that both Sheppard and Thorne had been sober when paraded for guard on the evening of 4 October, and also that the following morning several people told him that Thorne had been trying to find him the night before. He also noted that Thorne was not prone to quarrels or disputes, and so he was particularly surprised to hear that he had been involved in the shooting. An officer of the regiment testified that Thorne had been in the regiment for four years and was "a sober quiet man, and of an unexceptionable character"; he noted that the Major of the regiment would also have testified to Thorne's good character but was unable to attend the trial.

There was no indication in the trial of what might have caused John Wilkins' unusual behavior. The court judged that Corporal Roger Thorne had acted in accordance with his duty, and acquitted him.

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