It Wasn’t Billy the Ram

Prussian Hussar - 12th Light Dragoon, c. 1768. Source: Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection

I often caution researchers that data tells us what, not why. This is particularly true of material like muster rolls that give us information about individual soldiers moving through their careers – when they enlisted, transfers between companies and regiments, and eventual departure from the army. We see, for example, that a man deserted on a certain date. That’s nice to know, but it tells us nothing about why the desertion occurred. Similarly, knowing exactly when a soldier died is an important fact, but making assumptions about the cause of death is risky. Sometimes assumptions that seem obvious turn out to be completely wrong. An excellent example is the case of John Wilkins, a soldier in the 4th Regiment of Foot.

The 4th, or King’s Own, Regiment had arrived in America before the outbreak of hostilities, landing in Boston in the summer of 1774 when tensions were building but armed conflict was not a forgone conclusion. John Wilkins was already a private soldier in the regiment, and he must have been a good one: in December of 1776 he was transferred into the regiment’s light infantry company, a body of men selected for their agility, endurance and skill. The light infantry were in the forefront of every battle, and Wilkins was among replacements sent to his own regiment’s company to make up for losses sustained in the hard campaigning that had gained dramatic victories for the British army in the New York city area.

The light infantry spent the first half of 1777 on the front lines in New Jersey fighting a series of actions that have been largely forgotten in histories of the war but were very real to the men involved. The second half of the year brought a new campaign, this time towards Philadelphia. After that city was in British hands, the light infantry were among the troops encamped in defensive positions a few miles away in the village of Germantown. It was here that a major battle occurred on 4 October when a concerted American attack overran the light infantry encampment but was then thrown back in confusion. The British army prevailed that day but took substantial casualties.

Muster rolls for the 4th Regiment of Foot show us that John Wilkins died on 5 October 1777, the day after the battle of Germantown. Many men died that day, as they did within the few days after every major battle, leading to the logical conclusion that they died of wounds. Most probably did, but the story of John Wilkins is very different. To tell it, we must introduce two other soldiers, Alexander Sheppard and Roger Thorne of the 16th Light Dragoons.

At midnight on the night of 4-5 October, things had settled down in Germantown after the day’s great battle. Alexander Sheppard was posted sentry over his troop’s horses that were tied on a picket line. 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 was a seasoned soldier who knew his business well; forty-one years old, the Manchester native had certainly seen his share of mischievous locals during his fifteen years in the army. He kept his cool and told the man to go about his business, as he had nothing to say to him. Sheppard then caught the errant 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 finished tying 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 an American prisoner who had escaped and wanted the horse to flee the area. He quickly woke the corporal of the guard, Roger Thorne; Thorne suggested that the thief was “the foolish man called Billy the Ram,” a colorful local character known to the soldiers. Sheppard said that Billy the Ram would not have used such language, and told Thorne to get a firearm 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; discerning that he was in some kind of uniform, Sheppard was convinced that the man was an escaped prisoner. As they struggled, Corporal Thorne arrived, pistol in hand. Thorne had a particular interest in recovering the horse; some time before, 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, he told Sheppard to back off. He 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 the stricken man and took their horse back to their encampment. Thorne tried to immediately report the incident to his sergeant-major, but that man 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 meantime, 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. It is from the trial proceedings that we have the details of this affair.

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 sergeant-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 had always “behaved soberly and like a good soldier” and was not prone to quarrels or disputes, 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. So it was that a British light infantryman died on the day after a major battle, of causes that would be impossible to know if we did not have the trial proceedings to tell us what happened. Relying solely on the muster rolls for the date of his death would lead us to assume that he’d died of wounds, a conclusion that is perfectly obvious and completely wrong.

[The information in the article comes from the trial proceedings, WO 71/84 p. 337-342, the muster rolls of the 4th Regiment of Foot and of the 16th Light Dragoons, WO 12/2194 and WO 12/1246, and the out-pension admission book, WO 116/7, all in the British National Archives]
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9 Comments

  • The conclusion that he died from the wounds of battle would not be entirely incorrect if his odd behavior could be attributed to PTSD; a now commonly diagnosed battlefield injury.

  • PTSD, perhaps, is possible but I suspect Wilkins’ behavior is not consistent with most PTSD diagnoses. More likely is that Wilkins was lit, suffering from a head injury during the battle or simply going to a Midnight tryst. I’d suspect the first based on his language, bravado and behavior during a half-hearted escape attempt. Medical detective work, which has been written about in these pages is fascinating but final resolutions are hard to come by. In any case, Don makes out a good case for scouring the sources available to confirm, deny or scratch one’s head to find the real story in a time when surviving sources are often hard to come by.

  • The proceedings of this trial tell us nothing about the reason for John Wilkins’ behavior. Having read the proceedings of several hundred other trials, however, we find many instances of erratic behavior for which the cause is clearly stated: alcohol. While the proportion of British soldiers who were brought to trial is small, in the vast majority of trials for desertion, assault, insubordination, murder and other forms of misbehavior, alcohol was a factor.

  • The whole point of this article is that it’s folly to speculate on cause without direct information. Knowing only this man’s date of death leads us to deduce – very logically, but completely incorrectly – that he died of battle wounds.

    Now we know the true cause of death. But assumptions about the cause of his erratic behavior, based solely on the limited information given in the trial, is liable lead to completely incorrect conclusions, however logical they may seem.

  • I read the first paragraph, and got caught again. Good journalist, great story teller and not a bad fisherman also… You made a clear distinction between facts of history as reported and relations between those facts. Connecting dots between historical events is just like walking on thin ice. My ancestor during the Rev went from one cavalry company to the next. Many explanations are possible, but not all plausible. Nevertheless, there is something interesting about the lack of proper explanation of an historical event. It provokes something we call: IMAGINATION. Thank you Mr. Hagist

  • Hi Don,

    Fascinating little piece (I would expect no less of you) and a smart reminder not to assume anything from history. Any chance you have details of the accompanying illustration of the two light dragoons? It’s one I’ve never seen before.

    Brendan

    • This beautiful picture is the right half of a larger work in the Anne S. K. Military collection; you can see the full image here: https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:239542/
      The title given on the web listing is “Prussian Hussar – 12th Light Dragoon, c. 1768”, but the description with it is clearly of a different picture in the collection (if you search the collection for “prussian hussar” you’ll find the image that matches the description given for this one). So I don’t know that ascribed title is correct. This image shows men, probably of the 12th Dragoons, in a camp setting.
      Although the 12th Dragoons did not serve in America, many troopers from the regiment volunteered to join infantry regiments that did serve in the American Revolution. You can read more about this, including the story of William Crawford of the 12th Dragoons who joined the 20th Regiment of Foot, in my book British Soldiers, American War.

      • Thanks, Don. I was trying to work out if the facings were supposed to be blue or black, and the 12th LD had black, so that solves that issue. Interesting to see the rest of the painting – the officer not wearing sash or gorget, and the same horse furniture for both him and the other ranks – and the suggestion that the “Emsdorff” helmet was common for this troop type (which makes the 16th’s adoption of the Tarleton more curious).

        Brendan

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