Rifleman Thomas Plunkett: 'A Pattern for the Battalion.'
Of the men who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, few are remembered except those whose high rank permits it. Our insights today into the lives and careers of individual members of the rank and file who made up the bulk of British Army in the Peninsula are almost solely restricted to those very few who later published diaries, letters or memoirs. Yet a few names and characters do live on in the pages of others' writings, achieving sufficient fame to be recalled by one or more of their comrades and thus passed on into posterity. Rifleman Thomas Plunkett is one of these rarest of characters. Although he left no record of his own existence, others of his battalion, the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, have seen fit to set down this Irishman's career and achievements beside their own to leave us with a scattered picture of a man who was certainly a character, if not a hero.
An Auspicious Start
Mention of Plunkett can first be found during Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke's disastrous expedition against Spanish colonies in South America in 1807. The 95th, with the 43rd and 52nd Foot, formed a part of the Light Brigade (led by Robert Crauford in an inauspicious start to a later legendary partnership). This brigade was involved in the attack on Buenos Aires on 6 July 1807 which culminated in their being surrounded and forced to surrender to the Spanish. During the attack the 95th became isolated and besieged in the convent of St. Domingo by a vastly superior Spanish force. Although the only Rifleman-journalist present, Harry Smith, quite understandably glosses over this most ignoble episode in the regiment's history, Verner states that it is here that Plunkett first made his name. While on the roof of the convent Plunkett and a second man, Rifleman Fisher, "literally shot down every Spaniard who ventured to show himself within range." He quotes Plunkett as later claiming to have shot twenty Spanish soldiers, including an officer whose shooting of he was probably most remembered for at the time. This officer was carrying a flag of truce and coming to offer terms for surrender when Plunkett, ignorant of the flags meaning, shot him through both thighs provoking a Spanish barrage and assault. Again, for understandable reasons, Smith makes no mention of this.
But it is in the Peninsula War that Plunkett's name was truly made with his most famous act, indeed one of the most famous acts undertaken by any individual common soldier during the war. It occurred at the village of Cacabellos in the Galacian Mountains. A small village, nestled in a valley formed by the River Cua, it would have probably remained untouched by history had it not lain on the road to Corunna, and right in the line of retreat for Sir John Moore's army. On the 3 January 1809, the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles, forming the rearguard with the rest of the Reserve Division, stood on the southern ridge to cover the road to the village's double arch stone bridge, across which the British Army was retreating. Typical of the retreat's breakdown in discipline, even among the elite 95th, the previous day some of the Rifles had found a wine store and had become drunk and disorderly. The morning of the 3rd brought a courts martial for two Riflemen along with hangovers and further intoxication for others. Sir Edward Paget, the divisional commander and a true gentleman, had pardoned the two Riflemen sentenced to be flogged and returned the Rifles to the line only moments before the French advance guard came into view. Soon under attack from cavalry from the 15eme Chasseurs a Cheval and 3eme Hussards, the 95th fell back down the hill onto the bridge over which the tail end of the army was still retreating. Chaos threatened to break out with the French mixing it with not only the Rifles but also men of the Light Company of the 28th Foot and 15th Hussars on the approaches to and end of the bridge.
Order was swiftly restored, however. The French commander, a dashing and talented young general called Auguste-Marie-Francois Colbert, seeing the rest of the 28th Foot and six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery formed up on the ridge on the far side of the Cua, withdrew his men to be reformed. Paget also pulled his forces back, placing the 28th across the road on the far side with the 52nd and 95th formed up on either side in positions to pour flanking fire onto the bridge. It was this position that Colbert unwisely, and fatally, decided to assault. Forming his cavalry into a column of fours he charged for the bridge. Seeing Colbert charging ahead of his men, distinctive because of his uniform and grey horse, Plunkett raced ahead of the line and onto the bridge. Throwing himself onto his back and resting his Baker Rifle on his crossed feet with the butt under his right shoulder in the approved manner, Plunkett fired at and killed Colbert. Apparently, having reloaded quickly, Plunkett then shot a second Frenchman who had ridden to Colbert's aid before dashing back to the British line.
The exact details of this act have always been rather sketchy. The distances involved, either of Plunkett's advance or of his shot, and Plunkett's motivations are vague. The main problem is with the unreliability or absence of eyewitness accounts. Three Riflemen left accounts, Captain Kincaid, Quarter Master Surtees and Rifleman Costello, yet none of these men were present and base their accounts upon regimental legend. Of those who were in the retreat, Lieutenant Smith and Rifleman Harris both leave comprehensive memoirs that give no mention of Plunkett. Harris, excusably, as he was with the 2nd/95th on the road to Vigo. Similarly, William Napier does not mention him in his history of the war, despite his family's heavy involvement in the Light Division. Basically, the only information available, although from apparently primary sources, is from secondary accounts and hearsay.
The main area of argument is the range at which Plunkett made the shot. Oman, in stating that it was 'from a range that seemed extraordinary to the riflemen of that day', but giving neither an exact figure, nor any sources, seems to have started to establish the myth of Plunkett making an impossible shot, a myth frequently repeated by modern authors as proof of the prowess of the Baker Rifle and those who used them. Some popular literature even puts the range at 800 yards. Other accounts are less emphatic about the range. Kincaid records only that Plunkett took up an 'advanced position', and Costello that he ran 'about a hundred yards nearer to the enemy'. As no record is left of how far the distance between the lines was at that moment, this does not help much. The most intriguing account is Surtees'. He says that Plunkett 'got sufficiently nigh to make sure of his mark', insinuating that the range was quite normal.
All of these seem to put the emphasis on Plunkett's bravery in advancing so far forward as to make sure of his shot, rather than the range at which the shot was made. The debate probably began much later than the time of the diarists' writings, possibly brought about by the complete lack of evidence on this point. Even Rutherford-Moore, after close analysis of both sources and the ground at Cacabellos concludes that the range could have been 'anywhere between 200 and 600 metres'. This covers the difficulties in balancing the various factors involved in the shot. Plunkett would need to be at a close enough range to hit a moving target despite his breathless and frozen state, yet still be able to beat the speeding cavalry to make good his escape. Another factor needs consideration if the story of his then downing a second Frenchman is to be believed.
According to Surtees, when Colbert fell the rest of the French were sent 'flying to the rear much faster than they advanced', which would solve the problem of Plunkett's escape, but Costello has Plunkett calmly reload and shoot the enemy Trumpet-Major as he rides to Colbert's assistance. If this is true, than the ranges in question have again to be re-evaluated. For Plunkett to have time to reload before the Trumpet-Major could reach Colbert, Colbert must have been a considerable distance ahead of his troops. For the reloading of a Baker Rifle at least 30 seconds must be allowed. Although Plunkett's experience may have sped his loading, the intense cold and nerves must have equally slowed him down. Presuming that the second Frenchman rode forward to Colbert's aid, and that the pair were still ahead of the main body of Frenchmen when the second shot occurred, thus giving Plunkett the clear view he would have needed, Colbert must have been far in advance of his men, and thus much closer to Plunkett and the British line than otherwise may be thought, thus shortening the range.
All of this, however, is as ever, pure, and complicated, conjecture. It will never be known just what the distances and relationships were for Plunkett's shot or shots, or even if he actually fired the shots. Harman fully discusses the difficulties in attributing any single shot to any single man on a Napoleonic battlefield, but in this instance the odds are probably in Plunkett's favour, and it is certain that Plunkett received the credit and became a most unlikely hero.
Plunkett's character was not one to ordinarily deserve such credit, indeed his motives for performing this act of daring have even been put down to monetary gain by Costello, our main source for information on Plunkett's character. He recounts a story that as the French cavalry charged, Paget offered his purse to any Rifleman who could shoot Colbert, and, accordingly, paid Plunkett for the act. This story has been scorned, probably correctly, by Rutherford-Moore, based upon Paget's known gentlemanly and chivalrous personality, although he admits the possibility that Paget rewarded Plunkett for his act with money at the time.
Costello writes extensively about Plunkett, whose affect upon Costello probably stems from his role in Costello's introduction to the 95th. He recounts that his first parade with the 95th was a special ceremony to congratulate and promote Plunkett, who was held up and seen as shining example of soldierly conduct and courage to the rest of the battalion. On closer inspection, Plunkett seems a rather dubious hero-figure and role model to hold up for the army to follow. Most accounts of Plunkett's character are sketchy and short, but all agree on one point at least: that he drank. Surtees describes him as 'a noted pickle,' while Kincaid says that he 'suffered from the curse of his country,' at a time when even the Duke of Wellington himself was commenting on the drinking habits of his large proportion of Irish troops. Costello, as ever, gives more details and gives an extreme example of this habit which 'in its destructive consequences, calculated to counterbalance in a soldier a thousand virtues.' While in camp at Campo Mayor, just after the battle of Talavera, Plunkett, a sergeant at the time, was caught drunk on parade by his captain, the Hon. Captain Stewart, and placed under arrest. Despite being a man 'noted for his good humour and humanity' when sober, in his drunken state Plunkett became bent upon revenge. As soon as he was left alone in the guardhouse, he barricaded the door and seized a rifle and vowed to shoot Captain Stewart. Forewarned, the Captain stayed away and Plunkett was persuaded to surrender by Lieutenant Johnston. Court martialled, he was sentenced to the loss of his stripes and three hundred lashes, of which he received thirty-five. The sentence was cut on account of his previous actions and popularity, with even the colonel, Sydney Beckwith, being reluctant to impose the punishment.
Although he seems to have behaved better after his flogging, being raised again to corporal 'notwithstanding little fits of inebriety,' his conduct overall seems to fit Wellington's sneer of his men being the 'scum of the earth', although he also fits the postscript of 'what damn fine fellows we've made of them.' All agree that he was 'bold, fit, [and] athletic' man, in the 'prime of manhood; with a clear grey eye, and handsome countenance'. His drunkenness and occasional disorderly behaviour would be nothing unusual in Wellington's army, while his bravery, marksmanship and general appearance and bearing would mark him out as the, in theory, ideal Rifleman. Perhaps it was this overall appearance, along with the desperate need in the British army for heroes to trumpet after the horrors of the retreat to Corunna, that set him up for praise and a medal. Judging by the reaction of Costello, the action certainly had the required morale raising effect upon the new recruits in particular.
This appearance could also account for his inclusion in recruiting parties, where his antics certainly set him aside as a character. While recruiting in one of the 95th's regular haunts, Hythe on the South East Kent coast, Plunkett and his party were aiming to enlist as many of the Militia men stationed in the area as possible to reinforce the battalion after Corunna. This area, nearly opposite the French invasion camps at Boulogne, was an area of major defence works and troop concentrations. Regular battalions were always heavily supported by regiments of Militia, which the army saw as rich recruiting grounds - 48% of the army's recruits in 1809 were from the Militia - and a majority of Riflemen started off in the Militia (Costello in the Dublin Militia). Indeed, when the call went out for 350 more men for the Rifles, 1,282 Militia soldiers volunteered in only a few days. To this end Militia colonels were ordered to place barrels of beer in the streets for all to dip in to, in order to further encourage their men to enlist. Doubtless fortified by the barrels contents and eager to impress the potential recruits, Plunkett climbed on top of an unopened barrel and began to dance a jig (his dancing skills were also well known, dancing the hornpipe on the voyage to Portugal to much acclaim from both soldiers and the crew.) Already attracting attention, all eyes turned to Plunkett as the head of the barrel gave way, leaving him up to his neck in beer. Demonstrating the quick wits encouraged by the 95th in its men, Plunkett heaved himself out of the barrel, and before all present clambered up a chimney in a nearby public house. Descending again, covered in soot, he cried 'd-n your pipe clay, now I'm ready for the grand parade!' Not only did he demonstrate the wit and elan of the 95th, but by turning the situation to emphasise the distinctive uniform and lack of 'pipe clay and button stick which were always hateful to the eyes of soldiers,' two of the very major appeals of joining the 95th, intelligence too.
Fit, intelligent, a crack shot and not above a little capering and even mild mutiny, Plunkett certainly seems to fit the very image of what we have come to see Riflemen as. He was lucky, too, and not only in getting away with threatening to shoot an officer, but also in not receiving a scratch in battle until at Waterloo, where a musket ball hit the peak of his shako and tore his forehead. The wound was sufficiently bad for him to be returned to England and put before the board at Chelsea Hospital. He was only offered a pension of sixpence a day after his many years distinguished service, however. This was a pittance, which Plunkett not only thought so but also told the officers of the board. The resulting argument resulted in his discharge without any pension. His character certainly seems to be one of which Richard Sharpe would have been proud; tough, bright and not adverse to putting senior officers in their place. Sharpe, however, probably would have actually been slightly envious of his ability to avoid bullets and blades!
However, Plunkett lived in the real world and was left homeless and penniless, and with a new wife. Shortly after Waterloo he had married what Costello describes as 'a lady remarkable for being deficient in one essential to beauty - she actually had no face.' This unfortunate woman had been caught in the explosion of an ammunition wagon at Quatre Bras, and her 'countenance was rendered a blue, shapeless, noseless mass,' although she was granted a pension of a shilling a day by the government. Making his way back to Ireland, he eventually rejoined the army, signing up for either the 31st or 32nd Regiment of Foot. Here fortune briefly smiled on Plunkett, for the commander of his district was his old commanding officer, Beckwith (now Sir Sydney.) Recognising Plunkett during a parade, Beckwith promoted him to corporal and later arranged for him to face another board at the Irish wing of the Chelsea Hospital at Kilmainham, where he was granted a pension of a shilling a day.
An Inauspicious End
Now discharged, Plunkett, with his wife, took advantage of a government offer to all veterans and emigrated to Canada with the guarantee of land and four years' pay in return for waiving their pension rights. He returned to England in less than a year, however, complaining that his land had proven to be wild and swampy and unusable, and penniless once more as he had forfeited his pension. This brave soldier continued to be typical of the men of Wellington's army for the rest of his life, rejected after years of service and left with little or no pension. Plunkett and his wife spent the rest of their years wandering the country selling matches, needles, and tapes to scratch a living. He died in Colchester in 1851 or 1852, falling over and expiring in the street. His public death and his wife's unfortunate appearance led to news of the event spreading through the town until it came to the attention of several retired officers who recognised Plunkett's name. They started a collection for the widow, totalling eventually £20, while an officer's wife personally financed his funeral and paid for the erection of 'a handsome tombstone'.
Thus ended the life of a remarkable man. Unable, despite his own skills, to leave an account of his life himself, he is never the less perpetuated in the writings of others. In many ways he is typical of soldiers and Riflemen of this period in his character, service, and in his retirement, yet also stands out from them as a charismatic and brave man. Whether he actually was the man who killed General Colbert, the salient reason for his remembrance, is unknown, and probably never will be. Whether the range of the shot was as great as is often claimed is also dubious, but perhaps we are missing the point. Instead of using very shaky evidence to argue out the merits and limits of Napoleonic weapons, we should follow the suit of Plunkett's contemporaries and instead honour the bravery and the skill of the man, and of the army he represents.
1. Brett-James, Anthony. (ed.) The Peninsula and Waterloo Campaigns - Edward Costello London; 1967. P. 8 Colonel Sydney Beckwith's description of Plunkett at the special parade.
2. Smith, Harry. The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith 1781-1819 London; 1999
3. Verner, Willoughby. A History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade 1800-1813 London; 1999. Vol. I, Pp116-117
4. Oman, Charles. A History of the Peninsular War London; 1996. Vol. I, P. 568-569
5. Cornwell. Bernard. Sharpe's Sword Glasgow; 1983. P. 35
6. Kincaid, John. Adventures in the Rifle Brigade & Random Shots from a Rifleman. Glasgow; 1981. P. 185
7. Costello. P. 11
8. Surtees, William. Twenty-Five years In The Rifle Brigade London; 1996. P. 90
9. Rutherford-Moore. R. "Plunkett's Shot" First Empire Issue 24; 1998.
10. Surtees. Pp. 90-91
12. Costello. P. 11
12. Harman. A. "British Rifles and Light Infantry in the Peninsular War" in Griffith. P. (ed.) A History of the Peninsular War Volume IX: Modern Studies of the War in Spain and Portugal, 1808-1814 London : Greenhill Books; 1999
13. Costello. P. 11
14. Surtees. P.90
15. Kincaid. P185
16. Costello. P.11. All subsequent biographical information comes from Costello pp. 8-17, unless otherwise stated.
17. Kincaid. P. 185
18. Glover. Michael. Wellington's Army London; 1977. P. 35
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2000