A Eureka Myth Exposed
A Eureka myth exposed: the drummer boy survived
By Dorothy Wickham
For over one hundred years it has been widely accepted that John Egan, the drummer boy of the 12th Regiment, was fatally wounded at Eureka. The truth has been uncovered. He was shot in the leg and survived. The drummer boy legend is but one small and intriguing facet of the exciting Eureka story. There is a gravestone in the Ballaarat [sic] Old Cemetery, erected in recent years in memory of John Egan, drummer boy of the 12th Regiment of Foot, "killed in line of duty 28th November 1854." This tombstone stands in the same consecrated ground as the monument to the military, many of Irish birth, who lost their lives at the Eureka Riots. However, John Egan did not die in the line of duty at Eureka. Despite the popularly held belief of the "death of the Drummer Boy," current research in official records reveals that he was still alive in 1855. In 1856 he was transferred with the 12th Regiment to Tasmania and was still there on 30 June 1860, almost six years after Eureka. With each "turning of the stone" more questions arose. Many accounts of Eureka (including Sovereign Hill's Blood on the Southern Cross) claim dramatically that "the little drummer boy" was "fatally wounded." In some accounts he is "trampled to death." This article demonstrates that he was not killed at Eureka but wounded.
Ballarat in 1854 was a relatively stable field. Much of the surface alluvial gold had been worked out and deep shafts had to be dug to extract the treasure from the ground. This required groups of men to form partnerships, resulting in a more stable society. The grievances of the Ballarat miners were legitimate. They had been treated harshly and unjustly by the authorities. The government thought it necessary to quell the rising indignation of the aggrieved diggers. Pasley, the government engineer, described the crisis in a letter to his father as "a very grave one." The government "had given way to popular clamour more than once." A mob of diggers had threatened to "march up to the Government Camp and take an equal number of Commissioners prisoner and keep them as hostages. If any resistance was offered, they would set fire to the Camp and kill everyone." Pasley thought that if the government gave in to the diggers' demands "the consequences would be very serious." At the same time, if they resisted and were beaten in fight by the insurgents, Pasley had no doubt that a general rebellion would ensue.
With this in mind Pasley examined the military camp. He found "a small force of about one hundred men in an exposed and defenceless camp consisting of tents and light wooden buildings by no means musketproof." The timber slabs of which the buildings were comprised had great holes between them through which daylight could be seen. If the military were attacked in this position the musket balls would fly straight through the buildings. Injuries to military personnel would be inevitable. There was civilian housing "pressing close upon the Camp." Pasley approached the townsfolk in tents near the camp and advised them to deposit all their valuables in the gold office as their tents would be fired and destroyed by the military if the government camp was attacked by the angry diggers. Military reinforcements were urgently needed. Captain Wise with the 40th Regiment came up from Geelong: "On 27 November in Melbourne two officers and 50 men of the 40th Regiment proceeded by the one o'clock steamer to Geelong, to reinforce the detachment there to 100. Their orders were to proceed to Ballarat at once." They marched through the diggings with muskets loaded and bayonets fixed. This was a full show of force by the military. They were hooted by the populace, and stones were thrown at them. On 28 November 1854, a detachment of the 12th Regiment of Foot proceeded into Ballarat through the Eureka diggings. They had been requested urgently and had hurriedly departed from Melbourne for their destination, the government camp. They were set upon by the angry and incensed population on "the Eureka". This is undoubtedly when John Egan was shot in the leg, a fact corroborated by Assistant Surgeon George Arden of the 12th Regiment, examined under oath by the board "appointed to consider claims for compensation for losses sustained during the Ballarat riots:" " On the night of the 28th about 9 or 10 o'clock we got into the diggings. We had drays and it being quite dark and the horses jaded we were marching very slowly.
"As soon as we got into the diggings a mob of diggers collected and assailed us with cries of Joe! Joe! We were pelted with large stones and bottles. We had not stopped anywhere before we were assailed. The drivers knew the way. One of the carts was capsized, the driver and two men were severely injured, the men were turned out and ordered to load. We found two men missing and a party went back to find them. They were laying [sic] off the road badly wounded. When the soldiers turned out and loaded the crowd dispersed. Lieutenant Paul was ordered on with the carts. We were shortly after joined by the 40th men from the Camp. During the disturbance several shots were fired by the diggers, but the military never returned the fire. I am quite confident that not a shot was fired by the military. Our drummer boy was shot in the leg." John Egan, who was "shot in the leg" was one of the drummer boys attached to the First Battalion, 12th Regiment. He was "despatched to Ballarat" during the 2nd Muster in November 1854. Of their arrival in Ballarat the Melbourne Argus reported on November 30: "Information reached us last evening that a portion of the military force despatched from town on Monday had arrived, and that in passing through the diggings the soldiers were pelted with broken glass and other missiles by some diggers. Our informant adds that the military received this manifestation of feeling in the best possible temper.
Another long article followed. It included the statement that: "A poor drummer was shot through the leg - are these deeds which will enlist the sympathy of an intelligent people? Is the maiming of a drummer boy a worthy triumph for a large mass of a British population who wish to occupy a creditable position in the eyes of the world? Surely not!" The wounding of the drummer boy was being cleverly used to incense the general population and promote sympathy for the establishment. Doctor Carr of Eureka was also the Ballarat correspondent for the Argus. On December 15 he noted that he had observed the injured drummer boy in the hospital one week after the fight. This correlates with the Muster Lists of the 12th Regiment of Foot, that indicate that John Egan, Regimental Number 3159, drummer, was in the regimental hospital for 21 days following his injury, during the last quarter of 1854. While the drummer boy was recovering in hospital the culmination of years of bitterness and unrest took place. On 3 December, the military attacked the Eureka Stockade, a flimsy fort built by the miners in the vicinity of the Eureka Lead.
The inscription: "of 12th Regiment of Foot, killed in the line of duty 28th November 1854". Documents show that he was alive in Tasmania in 1860.