SUBMITTED BY: Joel W. Rose; Written by Stephen Lee; edited by Cheri Todd Molter
(Photograph above by Joel Rose of the Bullard farm house, located on Carry Bridge Road in the Hayne community of Sampson County, NC.)
Generations of descendants of Thomas Bullard (1812-1878) have heard the story of a Union captain’s deadly decision to exchange his worn-out nag for a fine saddle horse belonging to Bullard’s spinster aunt, Esther Bullard, when foragers from Gen. William T. Sherman’s army descended on the Bullard home on March 16, 1865.
The handsome farmhouse, into which Thomas Bullard moved his large family in 1856 and where this story takes place, is still standing on Carry Bridge Road, in the Hayne community of Sampson County. It still belongs to a Bullard descendant, and the current owner’s cousins and friends still gather there occasionally to swap stories and visit the graves of their ancestors in the old family cemetery across the road from the house. Thomas and Mariah Bullard are buried there. So is Jane Jones, Thomas Bullard’s mother-in-law, who also lived at the house before her death in 1870 at the age of 92. Also buried there are several of Thomas and Mariah’s 14 children, including two who died in childhood. Their grandchildren and great grandchildren, and even in-laws, are buried there, too. And so is Aunt Esther…
Esther Bullard (1795-1875), who lived with Thomas and his wife, Mariah (spelled Maria as often as not), and their large family, is said to have clung to her horse’s neck and begged the officer not to take it. The officer is said to have relented, but when Esther went back inside the house, he sneaked back into the barn and made the swap anyway. It was, the story goes, a fatal error for the captain.
Some versions of the story have elderly Aunt Esther shaking her fist at the fleeing officer and shouting, “I hope the horse throws you and breaks your neck.” Those versions usually continue with, “And that’s exactly what the horse did.” The captain landed on a stump, breaking his neck, and the horse came trotting back to the Bullard’s barn, to be reunited with Aunt Esther, who was presumably delighted to get back her fine saddle horse and to gain a worn-out nag, to boot. The captain is said to have died of his injuries at the Union camp at old Owenville, a long-vanished village nearby, and to have been buried there, near the banks of Little Coharie Creek.
That is the story. But did it happen? That is the mystery. Perhaps someone with the time and energy to scan the rosters of all the Union regiments that passed Thomas Bullard’s way in route to the vital railroad junction at Goldsboro can find a likely candidate for the victim. All that this writer, a great-great-grandson of Thomas Bullard, has been able to learn is that it could have happened. I believe it happened because I have absolute faith in the veracity and integrity of my grandfather, Ernest Minson Bullard (1881-1959), a crucial childhood mentor from whom I heard the story.
Ernest M. Bullard, a man who virtually radiated rectitude but never the humorless kind, was a grandson of Thomas Bullard. He knew people who were present when the foragers came calling, including Charlotte Bullard Sessoms (1839-1910) and Barton Bullard (1851-1911), children of Thomas Bullard, who were still living when Ernest Bullard was a young man. We know that Charlotte and Barton were present when the foragers swarmed Thomas Bullard’s farm because on July 10, 1874, they testified that they had witnessed what happened that fateful day more than nine years earlier. What they did not mention in their testimony was anything about Esther Bullard, or her fine saddle horse, or it throwing and killing anyone and trotting back, minus one Union captain, to the Bullard barn.
Does that mean the story is a myth? Not necessarily. Thomas, Charlotte, and Barton had no good reason to mention the incident and some very good reasons not to mention it. Any testimony about a dead Union captain and a returning horse would hardly have helped their cause. They were, after all, supporting Thomas Bullard’s July 4, 1871, petition to the Southern Claims Commission seeking $401 in payment for 1,500 pounds of meat, six bushels of meal, and one roan horse in good condition taken by a party of Union foragers who swarmed the Bullard farm. Just to get his foot in the door before the Southern Claims Commission, Thomas Bullard had to swear that he was a Union supporter, had not aided the Confederacy, and had items taken for use by the Union army. He may have thought he had a solid case. He had something that none of his neighbors had: a document signed by the commander of a foraging party, stating what his men had taken from the farm:
“I hereby certify that I have taken from Thos. Bullard
1,500 pounds of meat, six bushels meal, and 1 horse.”
“W.L. Bay, Captain, 63rd Ohio Volunteers, commanding foragers
for 2nd Brig. 1st Div., 17th A.C.”
After his signature, Captain Bay had gone one step further, scrawling: “This man I believe to be a Union man.” Alas, the document proved worthless. After a long bureaucratic delay, the Southern Claims Commission rather summarily rejected Thomas Bullard’s claim on Dec. 17, 1877. It rejected more than two-thirds of the 22,298 claims filed by Southerners between March 3, 1871, and March 3, 1873. Weighing perhaps most heavily against Thomas Bullard was his admission that his son Marshall had been in the Confederate army and had died of battle wounds, in a hospital in Staunton, VA. Thomas had traveled to Richmond and obtained a pass from a Confederate general to search for his wounded son, a sergeant. He did not reach him before Marshall died. The actions of a father desperate to reach his son after learning he had been wounded in battle appear to have outweighed Captain Bay’s certification that he believed Thomas Bullard was a Union man. For good measure, on May 1, 1879, more than a year after Thomas Bullard’s death, someone inserted into the case file an egregiously hearsay assertion that War Department records showed Thomas Bullard had once contributed $5 to the Confederate cause. The only documentation was the assertion itself.
If a Union officer was thrown and killed by Esther Bullard’s horse, he was not Captain W. L. Bay. Winslow L. Bay, the son of a Meigs County, Ohio, minister, survived the Civil War and lived in Ohio, Kansas, New Mexico, California, and Nebraska before his death in 1916. He is buried in Omaha, where his headstone is curiously inscribed “Capt. Winslow S. Bay.” If the story of Esther Bullard’s horse is true, Thomas, Charlotte, and Barton were a bit cagey, if not downright disingenuous, in their depositions for the Southern Claims Commission. Not once was Esther Bullard’s name mentioned, nothing was ever said about a horse returning to the barn, but if the story is true, the testimony of three witnesses could be construed as cleverly crafted “perjury averters” in the event the subject of Aunt Esther and a returning horse ever came to light later. Captain Bay’s foragers were not the only ones to come calling, they testified. After he left, others descended on the farm and took whatever they wanted. But, Thomas Bullard insisted, he was seeking compensation only for what Captain Bay had certified was taken, and even that, he testified, was an underestimate. Captain Bay had not weighed the meat; he had merely guessed the weight. And, Thomas Bullard said, “The horse was rode off by an officer.” Barton Bullard essentially corroborated him. After Captain Bay and his foragers left, he testified, a “good many other soldiers” came to the farm and “took anything they wanted” including “several wagon loads of corn and the balance of the bacon.”
Charlotte Bullard Sessoms, whose first husband, Alexander Thomas Maxwell (c. 1841-1864), had died as a Union prisoner of war at Point Lookout, Md., was perhaps the cleverest witness:
“Captain Bay and his men were the first to come to father’s place,” she testified. “They took what Capain Bay certified to and left. Perhaps an hour after they left, a great many other soldiers came, and some they called captain, but I don’t know any of their names. They took corn by the wagon loads and the balance of the bacon, but my father did not charge for anything but what Captain Bay took and gave him a certificate for.” The phrase “and some they called captain” is interesting, indeed. And she could name no names other than Captain Bay’s. Was Charlotte covering for herself in the event word ever leaked out about a dead captain and Aunt Esther’s fine saddle horse? It certainly seems possible. “Oh, that horse,” she could say later, “that wasn’t relevant to our claim. It wasn’t in Captain Bay’s certificate. That’s all we were claiming. I did say other captains came and took things. We didn’t need to mention Aunt Esther. She got back her horse. Sorry about the dead captain. But he was, after all, a horse thief.” Of course, neither Charlotte, nor her father, nor her brother ever had to say anything like that. The claim was dead.
Thomas Bullard, himself, was dead on March 1, 1878, less than three months after his claim was rejected. Esther Bullard’s horse was a dead issue. The story of her horse could have happened, just as it was told, and the witnesses simply relaxed and loosened their lips with the passage of time and the absence of consequences. What we do know is that Captain Bay was somehow persuaded that Thomas Bullard was a Union man and saw fit to scrawl a brief note certifying what his men had taken from Thomas Bullard’s farm. We also know that Union troops of 17th Army Corps (more than 20,000 “fighting men,” some soldiers are said to have claimed) were virtually surrounding Thomas Bullard’s 1,400 acres on March 16, 1865. Some may even have bivouacked on his land. The official report of its commander, Maj. Gen. Francis Preston “Frank” Blair Jr., establishes that one division camped on the east bank of South River, in the vicinity of present-day Autryville; another division camped on the east bank of Big Swamp, near Pleasant Union Baptist Church, a mile or less south of the Thomas Bullard house; and a third division, and General Blair himself, camped at Owenville, about three miles east of the house.
There was at least one other thing Thomas Bullard and his two children did not mention in their Southern Claims Commission depositions: That his slain son, Marshall, was not his only son in the Confederate army. William Bullard, barely 21, was a second lieutenant in the 25th Regiment of the N.C. Militia. Official records indicate he was captured by the 17th Army Corps and held prisoner with a group of rebel deserters on the very day the foragers came calling, March 16, 1865. Was he at home that day? Did Thomas Bullard, sensing the war was lost and winding down, send William off with Capt. W.L. Bay to avoid the risk of losing a second son in the terrible war? Did he cut a deal with Captain Bay: the surrender of his son in exchange for the certificate attesting what was taken and affirming his belief that Thomas Bullard was “a Union man”? Any answer to those questions would be pure conjecture about another Civil War mystery that will probably never be solved. No one can possibly know at this late date everything that occurred at Thomas Bullard’s house that day. Thomas Bullard’s house survived the encounter with Union forces, as did the log smokehouse from which Captain Bay’s men took the cured meat. And the story of Esther Bullard’s horse escaped inquiry into the events of that fateful day unscathed.
(Sources: Southern Claims Commission cases 4466 and 18504. Maj. Gen. Frank P. Blair, Jr., U. S. Army, commanding 17th Army Corps, report of operations January 2- March 24, 1865. U.S. Census records. U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865. U.S. Headstone Applications for Military Veterans. Findagrave.com)