Bullitt County History

Thomas Bullitt's Military Career

Those familiar with Bullitt County history are aware that Bullitt's Lick is named for Captain Thomas Bullitt, and the county is named for his nephew, Alexander Scott Bullitt. Some may not be as familiar with the rest of Thomas Bullitt's life, particularly his military career. The following information has been collected from numerous sources, and attempts to provide as complete a picture of his career as possible.

According to the National Archives' Founders Online web site, Thomas Bullitt served as a cadet with George Washington at Fort Necessity in 1754 and shortly after the capitulation was commissioned an ensign, effective 22 July. During Braddock's expedition in 1755 he was assigned to George Mercer's company. Bullitt was among those promoted to lieutenant when Washington became colonel of the reorganized Virginia Regiment 20 Aug. 1755. He was first assigned to George Mercer's company in the Virginia Regiment and then in the spring of 1756 to Peter Hog's at Fort Dinwiddie. When Washington removed Hog from the command of his company in July 1757, he made Lieutenant Bullitt the acting captain. Bullitt served as captain lieutenant until the spring of 1758. At that time, Capt. Joshua Lewis resigned his captaincy, and at Washington's insistence Bullitt succeeded to it. As a captain in Col. William Byrd's 2d Virginia Regiment, Bullitt was commended in 1758 for his bravery at Col. James Grant's defeat before Fort Duquesne, and was criticized for his conduct when his company suffered heavy casualties near Fort Ligonier in 1759. After the war Bullitt was deeply involved in surveying western lands, and during the Revolution he served in the Continental Army, eventually reaching the rank of colonel.

The following information regarding Captain Bullitt's bravery during Grant's defeat is transcribed from The History of Virginia from Its First Settlement to The Present Day by John Burk Volume III, Petersburg, Virginia, 1805, pages 231-233. Images of those pages are shown here.

At the commencement of the action major Lewis hastened with the principal part of the rear guard to the support of Grant, leaving behind him fifty Virginians with captain Bullet, for the defence of the baggage. But their united efforts were unavailing to stop the progress of the enemy, who now confident of success left their concealment, and proceeded to finish with the tomahawk and scalping knife what had been left undone by the rifle. A scene of brutal and ferocious cruelty immediately commenced, which the utmost efforts of the French were unable to put a stop to. Irritated by the fate of several of their countrymen during the battle, the Indians refused to give quarter and inhumanly butchered the English and provincials in the very act of surrender. Major Grant, the author of all these misfortunes, had barely time to save his life by giving himself up to a French officer, who had the utmost difficulty in protecting him. The bloody tomahawk was uplifted to strike, and the angry glance of the savage demanded his victim; but the Frenchman insisted on his promise and the usages of civilized warfare. The life of the gallant Lewis was exposed to greater and more imminent peril. He had been engaged for some time with an Indian whose repeated blows he had hitherto successfully parried. At length he was so fortunate as to extricate himself by the death of his enemy. But his place being immediately supplied by others, he retreated until he reached a French detachment to whose officer he surrendered himself.

An universal rout now took place, and carnage unresisted and marked by those shocking enormities which characterize Indian war. In this exigence Bullet, whose magnanimous spirit was equalled only by his foresight and collection, took immediate measures for saving the principal part of the baggage, and if possible the remains of the detachment. Having dispatched the most valuable part of the baggage with the strongest horses, he disposed the remainder at an advantageous point of the road, as a cover for his troops and rallied several of the fugitives as they came up. Aware, from the character of the enemy and their conduct during the engagement, that no quarter was to be expected, he embraced an expedient contrary to all the established laws of arms, and which under any other circumstances would have been wholly unjustifiable. Having animated the courage of his followers by a brief but expressive appeal to their character to and circumstances, he directed them to fire with precision until their enemies became too numerous, when on a signal given they were to march out with their arms as if demanding quarter.

Animated by his example, the troops literally followed the order of their leader, and as the Indians pressed on, a destructive fire unexpectedly openen from behind the baggage waggons, which checked their career and threw them into visible confusion; but their numbers increasing every moment, and apprehensive that they would attempt to get in his rear, Bullet held out the signal for capitulation. In a moment the detachment in a suppliant position and with their arms inverted, proceeded slowly towards the enemy, whose impatience would hardly permit them to wait the form of a surrender. Already the tomahawk was grasped for the purpose of vengeance, and the scalping knife thirsted to slake its fury in their blood when the terrible word charge was uttered by Bullet, and was repeated by the whole detachment; a most destructive volley at only eight yards distance announced the ready execution of this order, and before the enemy could recover from the astonishment and terror excited by this procedure, a furious onset with fixed bayonets effected a complete discomfiture and route. The Indians imagined from the fury of this onset that the whole army was at hand, and never stopt till they reached the French regulars.

Bullet having gained the respite wanted, and rightly judging that to attempt any thing offensively with his handful of men, wisely continued his retreat towards the main body, collecting as he proceeded the wounded and terrified regulars who, ignorant of the country, wandered up and down without food, and haunted by incessant terrors of the savages.

In this fatal action twenty one officers and two hundred and seventy three privates were either killed or taken. Of these the first Virginia regiment lost six officers and sixty-two privates; no other corps, the Highlanders excepted, suffered in the same proportion.

But great and serious as was the loss of men wantonly sacrificed by the rashness of their commander, it added another honourable wreath to the brow of Virginia prowess. The cool and steady valour of the provincials had a second time saved from certain destruction the regular troops. The merits of captain Bullet in particular were the theme of general and merited eulogy. Governor Fauquier who was an excellant judge of merit, was often in the habit of pronouncing the retreat of Loyal Hanning equal to any thing of its kind in history; and the appointment of Bullet to the rank of major would justify an opinion that his promotion was the reward of his conspicuous merit on this occasion.

Regarding the criticism for Bullitt's conduct when his company suffered heavy casualties near Fort Ligonier in 1759, there are several bits of information.

Lieutenant Colonel George Mercer, in a letter to George Washington dated 16 Sep 1759, was of the opinion that Bullitt had behaved badly, and would face a court martial. He wrote:

"Bullitt is immediately to appear before 12 & a President—as tis generally supposed poor Tom was intimidated (to use his own Word) when his Party was attacked—God knows whether he was or not but he made his Escape—with a Guard for his sacred Person, in a most precipitate Manner, consisting of about 60 of his Men—The Remainder were almost cut to Pieces—there were only 60 of the Enemy, and Bullitts Command consisted of 100 Rank & File—but he took Care of 60 of Them—21 or 22 of the remaining 40 were killed, & tho. they were so hotly engaged, Bullitt never returned to the Charge—notwithstanding the most earnest Entreaties of his Men—Thus the Story is told by the two Officers whom Bullitt left in the Scrape—I hope it will turn out better, but I always supposed Bullitt more capable of being commanded, than commanding—I have thought him brave—but this Tale tells badly."

A footnote on that same page provided the following information:

"Right after the event, Lt. Col. Thomas Lloyd wrote General Stanwix from Fort Ligonier on 23 May: 'Captain Bullet on his March from Bedford with a Convoy of Fifteen Waggons and Fifteen Thousand Weight of Pork, his Party consisting off one Hundred Virginians was this Day defeated within Four Miles of Ligonier by a Party off the Enemy. Five of the Waggons were burn't all the Horses kiled or taken. This happen'd about three in the Afternoon at a Time when the most violent Tornado of Rain Thunder & Lightning that I ever experiencd.' Bullitt estimated that there were 150 Indians in the attack, and Lloyd reported that Lt. Larkin Chew of the Virginians was badly wounded in the arm and that 36 soldiers were missing, 8 of whom were found dead on the field. On 25 May, Lloyd wrote from Ligonier giving further details to Stanwix: 'Capt Bullet was attackd by the Enemy at about 3 Miles Distance from this Place.

The Virginia Gazette, Friday, 30 Nov 1759

"I orderd Capt Woodward with a hundred Virginians to his Support, but before he had march'd out of Sight Capt Bullet was arrivd wth about 50 men, Lts Feint & Chew the latter wounded thro the Arm in a half an Hour afterwards arrivd Lt Mingies [Alexander Menzie] of the Virgin who belong'd to Capt Bulletts Party. he had been posted in the Right at the Commencement of the Action was repuls'd by the Enemy to an Eminence which he Maintaind with great Bravery. Robert Stewart alludes in his letter to Washington of 28 Sept. to the talk in the army of Bullitt's supposed cowardly performance in the May action, but on 30 Nov 1759 Col. William Byrd published in Hunter's Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg) a letter dated 26 Oct 1759 and sent from Pittsburgh in which he stated that Gen. John Stanwix at Byrd's request convened a court of inquiry to investigate Captain Bullitt's conduct. The court decided unanimously 'that Captain Bullet behaved like a good Officer, and did every Thing in his Power to repulse the Enemy, and save the Convoy.'"

Thus it appears that, while this was likely not Captain Bullitt's best performance, his superior officers judged him innocent of the charges.

According to an undated written sketch found in the papers of Alexander Scott Bullitt upon his death in 1816, as reported in volume 1 of the History of the Ohio Falls Cities and Their Counties, his uncle, Thomas Bullitt was appointed adjutant-general of the Virginia militia following the French and Indian War. With the beginning of the American Revolution, he was appointed adjutant-general of the southern district with the rank and pay of a colonel. His first services after this appointment were in the lower parts of Virginia. Lord Dunmore had taken possession of a post called the Great Bridge, which lay at some miles distance from Norfolk and was a pass of great consequence. American forces under the command of Colonel William Woodford, assisted by Bullitt, set up fortifications on the other side of the bridge. On 9 Dec 1775, British forces attempted to cross the bridge and dislodge the Americans.

With Woodford apparently absent from the scene, Colonel Bullitt took command of the American forces, and successfully repulsed the British. Following this action, the Americans gained control of this important bridge.

According to his nephew, Colonel Bullitt was later detached to South Carolina, where he served the campaign of 1776 as adjutant-general to the army commanded by General Lee. This was his last campaign.

He resigned his commission and retired to his house in Fauquier, where he died February, 1778, at the age of forty-eight years.

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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 27 Jan 2021 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/thomasbullitt3.html