Sketch of William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham
By Phil Norfleet
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Extract from an Article by Judge J. B. O’Neal
The following extract is from an article entitled “Random Recollections of Revolutionary Characters and Incidents” by Judge J. B. O’Neal; this article first appeared in the Southern Literary Journal and Magazine of Arts, Vol. 4, No. 1, July 1838, pages 40-45.
William Cunningham, (or as he was commonly
called Bloody Bill Cunningham,) acted too prominent a part in the partisan
warfare of Laurens, Newberry and Edgefield Districts, in the Revolutionary
times, not to be remembered and first noticed.
He was a native of Laurens District, and a distant relative of Gen’ls. Robert,
Patrick, and John Cunningham. Of
his parents little is known. His
father was an old man at the time when his son’s career of blood commenced,
and I presume from the incident which was the first in it, incapable of
protecting himself against the violent.
William Cunningham is represented to have
been a man of great physical powers, and of fine personal appearance.
One of his contemporaries (the late Wm. Caldwell) used to Say “that he
had often heard it said, Cunningham was a coward but,” added he, “whoever
said so, did not know him; he was as brave a man as ever walked the earth.”
the commencement of hostilities at the South, in 1775, he enlisted as a private
soldier in the service of the State of South Carolina, in a company commanded,
by Capt. John Caldwell in Col. Thomson's Regiment of Rangers. He served with
credit; so much so, that his Captain was about promoting him, over the head of
his own brother, Wm. Caldwell who belonged to the same company. Some trivial
offense prevented his promotion, and sent him before a Court-martial, by which
he was sentenced to be whipped; and he actually suffered the degrading punishment!
With his blood on fire, and vengeance his predominant feeling, he deserted the
flag of his country and fled to Florida. While there, William Ritchie kicked his
aged father out of doors. By some means the intelligence reached Cunningham; he
he would seek and have revenge in the blood of his father's oppressor. He
shouldered his rifle, and mostly on foot traversed the country between St.
Augustine and Laurens District, and in Ritchie's own house, in the presence of
his family he consummated his cherished and fell purpose by shooting him dead.
He here first tasted blood; and like the tiger, the taste created a thirst which
could never be quenched. After that time he was one of the most merciless of the
Tory blood-hounds who scoured the country, and hunted to the death her gallant
and suffering sons.
raised an independent command of mounted loyalists. They were like himself; bold
and daring spirits; and many of them like him had already tasted the blood of
private revenge. Some of their names are still remembered: - William Parker,
Henry Parker, William Kilmer, Jonathan Kilmer, Hall Foster, Jesse Gray, William
Dunahox, Isaac, Aaron, and Curtis Mills, Ned and Dick Turner, Matthew Love, Bill
Elmore, Hubbles, John Hood, and Moultrie. Of some of these men, in these random
recollections, we may have occasion,
to speak further. One of his earliest feats as a partisan officer, was a visit
to his old commander Major John Caldwell, who had retired to private life. He
found him on a summer’s day, sitting in his own house, without shoes or
stockings. He amused himself by stamping on his toes and kicking his shins; and
concluded his visit by telling him that this was ample satisfaction for the
whipping he had received while under his command.
pursuit of Capt. Samuel Moore showed his fiend-like disposition. They met and
charged each other. Moore gave way
and fled. Both were well mounted, both were excellent horsemen, and both knew
well the ground over which they ran. For miles Cunningham was in sword's length,
and in a low conversational style urged his flying foe to redouble his exertions
to escape. “Push the rowels in Sammy, honey,” was his continual jeering
observation. At length, like the cat tired of his play, he cut his adversary
down, and in his death removed another object of private hatred.
deeds of blood, which are, however, best remembered, are those which occurred in
what is called the “bloody scout.” This followed the execution of Gov.
Rutledge's impolitic order directing the wives and children of the Tories in the
British service, to be sent in to the British Lines near Charleston. This was
well calculated to arouse the vindictive feelings of such men as Cunningham
and his blood-hounds. He and they swore to be revenged on all who had executed
company left Charleston in detached parties, made their way up the Edistoes,
concentrated in Edgefield, and attacked Turner's station. The resistance was
gallant but unavailing. The garrison surrendered and was put to the sword with
the exception of a single man (Warren Bletcher). In that affair fell two of
the Butlers, father and son, - the grandfather and uncle of the present Governor
and Judge Butler. Bletcher was saved by Aaron Mills. It was a rule of the
company, that after Cunningham had selected his victims, each member might
select the objects of his vengeance.
Sometimes mercy ruled the hour, and a soldier was allowed to save a friend or
was known to Mills and was protected by him during the massacre. When the
company left the bloody scene, it was determined that Bletcher should be
conveyed as a prisoner to the next halt, and there probably his life would have
paid the forfeit. He was mounted behind Mills. As the company proceeded at a
round gallop, Mills affected that his horse was overburdened and began to
lag behind; he fell back behind first one and then another until he was entirely
in the rear. The company had crossed a
branch grown up with cane; as he approached it, Mills said to Bletcher:
“jump off and run for your life.” He did so. Mills suffered him to
gain the covert before he cried out: “The prisoner has escaped.” Pursuit was
was next seen in Newberry District. When he crossed Saluda (perhaps at the Old
Town,) he met with and captured John Towles. He had been concerned in sending.
off the women
and children of the Tories, and had been especially engaged in driving in. their
cattle. Cunningham swore he should die in his trade, he therefore
hung him with a piece of an untanned cow-hide.
Ensley's shop he killed Oliver Towles and two others. The only surviving member
of the Caldwell family of the Revolution, Mrs.
Gillam, then a girl, visited his shop alone soon after Cunningham’s
party had left it, to see what consequences had followed from the report of
their guns. When she reached it she found Oliver Towles and two others, her
acquaintances, dead. One was stretched or laid out upon the bier bench.
his march to Edgehill's, Hayes' station, he passed the house of his old
commander John Caldwell. Two of his men, Hall Foster and Bill Elmore, were his
videttes in advance. They found Major Caldwell walking in his garden, shot him
down, and charged their horses in and out of the garden in fiend-like sport.
When Cunningham arrived he affected to deplore the bloody deed; he protested
with tears that he would as soon have seen his own father shot as Major
Caldwell. Yet in the next instant his house by his orders was wrapped in flames,
and his widow left with no other shelter than the heavens, seated by the side of
her murdered husband. His gallant brother, James
Caldwell, whose scarred face testified to his gallantry in the most gallant of
all affairs, the battle of the Cowpens, finding her in this situation, forgot
every thing else than vengeance, and on the succeeding day his sword drank the
blood of two of Cunningham's stragglers.
Hayes was a
bold, inexperienced, incautious man. His station was at Col. Edgehill's, in
Laurens District, east of Little River and Simmons Creek, on the old Charleston
road from Raubun's Creek to Orangeburgh. The dwelling house built of logs was
his fort. He was told by William Caldwell to put himself in a Position of
defense; pointing to the smoke he said, “that is my brother's house, and I
know Cunningham is in the neighborhood.” Hayes was at work in a black-smith
shop making a cleat to hold a lady's netting, and hooted at Caldwell's
Suggestions, saying that Cunningham had too much sense to come there. Caldwell
replied: “1 will not stay here to be butchered;” and mounted and fled at
full speed. As he went out at one end of the old field he saw Cunningham's
company come in at the other.
surprise was complete and overwhelming. Hayes and his men almost without
resistance were driven into the house, and Cunningham’s
pursuit was so close, that John Tinsley struck a full blow with his sword
at Col. Hayes as he entered the door. A few guns were fired. One of Cunningham's
men was killed in the assault, and one of Hayes' men was killed in the house by
a ball shot between the logs. A pole tipped with flax, saturated with tar, was
set on fire and thrown upon the house. It was soon in flames. Hayes and his
party on a promise of good quarters, (as it has always been said,) surrendered.
Cunningham selected Hayes and Maj. Daniel Williams, (a son of Col. Williams who
fell at Kings Mountain) as his victims. He was about hanging them on the
from Hayes’ station to the west side
of Little River, Cunningham
crossed at O'Neall's mill. This
he burned. The owner, Hugh O'Neall on the top of Edgehill's mountain, had in
sorrow and sadness witnessed the massacres of his neighbors at Hayes station.
From the same lofty stand he saw his all, in a pecuniary
point of view, swept away by the fire-brand of him who never knew to pity
or spare. On the next day he and some others of the neighbors committed to the
earth the mangled bodies of the slain at Hayes' station. Two large pits
constituted the graves of all who fell there; and there undistinguished and
almost unknown they still remain.
encamped on the night succeeding the massacre on the Beaverdam, at a place now
known as Odell's mills. From this point he commenced his retreat. His bloody
foray had aroused the whole Whig population. Col. Samuel Hammond from the time
Cunningham passed Saluda River, was in hot pursuit. Cunningham’s company
remained embodied until they passed Little Saluda (at West's). It was there the
late Gen. Butler leading the van of the Pursuit confronted almost alone the
whole of Cunningham's Company. Numbers
forced him to pause, and before his
exhausted companions could reach him, Cunningham had resumed his rapid flight;
and breaking into detached parties, he and his
followers plunged into the pine barrens and swamps of the Edisto country, and by
different routes reached Charleston.
this or some other occasion, Butler and his company chased a party consisting of
Cunningham, Foster and Hood. Here again Butler kept nearly equal pace with the
pursued, but his companions could not. In the
midst of the race Cunningham's horse sunk in a mire. While he was
struggling out of it, Cunningham’s trusty
companions turned like lions at bay, and again Butler's vengeance for a father's
and brother's blood was prevented from taking effect.
another occasion, it is said, Butler single-handed pursued Cunningham alone for
miles; each of their horses, straining every nerve, ran in the jockey style,
nose and tail. Butler was often near enough to have struck Cunningham's noble
und generous steed and thus disable him; but this his generous nature
forbade, the rider not the steed
was the object of his vengeance. Cunningham’s pistol was often thrown over his
shoulder and snapped a the pursuer. At length Butler's horse sunk in a hole in
the woods, and before his rider could again resume pursuit Cunningham was
noble war horse which had borne Cunningham through so many of his bloody
adventures, and never failed him at his greatest need died in Charleston
and was buried almost with the honors of war by his blood-stained master.
Cunningham I know no more certainly,
save that in him was not fulfilled the
Scripture. The violent man did not die a violent death. His life was sought most
diligently and fearlessly by the
surviving kinsmen of his murdered victims. He lived to a good old age and died
quietly in his own bed in the West Indies.