Biographical Sketch of
William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham
By Phil Norfleet
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.”
About 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 swore that 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.
He 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.
His 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.
His 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 the order.
His 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 acquaintance. Bletcher 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 in vain.
Cunningham 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.
At 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.
On 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.
The 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 pole of a fodder stack, when he was accosted by a younger son of Williams, Joseph Williams, a lad of sixteen or seventeen years, who had from infancy known Cunningham. “Capt. Cunningham, how shall I go home and tell my mother that you have hanged brother Daniel? Cunningham instantly swore that he should not have that melancholy duty to perform. He hung him up with his brother and Hayes. The pole broke with their weight and with his sword he literally hewed them to pieces. While wiping his reeking sword, he observed, that one of his comrades in cutting a captive to pieces had broken his sword, - he gaily handed to him his, observing, that it wouldn't break. James Tinsley, Major Wm. Dunlap and John Cummins were the only survivors of Hayes party; James Tinsley and his brother were, I had supposed, saved by their gallant kinsman John Tinsley; but within the last few years, James Tinsley assured me, that such was not the fact. He said their lives were saved by another of Cunningham's party, (whose name to my great regret has escaped my recollection,) at the peril of his own life. Major Dunlap of Huntsville, Laurens District, was then a lad; no one then or ever since could be his enemy. He was discharged the next morning covered with the blood and brains of his comrades. John Cummins, (commonly called King Cummins,) was too much the Leather-stocking of the lower part of Laurens District to be an object of vengeance. He still lives at a great age to fight all his battles over.
Passing 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.
Cunningham 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.
On 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.
On 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 beyond it.
The 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.
Of 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.