Major “Bloody Bill” Cunningham

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The Cunningham family emigrated from Scotland about 1681, settling in Virginia and Pennsylvania and eventually migrating to South Carolina. The South Carolina clan’s main branch started with four brothers: John who was a planter, David who was a deputy surveyor, Robert who was the first magistrate of Ninety-Six District and Patrick who was deputy surveyor of the General Province of South Carolina. The family maintained its loyalty to Britain. William Cunningham, a cousin to the brothers above, at the age of 19, in 1775, broke the family traditions and joined Captain John Caldwell a Whig and revolutionary. Records indicated Private W. Cunningham was paid £20 for service in the Regiment of Rangers, under command of Capt. John Caldwell, from June 26 to July 26, 1775. He was paid another £20 for service Aug. 26 to Sept. 26, 1775. 24

The recruiting promise to Cunningham was that he would eventually move up to the rank of Lieutenant and if his unit was deployed for service in the “Low Country “he would be allowed to resign. When the unit was deployed to Charleston his resignation was refused and he faced Courts Martial for insubordination. The Court validated his actions and he was acquitted of charges. William Cunningham later served with Captain William Ritchie, under Andrew Williamson, in the Cherokee War of 1776.

There are various myths as to the reasoning Cunningham abandoned the revolutionary cause. He was said to have had a series of arguments with his former commander Capt. Caldwell and was whipped as punishment. Captain William Ritchie is said to have thrown the elderly father of William Cunningham out of his home and beat his mother and kicked or whipped his crippled, epileptic brother John to death. This was supposedly done to find out the whereabouts of Cunningham who was in Florida.

Capt. Cunningham raised a troop of Tories and began taking a series of actions across the state. On August 1, 1781 Capt. Cunningham raided Laurens. On Nov. 7, 1781 Capt. Cunningham slaughtered a group of surrendering Whigs in the present Saluda County. On November 17, 1781 Cunningham commanding a 300 man force crossed the Saluda River, at Anderson’s Ford, near present day Buzzard Roost Dam is seen today. He left a trail of destruction with his first skirmish on Cloud's Creek, near the mouth of the Saluda River. Here he killed a local militia commander, Captain Turner and twenty one of his men. His remaining action that day was at Towles Blacksmith shop after having all the horses shoed he had Mr. Towles, his son and a slave killed. He then had all the buildings burnt. Little River Church was raided on Nov. 18, 1781; there is a historical monument on the site commenting on that action. December 22, 1781, Skirmish at Wendy Hill in Barnwell, SC involving Cunningham and local revolutionaries.

19 November 1781 en route to Hayes station Major Cunningham goes to the home of his former Commander Major John Caldwell (Retired) and kills him. He then had the building set on fire. There is some controversy over whether Cunningham killed Caldwell or whether two of his men, Elmore and Love did the actual deed.

After the Revolutionary War many Tories, loyalists, militia officers and magistrates had their estates confiscated and were given the option of exile from the state or death. Major “Bloody Bill” Cunningham and several members of the family were identified:

  • Robert Cunningham
  • Patrick Cunningham
  • William Cunningham
  • Andrew Cunningham of Ninety Six
  • John Cunningham

After the Revolutionary war Major William Cunningham emigrated to Florida. He attempted to settle on a small plot belonging to Lady Egmont on St. John's River. During the evacuation of the English from St Augustine that Major William Cunningham and associates were confined by the Spanish authorities on criminal charge. A letter dated April 4, 1785 suggests that Cunningham be sent to his death at a mining camp to reduce his activities. He was later deported to Cuba about May 1, 1785 for taking an active role in a dispute between some Spaniards and Americans citizens.

He traveled to Canada and London seeking restitution for losses as a result of the late war. William was only given a tenth of what he claimed he should justly receive as restitution. On 20 Jan. 1787, in Nassau, Bahamas Major William Cunningham, formerly of the S.C. Royal Militia, died.

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