|Artist's rendering of the Battle of Kings Mountain|
Some time ago I wrote about Col. Banastre Tarleton of the British Legion, and how he might not have been the bad boy that so many accounts claim, but today I introduce a man who almost certainly deserved every bit of bad press he got.
Captain William Cunningham of the South Carolina backcountry was the son, nephew, and cousin to staunch loyalists at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but being the strong-minded, contrary sort, he joined the rebel side. (That’s loyalist terminology for what we call patriots.) That lasted until first, Cunningham was refused a promotion he thought he deserved, and second, he was assigned to a location he didn’t care for. After his second attempt to resign from the Continental Army, he was court martialed for insubordination and sentenced to a whipping.
Sent home in disgrace and facing threats on his life, Cunningham fled to St. Augustine. Two years later, word reached him that patriot militia had turned his family out of their house, treating his aged father roughly and whipping his disabled brother so severely that he died. Furious, Cunningham returned to South Carolina on foot and went straight to the man responsible for his family’s suffering, Captain William Ritchie, where as the story goes, he shot Capt. Ritchie at dinner, in front of his family.
Afterward, Cunningham promptly joined the British cause. His exploits soon earned him the rank of major and later, captain, and he’s recorded as being present at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Notably fearless and an expert horseman, he was so much admired by his peers that even his enemies speak of him in tones of awe, decades later.
|SC Districts from 1775 to 1784|
His reign of terror over the South Carolina backcountry would later be referred to as the Bloody Scout, with the term “scout” referring to their roaming the countryside rather than a person. The moniker “Bloody Bill” would likewise not be coined until later, like Tarleton’s nickname of “Bloody Ban.” With Cunningham’s habit, however, of pinning down his enemies, then deliberately putting them to death with a singleminded fury that is legendary even today, he stands head and shoulders above Tarleton in infamy. No other figure is attributed with such habitual, wholesale slaughter, to my knowledge, and even the Waxhaws Massacre had its extenuating circumstances.
The Bloody Scout was more or less brought to a halt one frosty morning when a mounted force led by Andrew Pickens attacked one of the camps Cunningham had spread out over the banks of the Edisto River, and with the alarm raised, the other camps fled and dispersed, eventually making their way back to Charleston. There’s evidence of one more skirmish leading to slaughter not far from Charleston, which historians feel was likely the work of Cunningham, as well, but after that time his raids were never as effective as before.
This stretch of obscure RevWar history provides the setting of my next novella, The Counterfeit Tory, which releases May 1 as part of the CQ-authored Backcountry Brides Collection from Barbour. Jed Wheeler from The Highwayman returns on a mission to infiltrate William Cunningham’s troops in the hopes of bringing him down. The big question for Jed is, can he accomplish this without getting killed, himself?
[My thanks to Patrick O'Kelley for Nothing but Blood and Slaughter, his extensive work on every military action in the Carolinas during the Revolution; and to carolana.com, diceylangston.com, and Wikipedia for maps and cross-checking of facts.]