November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Friday, January 26, 2018

Bloody Bill Cunningham, Terror of the South Carolina Backcountry

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
The truly bone-chilling accounts, however, start just after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, which took place October 1781. Slipping past patriot patrols in small groups, after the British withdrawal to Charleston, Cunningham led a fairly sizeable band of men—anywhere from 80 to 300, and I lean toward the latter—on a series of raids against the patriot populace. This quickly became a campaign of vengeance on those who had committed the gravest offenses against the Tories or their families. The first incident happened at Turner’s Station on Cloud’s Creek in the upper Ninety-Six District, where Cunningham and his men surprised and surrounded a patriot force that had been harassing loyalists. A shot fired prematurely while negotiations were being made for surrender tipped Cunningham’s temper over the edge, and most of them were slaughtered.

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.]


  1. Absolutely fascinating. I think I’d be enraged, too if someone did that to a disabled family member. This is the stuff that makes history come alive.
    Will have to add your story to my TBR pile.

    1. Thank you so much, Kathleen! And yes, I've found SO much to make me sympathize with the loyalists ...

  2. Shannon, this was most enlightening. Thank you for your diligent research. I am current reading a detailed biography of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, so this info fit right in.

    Elva Cobb Martin
    VP ACFW-SC www.elvamartin.com

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Elva! Glad you enjoyed it. SC history is incredibly rich!!

  3. This dude sounds even more wicked than Thomas "Burntfoot" Brown of GA fame. The things that went on in the southern backcountry did not need any Hollywood embellishment. I'm enjoying reading the stories of my fellow authors in our upcoming collection now, and I look forward to yours from neighboring SC! :)

    1. Thomas Brown was pretty bad, too!! I can't wait to get to read yours as well! :)


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