There Will Be Bloody Bill

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Andrew Waters

Appearing this month at the Journal of the American Revolution (JAR) is an article I wrote on William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham and his infamous raid known as the “Bloody Scout.” The article attempts to provide a single-source narrative of the Bloody Scout and some of the contexts for it, although it is based on a previous article I wrote (though never published) that attempted to explore more deeply its sociological implications.

            Anyone who comes to western South Carolina and has any interest in the American Revolution will soon encounter Bloody Bill. As I attempted to explain over at JAR, “without veering too deeply into sociological speculations, I can only say that his (Cunningham’s) presence is still palpable here, embedded in the cultural DNA. Though he may be only a curiosity in other parts of the United States, if he is known at all, in the South Carolina Upstate, it seems there will always be Bloody Bill.”

            I first encountered Bloody Bill shortly after moving to Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2013. My work brought me to meetings where the American Revolution was discussed in terms of the historic resources that clutter this part of South Carolina. Cunningham’s name frequently comes up in these conversations based on his association with several of these historic sites, many of which are still unpreserved. Then there is the Spartanburg County Historical Association’s annual festival, where a reenactment of a Cunningham murder is the central attraction, not to mention exhibits on Bloody Bill in local history museums or the numerous talks and tours given on him by local historians.

            But what really attracted my attention were the times I encountered someone who claimed to have a distant relative murdered by Cunningham. Even while writing the JAR article, I had a chance encounter with a man who claimed to have two ancestors killed by Bloody Bill, a phenomenon that’s happened to me maybe a half dozen times. Again, over at JAR, I explain, “This phenomenon is hard to quantify, except to say the name ‘Bloody Bill’ appears to evoke the war’s factional nature in this region, and the sense of terror and chaos that accompanied it.”

            The American Revolution was, of course, traumatic for many of our ancestors, but in western South Carolina, it was excessively vicious, a true civil war. “The Whigs and Tories pursue one another with the most relentless fury,” observed Nathanael Greene of the nature of this conflict, “killing and destroying each other wherever they meet.”

            One of the points I wanted to make about Cunningham was that he wasn’t simply a murderous psychopath, but to provide some context for his actions in terms of the atrocities endured by South Carolina’s Loyalist families the tumultuous final days of the conflict. Even more challenging to explain is the long-term effects of such trauma on modern society. In my original essay, I turned to the writer David Armitage and his book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas for this perspective.

            “The American Revolution was . . . was uniquely wrenching precisely because it was fought against domestic kindred rather than identifiably foreign enemies, not least in local conflicts in bitterly divided colonies like New York and South Carolina,” writes Armitage.

            And the effects of these conflicts can last for generations. “Lately however, many have been returning to the historical big picture,” Armitage continues, “aiming to uncover the origins of some of the most pressing problems of our time–climate change, inequality, the crisis of global governance–which lie decades or centuries in the past. A longer perspective, history’s traditional perspective, is essential if we are to see just what has been at stake, and what still remains at issue, in civil war over the past two thousand years.”

            Just like they encounter Bloody Bill, anyone who comes to western South Carolina will soon encounter a vehement Libertarianism pervading this part of the state, a political ideology different from own, and to be honest, that earlier essay was an attempt to attribute at least part of that phenomenon to Bloody Bill. If the early settlers of western South Carolina encountered a violent trauma where rule of law crumbled into chaotic anarchy, it makes sense to me that it would influence a societal mistrust of authority and a certain “every-man-for-himself” ethos that still influences local politics and culture.

In other words, maybe the crimes of a guy like Bloody Bill don’t just go away, note even after almost 250 years. That may or not explain the enduring fascination with Bloody Bill in this part of the United States. Still, for me, it brings a cultural vibrancy and relevance to the American Revolution that fuels my fascination with the topic and profoundly influences my writing on it. 

******

Andrew Waters is the author of The Quaker and the Gamecock: Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter, and the Revolutionary War for the Soul of the South (Casemate 2019) and To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan (Westholme 2020), which was named a runner-up for the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award. He is also a frequent contributor to the Journal of the American Revolution.     

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