Sunday, March 10, 2024

ARP302 Cloud's Creek Massacre

Last week, we covered some of the violence between patriot and loyalist militias in North Carolina as the last British soldiers evacuated that state.  This week, we turn to South Carolina.

Leslie Commands Charleston

Around the time of Yorktown, General Clinton sent General Alexander Leslie to take command of the British army at Charleston.  The 50 year old general came from an old Scottish family. He was named after his ancestor who had fought as a leading officer in the English Civil War.  

Gen. Alexander Leslie
General Leslie had served in America for 14 years, and was already serving in Boston when the war began. Like many, he was sick of the war by 1781, and made multiple requests to General Clinton to return home to Britain.  Leslie had served in the Carolinas under General Cornwallis.  Clinton had ordered him to go to Virginia in 1780. But after only a few weeks there, Cornwallis sent orders for him to bring his force down to Charleston.  This was shortly after Cornwallis has lost his loyalist militia at King’s Mountain and he desperately needed reinforcements.

After Guilford Courthouse, Leslie returned to New York for health reasons.  Leslie remained in New York during the Yorktown Campaign but with the loss of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown, the southern theater needed a new commander.  Clinton sent Leslie to Charleston, where he arrived on November 8, 1781. 

Leslie’s orders were to protect as many British outposts as possible. But by this time, there was little to protect other than the forces right around Charleston and Savannah.  Leslie almost immediately ordered the evacuation of Wilmington, which we covered last week.  He planned no offensive operations, instead worrying about defending and feeding his army, and the many thousands of loyalist refugees in and around Charleston.

Bloody Bill Cunningham

The tactical decision by the British at Charleston to remain hunkered down did not reduce the violence or brutality that continued to take place between loyalist and patriot militia groups throughout the Carolinas.  Loyalists found themselves increasingly vulnerable and fought back whenever they could.

One of the most prominent loyalists in the field in the fall of 1781 was William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham, who stood out for his brutality in an already brutal war between South Carolinians.  Cunningham grew up near Ninety-Six in western South Carolina.  It was a loyalist community. Many of his cousins were key loyalist organizers when the war broke out.  His cousin Robert Cunningham refused to sign an early truce with the patriots in South Carolina in 1776, and continued to fight until caught and imprisoned.

Despite his loyalist family and community, William joined a patriot militia when the war began.  He fought well in the Cherokee campaign.  His company also battled against loyalists, which included fighting his own cousin, Patrick. 

Different sources give different reasons for his decision to abandon the patriot cause and join the loyalists.  According to one source, William committed some infraction, went before a court martial and was whipped for his offense.  After this, he deserted his company and fled to the loyalist stronghold in East Florida.  According to another source, Cunningham was denied a promised promotion when his militia was reactivated in June, 1776.  Cunningham, at first refused to turn out for duty. When he did, had a bad attitude and tried to resign.  For this, he was arrested and whipped, then discharged.  He then fled to Savannah, Georgia.

Whatever the exact details, there was obviously some personal conflict and problem that caused Cunningham to change sides.  These appeared to be for non-ideological purposes.

Cunningham remained gone for two years.  During this time, a group of patriots led by Captain William Ritchie kicked his father out of the family home due to loyalist sympathies.  The patriots also murdered his invalid brother.  Cunningham knew Ritchie.  The two had served together in the patriot militia. In 1778, Cunningham returned from his exile.  He rode up to Ritchie’s house, confronted him in front of his family, then shot and killed him.  After that, Cunningham disappeared again for another two years.

In 1780, when the British took Charleston, Cunningham joined his cousin’s loyalist regiment and fought at the battle of King’s Mountain.  Like many loyalists there, he was taken prisoner, but managed to escape while being marched to prison.  He returned to active duty and received a commission as captain in the loyalist militia.

In October of 1781, Cunningham received a promotion to major and was continuing the stuggle in a loyalist militia army under the command of his cousin General Robert Cunningham.  

Bloody Scout

Word of the British loss at Yorktown had caused the British forces in South Carolina to withdraw mostly back to Charleston.  But for the local loyalists were were ready to fight to the death, the conflict became even more desperate.

On November 6, a loyalist militia fighting alongside Chickamauga Indians raided western settlements near modern day Spartanburg.  Captain William Bates commanded the loyalists.  War Chief Dragging Canoe led the Chickamauga.  I’ve mentioned Dragging Canoe in earlier episodes.  He had a particularly brutal reputation in the frontier battles in what is today Tennessee.

Locals fled to Fort Gowan, which offered some protection.  But as the fort’s defenders ran out of ammunition, they surrendered on the condition that the loyalists protect them from the Indians.  Captain Bates agreed.  As soon as the fort surrendered and opened its gates, Bates ordered his forces to kill everyone.  Almost all the civilians were murdered.  A few were taken as prisoners to be taken to Indian camps, where they would be tortured and then burned at the stake.  One of the few survivors was a woman who was scalped and left for dead at the fort, but managed to survive.  Sadly, the Fort Gowan massacre was not an isolated incident.

A day after the Fort Gowan Massacre, about 80 miles south near Cloud’s Creek, a group of loyalists Headed by Captain Neely Cargill captured three patriots at the home of a local militia captain.  The loyalists simply marched their prisoners to a nearby swamp and executed them.  In response, two patriots militias under Captain Solomon Pope and Captain James Butler tracked down Cargill’s loyalists and executed all of them.

Just over a week later, Captain Butler and Captain Sterling Turner encountered a loyalist foraging party under Colonel Hezekiah William who were trying to steal some cattle. Neither group could get the upper hand, but eventually agreed that the loyalists could leave if they returned the stolen cattle.  During the firefight the patriots had managed to kill a loyalist, Captain William Radcliff.

Bloody Bill Cunningham was a friend of Radcliff’s and vowed revenge.  By this time, Cunningham was riding with a large force of loyalist militia.  Accounts differ on the size, but some accounts say he had a force of about 300 men.

The day after the attack that had killed Radcliff, the patriot force of about 30  encamped near Clouds Creek, at the home of a family named Carter.  A hard rain had made the men miserable and got most of their powder wet.  The men took shelter in the Carter house.

Cunningham’s loyalist force of about 300 attacked them and surrounded the home. A brief firefight began but the patriots asked for terms.  As the two sides were discussing terms, a patriot shot and killed one of Cunningham’s loyalists.  With that fighting resumed.

Eventually, the patriots ran out of ammunition and agreed to surrender.  After disarming their prisoners, Cunningham and the loyalists put all of them to the sword.  Only two or three patriots survived.  One of them was a man named Benjamin Hughes who managed to dive into the creek and hide under some driftwood during a cattle stampede that had distracted the enemy.  The other was a man named Bledsoe. It is not clear why they didn’t kill him, it’s possible they thought Bledsoe was a loyalist sympathizer.  After they split the skull of Bledsoe’s friend as he stood next to him, Bledsoe appeared to have some sort of breakdown and, according to others, was never right in the head again.  Several of the prisoners were beheaded.  Others were tortured before being killed.

The massacre at Cloud’s Creek was only the beginning of a rampage for Cunningham, which became known as the Bloody Scout.  

The following day, Cunningham tracked down a former loyalist officer, John Trowles, who had begun collaborating with the patriots.  He executed the man in front of his wife and son.  Later that day, Cunningham visited the blacksmith shop of the man’s brother.  After allowing the man to re-shoe his horses, he then murdered the blacksmith, his son, and a slave who worked in the shop.  After burning all the buildings, Cunningham’s men rode on.  Over the next few days they loyalists tracked down more men who they deemed to be collaborators, executing them and burning their homes.  Several of the victims were in beds recovering from wounds and unable to defend themselves.

The loyalists next found a small group of patriot militia at the home of their Colonel Joseph Hayes.  The patriots defended themselves but then surrendered after Cunningham set the house on fire.  After the surrender, witnesses say that Cunningham personally murdered every prisoner.

A few weeks later, on December 7, a smaller group from Cunningham’s force under Captain John Crawford attacked General Andrew Pickens’ blockhouse and captured a convoy of patriot wagons.  Some of the patriot guards were able to flee, but the loyalists burned the wagons and took several prisoners.  Among them was John Pickens, the brother of General Andrew Pickens.  The loyalists rode their prisoners back to the Cherokee nation, where they tortured and murdered the prisoners.  Pickens, as the brother of a patriot general was singled out for a particularly brutal torture.

The day following his brothers’ capture, General Pickens took personal command of the militia army that was tasked with tracking down Cunningham’s marauders.  They came across a camp of twenty loyalists who were all slaughtered.  Cunningham had spread out his force so that the attack on the first camp alerted the others to flee.

Cunningham personally fled into the swamps and escaped. Eventually Cunningham was able to make his way back to Charleston.  According to some accounts, Cunningham had executed a total of 79 men during his rampage.

Greene Returns to the Field

While provincial and loyalist militia battled it out, Continentals General Nathanael Greene was focused on Charleston.  Following the Battle of Eutaw Springs in September, the army returned to the high hills of Santee.  Greene was focused on putting together an army to confront the British at Charleston.  

That was going to prove difficult  The main Continental force was focused on Yorktown at the time.  All men and resources that might have been used on South Carolina were being redirected to Virginia. On top of that, the small army that Greene did have was struck hard with malaria, putting the vast majority of his men out of commission.

Washington sent Greene more Continental reinforcements under the command of General Arthur St. Clair.  The reinforcements were supposed to include a few regiments of regulars from Virginia.  However, even after Yorktown, Virginia state officials were still afraid of another attack.  They refused to allow the Virginia Continentals to leave the state, and even recalled many of the Virginians who were with Greene at the time.  As a result, Greene ended up without many more men than he had before St. Clair arrived.

Greene did get some more assistance locally.  Before Eutaw Springs, he had called on the Overmountain men to return to the fight.  Although they did not march in time to particpate at Eutaw Springs, they finally did arrive in late October 1781.  John Sevier brought several companies of riflemen to Greene’s Camp as did Isaac Shelby.   Greene sent these men to fight support Francis Marion’s militia efforts around Charleston.


The British still maintained a series of outposts within a 35 mile radius of Charleston.  These outposts were critical toward the collection of forage, and still protected a great number of loyalist families, many of whom had settled there after being forced to leave their homes that were under patriot control.

Colonel Marion spent the late fall trying to harass these outposts and look for weaknesses.  They were also trying to track down and kill Bloody Bill Cunningham and his men during this time.  In mid-November, about 400 militia, made up mostly of the men that Shelby and Sevier had recently brought.  This brigade targeted the Fairlawn Plantation, part of the British force near Monck’s Corner. 

The plantation house itself was a large brick building that had been converted into a fort.  It was surrounded by abatis and other defenses.  Although the fort contained only about 50 British regulars, Maham determined that a direct assault on the house without artillery would be too costly.  

Instead, they destroyed the plantation’s outbuildings as the small loyalist garrison inside the main house watched.  When the militia attacked the plantation on the morning of November 17, they were primarily concerned with capturing loyalist horsemen that were acting as scouts and foraging patrols for the British, as well as seeking the recapture of escaped slaves that had fled into the British lines.

The patriots did not find the cavalry or slaves they were seeking.  They did find that one of the outbuildings, known as the Colleton House, was being used as a British hospital.  Many of the wounded there were recovering from wounds incurred at the battle of Eutaw Springs.  When the patriot cavalry arrived, the medical staff put up no resistance and surrendered immediately.  

Maham’s men took prisoners of about 300 wounded patients and medical staff.  About half of the patients were well enough to ride and were taken as prisoners.  The medical staff, along with the other half of prisoners who could not ride, were paroled and allowed to remain onsite.  The patients who were paroled and remained were removed from the house so that the patriots could burn it. The militia also captured about 300 muskets on the site.

The British, under General Alexander Stewart, got word of the raid, and set out after Maham’s patriots that same day. But the militia rode all the way back to Greene’s camp, about fifty miles away, riding all night to arrive the following morning.

The British protested to General Greene about burning a hospital and leaving the seriously wounded outside, where many died.  After an inquiry, Greene seemed to concede that burning the hospital, which Maham believed necessary to destroy all the British supplies held there, was probably not appropriate. Greene, however, also pushed back at British criticism, given the terrible treatment of American prisoners in British hands in Charleston.

Following the raid, General Leslie in Charleston ordered the garrison to abandon the post at Fairlawn, and pulled back many of the other British outposts closer to Charleston, where the main British force could support them within a few hours if needed.


Following the pullback, one of the most distant outposts remaining was at Dorchester, about 19 miles from Charleston.  The main British army that had fought at Eutaw Springs under Colonel Alexander Stewart was camped there.  Stewart was still away recovering from his wounds, so the command fell to Major John Doyle.  The British camp had about 850 regulars and provincial soldiers.

General Greene moved the main Continental Army out of the High Hills of Santee in November, looking for an opportunity to attack the British.  The bulk of the Continental Army set up camp at the Round O Plantation, about  35 miles west of Charleston.  A pretty large portion of his army was sick with malaria. They were also still guarding several hundred prisoners from Eutaw Springs.

Greene left the bulk of the army there and rode out with a reconnaissance party of about 200 cavalry and 200 infantry toward the British position at Dorchester.  

Greene advanced on the British position at Dorchester.  On December 1, an American advance force under Colonel Wade Hampton ran into an enemy reconnaissance party of about 50 cavalry from Dorchester.  A brief fight took place with about ten killed and twenty wounded.  The British horsemen retreated back to Dorchester to alert the main army there.

Although the British outnumbered the Americans by more than 2-1, Greene continued to advance on the fort with his 400 men.  The British commander, Major Doyle identified Greene among the officers leading the column toward him.  Doyle believed that Greene’s presence meant that the whole Continental Army was coming up behind him.

Based on that, Doyle ordered the destruction of the fort’s stores and dumped many of their guns in a nearby river.  Doyle knew the enemy needed supplies and wanted to make sure they did not get his.  After dark the British abandoned the fort and marched to within five miles of Charleston.

The following morning, Greene’s army entered the abandoned fort and recovered two artillery pieces.  The enemy was gone and most of the supplies were destroyed.

Colonel Stewart learned of the withdrawal of his forces from Dorchester.  He was well enough, at this point, to ride out and take command again. Stewart planned to advance and take on the Continentals.  

Before he could, though, Greene withdrew.  Greene’s men were without blankets, and he was down to less than four rounds of ammunition per man.  Until he could get more supplies, he could not engage in a major clash with the enemy.

Greene deployed Colonel Hampton’s dragoons to keep open the lines of communication with Colonel Marion’s militia army.  He also deployed Light Horse Harry Lee’s cavalry to prevent any British reconnaissance parties from discovering just how small a force Greene really had with him.  Even after Greene withdrew to the Round O Plantation to link up with his main army, he had only about 800 men ready for action, and still had no ammunition.

Fortunately for the patriots, Lee’s efforts were effective.  A few weeks later, General Leslie wrote to Lord Germain in London, about the frustration over the quality of his cavalry, and that he could get no good intelligence about the enemy.

Leslie also wrote “It is with much sorrow that I am obliged to inform your Lordship of the almost total revolt of this Province, since our misfortune in Virginia many persons in whom we placed confidence have abandoned us.”  In short, the British commander seemed to believe that British influence in South Carolina was coming to an end.

Next week, the fight for South Carolina continues with a series of skirmishes around Charleston.  Also, General Thomas Sumter and Colonel John Laurens also return to the fight.

- - -

Next Episode 303 John's Island

Previous Episode 301 Evacuation of Wilmington

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Further Reading


William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham

Waters, Andrew “William ‘Bloody Bill’ Cunningham and the Bloody Scout” Journal of the American Revolution, July 8, 2021:

Incident at Fair Lawn Plantation:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Biographical Sketch of the Career of Major Wm. CunninghamThe Southern and Western Literary Messenger and Review, 1846-09: Vol 12, Sept. 1846. 

Biographical Sketch of the Career of Major Wm. Cunningham, continued” The Southern and Western Literary Messenger and Review, 1846-10, Vol. 12, Oct. 1846: 

Barnwell, Robert Woodward Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765-1785, Ph.D. Thesis, Duke University, 1941. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Landrum, John Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, SC: Shannon & Co. 1897 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.  

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, 1749-1815, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785. 

Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Charleston, Univ. of Va Press, 2019. 

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Vol 3, 1781, Booklocker, 2005. 

Pancake, John S. This Destructive war: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782, Univ. of Alabama Press, 1985 (borrow on

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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