Medal of Honor: Francis Cunningham

Grave of Francis Cunningham, Sugar Grove Cemetery,, Ohiopyle

Standing at the grave of Medal of Honor recipient Francis Morrison, I scanned the hillside for the resting place Francis Cunningham. My eyes paused at each stone marked by a flag, but none of them appeared to be the grave I sought. I carefully moved along the hillside, passing under the giant pines whose canopy hide a number of graves. Pausing a short distance away I again scanned the hillside in search of the grave. Note: more about Medal of Honor recipient Francis Morrison can be found here: Francis Morrison.

I was not seeing the grave I was searching for.

As I stood there, I could hear someone talking. Looking down the hillside, I could see someone talking to my parents. A couple seconds later my phone rang. “She says it is straight up the hill from Morrison’s grave,” mom announced. I turned to look back at where I had come from and I could see a grave marked with a flag in the corner of the cemetery. The memorial had been hidden behind one of the large pines in the cemetery. Making my way carefully over to it, I could see it was the grave of Francis Cunningham, the second Medal of Honor recipient who rests on this sacred hillside. Note: Cunningham’s grave is almost straight up the hillside from Morrison’s, but standing at Morrison’s grave, it cannot be spotted due to being behind a pine tree.

Francis Marion Cunningham was born December 12, 1837 in Lower Turkeyfoot Township, Somerset County, one of ten children to Robert and Sarah Cunningham. On August 26, 1861, he married Sarah J. Skinner and the two were at the time living in Fayette County.

When President Lincoln called for volunteers to fight for the Union in 1861, Cunningham answered. He was one of sixty-seven men from Fayette County who purchased their own horses and rode to West Virginia to enlist in the Union Army. On July 25, 1861 he was mustered into service as a member of Company H of the First West Virginia Cavalry. When Cunningham’s term of service came to an end in 1863, he reenlisted in December of that year.

During his time serving in the Union Cavalry, Cunningham was involved in seventy-four battles and six skirmishes. It would be in April 1865 that Cunningham would perform the heroic act that would be remembered and later honored. The Battle of Sailor’s Creek – also called Sayler’s Creek – occurred in Virginia, just three days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

On the afternoon of April 6, the First West Virginia Cavalry encountered the Confederate Army, including the Twelfth Virginia Infantry, entrenched in the thick woods of the western bank of Sailor’s Creek. The Confederate fire had Union soldiers dropping wounded or dead and a thick smoke filled the air. In the heat of the battle, Cunningham found a mule with a Confederate saddle on it.

Cunningham mounted the mule and rode back to the place where the Union army was rallying. As he rejoined the unit, the bugle sounded “Charge.” Cunningham’s mount charged into the thick forest. The mule outraced the rest of his men and when it came to the breastworks, it did not halt, but jumped over the Confederate line.

The mule landed near the flag bearer of the Twelfth Virginia Infantry. Cunningham went after the man and the two fought over control of the unit’s flag. A sabre slash to the flag bearer’s right arm which caused him to drop the flag. Cunningham quickly grabbed it. In the process of his actions, he was wounded twice.

Among those who witnessed Cunningham’s actions was Brevet Major-General George Custer. Custer placed Cunningham on his staff and would later recommend Cunningham for the Medal of Honor. Due to his being placed on Custer’s staff, Cunningham was present at Appomattox Court House when Lee surrendered to Grant. Cunningham would be honorably discharged from service, having achieved the rank of first lieutenant, at Wheeling, West Virginia at the war’s end.

Cunningham was presented the Medal of Honor on May 3, 1865. The citation reads: The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Sergeant Francis Marion Cunningham, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 6 April 1865, while serving with Company H, 1st West Virginia Cavalry, in action at Deatonsville (Sailor’s Creek), Virginia, for capture of battle flag of 12th Virginia Infantry (Confederate States of America) in hand-to-hand battle while wounded.

After the war, he returned to Ohiopyle where he resided until his death on May 11, 1919. He was an active member of the Fayette County Veteran’s Society, where he served as the chaplain for the organization and was a Reverend in the Baptist Denomination. Sadly, the man who survived the war and being wounded in action was making improvements to a building when he stepped on a rusty nail and developed tetanus.

I finished remembering his service and deeds before starting back down the hillside, leaving him to rest peacefully on the hillside above Ohiopyle.

Note: In researching the life of Francis Cunningham, there were a number of articles that state his Medal of Honor had been lost. After being contacted by a descendant, it was revealed that his medal remains treasured by the family.

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