Many Culpeper sons fought for the Confederacy and we recognize the names of General A.P. Hill and Major (later judge) Daniel Grimsley as having served under Robert E. Lee. Far fewer folks know of Captain John Miller Cunningham, an historical oversight requiring rectification.
But first, why should we care about Culpeper’s own, “Last Confederate?”
For starters, please consider John Cunningham was the last surviving member of the VMI Corps of Cadets who marched off to war with Stonewall Jackson in April 1861. And upon his death 75 years ago July 17, Captain Cunningham was the senior surviving Confederate officer.
John Cunningham was born in 1843 on the newly established “Elkwood Farm,” just north of Brandy Station — a house-site on the Brandy Station Battlefield now owned by the Civil War Trust. As the nephew of wealthy planter Richard Hoope Cunningham, the master of Elkwood, young John Miller received a first class education and entered VMI. Not a strong student, he graduated 33rd in a class of 35 and then marched off to Richmond under Professor T.J. Jackson with the assignment of drilling raw recruits.
In early 1862, an 18-year-old Lt. Cunningham joined the “Powhatan Artillery,” a battery he soon commanded as “Cunningham’s Virginia Battery” for the remainder of the war. Lt. Cunningham led his guns at Gettysburg and throughout the Wilderness. His service at Spotsylvania was especially prominent. A Union officer, in fact, observed Lt. Cunningham “rallying his men with such courage,” that the gracious Yankee instructed his men “not to pick off” Cunningham.
Douglas Southall Freeman later lauded Captain Cunningham as leading an “epic of heroism” in1864 while defending Fort Harrison and Fort Gilmer against heavy Union attacks against the Richmond defenses. But valor aside, the war soon drew to a close and Captain Cunningham surrendered his guns at Appomattox.
Returning to badly damaged Elkwood Farm, the former officer managed his uncle’s large property. A very precise agrarian, Cunningham’s farming and bookkeeping skills were reported to be “ahead of his time.” Often called upon to speak at Confederate reunions, the modest warrior turned down most invitations and instead pursued a quiet life. His hobby: Raising Shetland Ponies.
On the occasion of his 95th birthday in 1938, a United Daughters of the Confederacy Committee, Culpeper Chapter, visited John Cunningham at Elkwood Farm and conveyed birthday wishes. He was found by Mrs. Berkeley Calfee to be in the “best of spirits,” and the old Rebel even sang “several wartime melodies.”
John Miller Cunningham, “Culpeper’s Last Confederate,” died in July 1939, and is today buried in Fairview Cemetery.
And on the anniversary of his death, July 17, there will be at least one commemorative wreath on his gravesite.