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Murder of Local Doctor
During Reconstruction

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

After the Civil War ended, folks in Texas and throughout the South underwent a phase in time known as "Reconstruction."

During this period, the states that had previously been part of the Confederacy were now subject to military rule as well as occupation by Union troops. Citizens of Gonzales, Texas, had to deal with the problem of enemy soldiers, in their hated blue uniforms, walking the streets - many who probably felt that the local folks were somewhat inferior to them.

A story in the March 26, 1931, issue of The Gonzales Inquirer prompted me to do some research on an incident involving U.S. Army soldiers that occurred here in 1868. The article was about a former resident of Gonzales who had donated a rare photograph to the University of Texas Library. The paper described the picture as, "...depicting a scene of an early tragedy." This tragic event was said to have happened in Gonzales during the reconstruction days.

Evidently the owner of the photograph, Mr. Mac Parker, didn't know much about its content and had asked the University of Texas to contact the Inquirer to see if any of the locals had witnessed the event. This incident turned out to be the killing of a local man by Yankee soldiers.

After the Inquirer article was published, a citizen of Gonzales, Mr. F.F. Wood came forward and said he definitely remembered the occurrence. Mr. Wood said it happened at the old Keyser House in Gonzales. The Keyser was a hotel located in the downtown area. Wood stated that the victim was a physician from Belmont by the name of Cunningham.

Mr. Wood said that Dr. Cunningham was, "called out" by the soldiers and when he appeared at the top of the stairs, they grabbed and pulled him feet first down the steps, and then shot him on the sidewalk. Wood said Cunningham had done something to offend the soldiers.

Another article about the killing of Dr. Cunningham appeared in the Inquirer on April 2, 1931. One local lady, Mrs. W.J. Bright, told the paper that she recalled the event quite clearly. She was 15 years old at the time and was living with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell, about two miles from Gonzales. On the day of the murder, Mrs. Bright was spending the day in town with her uncle, David S.H. Darst.

The Inquirer reported that the old Darst home had been a stately two-story brick house and had occupied a spot just south of where the high school campus was located at the time the article was written in 1931. The old home was no longer there and the home of Mrs. C.H. Hoskins stood on that ground. The location of the Darst place was evidently reasonably close to the downtown area - near enough for Mrs. Bright to hear the shooting.

Mrs. Bright stated, "So many shots were fired, that every one in the house thought a battle was on in the business section." Bright said that she later learned that the soldiers shot into every business in town to intimidate the storeowners and keep them inside while they (soldiers) killed Cunningham.

According to Mrs. Bright, the soldiers ordered Dr. Cunningham to kneel on the sidewalk and pray for his life. She said he was kneeling in prayer when he was shot to death.

The Handbook of Texas contains more information about the murder and other events surrounding this incident. It states that although no Union troops actually fought in Gonzales County during the war - about 15 or 20 soldiers were stationed here and camped on the public square for several months during the reconstruction period.

Evidently the soldiers were running roughshod over the local folks. The problem was bad enough that the mayor complained to military authorities in February of 1868, accusing the men of intimidating local citizens. Shortly after the complaint was filed, two soldiers reportedly began firing into the downtown area. They beat up the postmaster and wrecked the post office. The Handbook of Texas states, "They pulled a civilian [Cunningham] into the street and murdered him."

Several months later the two soldiers were accused of murder. They were tried by a military court and found not guilty.

I get the feeling that the Union soldiers of occupation must have considered Southerners fair game. In this particular case it is reported that only two men were involved in the killing. If so, why didn't the others do something to stop them?

If you ask me, the whole bunch should have been hanged.

Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary May 22, 2006 Column
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