AMES TAYLOR CUNNINGHAM was born in Hardin County, Ky, July 11, 1802. He was a very energetic boy but his father was a cripple, and unable to work on the farm, and as the children were all girls except his young brother, Harrison, it was no easy task for James T. to practically assume the role of head of the family, and keep the wolf from the door. |
On the 15th of September, 1825, James T. Cunningham was married to Elizabeth Cea Yocum. They were both poor, but managed to secure a little tract of land about four miles from Litchfield, Ky., where they lived a short time, when Ambrose Yocum and our subject conceived the idea of building a flatboat, and taking the surplus products to New Orleans. The rude craft was launched on Rough Creek, whence it made its way to the Crescent City, and the produce was disposed of satisfactorily. This was really the first start in James T. Cunningham’s life. He and his brother-in-law, Ambrose Yocum, (who were captains and capitalists of this vessel) sold the ship and cargo and worked their way home on a steamboat. In October, 1830, Mr. C. and his partner, Yocum, moved to Illinois. Yocum settled on the Embarras River about two miles from Charleston, and was the first Sheriff of Coles County, while Cunningham settled four miles south of what is now Mattoon.
Mr. Cunningham never had the advantages of an early education, but was endowed with brains and energy never excelled by the pioneers of Illinois. His accumulations of property were very considerable, as he bought large tracts of land and was the leading dealer in live-stock in Coles County. He was elected Justice of the Peace, and afterward served as a member of the Legislature for three years, two of which sessions were held in Vandalia.
During these sessions he formed the acquaintance of some of the greatest men who ever lived; W. L. D. Pawing, Speaker of the House, Gen. William F. Thornton, Col. Ed. Baker (the brilliant poetic orator), Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, O. B. Ficklin, John J. Hardin (afterward killed in the Mexican War), and a host of other great names which would honor any country. At Vandalia, Mr. C. formed a friendship for Abraham Lincoln, which lasted through life.
One little incident would illustrate this: His son-in-law, Col. Monroe, came home on a furlough, and while here the 123d Illinois Regiment was formed and organized at Mattoon. James Monroe was elected Colonel, and while these elections by raw recruits were not binding except as a recommendation to Gov. Yates, yet they had a voice, almost of authority, in dictating the commissions to be issued. The election of officers occurred in the afternoon on the fair ground, and seemed to delight the new regiment and the people of Mattoon, but what was the surprise when the Chicago papers of that day brought the news of Secretary Stanton’s order that all old officers holding positions in the Government service should not be allowed to take places in the new regiments forming at that time. This broke the slate. What should be done! Maj. Connelly, Dr. Allen and others who had been elected to places, were in trouble. So it was agreed to send James T. Cunningham to Washington to see Mr. Lincoln, and see if some modification of Secretary Stanton’s order could not be made. When Mr. Cunningham arrived at Washington he saw Mr. Lincoln who had never even seen the order before. Mr. Lincoln said: “Well, I don’t want to cancel my Secretary’s order, but I will write to Mr. Stanton a card and see what he can do in the premises.” Then the President took a card and wrote in his concise way:
“SECRETARY OF WAR:
Admit the bearer, Mr. Cunningham, at once.
He is an old and tried friend of mine. He will not
deviate one hair’s breadth from the truth. Do what
he wants done, if possible. A. LINCOLN.”
Mr. Stanton promptly wrote to Gov. Yates to waive the order in this case, which he was delighted to do.
Mr. Cunningham was a proud man in many respects, although plain. Never in his life did he seem so pleased as when he brought this card home. His cattle and his lands were matters of triumph as the labor of his hands and head, but they, all of them, seemed small to him compared with this endorsement by the greatest man on earth, as he regarded Mr. Lincoln.
Mr. Cunningham never belonged to any church or society of any kind, but was a liberal donor to Church purposes, giving of his substance freely. Not tens or hundreds, but thousands of dollars for Church purposes. More than once he has given $500 at a time for such uses.
Mr. Cunningham’s children by the first marriage were, in the order named: John, William, James, Mary Jane and James Harrison. After his wife’s death, in 1849, he married Sarah E. Hendricks, nee Threlkeld. By this marriage Nancy Taylor and Elizabeth C. are the offspring.
Mr. Cunningham was the Republican candidate for Congress in this District, when Abraham Lincoln was first elected President. The District was overwhelmingly Democratic and he was of course defeated, but he ran 1,000 votes ahead of the Lincoln ticket, and considering the high party strife, this was a great triumph, and showed the people’s confidence in the man.
When the war broke out the 21st Illinois Infantry (Grant’s Regiment) was raised at Mattoon, and organized in the fair ground. The soldiers were pouring in according to the call, but no provisions had been made for their support. Then Mr. C. telegraphed to Gov. Yates the situation, and in reply the Governor said: “Take care of the soldiers.” So Mr. C. entered upon the duties of Quartermaster, and took care of the regiment until it left Mattoon. This was an odd, irregular way of appointing a Quartermaster, but Mr. C.’s accounts were audited with as much credit as if his commission had been on parchment, the State of Illinois paying his bills in full. Mr. Cunningham died June 26, 1863.