Sumner A. Cunningham was the founder and editor of the Nashville publication Confederate Veteran. The magazine was one of the New South’s most influential monthlies and made Cunningham a central figure in the “Lost Cause” movement of the late nineteenth century.
Born in rural Bedford County on July 21, 1843, Cunningham grew up on a prosperous farm among middle-class supporters of the slave economy, but not strong secessionists. Following the secession of Tennessee, Cunningham joined the local home guard in October 1861; his unit was quickly assimilated into Company B, Forty-first Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A. After brief military training at Camp Trousdale, Private Cunningham was stationed at Fort Donelson and captured when the fort fell. Sent to Camp Morton in Indianapolis, he spent six months as a prisoner of war before being exchanged in mid-1862. Rejoining the regiment in Mississippi, Cunningham fought at Port Hudson, Yazoo River, Jackson, and Raymond. He succumbed to a series of illnesses including pneumonia, malaria, and sciatica that kept him away from combat for much of the remainder of the war. In 1863 he received a post-battle promotion to sergeant-major and returned to the ranks in time to participate in the Tennessee campaign. He fought with determination at the battles of Franklin and Nashville but deserted in December 1864. His account of the former battle in postwar publications became a standard treatment from the Confederate perspective. His other publication, Reminiscences of the Forty-first Tennessee Infantry (1871), is a brief but major contribution to the regimental histories of Tennessee.
After the war Cunningham returned to Shelbyville and worked briefly in the mercantile trade. His interest in journalism surfaced when he bought and edited the Shelbyville Commercial (1871), Chattanooga Times (1876), and Cartersville (Georgia) Express (1879). In 1883 Cunningham entered the magazine field with a bold new venture: Our Day, a monthly published in New York City but directed at southern audiences. Mismanagement and financial failure marked each business venture, however, and in 1885 he joined the Nashville American as a staff correspondent. Columns such as “That Reminds Me!” and “Towns of the State” earned “SAC” instant popularity as a writer. In 1892, the star reporter was assigned responsibility for collecting funds to erect a monument to the recently deceased former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. He established a newsletter to keep patrons informed of the drive’s progress. Confederate Veteran magazine grew out of that original publication.
Cunningham died on December 13, 1913, at age seventy, seated at his editor’s desk and working on his proposed monument to commemorate the life of Daniel Decatur Emmitt, the minstrel and composer of the famous battle song “Dixie.” Confederate Veteran continued publication until 1932.
John A. Simpson, S. A. Cunningham and the Confederate Heritage (1994)