John Cunningham

of the

9 Light Dragoons



A Soldier of the King
“Worn out by his service”

John Cunningham was born in 1775 in the parish of Aughnamullen, County Monaghan. Aged 22 and describing his trade as “weaver”, he enlisted as a Private in the 9th Light Dragoons, a regular Regiment of the army in Ireland with which he served for nearly 18 years. He left them in 1814 at the age of 40 with a pension, when he was described by Colonel Charles Morland, his commanding officer, as being “of good character having been nearly worn out with service”! That service coincided firstly with a rebellion in Ireland in which his Regiment, the 9th Dragoons, was fully engaged; that was within months of his enlistment. Then, after the short-lived Peace of Amiens, the Napoleonic War with France re-ignited and the Regiment left Ireland where they had been stationed for 86 years. After helping to defend the south coast of England from a French invasion, which in the end was prevented by the Royal Navy, the Regiment became part of two illfated expeditions; one was in South America which took a year, and then one in Holland. After recovering from that, they joined Wellington’s army fighting the French in Portugal and Spain for two years. Finally in July 1814 as the war was ending, the 9th Dragoons returned home to Ireland where John retired and went back to Aughnamullen to be a farmer. [A pencil note on John’s Discharge Papers mentions a three year “break in service”: the reason is unexplained, but it was then not unusual in long service contracts where a soldier was in his home country for him to request to be released for a period, sometimes on half-pay – John’s break coincided with the Peace of Amiens. When he rejoined his Regiment they were already in England.] John Cunningham’s Regiment consisted of about 1,100 cavalrymen divided into 10 “Troops” at full strength. The military operations in which they were engaged in the course of his service are summarised below. Since, unsurprisingly, his name is not mentioned, we have no information about the specific role he played at any stage. However, the demanding nature of their work and its hazards are abundantly clear from the extracts of the 9th Dragoon’s War Diaries and from other sources which are listed at the end, together with his commanding officer’s written comment on this 40-yearold’s discharge papers that he had been “worn out” by his service in the army.

The Irish rebellion of 1798

The 1798 Irish Rebellion : "Charge of the 5th Dragoon Guards on the insurgents – a recreant yeoman having deserted to them in uniform is being cut down" – by William Sadler

The rebellion took place in the year following John Cunningham’s enlistment in the 9th Light Dragoons in Ireland: it was his baptism of fire. The 9th, then consisting of nine Troops (around 1000 men), became fully engaged in putting down the rebellion in the south-east of Ireland between May and July of 1798. The Regiment’s headquarters was at Carlow with the Troops spread throughout Leinster, and we know that John was in Captain Campbell’s Troop although neither names are mentioned in the summary of the 9th’s military actions, locations and casualties quoted below. In addition, Irish rebel accounts also mention actions by unspecified cavalry near Ferns in Wexford on 27 May and at Arklow in Wicklow on 9 June. Night 23/24 May Capt Beevor's Troop was attacked at Kilcullen in Kildare. Quartermaster King & 8 men killed. 24 May Capt Erskine's Troop engaged at Ballymore Eustace, Wicklow. Capt Erskine & 9 men killed. Cornet Love & 20 men fought action against 3-400 rebels near Stratford, west Wicklow. 'Several men wounded'. 25 May Regiment’s HQ at Carlow (CO - Lt Col Mahon) attacked by 3000 rebels (Irish account says 1000). 2 men killed, 10 wounded. 5 June Capt Wilkins' Troop with a Royal Irish Squadron, helped to hold the town of New Ross in Wexford against major rebel assaults. 4 men killed, Capt Wilkins & 10 men wounded. Rebel records quote British garrison numbered 2000 and lost 200 while rebels had 2000 killed. 18 & 19 June Four Troops engaged rebels at Castle Comer in north Kilkenny driving them out of the town and fought an action at Kilcomney Hill on the following day. On these two days “the Regt lost many men and horses”. [This is the only operation for which the Regiment has described its casualty figures like this. It suggests its losses were very severe.] 21 June Capt Martin with two Troops was part of a force which attacked 15,000 rebels in their main stronghold on Vinegar Hill near Enniscorthy in Wexford. 3 men killed, 11 men wounded. 23 & 24 June Lieut Higgins and a party from the Regiment with some Yeomanry engaged rebels at Leighlin in Carlow on the 23rd, and Major Donaldson's Squadron fought a sharp action near Sharkhill(?) on the following day. Losses on both days were 3 men killed, 11 wounded.

Operations in South America 1806-07
John Cunningham rejoined his Regiment in September 1804 in England where they remained until 1806 when their numbers were increased to ten Troops, giving the 9th a total strength of 1,100 men. They then became part of an ill-fated force which was ordered to recapture the city of Buenos Aires (Argentina). They sailed (‘dismounted’) in November, but due to the vagaries of weather and shipping did not land at Montevideo (Uruguay) until 3rd February having been at sea for nearly three months. After receiving reinforcements from South Africa, the British force, including the 9th Dragoons who were still without horses as were much of the cavalry, crossed the mouth of the River Plate on 28th June to make a landing at Ensenada, fifty miles south-east of Buenos Aires. They were suffering heavy losses from the swamp fever that was rife in the Delta region and, despite much of the cavalry having to fight on foot, they succeeded in entering the city on 5th July.

However, they found the local city opposition far greater than expected. With their own strength so weakened by the loss of some 2,500 men killed, wounded, captured and sick, it was decided that the object of the expedition was unobtainable. General Whitelocke, the British commander, then acceded to a treaty with the Argentineans and withdrew, for which on his return home he was tried by General Court Martial and cashiered! In this short but disastrous operation, the 9th Dragoons had their Veterinary officer, Landers, and 3 men killed, and Lieut Cornwall and 23 men wounded. To this melancholy toll was added Sergeant Hall and 28 Dragoons who were drowned on the voyage home when, after an Atlantic gale, their transport was wrecked at night on rocks off Cornwall.

Expedition to Walcheren in Holland 1809
In the summer of 1809 the British attacked Holland which had become a republic subject to France. The 9th Dragoons were part of a strong force which succeeded in landing on Walcheren near the mouth of the river Scheldt where they besieged and captured the town of Flushing. However, as in South America, the virulent Walcheren fever interposed and caused so many casualties among the troops that the rest of the operation was abandoned. By the time they left Walcheren in December, the 9th Dragoons had lost 152 men to the fever.

The successful siege of Flushing before the ignominious withdrawal of our troops from Walcheren in Holland

The Peninsular War (Portugal & Spain) 1811-13
In July 1811, the 9th Dragoons arrived at Lisbon to join Wellington’s army which was “helping to deliver Spanish and Portuguese patriots from the tyranny of France”. After disembarking, a short halt was made to refresh men and horses and then they marched the hundred miles to join the army which was regrouping in the Alentego hills west of Badajoz, preparing to renew their assault on that fortress city. The first major action in which the 9th took part was after Wellington had taken off most of his Anglo-Portuguese army to besiege Ciudad Rodrigo, 150 miles to the north near Salamanca. In support of that operation, 9th Dragoons and their brigade under General Rowland Hill, were ordered to advance north towards the Spanish frontier at Portalegre. After a series of forced marches “in cold, wet and stormy weather” the brigade surprised French troops under General Gerard in the village of Aroyo de Molino at day-break on 28th October. As our Dragoons and their infantry approached under cover of rain and a thick mist, the French were preparing to move; their baggage was being loaded; the horses of the rear-guard were unbridled and tied to some olive trees when the attack began. While the 13th Dragoons seized the French artillery, the 9th under Captain George Gore charged and overthrew the hostile cavalry who had drawn up alongside two squares of French infantry. Meanwhile Trumpeter Martin of the 9th managed to capture the French General trying to escape in his carriage. A thousand Frenchmen were captured in this action with all their artillery and baggage.

Following the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in January1812, 9th Dragoons were part of the covering force for Wellington’s march south intending to besiege Badajoz 130 miles away. Near Merida on the Guadiana River, the 9th had a sharp skirmish with the body of the enemy’s cavalry in which Sergeant-Major Dunwoody took a French Colonel prisoner. Then, on the night of 6th/7th April, they were at Badajoz to see the fortress successfully stormed, although with heavy losses.

British infantry scaling the walls of Badajoz, successfully stormed 6/7 th April 1812 with heavy losses: the siege had begun on 16th March. Wellington’s two previous sieges of the fortified city had been unsuccessful.

Soon after, Wellington marched back towards Salamanca 150 miles away to the north, while the 9 th Dragoons and their brigade remained on the Extremadura. The next month they were in a skirmish at Polomor, and in July engaged in operations to defend Villafranca, 50 miles south-east of Badajoz. In this last action Lieut Benjamin Handley and his detachment were commended for their bravery, but the Regiment had three men wounded and three taken prisoner.

Battle of Salamanca July 1812

Meanwhile Wellington’s signal victory at Salamanca in July had threatened the whole French position in Spain. He set about exploiting this by concentrating his Anglo-Portuguese army of 35,000 men in the centre of the country around Madrid which he reached in September. At the same time he

began a siege of the key French fortress in the Castle of Burgos, 130 miles north of Madrid (picture below). Meanwhile the 9th Dragoons were helping to defend the south-east approach to Madrid along the line of the river Tagus between Toledo and Aranjuez. On the 25th October they were engaged in an action at Ocana and had twelve men taken prisoner, but by then the attempt to capture Burgos had failed and Wellington’s main army was withdrawing back to a position behind the River Tormes near Salamanca, 150 miles away from where the 9th and its brigade were then operating. After a series of forced marches, the Regiment succeeded in rejoining the army and were then engaged in repeated skirmishes at Alba de Tormes in which they had seven wounded and nine captured. Subsequently, with the onset of winter, they formed part of the rear-guard when the army retired to Ciudad Rodrigo. They were frequently engaged by the enemy during this task and lost many horses from exposure to bad weather and the scarcity of forage.

Castle of Burgos, the key French fortress in Spain under siege by Wellington for a month Sept/Oct 1812

This was the last operation in which the 9th Dragoons took part in the war. By May 1913 they were back in England where they were welcomed by their new CO, Charles Morland. In September the following year the Regiment returned to Ireland which they had left eleven years before. It was on their arrival in Dublin that Morland signed John Cunningham’s discharge papers commenting that he had been “nearly worn out with service” and deserving of a pension. At the age of 40, having survived the tumultuous life of a cavalryman as described here for nearly 18 years, John Cunningham was ready to return to his rural home in the Ulster parish of Aughnamullen where he had been born.

John Cunningham’s Discharge Papers dated September 1814 (National Archives: through Kathryn Dooley) Richard Cannon, “Historical Record of the British Army – 9th Light Dragoons 1715-1841”, Adjutant General’s Office, Horse Guards, London 1841. Frank H Reynard, “The 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers 1715-1903”, William Blackwood & Sons 1904. Major EW Sheppard, “The 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers 1715-1936”, Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1939. Daniel J Gahan, “Rebellion! Ireland in 1798”, O'Brien Press, Dublin 1998. [Authorised book of the National 1798 Visitor Centre at Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford]

The Military General Service medal 1847 was the first British “campaign” medal to be issued to all ranks who had been present on the battlefield. It was awarded for military actions between 1793-1814, which encompassed the Napoleonic wars among others. John Cunningham was entitled to its ‘Badajoz’ clasp.

The history of John Cunningham’s family from its origins in Scotland until the present day can be read in a separate Scribd document entitled: “CUNNINGHAM of AUGHNAMULLEN: Part 1 History” The four pedigrees associated with the Cunningham History are in another Scribd document entitled: “CUNNINGHAM of AUGHNAMULLEN: Part 2 Pedigrees” at:

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