Battle of Alamance
The Regulators Organize
The War of the Regulation which culminated in the Battle of Alamance is one of the most controversial events in the history of North Carolina. One group of historians sees in the Regulators a devoted band of patriots who at Alamance fired the opening gun of the American Revolution. This view is based upon a misunderstanding of the American Revolution. Others see only a mob, hating property and culture, delighting in acts of violence, and impatient with legal restraints, whose success would not have resulted in the establishment of constitutional liberty, but in the reign of anarchy. This view is based upon a misunderstanding of the Regulation.
A great many of the people of North Carolina in the years just before the American Revolution were restless and dissatisfied with the state of affairs in their province. Their grievances were serious and affected their daily lives. Royal governors sent from outside the province were not able to maintain peace and quiet, but instead frequently gave the people further cause for discontent. The outstanding group opposing the ruling class represented by the governor and his friends were known as Regulators.
The Regulators were frontiersmen allied in opposition to practices of government officials which they considered unjust and tyrannical. It was in Anson, Orange, and Granville counties in 1764 that these people first began to make themselves heard. They were called the mob and created a number of local disturbances until Governor Arthur Dobbs issued a proclamation forbidding the taking of illegal fees, a practice which in large measure had led to the uprising. Within four years the group was joined by others with similar grievances and they came to be known as Regulators.
Thus, the origin of the Regulation was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of a spirit of restlessness and discontent at existing conditions that had long been abroad in the province. It was a movement based upon the social and economic differences between the tidewater section and the back country of North Carolina. These differences were primarily the results of racial and geological divergences.
In the East, the people were almost entirely of English descent. It was here that an aristocratic form of society prevailed, based upon large plantations and slave labor. This area had taken on many of the forms and luxuries of older societies. The people looked to Virginia and the mother country for its social, intellectual, and political standards.
In the West, Scotch-Irish and Germans ancestries were predominant. Here plantations were small and slaves were few in number. For the most part, the West was still in the pioneer stage. The forms and ideals of society were democratic. Philadelphia was the principal center for the interchange of ideas, as well as of produce.
Between the two sections stretched a sparsely settled region of pine forest which formed a natural barrier between them. With slight intercourse between them, the two sections felt but little sympathetic interest in each other. Some old Regulators long afterwards declared at the time of the Regulation there was not among all their acquaintances one who could boast a cabin with a plank floor, or who possessed a feather bed, a riding carriage, or a side saddle.
There was one set of people in the back country who mocked the manners of the eastern aristocracy, and in their haughty and selfish spirit, disregarded the rights and sentiments of the people. They were almost universally detested and hated. They were the public officials who were so numerous that they formed a distinct class.
The people had very little voice in the choice of these officials and therefore no control over them. The complaints of the Regulators were numerous and were based on what they considered unjust treatment received at the hands of local officials and attorneys. Most of the Regulators lived in the western or frontier counties separated from the older established eastern counties by a sparsely settled region of pine forest. They had no navigable streams and few roads linking them to the east. These new men of the west, who for the most part had come from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, were pioneers having little in common with the easterners and practically no share in the government of the province or of their own local region.
North Carolina was a royal colony and the governor was appointed by the crown. The governor and council, which was also appointed by the crown, but usually on the recommendation of the governor, formed the executive branch of the government. The governors approval was necessary before a bill became law and he was commander of the militia.
In local government he and the council appointed militia officers and selected the sheriff from three freeholders whose names had been submitted to him by the county court. These factors contributed to make the governors influence paramount. The colonial government was highly centralized. Provincial affairs were administered by officials chosen by the Crown, local affairs by officials chosen by the governor.
Upon the recommendation of the assemblymen from each county, the governor in Council appointed the county justices, who administered the local government. The county justices nominated to the governor three freeholders from whom he selected the sheriff. The governor also appointed the registers and the officers of the militia. There was a clerk of the pleas who farmed out the clerkships of the counties. These local officials controlled the Assembly.
No law forbade multiple office-holding, and the assemblymen were also generally clerks, justices, and militia colonels, who formed what in contemporary politics we call "courthouse rings." Where these "rings" were composed of high-minded, patriotic men, as in most of the eastern counties, government was honestly administered. In the back country, hover, such officials were rare, local government was usually inefficient, often corrupt, and generally oppressive.
It was this system of centralized office-holding that prevented the Regulators from receiving prompt and effective redress of their grievances. Their grievances were excessive taxes, dishonest officials, and extortionate fees. Taxes were excessive because they were levied only on the poll so that the rich and the poor paid equal amounts. The scarcity of money in the back country added to the hardships of the system, because it often gave brutal and corrupt sheriffs and their deputies an excuse to proceed by district, collect an extra fee for so doing, and sell the unhappy taxpayer's property at less than its actual value to some friend of the sheriff.
The Regulators charged that the officers and their friends made a regular business of such proceedings. It was well known that the officers were usually dishonest or inefficient. A large percentage of the taxes collected by them, estimated by Governor Tryon in 1767 at fifty percent, never found its way into the public treasurer. In 1770, the sheriffs were in arrears 49,000 pounds, some of which extended as far back as 1754. It was reported that at least half that sum could not be collected from those officials. While much of it was due to inefficient methods of accounting, there is no question that the greater part of it can be charged to corruption in office.
Sheriffs, clerks, registers, and lawyers were all paid in fees fixed by the acts of the Assembly. But these fees were frequently unknown to the people, who were compelled to accept the officers' word for the proper amount. Officers would generally manage to resolve a service for which a fee was attached into two or more services and collect a fee for each. Such practices were not always technically illegal or corrupt; however, popular rumor frequently exaggerated or misrepresented the facts in particular cases. The people did have ample ground for complaint which a government properly responsive to popular sentiment would have speedily removed.
The sense of restlessness with the government can be seen in the outbreak of violence occasioned by the collection of taxes in Anson County and in the riots of the Granville District. In 1765 riots also broke out out among the squatters on the George Selwyn lands in Mecklenburg County when attempts by Selwyn's agents to survey these lands so that deeds might be issued and quit rents collected led to armed resistance in which John Frohock, Abraham Alexander, and others were severely beaten by angry settlers and Henry Eusatce McCulloh, Selwyn's agent, was threatened with death.
Similar conditions prevailed in Granville County. George Sims of Nutbush, Granville County, on June 6, 1765, issued his famous "Nutbush Address," in which he set forth in graphic language, "the most notorious and intolerable abuses" which had crept into the public service in that county. It was not, he said, the "form of government, nor yet the body of our laws, that we are quarreling with, but with the malpractices of the Officers of our County Courts, and the abuses which we suffer by those empowered to manage our public affairs." Extortionate fees and oppressive methods of collecting fees and taxes formed the burden of his complaint. He called upon the people to meet for a discussion of reform, but the only result of his appeal was a petition to the assembly for redress of grievances which was stillborn.
The government still was not responsive to popular sentiment and it only needed somebody to give voice and direction to the general discontent to set the whole countryside aflame. The three men which were most connected to the agitation and which the led the organization of the Regulation were Herman Husband of Maryland, Rednap Howell of New Jersey, and James Hunter of Virginia. All three men had been caught up in the stream of emigration which flowed from the middle colonies into North Carolina during the mid-1700s and had settled in Orange County.
Herman Husband was a Quaker and seems to have been endowed with those qualities of business shrewdness, industry, and thrift characteristic of adherents of that sect. Better educated than the people generally among whom he lived, he was fond of reading political tracts which he distributed rather extensively among his neighbors. He could express himself well which allowed him to set forth in simple and homely fashion the grievances of the people in pamphlets to which he gave a wide circulation. He became pre-eminently the spokesperson of the people. Twice they elected him to represent them in the General Assembly. Essentially an agitator, he shrank from violence and when the quarrel which he done so much to bring on reached the point of taking up arms, he abandoned his followers and rode hurriedly away from the scene of action. His enemies charged this was from cowardice; his defenders said it was because of his religious scruples.
Husband had a counterpart in Rednap Howell. Husband was serious, blunt and bitter. Howell was witty, pointed, and congenial. Howell, who was an itinerant school teacher, is known as the bard of the Regulation. Endowed with a talent for versification, he celebrated in epics and ballads the personal characteristics of the officers, their public conduct, and their rapid rise at the expense of the people from property to affluence. His keen sarcasm, his well-aimed wit, and his broad humor set the whole back country laughing and singing at the expense of the officers. James Hunter was the man of action. He is known as the "general" of the Regulation. He associated himself with Regulator movement early on, because he found the petitions to the governor and the appeals to the courts ineffective.
In August 1766, the first Regulators Advertisement appeared:
Whereas that great good may come of this great designed Evil the Stamp Law while the sons of Liberty withstood the Lords in Parliament in behalf of true Liberty let not Officers under them carry on unjust Oppression in our own Province in order thereunto as there is many Evils of that nature complained of in this County of Orange in private amongst the Inhabitants therefore let us remove them (or if there is no cause) let us remove the Jealousies out of our minds. Honest rulers in power will be glad to see us examine this matter freely there is certainly more honest men among us than rogues & yet rogues is harbored among us sometimes almost publickly, every honest man is willing to give part of his substance to support rulers and laws to save the other part from rogues and it is his duty as well as right to see and examine whether such rulers abuse such trust, otherwise that part so given may do more hurt than good, even if all were rogues in that case we could not subsist but would be obliged to frame laws to make ourselves honest and the same reasoning holds good against the notion of a Mason Club; this tho it must be desired by all or the greatest number of men, yet when grievances of such public nature are not yet redressed the reason is everybodys business is no Bodys.
The year 1768 was the turning point in the controversy and marked the formal organization of the Regulator movement. "Regulator Advertisement Number 6," March 22, 1768, used the word "Regulator" for the first time and stated in unmistakable language what these aggrieved people proposed to "regulate."
(1) To pay no more taxes until they were satisfied that they were agreeable to law, (2) to pay no more fees than the laws required, (3) to subscribe to a fund for defraying necessity expenses, (4) to meet as often as they conveniently could, and (5) to allow a simple majority to rule in case of differences.
The keynote of the Regulator agreement was: "An officer is a servant of the publick, and we are determined to have the officers of this country under a better and honester regulation than any have been for some time past."
In 1767 Governor William Tryon wrote to the Earl of Shelburne that
The Sherriffs have embezzled more than one-half of the public money ordered to be raised and collected by them . . . . [about 40,000 pounds] . . . not 500 of which will possibly ever come into the Treasury as in many instances the Sheriffs are either insolvent or retreated out of the province.
Parson James Reed said the Sheriffs "very frequently spend the Public money not one in 10 I might say in 20, can ever make up their accounts, by which means the Clergy are frequently left for a long time out of their stipends."
The Regulators had just cause for complaint. Governor Tryon admitted in 1767 that at least 50 percent of the taxes collected by the sheriffs was unaccounted for, and that some of the sheriffs were in arrears for many years, especially in Rowan and Anson counties. The situation had become so bad in Anson Co. that the people took matters into their own hands and pledged themselves not to pay taxes for the current year.
An Attempt at a Peaceful Resolution
Except for Governor Tryon, the most prominent leader of the opposing forces in the Regulator movement was Edmund Fanning. A native of New York, after graduating from Yale College in 1757, he studied law, and in 1761, came to Carolina and located at Hillsboro. Although he may not have been as poverty stricken upon his arrival as some would have one believe, there can be no doubt that he soon "laced his coat with gold."
He was the personification of the office-holding class, uniting in his own person the offices of assemblyman, register of deeds, judge of the Superior Court, and colonel of the militia. One need not think him deserving of all the infamy that has been heaped upon him to understand the sentiments of the people toward him. He was a man of culture and more than average ability. To his equals he was kind, hospitable, considerate; to his inferiors, patronizing, supercilious, and overbearing. He despised the common people, and they cordially reciprocated the sentiment. They believed that he had acquired his wealth, which he displayed with great ostentation, by his civil robberies.
Although on the evidence he may be fairly acquitted of the charge of deliberate and positive dishonesty, he was unquestionably guilty of abusing his official power and influence for the purpose of perpetuating an oppressive system and obstructing all efforts at reform. He was, indeed, the progenitor of the race of carpetbaggers.
There seems to be no doubt that Fanning would be one of the officials to take the brunt of the anger waged by the Regulators. The failure of the movement in Granville County following the Nutbush Address was probably due to a lack of organization. Organized opposition to the inequalities in the law and malpractices in its administration began in Orange County. At the August term of 1766 of the County Court at Hillsboro, a group of Sandy Creek men, inspired by the success of the Sons of Liberty in resisting the Stamp Act, issued an address calling upon the people to send delegates to a meeting at Maddock's Mill to inquire "whether the free men of this county labor under any abuses of power or not."
The address was read in open court and the officers present, acknowledging that it was reasonable, promised to attend the meeting. On October 10th, twelve delegates, but no officers. Apparently under the influence of Edmund Fanning, who denounced the meeting as an insurrection, they had repented of their promise and sent a messenger to say that they would not attend because the meeting claimed authority to call them to an account. The delegates, therefore, were compelled to content themselves with a proposal that the people hold such a meeting annually to discuss the qualifications of candidates for the assembly, to inform their representatives of their wishes, and to investigate the official acts of public officers.
Public office-holders in 1766 did not acknowledge their responsibility to the people. Accordingly they threw all of their personal and official influence against the proposal, and the Sandy Creek men, discouraged at the lack of popular interest and support, abandoned their project.
The "Regulator Advertisement Number 8," May 21, 1768, perhaps the best-written and calmest of the Regulator documents, and signed by nearly five hundred residents of Orange County, was the climax of the Regulator attempts to obtain justice by peaceful and legal means.
This document began with an apology to Governor Tryon for anything that might "be construed as derogatory" to the king or the law. It assured the governor that neither disloyalty nor disaffection was the cause of their troubles, but "the corrupt and arbitrary practices of nefarious and designing men who being put into posts of profit and credit among us, use every artifice, every fraud, and where these fail, threats and menaces are not spared to squeeze and extort from the wretched poor."
It rebuked the "heated, unruly spirits" who had fired several shots into Fanning's house a short time before. James Hunter and Rednap Howell carried this document to Brunswick and presented it to Governor Tryon. After consulting with his council, the governor replied to the petition, stating that the Regulators' grievances did not justify their course of action, and ordering them to give up the name Regulators, cease organized activities, pay their taxes, and not assault officers.
As Herman Husband later said, Tryon was "inclined to the other side, multiplying all our faults to the highest pitch he was capable of." Governor Tryon realized that the Regulators had grounds for many of their complaints and issued a warning to all officials and lawyers against charging excessive fees, ordered the publication of a list of legal fees, and directed the attorney general to prosecute officers and lawyers charged with extortion. He promised to go to Hillsborough in July, where he hoped to "find everyone at peace." The governor kept his word and went to Hillsborough in August. Rumors were flying that he was raising the militia to suppress the Regulators and also calling on the Indians to attack from the rear.
The Hillsborough Trials
Edmund Fanning was indicted for taking excessive fees as register of deeds and his trial had been set for the September session of court. Disorders continued throughout the summer. The Orange sheriff has "distrained" a Regulator's horse for nonpayment of taxes. The horse was recovered by a group of Regulators and the "mob" marched to Hillsborough, threatening officials and lawyers.
Herman Husband and William Butler had been arrested on charges of "inciting the populace to rebellion," and they were scheduled for trial at the coming session of court. Because of the threats of their rescue and the reports concerning the rising of the of the Regulators, Governor Tryon called out the militia. A force of 1,461 marched to Hillsborough. This act further angered the Regulators and substantially increased the debt of the colony. What took place at Hillsborough in September, 1768, was a perfect illustration of the centralization of power in the "courthouse ring."
Edmund Fanning, the defendant to be tried, and Richard Henderson, the presiding judge, were both colonels in the militia. Six other militia officers were members of the Governor Tryon's council. Eighteen assemblymen were also officers in the militia. This was one-fourth of the assembly to which the Regulators had recently appealed for redress of grievances.
According to Herman Husband, there were about 3,700 Regulators present. Four of their leaders were to be tried for "inciting the populace to rebellion" or for "resisting the sheriff." Husband was acquitted; the other three were convicted, but were pardoned by Governor Tryon. There was no serious disorder and the threatened "Battle of the Eno" did not materialize. Fanning was convicted of taking a six-shilling fee for registering a deed when the legal charge was two shillings and eight pence and was fined "one penny and cost." Even though Fanning promptly resigned his office, the Regulators were not appeased by this obvious miscarriage of justice.
The Regulators Present Their Case To The Legislature
The Regulators decided to carry their case to the legislature again. They hoped for better results this time, because in the 1769 elections, Orange, Anson, Granville, and Halifax had elected solid Regulator delegations, including two of their outstanding leaders, Herman Husband of Orange and Thomas Person of Granville.
It was ironic, however, that Edmund Fanning had been chosen from the "pocket borough" of Hillsborough, which had recently been created through the influence of Governor Tryon to get his friend a seat in the legislature, or so the Regulators had charged. The Regulators' grievances were presented to the assembly. The dissolution of that body by Governor Tryon after a four-day session, supposedly because of other issues, prevented any positive action.
All the while, the Regulator organization was gaining new recruits and spreading into new areas. There were disorders in Edgecombe, Anson and Johnston counties. At the Hillsborough Court on September 24 and 25, 1770 a mob of approximately 150 Regulators marched into the courthouse, assaulted lawyer John Williams, dragged Edmund Fanning through the streets, and caused Judge Richard Henderson to flee for safety. As Henderson described it, they left "poor Colonel Fanning and the little Borough in a wretched situation."
The next day the Regulators conducted a mock court, filling the docket with many bitter, sarcastic, and profane remarks, usually ending with "plaintoff pays costs." There were widespread rumors of an intended Regulator descent on the legislature that was to meet in New Bern in December.
The Johnson Riot Act
Panic was running through the colony. Governor Tryon hastily summoned his council, which urged him to use military force to put down the disturbances. When the assembly convened, the governor denounced the "seditious mob" at Hillsborough and urged the legislature to adopt measures to cope with the situation. The creation of four new counties in "Regulator Country" was the only victory the "insurgents" won in this session.
In a state of high tension and faced with reported uprisings, the assembly passed the Johnston Riot Act, which provided that prosecutions for riots might be tried in any county, even though the riots did not occur there. It outlawed any person resisting or avoiding arrest and authorized the governor to put down the Regulators by military force.
John Spencer Bassett observed of this assembly that, "born as it was in terror, it is not surprising that it should have passed away in blood." Efforts to oust Thomas Person from the assembly failed, but Herman Husband was expelled on charges of libel, and as not being "a credit to the Assembly." Governor Tryon and the council were afraid to let Husband go back to Orange and they jailed him at New Bern on charges of libel. The Grand Jury failed to find a true bill against him and he was released. It was none too early, because about this time reports reached Governor Tryon that the Regulators were marching on New Bern to rescue Husband and to burn the town.
The Regulators' reaction to the "Bloody Johnston Act" was swift and defiant. The organization increased in numbers and many strong resolutions were drawn up, such as those in Rowan and Orange, which denounced this "riotous act," and in which the Regulators promised to pay no more taxes, declared Edmund Fanning an outlaw to be killed on sight, forbade any sessions of court, and threatened to kill all lawyers and judges. The situation seemed to be getting out of hand.
The Regulators took an oath:
I, A. B., do promise and swear, that if any officer or any other person do make distress on any of the goods or other estate of any person sworn herein, being a subscriber, for the non-payment of the said tax, that I will, with other sufficient assistance, go and take if in my power from said officer and restore it to the party from whom taken, and in case any one concerned herein should be imprisoned, or under arrest, or otherwise confined, or his estate or any part thereof, by reason or means of joining into this company of Regulators, for the non-payment of taxes, that I will immediately do my best endeavors to raise as many of the said subscribers, as will be of force sufficient, and if in my power, set the said person and his estate at liberty; and I do further promise and swear, that if in this case, this our scheme should be broke or otherwise give out our intention, any of our company should be put to any expense or under any confinement that I will be an equal share with those in being to pay and make up the sufferer.
All these things I do promise and swear, and subscribe my name.
Tryon Takes Drastic Action
Already appointed governor of New York, William Tryon wanted to be done with the matter of the Regulators. He decided to take drastic and dramatic action. He issued orders for a special term of court to be held at Hillsborough in March, 1771. Following the advice from his council, he called out the militia "with all expedition" to protect the court and to suppress the Regulators. The militiamen responding numbered 1,452, of whom 1,068 were from the East, and the remainder from Orange, Rowan, and a few other western counties.
Governor Tryon marched with his troops from New Bern to Hillsborough and on May 14th encamped on Great Alamance Creek, a few miles west of Hillsborough, where he was met by a force of about 2,000 Regulators.
Governor Tryon's journal lists the following officers under his command:
--Major-Generals: John Ashe and Thomas Lloyd;
--Lieutenant-Generals: John Rutherford, Lewis Henry DeRosset, John Sampson, Robert Palmer, Benjamin Heron, and Samuel Strudwick;
--Majors of Brigade: Abner Nash and Robert Howe;
--Colonels: Alexander Osborne, Edmund Fanning, Robert Harris, James Sampson, Samuel Spencer, James Moore, and Maurice Moore;
--Lieutenant-Colonels: John Frohock, Moses Alexander, Alexander Lillington, John Gray, Samuel Benton, and Robert Schaw;
--Majors: William Bullock, Walter Lindsay, Thomas Lloyd, Martin Fifer, and John Hinton.
The Battle of Alamance
Once Governor Tryon was positioned on Great Alamance Creek, he realized he was outnumbered. The Regulators petitioned the governor for an audience, but he refused to communicate with them "as long as they were in arms against the government."
James Hunter was asked to take command of the Regulators at the battle. He gave a reply which in itself is expressive of the Regulators' own conception of their movement. "We are all free men," he said, "and every man must command himself." The governor gave the Regulators one hour to lay down their arms and disperse. At the end of the hour, he gave the order to fire, and after a two-hour battle the Regulators were defeated and scattered.
Governor Tryon lost nine men, with sixty-one wounded. The Regulators lost twenty killed and about one hundred were wounded. Tryon's terse report about the battle was that "a signal and glorious victory was obtained over the obstinate and infatuated rebels.
Trials, Executions, and Pardons
Following the battle, twelve Regulators were tried for treason and all were convicted. Six were hanged and the rest were pardoned by the governor. Governor Tryon offered clemency to all who would lay down their arms and submit to authority. Within six weeks, 6,409 submitted and later received pardons from the king through the new governor, Josiah Martin.
Governor Martin wrote the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the colonies, August 30, 1772, that he saw most clearly that the Regulators "had been provoked by insolence and cruel advantages taken of the people's ignorance by mercenary tricking attorneys, clerks, and other little officers who have practiced upon them every sort of caprice and extortion."
He went on to say that "the resentment of government was craftily worked up against the oppressed and the protection which the oppressors treacherously acquired where the injured and ignorant people expected to find it, drove them to desperation."
On June 10, 1771, Samuel Johnston wrote to Thomas Barker:
You will probably before this comes to hand see by the publick prints that the Govr: has had an Engagement with the Regulators in which they were routed....We hear that since the engagement they have laid down their Arms and engaged to submit to Government The Govr. had eight field pieces which gave him greatly advantage otherwise he & his party would have had nothing to boast of from this Action. Many think that the very heavy expense attending this extraordinary armament might have been saved to the province had not the Govr. been influenced by some who had received personal insults from these people and by the natural impatience & impetuosity of his own temper, as at last Assembly an Act passed making Riots a Capital Offense and empowering the Courts to try the Delinquents in any other District than that wherein the offense was committed and after a Bill found and a proclamation for the Deft to appear within sixty days set up at the Court House of the County where he usually resided if at the end of that time he failed to appear he was deemed Guilty of the Offence and might be killed or destroyed with impunity. We are in Daily expectation of Mr. Martin our new Govr. and as we hear a very amiable Character of him are not uneasy at the approaching change most among us thinking Gov. Tryon however well calculated to discharge the duty of a Soldier, that his Talents are not so well adapted to the Station he is now in.
The Exodus of the Regulators
After The Battle of Alamance, Husband, Howell, and Hunter were all outlawed and forced to flee from the province. Hunter alone returned. Later, in the contest with the mother country, he joined the Revolutionary party, and rendered good services in the cause of independence. Herman Husband, Rednap Howell, and several other leaders of the Regulation had left North Carolina before the Battle of Alamance. Many Regulators, perhaps thousands, moved to the Tennessee country within a short time after their crushing defeat.
Morgan Edwards, a noted Baptist preacher, traveler, and author, writing in 1772, said that these people "despaired of seeing better times and therefore quitted the province." He went on to write, "It is said that 1,500 families have departed since the battle of Alamance and to my knowledge a great many more are only waiting to dispose of their plantations in order to follow them."8William Tryon and Edmund Fanning, the Regulators' archenemies, had also left North Carolina for good.
An Evaluation of the Regulation Movement
There is a vast literature on the War of the Regulation and the Regulators. Scores of poems, songs, articles, pamphlets, and books have either praised or condemned these "simple and greatly abused farmers." Many myths have grown up around the movement, its leaders, and the rank and file of Regulators. Some writers, past, and present, have described the Regulation as a "great democratic movement." Others have called Alamance "the first battle of the American Revolution."
It was not a democratic movement in the modern sense of that term. Its leaders insisted that they were not fighting for a change in the "Form or Mode of Government," but were contending for relief from the malpractices of judges, sheriffs, and "mercenary tricking Attorneys, Clerks, and other little Officers," who were usually American-born adventurers of English descent, and "who had sniffed from afar opportunities for wealth and power in a new country."
One Regulator writer had referred to the court officials and lawyers as "these cursed hungry Caterpillars, that will eat out the very bowels of our Commonwealth, if they are not pulled down from their Nests in a very short time." It is claiming too much to maintain that Alamance was "the first battle of the American Revolution." It was simply a climax of a revolt of the western people against oppressive laws and corrupt local officials.
There was neither a single English redcoat at Alamance Creek in 1771, nor was North Carolina the only colony where discontented people in the backcountry organized, agitated, and even fought for a redress of their grievances against provincial and local officials. South Carolina, for instance, had a regulation movement by the same name and at the same time as North Carolina. Its Plan of Regulation was adopted in June, 1768, and the organization continued its activities for two years after the North Carolina movement had subsided.
Another myth associated with the Regulation movement is the idea that all, or even most, of the Regulators became Tories in the Revolution, which broke out four years after the Battle of Alamance. An examination of the records reveals that of 883 of the known Regulators, 289 were Whigs, 34 Tories, and 560 Revolutionary status unknown.
The Regulation movement in North Carolina collapsed in 1771, but not the cause for which the Regulators had been fighting. Alamance was only a temporary defeat in a revolt against sectional political domination and maladministration in local government. The movement for justice to the backcountry was interrupted by the American Revolution and its aftermath, but the later renewal of the East-West controversy reached its grand climax and victory for the West in the Constitutional Convention of 1835.
Battle of Alamance
The Battle of Alamance ended the so-called War of the Regulation, a rebellion in colonial North Carolina over issues of taxation and local control. Some historians consider it the opening salvo of the American Revolution, although the rebellion was against local government, and not against the king or crown. Named for nearby Great Alamance Creek, the battle took place in the central Piedmont about eight miles south of present-day Burlington.
In the spring of 1771, Governor William Tryon left his lavish palace in New Bern, marching militia troops west to quell a rebellion that had been brewing in western counties for many years. Up to that point, the "war" had included only minor, scattered acts of violence. The Regulators, with approximately 2000 men to Tryon's 1000, hoped to gain concessions from the governor by intimidating him with a show of superior force. On May 16, 1771, the Regulators, led by men such as Maryland native Hermon Husband, rejected Tryon's command to disperse peacefully. Tryon marched his troops south from their campsite on Alamance Creek, confronting the Regulators in formation along the road. It is said that Tryon himself fired the first, fatal shot of the battle. The Regulators lacked leadership, organization, and adequate munitions. Many, including Husband, fled the field. Delays prevented approximately 300 reinforcements under Captain Benjamin Merrill from arriving in time to help the rebel cause.
The Regulators lost and their rebellion failed. Losses for Tryon included nine dead and 61 wounded; although the Regulators are said to have fallen in much greater numbers, with historians averaging the estimated injuries at 100, there were somewhere between 10 and 15 or so killed. Tryon took 13 prisoners, one of them (James Few) being executed at the camp, and six executed later in nearby Hillsborough. Many Regulators traveled on to frontier areas beyond North Carolina. The governor pardoned others and allowed them to stay on condition they pledge an oath of allegiance to the royal government.
The battle took place in what was then Orange County. During the American Revolution a decade later, the same section of Orange County (subdivided into Alamance County in 1849) hosted several minor skirmishes, including the infamous Pyle's Hacking Match in 1781.
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