This Day in History: North Carolinians rebel, years before the American Revolution

On this day in 1771, the Battle of Alamance is fought. The battle occurred nearly four years before the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord.

Perhaps an early precursor to the American Revolution?

Discontent had been stirring in North Carolina since at least the mid-1760s. Backcountry farmers felt abused—both by colonial and local officials. These farmers were subjected to heavy fines and taxes; they were charged illegal fees. Citizens on the frontier became increasingly agitated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an effort to rein in corrupt local officials—the Regulator Movement—was born!

By 1770, things were really deteriorating. Peaceful efforts to obtain a redress of grievances had failed, so the Regulators worked to disrupt the system in various ways. They dragged judges and attorneys out of court rooms, burned homes, and refused to pay fees.

During the spring of 1771, the Royal Governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, decided to raise up a volunteer militia. He was soon marching toward Hillsborough with a force of about 1,000 men. Once there, he was supposed to meet the nearly 300 men led by General Hugh Waddell. When Waddell’s path was blocked by the Regulator army, Tryon decided to rescue Waddell. He left some men in Hillsborough, and continued on to Alamance Creek, where he camped about five miles down the road from the army of 2,000 Regulators.

On May 16, matters finally came to a head.

The Regulators sent a message to Tryon. They offered to simply sit down and discuss their differences, but the message that came back from Tryon offered no possibility of compromise: The Governor would talk only if the Regulators first laid down their arms and surrendered. He gave them one hour to decide what they would do.

The Regulators didn’t think too much of that! One of Tryon’s militia later reported that “the Rebels had received his Offers with Disdain, and the general Cry among them was, Battle! Battle!” Tryon soon sent an aide-de-camp to inform the Regulators that the “Hour was elapsed, and that he should immediately fire.” The Regulators’ response? “They called out [to Tryon] that he might fire and be damned.”

Reportedly, Tryon’s militia hesitated for a minute. Were they reluctant to fire on their fellow colonists? Maybe. But whatever caused them to pause, they quickly overcame it when Tryon turned and yelled: “Fire, fire on them or on me!”

Unfortunately, for all their brave talk, the Regulators were completely unprepared for a clash with the Governor’s more organized force. For one thing, they had no real leader. One prominent Regulator, James Hunter, had been asked to take command earlier that morning, but he simply replied: “We are all freemen, and everyone must command himself.”

A laudable principle in some circumstances, maybe, but not very practical in battle?

The Regulators also lacked equipment, whereas Tryon’s militia had six swivel guns and two cannon. Pretty soon, the Regulators were using trees and rocks for cover while they fired upon Tryon’s men. Some Regulators left the scene as soon as they ran out of ammunition.

The battle was over in about two hours. Tryon took prisoners, seven of whom were eventually executed. He also decreed that he would pardon anyone who agreed to take an oath of allegiance to the King. Many former Regulators took the oath, but others moved further west into Tennessee or Kentucky.

The rebellion was quashed, but only for a little while. The Boston Tea Party and other, similar events would soon resurrect the fight for liberty!