May 16, 1771: The Battle of Alamance, NC

As we approach the Semiquincentennial (250th) Anniversary of the American Revolution it is important to remember the events that led up to it.  The Battle of Alamance, NC is often omitted from history books because it was not necessarily a revolt against the British Crown.  But it was a revolt against taxation without representation and against corruption of the Crown-appointed Governor William Tryon and local government.

Farmers in the western portion of North Carolina believed they were being over taxed, and fees charged by sheriffs and local government were not only excessive but illegal.  Local officials lined their pockets while farmers got poorer.  These malcontents became known as Regulators.  They wanted changes to the laws.  When their voices were ignored, they humiliated, intimidated and occasionally brought violence to those believed to be corrupt.  Regulators took to disrupting court proceedings.

In answer to the violence, the Johnston Riot Act was passed in January, 1771.  It gave Governor Tryon the power to call out the militia to maintain law and order.  In March, judges at Hillsborough informed the governor that they would be unable to hold court without protection.  Tryon responded by calling up the militia to put an end to the Regulator movement.

Preparing for Battle

Volunteers, encouraged by a 40 shilling bounty, mustered at New Bern.  On April 22 they began the march to Hillsborough.  General Hugh Waddell commanded a unit of 284 men.  On May 9th they split from Tryon’s main body, approaching Hillsborough via Salisbury.  Waddell’s 284 men were challenged repeatedly by superior numbers of Regulators.  Vastly outnumbered, Waddell turned back towards Salisbury.  On May 11, Tryon’s militia, arriving at Hillsborough by a more direct route, launched a rescue mission for Waddell at Salisbury.  Now, reunited, they rested on the banks of Alamance Creed with about 1000 men.  Five miles away, the Regulators had assembled a force of 2000.

On the morning of May 16th Tryon closed the distance to ½ mile.   He divided his force to two lines with artillery supporting both.  The Regulators were disorganized, lacked training and leadership, and had no artillery.  But, being twice the number of Tryon’s militia, believed they had the upper hand.  Twice Tryon sent an emissary to offer leniency if the Regulators would lay down arms and offer their leaders.  Both efforts were rejected.

Though greater in number, the Regulators lacked everything required to win.  But, their initial volume of fire forced Tryon’s troops back, enabling an artillery piece to be captured.  However, the Regulators had no ammunition or the skill to use it, rendering it useless.  Tryon’s forces recovered quickly with withering grapeshot fire.   The Regulators, confused and disorganized, adopted “Indian fighting” methods, firing from places of concealment rather than from ranks firing in concert.  After about two hours, the Regulators were chased off the battlefield.

Losses on both sides are disputed.  Tryon’s losses have been reported as between 9 and 27 killed and 61 wounded.  Regulator losses were 9 killed and over 100 wounded.  None are certain.

Holding the Bridge

Tryon took 13 prisoners.  One, James Few, was hanged that evening on the battlefield.  The other 12 were tried and convicted on charges of Treason against the Crown.  Six were hanged.  The others were pardoned.

Tryon again offered pardons to all Regulators swearing allegiance to the Crown.  Within 6 weeks over 6000 Regulators had taken the oath, effectively ending the Regulator Movement.

Taxation without representation and government corruption continued to manifest itself in the Colonies for another 5 years.  The Declaration of Independence was the culmination of these and many other grievances leading to the American Revolution.

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