On a field in Piedmont North Carolina, Regulators clashed with North Carolina militia on May 16, 1771.
Many probably had predicted the day when public disagreements and political protests and riots would one day escalate into an armed conflict. For a couple decades, tensions had been mounting; Piedmont farmers believed that they were being overtaxed and had been paying excessive fees to local sheriffs and the colonial government. Piedmont farmers started demanding changes to the law and publicly humiliating, intimidating, and sometimes flogging officials whom they deemed to be corrupt; Judge Richard Henderson and Sheriff Edmund Fanning are two examples.
After the Johnston Act was passed, Rowan Regulators deemed it “riotous,” writes historian William Powell, and “swore that they would pay no more taxes.” Similar sentiment spread throughout the backcountry, so in 1771 Governor Tryon flexed his executive muscle and ordered a special court in Hillsborough. Predicting that disgruntled Regulators would protest this action, Tryon sent out militia to the courthouse to quell any rebellious activity or interference with court sessions.
As the militia marched westward, approximately 2,000 Regulators assembled and converged and met the militiamen camping beside Great Alamance Creek. Other Regulators delayed Hugh Waddell in Mecklenburg County and prevented him from joining the militia in what is now Alamance County. Whether they knew it or not, the composition within the ranks of the militia and the Regulators reveals that the Regulator Rebellion was, at least in great part, a regional conflict. (Of the 1,452 militia men, 1,068 were from eastern counties.)
On May 16, the Regulators relayed to Governor Tryon that they wanted to discuss their differences with government officials. Tryon scoffed at the suggestion and returned a message stating that a prerequisite for such an audience necessitated that the Regulators disarm. The royal governor gave the Regulators one hour to surrender. Their reply: “Fire and be damned.” No doubt believing the other side to be condemned to eternal fire, Tryon and the militia answered with cannon fire.
The Battle of Alamance lasted for two hours. The Regulators fired weapons behind trees and large rocks, and their effort lacked organization. Sometimes when a Regulator would run out of ammunition, he left the field of battle. As to be expected, the militia was more organized in its attack and maneuvers, and Tryon defeated the Regulators. The casualty count for the Regulators is unknown, but nine militia men died and sixty-one were wounded.
The immediate aftermath included ad hoc trials of certain Regulators. The next day, James Few was hanged without being convicted in a military court. Shortly after the battle, fourteen Regulators were tried and twelve were convicted. Of that number, only six were hanged; government officials released half a dozen in a public relations strategy in which they hoped North Carolinians would consider them generous and forgiving. On May 17, Tryon promised to issue amnesty to all those who took an oath of allegiance. In two weeks, 6,409 complied.
As time would tell, the Battle of Alamance and the swift execution of certain Regulators ended the Regulator movement in Piedmont North Carolina. In personal correspondence, Samuel Johnston wrote to Thomas Barker: “We hear that since the engagement they have laid down their Arms and engaged to submit to Government.” Yet a distrust of far away, centralized power remained. According to historian Milton Ready, “Backcountry freeholders had become Jeffersonian long before Jefferson in their belief that a government that exercises the least control over its people governs best.”
Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson, The North Carolina Experience: An Interpretive and Documentary History (Chapel Hill, 1984); Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State (Columbia, 2005); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989).