Alamance Battleground had been on my bucket list for many years, so I stopped by for a visit on my way back from a research trip a couple of weeks ago. It’s a small site, but its story is very important to the history of the eighteenth-century backcountry
Settlers in the North Carolina uplands had a great deal to be upset about in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Underrepresented in the provincial legislature, they were also subject to exorbitant taxation and fees by corrupt local officials who were, in the words of Richard Beeman, “as feckless, venal, and larcenous a lot as existed anywhere in America.” Exasperated backcountry farmers—”Regulators,” as they called themselves—responded by breaking up courts and engaging in some of the same resistance tactics that seaboard colonists were employing against British taxation.
The revolt came to a head at Adamance, where a force of approximately 2,000 armed Regulators faced off against just over 1,000 militiamen under the command of Gov. William Tryon on May 16, 1771.
Here’s a view from near the Regulator lines, facing toward the position taken by Tryon’s men.
And here’s another, this time facing the Regulators’ position from the opposite side of the field.
After trading volleys with Tryon’s militia, the Regulators broke. At least nine men died on each side (Tryon’s losses may have been higher). The governor hanged one prisoner in his camp nearby; six more went to the gallows in Hillsborough the following month. One of the condemned men appears on the plaque affixed to this monument, which was originally placed at the Guilford Courthouse battlefield in 1901 and moved to Alamance in 1962.
The fact that a monument to the Regulators’ defeat once sat on North Carolina’s largest Revolutionary War battlefield is significant. Early chroniclers referred to Alamance as the “first battle of the American Revolution,” with determined farmers standing up to a tyrannical government headed by a royal appointee. This monument, dedicated in 1880, identifies the combatants at Adamance as “THE BRITISH AND THE REGULATORS,” although the men in Tryon’s ranks were the Regulators’ fellow colonists.
The actual relationship between the Regulators and the Revolution was more complicated. The rebels had indeed defied a royal governor. But a good part of the blame for their predicament lay with the eastern Carolinians who dominated the colonial legislature and kept backcountry concerns marginalized in provincial politics. And it was just such men who, calling themselves Patriots, led the protest movement against imperial taxation. When the Revolutionary War broke out and these easterners looked westward for support, many backcountry citizens were still nursing grievances from the Regulator dispute. The same thing happened in South Carolina, which underwent a separate Regulator movement in the 1760s.
The Regulation wasn’t a dress rehearsal for the Revolution. Instead, it made the Whigs’ task of mobilizing the backcountry more difficult when war with Britain came. As a result, both Carolinas went into that war divided, and British armies would find some of their most zealous supporters among the backcountry colonists that seaboard Patriots had antagonized.