Captain Benjamin Merrell &
The Regulators of Colonial North Carolina
The Battle of Alamance
The reader will observe that Governor Tryon had a well-officered army with which to attack the Regulators, who were not organized for warfare and had no military organization, no officers, cavalry, nor artillery. In fact, they met for the purpose of having a reconciliation with the Governor, and to that end they sent messengers with petitions, seeking redress from the burdensome oppression which was about to overwhelm them. By a few historians the War of the Regulators has been unjustly termed a resistance to law and order and not a fight against oppression; it has also been maliciously claimed that the Regulators were a band of outlaws, illiterate common people, and that the better class of the colonists had nothing to do with them and did not countenance their organization or the purpose for which they existed; all of which is utterly false and without the slightest foundation of truth. Realizing that the justness of the cause of the Regulators has been maligned by Tryon and his coadjutors, to which very great publicity has been and continues to be given, we have endeavored to prove that the patriots who shed their blood in battle against British oppression were justified. We have also attempted to establish, by his own writings, the criminality of Tryon's assault upon the Regulators.
Thus far historians agree; but the rest of the story is told differently by various writers, most of whom depend upon Governor Tryon's journal and his adherents for their information. But from many whose lot it was to know and to talk with men of integrity who took part in this battle, and who could be relied upon to speak truthfully of matters concerning both sides, and from such authorities as Lossing, Hawkes, Foote, Caruthers and Bancroft, the writer will chronicle the story according to his belief of the truth deducted from historical facts and from reports handed down from father to son, much of the latter yet unpublished. Being familiar with the territory, having many times surveyed the ground made sacred by the blood of heroes, and having been born and reared in this county, my maternal great-great-grandfather, Gen. Jacob Byrd, having participated in this engagement with the Americans (Regulators), and being familiar with the story and incidents leading up to this battle and of exploits following it, I feel that I am in a position to write intelligently on this subject.
This view is from the south side of the Salisbury Road, which is marked by the fence on the left. The belligerents confronted in the open field seen to the north of the road beyond the fence. Between the blasted pine tree, to which a muscadine is clinging, and the road, on the edge of a small morass, several of those who were slain in battle were buried. The mounds of the graves are by the fence near where the sheep are seen in the picture. The tree by the roadside is a venerable oak on which are many scars produced by stray bullets on the day of the battle. (Lossing, Field Book of the Revolution.)
[This poem was written by Seymour, Whiting many years before the erection of the monument.]
The Regulators were men accustomed to the use of the rifle and were men of undaunted courage, having no such word as fear in their vocabulary-brave as lions. Other than these two qualifications, undaunted bravery and crack sharpshooters, they had none of the qualifications of soldiers. They knew nothing of military tactics, had no commander-in-chief, were not officered in divisions for battle. They had no artillery and many of them had never seen a cannon. Tryon realized his situation was critical. He was in the heart of the enemy's territory. Their forces were gathering like bees in the forest. Many friendly Tories in Orange and adjoining counties were refusing to fight the Regulators (Whigs) and many of his own troops were deserting camp. The Regulators numbered more than two thousand men and were encamped about six miles from Tryon's army, near the scene of the battle-ground. On Thursday morning, May 16, 1771, Tryon's army, as per orders issued the day before, was marching at daybreak without the beat of drums, and left "Alamance Camp" just on the present site of the Belmont Cotton Mills, now owned by Mr. L. Banks Holt, of Graham, N. C. They marched in silence, hoping to creep up on the Regulators unawares; leaving their tents standing with all baggage and wagon-trains under guard. Tryon's army marched silently and undiscovered along the Salisbury Road to within one-half mile of the Regulators' camp, where he formed his line of battle, which was done by arranging them in two lines one hundred yards apart, with the artillery in the center of the front line. (Col. Rec. of N. C., Vol. 8, P. 583; 584.)
According to the Governor's journal, "Campaign Against the Regulators," he commanded about twelve hundred (1200) trained soldiers, drilled in military tactics and ready for war; while the Regulators were about two thousand strong, with only one thousand (1000) of their number bearing arms. Many were present not expecting to need arms, others did not take their rifles for fear the Governor would not treat with them if they bore arms, while others went out to see what was going on.
It is doubtful whether even Harmon Husband really wished to fight; in fact, I have been told by some men who knew him well in their youth, and who were at that time 19 or 20 years of age, that his Quaker principles would not let him fight, and that when he saw the 'tug of war' would come, or about the time the Governor began to fire on them, that he mounted his horse and rode away." (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell.)
It is believed by many that his aim was to carry his point by making such a display of numbers and by manifesting such a determined spirit that the Governor would be obliged to yield; and that if he had succeeded in collecting the people in such numbers, and in having them so well armed as to make the impression which he wished, he would have given this explanation of his own motives and conduct. However this may have been, it is certain he went to the place of meeting, not with any idle curiosity, nor with a blood-thirsty intent, but for a desire to see if a reconciliation with the Governor could be effected. Others were actuated by these high motives and were using what influence they could toward effecting a reconciliation; and of this class Dr. David Caldwell and Alexander Martin, afterwards Governor of the State, accompanied by the sheriff, went down to Tryon's camp the day before the battle. It is said they had an interview with Tryon at his tent, but of what passed nothing is known. Next morning it is known that he passed back and forth several times from one camp to the other endeavoring to prevent a collision between the two armies, and obtained from Tryon his promise that he would not proceed against the Regulators nor cause bloodshed until he had exhausted every means for a fair adjustment by negotiations. This is not a matter of record, but I have it from a source that cannot be doubted. (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell, pp. 148, 149; Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, p. 60)
Early in the evening before the battle, Lieut. Col. John Baptista Ashe and Capt. John Walker, while out reconnoitering, were captured by the Regulators, tugged up to trees and severely whipped, then made prisoners. The whipping, it is said, was an old feud-the result of personal animosity on the part of a few persons, which was strongly censured by the body of Regulators, and some of them were so much disgusted that they threatened to give up the cause entirely if such acts were repeated; but this act caused much alarm and anxiety in the Governor's camp, and especially in the breast of Colonel Fanning, for "his soul had things still in remembrance, and therefore his spirit was overwhelmed within him." (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell, p. 147.) Capt. S. A. Ashe is credited with saying "his ancestor hated the Regulators very much when they began to chastise him, but when he realized that he was in their power and that they were doing a good job of it, he began to have a kindlier feeling for them, and at length fell in love with them." (Stockard, History of Alamance.) Tryon's army had taken several Regulators prisoners, who they tried to exchange for Ashe and Walker, but without success.
Governor Tryon, as commanding general mounted on a handsome white charger, had his army arranged in military style, as per instructions issued the day before, with his Excellency and the artillery in the center of the front column, with Col. Richard Caswell and Col. Edmund Fanning commanding the right and left wings of the first column, and Colonel Thompson and Colonel Leech commanding the right and left wings of the second column. The detachment from Wake and a troop of lighthorse from Duplin reenforced the rear guard; the rangers covered the flanks on both sides, facing the right; the troop of light-horse from Orange escorted the Governor. The detachments from the counties of Carteret and Onslow were directed, in case of attack on the left wing, to form an angle for their respective lines to cover the left flank. (Martin's History of North Carolina, Vol. 22, P. 179.)
When the opposing forces began marching toward each other, the Regulators again presented a petition, yet hoping for redress of grievances through arbitration. The Governor sent his aide-de-camp, Captain Donald Malcolm, with the answer that both officially and personally the Governor had already used every possible means to quit the disturbances, and now had nothing further to offer; that he demanded immediate submission, with promises to pay their taxes, lay down their arms, and quietly disperse. He advised that an hour would be given in which to answer. The Governor's message came back with the dignified reply that the messenger might go back and tell "Billy Tryon" that they defied him and that they would fight him. (Caruthers's Life of Caldwell, p. 150.) It must have been humiliating to trained warriors to fight against men without discipline, or leaders, with no regularity of action. One in a state of revenge, the other with a sense of injury and oppression, they met---the Regulators presenting petitions with demands for vindication and rights with redress for grievances; the Governor, on the other hand, demanding immediate submission with a promise to pay their taxes, a peaceful return to their homes, and a solemn assurance that they would no longer protect persons under indictment for trial by courts.
Tryon issued the following Proclamation and sent it by his aide-de-camp, Capt. Philmore Hawkins, to the Regulators as a reply to their petition of the day before (Col. Rec. of N. C., Vol. 8, p. 642):
If Governor Tryon had been as fond of checking the officers of the government from their unreasonable oppressions and extortion to the poor, as he was of shooting these unhappy people, inhabitants of Granville, Orange, Anson, Rowan and other western counties of North Carolina would not have felt the horrors of her sons murdering each other in battle. He pretended in his proclamation just read to offer the Regulators one hour to consider whether they would fight or surrender, but as soon as their chief men got into consultation he himself fired the first shot. The opposing forces had already begun marching toward each other, until they were within twenty five yards of being breast to breast. During the hour which Tryon gave the Regulators to determine whether they would accept the terms of his proclamation or not, a proposition was made for an exchange of prisoners, of whom he had seven, and the Regulators two, Lieut. Col. Ashe and Capt. John Walker. Jones says that "while the parley was going on for this purpose, the impatience of the armies was so great that the leaders made a simultaneous movement and led on to battle," but this is contradicted by Caruthers, who bases his judgment on personal reminiscences of men who took part in the battle. (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell, p. 150-) Foote, Caruthers, and Williamson say that even at this hour the Regulators were not expecting bloodshed, as many of the young men were wrestling and otherwise playing with each other.
Alexander Martin, who was present, and who with Dr. Caldwell had visited Tryon's camp in behalf of peace and reconciliation on behalf of the Regulators, says (in his history, Vol. 2, p. 281) that the opposing forces advanced in silence until they were almost breast to breast; the first rank of the Governor's men were almost mixed with the Regulators who were stationed a little in front of the main body, and who now were beginning to retreat slowly to join the main body, "bellowing defiance and daring their opponents to advance"; and that Tryon's army kept moving until it was within twenty-five yards of the Regulators' line, the Regulators still calling on the Governor to order his men to fire, several of them advancing toward the artillery with their breasts bared, and defying him to begin. He also represents the Governor as commencing the action before the hour had expired, because of the Regulators being tardy in making known their decision as to the exchange of prisoners. Rev. Dr. Caldwell and Mr. Robert Thompson had just left Tryon, or at least Dr. Caldwell had, and Mr. Thompson was in the act of taking leave. Dr. Caldwell, being mounted, galloped away, and in a moment drew rein in front of the Regulators. He had been to intercede again, hoping to prevent bloodshed and trying to effect a reconciliation between the opposing forces; but finding Tryon obstinate, as he would promise nothing unless the Regulators would lay down their arms and submit to his demand, addressed them as follows:
Just at this juncture, Patrick Muller, an old Scotch soldier, who had seen service in the King's army, called out to him, "Doctor Caldwell, get out of the way or Tryon's army will kill you in three minutes."
This view is from the north side Of the Salisbury Road, the river being to the north of the field. On the right are the cavalry, with General Tryon mounted on a white charger; on the left are the trees, rocks, fences, and hedges from behind which the Regulators poured their deadly shower of bullets. In the center of the field are a few of the Regulators who had fallen in battle.
It was now about midday. Mr. Robert Thompson, who was leaving to go back to the Regulators, for whom he had been interceding with Tryon for a reconciliation in their behalf, was detained by Tryon as a prisoner. Indignant at such perfidy, he thereupon told the Governor some very plain truths. He was an amiable, but bold, outspoken gentleman, deservedly beloved and respected for his unimpeachable character. (Revolutionary History of North Carolina, P 33.) Being unarmed, therefore his leaving was not an escape, but simply retiring in the conscious dignity of a gentleman. At this moment the irritable Governor snatched a gun from a militiaman and with his own hand shot and killed Thompson. Tryon perceived his folly the next moment, and sent a flag of truce toward the Regulators' side of the field. Donald Malcolm, one of the governer's aides, was the bearer of this flag. (He was afterwards a very obnoxious under-officer of the customs at Boston.) He had proceeded but a short distance when the Regulators, enraged at the revengeful act of the blood-thirsty Tryon, immediately began firing with deadly aim. When the firing commenced, the bearer of the flag retreated with safety to his person, but had the misfortune to have the buttons of his small clothes leave their fastenings. Trumbal, in his "M'Fingal," with rather more wit than modesty, refers to the circumstance in four lines. Tryon, now all the more enraged at the disrespect to his white flag, mounted on his white charger, handsome and commanding in his person, rising in his stirrups led his army to battle, crying, "Fire! fire!" Yet his men hesitated, when he again cried out "Fire on them!" or "Fire on me!" "Fire and be damned!" cried a Regulator, and instantly the din of battle began.
The British subjects, in obedience to their commander, now began firing. The first volley struck the ground in front of the Regulators. McPherson, one of the Regulators, says (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell) he overheard one of Tryon's colonels say to the artillery, "I told you you aimed too low." The next volley went over their heads. At the beginning the Regulators seemed to be getting the best of the situation. Keeping up a continuous fire, they betook themselves behind trees after the first volley from the artillery, and adopted the Indian method of warfare by getting behind trees, rocks, fences, or anything that offered the slightest protection; while Tryon's men, in regular military order, were firing by platoons. Tryon's men in the open field and in plain view made splendid targets for the Regulator sharpshooters. So rapid were their discharges that Tryon's troops had all they could do to return the fire, without attempting to rout them from their positions. The Governor's army had greatly the advantage as to arms, ammunition, and military discipline; but the Regulators compelled them to remain in the road, just where they wished them to be, while they occupied a more advantageous position, and nearly every man was ensconced behind a tree. Alexander Martin, who was present, and who with Dr. Caldwell had visited Tryon's camp, says, "The Regulators, pursuing the Indian mode of fighting, did considerable injury to the King's troops; but owing to the artillery, and firmness of the latter, were, after a conflict of more than an hour, struck with a panic and fled." Williamson, in his History of North Carolina, says, "The engagement commenced with the discharge of cannon. Colonel Fanning, who commanded the left wing, being unused to action and deficient in courage, fell back with the whole of his regiment, except Captain Nash and his company"; and that "in the meantime the cannon did great execution."
Captain Montgomery, the officer of a company of mountain boys, presumably from Surry County, was the principal commander of the Regulators, if any one should be known by that title. He led the charge and routed the British forces under Tryon, who retreated, leaving two cannon on the field. "Two brothers, McPherson by name, rushed up and captured the guns, but having no ammunition suitable were unable to use them." [The elder McPherson who gave me an account of the battle, last fall, after describing the retreat of Tryon's front columns and the capture of the artillery by the McPherson brothers, in which he agreed precisely with the statements above given, said with much animation as a kind of sedative to his feelings, 'Oh, sir, if either John or Daniel Gillespie had only known as much military discipline then as they knew a few years later, the bloody Tryon would have never slept again in his grand palace: The statements of no one man, neither McPherson nor anybody else, are given in this work without some qualifying expression, unless they are sustained by the testimony of others." (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell.)]
When the British artillery fired the next volley, Captain Montgomery was killed by a shell. About this time a Regulator's bullet whizzed through Gov. Tryon's hat. With his artillerymen still falling from the well-aimed Regulators' bullets, the thought of another bullet passing so close to his royal personage perhaps caused myriads of visions to pass before him, for at this juncture he ordered the second white flag sent toward the Regulators' side of the field, presumably to stop the battle, as for what other purpose would a commanding general send out a white flag? The meaning of the flag no one knew so well as Patrick Muller, the old Scotchman, who called out, "It's a flag of truce; don't fire!" But they heeded him not, and the flag soon fell from the Governor's aide-de-camp, who was immediately shot dead. (Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, p. 61.) General Tryon, enraged at the disregard of his second white flag, now rallied his troops and led a charge that ended the battle. With redoubled volleys they fired on the Regulators, whose ammunition was giving out, as they had only as many balls in their pouches as they were accustomed to carry with them on a day's hunting." (Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, p. 61.)
The Regulators, with their commander cold in death, and no officer to urge them anew to the fray, retreated to the woods. A small number, about a dozen or more men, were surrounded and captured by Tryon's forces and made prisoners of war. Later they were tried as traitors, condemned, and six of the number executed at Hillsborough, on a charge of high treason. Gideon Wright (of the then new county of Surry), who fought under Tryon at Alamance, in his report of the battle, as preserved in the Moravian Records, says, "Many of the Regulators had taken refuge in the woods, whereupon the Governor ordered the woods set on fire, and in consequence some of the wounded, unable to get off the field, were roasted alive." Dr. Clewell, in his excellent work (Clewell's History of Wachovia, p. 110), says that the killed and wounded were in the woods, and that the Governor's order to fire the woods was aimed at the wounded, who were "roasted alive." Tryon, in his report (Lossing, Field Book of the Revolution, Vol. 2, p. 577), says, "The woods were swarming with riflemen who had taken to 'tree fighting' and were doing serious execution among the provincial (King's) militia, when it became necessary to drive out the Regulators so engaged." After the battle his coadjutors say he was at least humane, in that he did not torture the wounded Regulators, as he showed them every consideration, and had their wounds dressed by his own surgeons. (Col. Rec., Vol. 10, P. 1023.) After "roasting them alive" we can imagine no further torture to which he could subject them. The accounts vary much as to the number killed and wounded. Williamson, in his history, says that "seventy of the militia," meaning the Governor's men, "were killed or wounded." Martin says the Governor's loss was nine killed and sixty-one wounded. General Tryon, in his report, says his "loss in killed, wounded, and missing was about sixty men and the enemy two hundred." (Col. Rec., Vol. 8, pp. 609, 616.) Dr. Caruthers, in his "Life of Dr. Caldwell," says McPherson, who was present and gave him the particulars, told him "nine Regulators were said to have been killed on the field, and a great number wounded." "The account I have always had from the Regulators and other old men in the region is that nine of the Regulators and twenty-seven of the Royalists were left dead on the field." This statement is concurred in by historians Williamson and Foote. Martin, in his History of North Carolina, Vol. 2, P. 276, says, "That out of a company from Beaufort County, fifteen were either killed or wounded by the Regulators." If the rest of Tryon's army suffered losses in the same proportion his loss would have been larger than is reported. According to a statement in Williamson (Williamson's History of North Carolina, Vol. 2, p. 150), which was probably from an official communication, Tryon lost more men than is reported. Martin, in his history, says, "Captain Potter commanded a company of thirty men from Beaufort. Fifteen of these were killed or wounded in action." If half of one small company was killed or wounded, it is natural to suppose that Tryon must have had a more severe loss than is reported; but this is a matter which cannot be determined with accuracy, nor is it of great importance.
During the battle, James Pugh, a gunsmith by trade, who had repaired many of the Regulators' guns prior to the fight, a sharpshooter and a brother-in-law of Harmon Husband, with three other men, securely protected by a ledge of rocks and a large tree on the edge of a ravine, did great execution with rifles. Pugh, being a crack sharpshooter, did the firing, while the other three men did the loading for him. He killed fifteen of Tryon's artillerymen. (Lossing, Field Book of the Revolution, Vol. 2, P. 576.) Although the cannon were directed against Pugh and his assistants, they could not be driven from their position; but at length they were surrounded. Pugh was taken prisoner. The others made their escape, and Pugh was tried for treason and executed a month later at Hillsborough.
Amongst the Regulators, Rednap Howell was the master-spirit that controlled their movements. This staunch Regulator's plans were far-reaching, and his aims for redress of grievances were far advanced. He was one of the committee that presented the petition to the Governor and General Assembly in 1768, and again the day before the battle. Of the forty seven sections in the present Constitution of North Carolina adopted in 1776, thirteen of them, or one-fourth, are the embodiment of reforms sought by the Regulators from Trygn and the General Assembly in 1768 and 1769.
Governor Tryon, after the Battle of Alamance, ordered a court of oyer and terminer to meet at Hillsborough and adjourn from day to day until his arrival with the prisoners. His next order was that "the dead should be buried on May 17, at five o'clock in the evening, in front of the park of artillery," "funeral services to be performed with military honors to the deceased." "After the ceremony, prayers and thanksgiving for the signal victory it has pleased Divine Providence yesterday to grant to the King's army over the insurgents." (Col. Rec., Vol. 8, P. 584.) For the accommodation of the wounded who were too badly injured to march with the army, Tryon appropriated the residence of Captain Michael Holt, on whose plantation the battle was fought, and fitted it up for a temporary hospital. A man from each detachment, with one sergeant, was ordered to report to the hospital for guard duty. John Walker was appointed hospital steward, reporting to Dr. Richards, surgeon in charge.
Among other prisoners taken immediately after the battle was one by the name of James Few, who was immediately hanged on the spot, according to Martin's History, without a trial, or, according to Williamson, the historian, without the sentence of a court martial. This was an act of cold-blooded cruelty and almost fiendish malice which admitted of no apology, for the unfortunate Few was in a state of insanity, and was therefore not a fit subject for any manner of punishment. Wylie Jones, who was sent by Tryon, after the battle, to seize the papers of Harmon Husband, found among them a letter from Few, in which he alleged that he was sent by heaven to relieve the world from oppression; and that he was to begin in North Carolina. McPherson says he was "a young man, a carpenter by trade, and owned the small spot of ground just outside of Hillsborough. He was engaged to be married to a young lady whom Fanning seduced. He was a member of the Regulators; was taken on the field of battle; and, at the instigation of Fanning, was executed on the spot." (Foote, Swain, and Caruthers.) "The effect upon the susceptible and perhaps somewhat visionary mind of a young man, in such circumstance, of having his prospects of domestic happiness blighted by such a base villain as Fanning, who was trampling upon and running over every one, and especially the poor around him, because he was protected by the Governor and by the Superior Court, and was above the reach of the law, probably produced in Few a degree of monomania, and he began to think that he was commissioned from heaven to rid the world of such heartless oppressors; and as the Regulators were engaged in a conflict against oppression and extortion, in which Fanning and his class were so much interested, it afforded him a good opportunity to begin his work. The sacrifice of Few, however, uncalled for as it was, could not abate the rage of Tryon or quiet the guilty mind of Fanning, under whose influence he appears to have acted in this matter. The people of Hillsborough petitioned Tryon to spare Few's family, but of late he had been turning a deaf ear to petitions, and he extended his vengeance to the unoffending parents, brothers and sisters, by the destruction of their property; and thus showed that he was as destitute of humanity as he was regardless of justice." (Caruthers's Life of Dr. Caldwell, pp. 159, 159; Lossing, Field Book of the Revolution, Vol. 2, P. 578; Hawks Graham, and Swain.)
According to the author of a communication in the Weekly Times, accepted by Caruthers, Foote, Graham, Hawks, Swain, Lossing, and others, Captain Messer, an influential man in his neighborhood, having taken an active part in the cause of the Regulators, was captured along with Few, Pugh, and others, was to have been hung the day after the battle; but owing to a very affecting incident which occurred, he was reserved for the fiendish execution at Hillsborough. His wife, having heard during the night of what was to take place next morning, went to the battle-field to see the last of her husband, taking along with her their eldest son, a lad of ten years, an uncommonly smart and pretty child for his age. The wife was prostrated on the ground, her face covered with her hands, while her heart was breaking, and the boy weeping over his mother, and in his childish way trying to comfort her in their dire distress while the preparation was going on preparatory to the execution; the wife crying and begging the Governor to spare the life of her husband. Suddenly the child sprang from the ground, and walking up, to the Governor, said, "Governor Tryon, sir, hang me and let my father live!" Tryon, in angry astonishment, demanded of him, "Who told you to say that?" "Nobody, sir," bravely replied the boy. "Why do you make such a request?" the Governor next interrogated. "Because, sir," bravely replied the boy, "if you hang my father my mother will die and the children will perish!" This request was made with such simplicity and earnestness that it touched even the stony heart of the "Great Wolf of North Carolina," and he promised the boy that his father should not die that day. At Fanning's suggestion a pardon was offered him on condition that he would bring into camp Harmon Husband; and he was permitted to go in pursuit of the fleeing Quaker, while his wife and son were retained as hostages. On his return to Tryon's camp he reported that he was unable to bring Husband for want of more force, although he had overtaken him in Virginia. While his wife was sent home, Captain Messer was put in chains and dragged around the country through the Jersey and Moravian settlements while awaiting his execution.
Capture, Trial and Execution of Capt. Benjamin Merrell and Fellow Regulators
SONS OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS