North Carolina’s Regulators, the Battle of Alamance, and Public Memory

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Jeremiah DeGennaro, Historic Site Manager for Alamance Battleground

In the summer of 1773, Josiah Quincy made a trip to North Carolina. A well-known lawyer and Son of Liberty in Boston, Quincy headed south with the aim of gauging support for a coming revolution, and establishing correspondence with those who were “warmly attached to the cause of American freedom.” Quincy was received by many of the movers and shakers of North Carolina politics. The same men who hosted him—Cornelius Harnett, William Hooper, Robert Howe, and others—later became influential figures in the American Revolution. But upon his arrival, Quincy was quite curious about a different group of North Carolinians: the Regulators. Years before, this group of poor and middling farmers in backcountry North Carolina organized a grassroots movement that called for an end of government corruption, reformation of the rigged justice system controlled by elite “courthouse rings,” and progressive taxation in which citizens paid according to their wealth. At their peak they had thousands of supporters. Their detractors called it a rebellion. In 1773, it had been less than two years since they had been defeated at the Battle of Alamance by Governor William Tryon and his volunteer militia, the movement abruptly crushed. Quincy must have been curious about the motives of former Regulators as potential allies to what he called the “Cause of America.” How warmly attached to the cause of American freedom were they?

He spoke to three different sources, all with firsthand knowledge of events. He sat through a 3-hour lecture against the Regulators by Robert Howe, who commanded the artillery that devastated the Regulators at Alamance. The next day, Quincy met Colonel William Dry for breakfast. Quincy identified Dry as “a friend to the Regulators…he gave me an entire different account of things.” After hearing a few different accounts of the now-defunct Regulators, Quincy abandoned the topic, noting in his journal: “I am now left to form my own opinion.”

I share the story of Josiah Quincy, as I often do to conclude my programs at Alamance Battleground, to draw attention to an important fact about the Regulators: nobody has ever really understood how to connect the Regulators with the American Revolution. Not in 1773, and certainly not in 2021, 250 years later.

People certainly tried to make the connection. At the battle site there are two monuments dedicated in 1880 and 1901 which loudly proclaim Alamance as “First Battle of the Revolution.” These monuments, dedicated by locals, claimed Alamance as the true Shot Heard Round the World. Visual depictions of the battle—from sketches in the late 19th century to last year’s season of Outlander—put Governor Tryon’s army in the redcoats of British Regulars, a simple shorthand to frame the battle as a forerunner to the revolution. Local pride, misreading of primary sources, and a desire to get a leg up on haughty New Englanders may have all played a role in the push to remember the battle this way. Unfortunately, the facts do not support the claim.

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A review of battle participants and allegiances quickly complicate the Regulators’ relationship with the American Revolution. Men like Richard Caswell fought against the Regulators but later led North Carolina’s revolutionary government. Other militia officers like James Moore, Robert Howe, and Francis Nash served in the Continental Army. It is hard to reconcile a vision of Regulators as early patriots when one of the people they beat up in a 1770 riot was future Declaration of Independence signer William Hooper.

Those expecting to find Regulators joining the Whigs en masse will be similarly disappointed. It is true that many did fight for the Revolution, but at the outset their allegiance was split. At the Battle of Moore’s Creek, loyalist ranks were filled out by many former Regulators. One former Regulator, John Pyle, was captured at Moore’s Creek, sat out most of the war, and then raised another group of Loyalist volunteers in 1781. His force mistakenly rode into American cavalry and were slaughtered at “Pyle’s Massacre.” One former Regulator said after the war, “I have fought for my country, and fought for my king, and I have been whipped both times.”

The Regulators have the blessing and the curse of leading a significant uprising that took place as North Carolina sat on the brink of revolution. Their proximity to the revolution raises their notoriety, but that proximity leads to simplistic explanations of a complex movement. Because their fight against government corruption occurred when a royal governor was in charge, the two are easily conflated. To put it in context, the roots of the Regulator movement first emerged the same year as the Stamp Act, when farmer and teacher George Sims gave an address to the citizens of Granville County urging them to organize against corrupt local officials. Governor Tryon’s first militia expedition to quell the unrest came in 1768, the year after the Townsend Acts. And the final confrontation at Alamance took place a year after the Boston Massacre. It is easy to see why the Battle of Alamance is so easily conflated with revolution. It is squarely within the revolutionary era, even though these parallel movements developed largely independent of each other.

And yet the “first battle” claim is the result of a thorough and lasting rebranding. In the years after the Battle of Alamance, North Carolina’s elite attempted to move on from the Regulator movement. They defended their actions in crushing the movement to outsiders like Josiah Quincy, and looked toward a revolution driven and controlled by the elites, not by poor farmers. It was only after American victory in the war that the Regulators—called “insurgents” and “rebels” in 1771—were reframed as early revolutionaries. And the volunteers of Tryon’s militia became the faceless redcoat-clad enemies of American freedom.

North Carolinians, perhaps feeling that New England received too much attention for the start of the American Revolution, grasped onto Alamance as the unsung first fight for freedom. When a monument was proposed and built by the locals of Alamance County in 1880 —named for the battle—it read in part: “Here was fought the Battle of Alamance, May 16 1771, between the British and the Regulators.” The rebranding was complete.

Today, 250 years on, Alamance Battleground State Historic Site is trying to change this narrative, but we have our work cut out for us. The real story is not as easily told. It is far more complicated and lacks a simple ending. In embracing our complicated story though, we can see echoes of the same issues that drove the Regulator movement throughout American history. In some cases, this link in post-revolutionary history is incredibly clear, such as in the Whiskey Rebellion, led in part by former Regulator leader Herman Husband. In many ways the North Carolina Regulation bares a stronger resemblance to the Whiskey Rebellion, Shays Rebellion, and other backcountry agrarian insurrections than it does to the American fight for independence. Those battles marked the early conflicts in America’s struggle over representation, economic security, the relationship of the American people to their government, and that government’s response to popular protests. Though it took place before the creation of an American nation, the battle at Alamance should be remembered as an American story, and an early battleground in that American struggle.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Emerging Revolutionary War, Memory and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to North Carolina’s Regulators, the Battle of Alamance, and Public Memory

  1. William Rhodney Reep says:

    There were many more “Sympathizers” with the Regulators than were at the Battle of Adamance for a number of reasons like being relatives, friends, and neighbors. Some of the Regulators had been cheated out of their land in West New Jersey because of the Coxe Affair. Some had been cheated in NC because of the mixup over the Granville District which was supposed to be above the 35 Degrees 34 Minutes Parallel, but because of the surveying equipment available I 1746 a “Base Reference Line” was marked at 35 Deg. 30 Min. and those that had been paying taxes to the King were thrown off their land by the Agents of The Earl of Grandville. If Gov. Dobbs had lived he could rectified those problems but Billy Tryon made some deals with some big land speculators and the Justice System in the Granville District was greedy end corrupt ! -Wm. Rhod Reep

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  2. Joshua Horn says:

    As a North Carolinian who went to Alamance on several school trips growing up, thank you very much for the post. Are there any books you would recommend for learning more about the Regulations and revolutionary era in North Carolina?

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