Battle of Alamance

The Regulators and Governor Face Off

Location


View Larger Map

Other maps: Bing, Google, MapQuest.
Coordinates: 36.0093, -79.5199.

Type: Sight
Tour: Regulators
County: Alamance

Access LogoFull

The Alamance Battleground can be visited any daytime, though the parking lot is only available when the Visitor Center is open. It shows a film (in non-covid times) and displays several fascinating artifacts from the battlefield.

Everything on this page can be seen from the sidewalk at the Visitor Center. However, close-up views require moving over uneven ground.

Girl in a white tee shirt with a picture and list of patriot women

Context

People known as “Regulators” in what then were the western counties of colonial North Carolina had been protesting unfair fees, taxes and policies, and corrupt county officials, since the mid-1760s.

Situation

Provincial Militia

With approval from the Provincial Assembly, Royal Gov. William Tryon called for volunteers from county “militias” of part-time soldiers and trained them into an army in 1771. He marched through Hillsborough toward Salisbury, where 300 other volunteers had been trapped by around 2,000 Regulators (see “Tryon’s March“). While camped on Alamance Creek, Tryon learned another group was three miles away. He attempted to communicate with them and was rebuffed, and two scouts were captured by Regulator sentries. He marched his army of 1,068 men toward them around 8 a.m., and sent an order to the Regulators to disperse.

Regulators

Another 2,000 of the protestors have camped here on the western end of Michael Holt’s huge plantation. On receiving Tryon’s first communique, they sent a final request for government reforms via one of their leaders, James Hunter. After Tryon’s final warning, one group formed a line in a meadow facing his approach, while the rest fell back to the woods behind them.

Date

Thursday, May 16, 1771.

Timeline

Mug saying "250 Years" with scenes and a map from the Battle of Alamance

Imagine the Scene

Armies Arrive

Accounts from participants in this battle vary. Unless footnoted, each detail comes from at least two independent sources, but others leave them out or contradict them. This page assembles the reports into a plausible narrative, explaining some omissions in footnotes. Believe details with caution!

Go to the battlefield side of the visitor center, and walk to the large map next to the model cannon.

Recent research suggests modern NC 62 is not the 1771 wagon road shown on the map, the Hillsborough-Salisbury Road. That apparently ran somewhere to your right in the modern woods, and the route was realigned to the current roadbed around 1820.[1] This page therefore assumes you are standing at the left end of the governor’s army, not to the right of its center, as had long been assumed and is reflected in some markers here.

Map of the battle from 1771 by C.J. SauthierOn the day of battle this area is lightly wooded, according to Tryon’s mapmaker Claude Sauthier.[2] But it is unclear from the map and other sources what these slopes look like. Possibly local residents or Holt had cut the trees within this vicinity for timber, because there is a clear edge of thicker forest on top of the far hill then as now. The Regulators camped there, making bullets overnight despite most assuming conflict could be avoided. Some of the men ask Hunter to take command, but he is said to respond, “We are all free men, and everyone must command himself.”

Among them at one point was Herman Husband, a well-known spokesman for them though not officially a leader of the group. Kicked out of the Quaker church over a disagreement, he still followed its pacifist principles, so apparently no one expected him to fight. Indeed he left sometime before the action began, escaping Tryon by way of Bethabara (now in Winston-Salem).

A little after 10 a.m., Tryon’s aide-de-camp and the Orange County Sheriff appear on the colonial road, which continued into the current woods to the far right of you. The Regulators agree that the sheriff may read a communique from Tryon with a final order to turn over their weapons and leaders, and disperse.[3] He reads it four times to different groups so everyone can hear, and is roundly rejected by each.

The closest of the Regulators are probably in a line ending around here[4] looking for the governor when Tryon’s militia army appears 100–200 yards behind you across the colonial road. He is in front, on a white horse. They had stopped to form into two battle lines organized by county regiment about a half mile back (near modern Oakbury Road, the first street in that direction). His messengers were sent from there.

They go back to him around 10:30. Here accounts diverge. Many say that Tryon gives the Regulators an hour to respond, and at the end of the hour, Tryon sends an envoy across for the Regulators’ decision. The answer is “no.” Tryon says his officers suggested an exchange of prisoners for the two captured the prior night, and the Regulators agree, only to delay bringing theirs up. He suspects they are using the time to outflank him.

The confusion between eyewitnesses may arise from a simple coincidence: This would place Tryon’s resulting decision to attack around noon, which also was the deadline he had given the night before for a response to the message he sent then. People may have assumed he was waiting for the response, when instead he felt he had that via the sheriff, and was waiting for the prisoners.

Tensions Escalate

Walk to the 1780 house on your right, behind the visitor center. On the way, drift right after you pass the bathrooms to read the sign about a Revolutionary War skirmish, discussed later on this page.

Owned by John and Rachel Allen, the house was moved here from Snow Camp in the 1960s to illustrate Revolutionary-era life. As active Quakers, the Allens were not involved in either war, but Rachel’s brother was Herman Husband.

Look across the open space downhill.

At first the Regulators nervously back away until they are in thicker woods atop the hill, where the rest of their number are waiting. Some of them form a line there at the edge of the forest. Meanwhile, the militia army slowly advances, many eager to begin the action. They likely exude some confidence. Besides their militia training, Tryon is a veteran officer who has drilled these men and placed them into a military structure.

Photo of grass, trees, a low sunny area with small bridge, and a distant rise with more trees
View from south end of militia line toward Regulators’ line (AmRevNC photograph)

Adding to that confidence is the presence of 3-pounder cannons like the model by the Visitor Center, named for the weight of cannonball they shot. One is on this end, possibly around the near end of the center, and the other on the far-right end. Tryon had requisitioned these from the British commander in North America based in New York City, along with flags and leggings.[5] Tryon also has six half-pounder “swivel” cannons lined across the road, from Fort Johnston at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.[6] Typically naval guns, these are probably manned by civilian sailors in the Wilmington militia.[7]

Over the course of the hour the militia and Regulators close to within 25–30 yards of each other, well within the range at which muskets can be effectively aimed. On this end the Regulators are probably at the edge of the ditch below you, their line continuing close to the modern road. The militia are where you stand or downhill, their line ending on this side of the three-pounder. Some of the men look across the narrow space at neighbors and former friends.[8]

Photo of a shallow, treeless valley with trees on both sides
View north toward the south flanks of both sides (AmRevNC photograph)

Meanwhile the Regulators’ courage begins to rise and they inch forward, waving their hats and taunting the militia, yelling, “Battle, Battle!” One of Tryon’s men, Samuel Cornell, was later quoted in a newspaper to say, “never did I see men so daring & desperate as they were, for during the expiration of the hour… they would even run up to the mouths of our Cannon & make use of the most aggrieving language… to induce the Governor to fire on them.”[9]

The Battle Begins

Walk down the hill, across the bridge, and partway up the other hill. Face the militia army.

At noon, Tryon has his cannons open up. Several Regulators reported later this “badly frightened the Regulators, who had thrown down their arms and run, even leaving the hats and coats which they had taken off before the engagement.”[10] However, many stood their ground.

Most sources say the cannons fired for a half-hour before the soldiers, but some and Tryon himself say his front line fired a volley immediately, which seems more likely.[11] Some accounts say they may have hesitated, and claim Tryon yells, “‘Fire—fire on them or fire on me!’”

A Regulator supposedly yells in response, “Fire, and be damned!”

Regardless, at some point the militia send a volley across the gap. Some Regulators fall, and more of them run away, but others fire back and push forward. The governor’s forces, most in their first battle as well, fall back, leaving behind one of the cannons. (More likely it was the one on this end, as the other was protected by a unit of “rangers.”) Regulators charge forward and capture the gun, but have no means of shooting it. The provincial army regroups and attacks, reclaiming it.

The two sides reform in lines around their original positions, militia at the edge of the slope where you were, Regulators near the ditch. (This matters, because soldiers on higher ground tend to overshoot their targets, giving the Regulators an advantage.) They begin general firing at each other.

To your left you see Tryon riding between the lines rallying his troops. A bullet goes through his feathered hat, and another strikes his gun.[12] Tryon has the 3-pounders fire grapeshot—like large buckshot, spreading multiple balls somewhat larger than bullets. At some point, Tryon may have raised a white flag, attempting to parley, but the Regulators keep firing.[13] Lacking a command structure and many running out of ammunition, the remaining Regulators fall back through the woods after 30–45 minutes. The militia advance after them.

Walk downhill to the marker near the ditch, to the right of the bridge. As it describes, one Regulator apparently had trouble with his musket, leaving behind a part and tool that are now displayed in the visitor center. Found near this marker, this tells you the Regulator line was firing from here at some point in the battle.

Walk to the large rock to your right. More (or less) of it may have been exposed at the time, as the ground levels have been altered since then.

From this rock, Regulator James Pugh may have operated as a sniper for a time, perhaps taking this position when his side was pushed back after its initial charge. Three men are said to be around him, reloading rifles for him in turn. (Rifles are more accurate, and effective at longer distances, than standard muskets.) Firing from this place off the left flank of the militia army, he supposedly drops from 9 to 17 of Tryon’s men before pulling back when the rest of the Regulators do.

The Pugh story comes from one secondhand source written decades later, and is not mentioned in a set of contemporary newspaper accounts. But “James” was one of the few Regulators hung for his involvement, even though he was not a reputed ringleader, so there may be some truth to it. (See “After the Battle” below for more to that story.)

Photo of a low, wide gray boulder sticking out of grass
Pugh’s possible view of the militia line (AmRevNC photograph)

Look to your left at the modern woods atop the Regulator hill.

Some Regulators continue the fight up to another hour by withdrawing and firing tree to tree,[14] but finally they too are forced to retreat. Most of these are captured about a half-mile from here (around the modern Park Ridge subdivision). Rescued from a house attic there are the two captured scouts. Tryon reports, “‘The Night they were taken they were stripped & Tyed (sic) to a Tree and both most severely & Cruelly whipt (sic) with small Hickory Sticks.’”[15]

Tryon’s army chases other Regulators up to a mile before breaking off after 2 o’clock.[16]

See “After the Battle” below for the rest of this story.

Battle Map

Battle map: © 2021 AmRevNC.com. May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors.

The Battle of Alamance: Troop and old road locations based on Sauthier map[17]. 1) Militia army forms as Regulators wait at camp and later militia front line. 2) Regulators retreat as militia advance, then return downhill. 3) Deadline passes, militia fire. 4) Regulators charge, briefly capture cannon. 5) Militia force Regulators back; Pugh possibly fires from flank. 6) Regulators break, militia follow and capture many.

Cornwallis Camps

Look further left down NC 62 to the next road on the left, intersecting the highway past a shelter. That is Clapp’s Mill Road, which at the time continued north and crossed the Hillsborough-Salisbury Road. It led to a mill by that name on Buffalo Creek further north.

In late February 1781, the British and Continental armies of the South are playing cat-and-mouse in this region, as each attempts to gather militia support (see the “Guilford Battle Tour”). A “Light Corps” of American infantry and cavalry set up to move quickly screens their army, and British cavalry keep an eye on both American forces.

No later than Thursday, March 1, the British under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis come up the road from the west. Around 2,000 soldiers plus camp followers set up on that end of the old battlefield, around the intersection of the Hillsborough-Salisbury and Clapp’s Mill roads, partly on the old Regulator campsite. Their fires glitter through the woods.

Greene’s forces arrive a few miles north and try but fail to draw him into an ambush the next day at the Battle of Clapp’s Mill. Cornwallis remains here until March 6.

Sometime in that period, probably Monday the 5th, a detachment under Capt. Robert Kirkwood is sent from the Continental Light Corps to probe the camp, as you saw near the Allen House. In his memoir, a participant says this includes Kirkwood’s company from Delaware plus 40 riflemen.[a] He says they arrive about 1 a.m., and Kirkwood is personally led near here by a guide. The pair spot an outer line of “pickets” (sentinels) on the rise the park buildings are on now. Kirkwood goes back, forms his men into a line, and attacks. The soldier says, “When we came near the sentinels, they challenged very briskly, and no answer being made (by us)… they immediately discharged their pieces and ran in to their guard.” (He means their second line of pickets.) “We took one of the sentinels off his post at the same time and obliged him to show us where the guard lay, upon which we fired very briskly on them. By this time the camp was all alarmed…” The Americans return to their camp with the prisoner, a round trip of 24 miles per Kirkwood, leaving behind a coat button as their only casualty.

Casualties

  • Provincial Army: 9 or more killed, 61 wounded.
  • Regulators: Unclear, as many were carried away—Sources range from as few as 9 killed, unknown wounded, to 300 killed or wounded; at least 15 captured.

After the Battle

Tryon returns to the nearby camp overnight and his men tend the wounded, militia and Regulator alike, brought back by wagons. The next day at 5 p.m., they bury the dead near where they had parked the artillery, with full military honors.[18] One Regulator prisoner, James Few, is hanged without a trial. Tryon says the men demanded action against “some of the Outlaws” to the point that “some refused to march forward, while others declare they would give no Quarter for the future.” (That is, they would kill rather than capture opponents.) Then Tryon continues as far west as the Yadkin River to rescue the volunteers trapped there, before returning to Hillsborough. Six other Regulators are tried and hanged there, including possibly James, though probably his brother Enoch in his place (visit Hillsborough for details).

The rest of the prisoners are pardoned. Tryon also offers a pardon to all but a few leaders in exchange for swearing allegiance to the King. Eventually around 6,000 Regulators throughout the state accept, a number large enough to shock many people in the east. This brings the War of Regulation to an end.

Because of that oath, many Regulators fight in Loyalist militia for the British during the American Revolution. Others fight on the Patriot side. Tryon’s former forces split as well. For many who participated in the Revolutionary War, this was their first taste of battle.

Historians generally agree the battle should not be seen as a precursor to the American Revolution, being focused on issues specific to North Carolina and not involving the British Parliament. But it received wide newspaper coverage throughout the colonies and inspired some of the revolutionaries a few years later.

Mug saying, "Do Whig Out!" on a parchment scroll

More Information


[1] Neill 2020.

[2] Sauthier 1771.

[3] Powell 1980.

[4] Powell 1980 (Tryon’s orders and journal).

[5] Neill.

[6] Angley, Wilson, A History of Fort Johnston on the Lower Cape Fear (Southport, N.C.: Southport Historical Society, 1996).

[7] Neill.

[8] Some sources, probably drawing from the same uncited early source, suggest Robert Thompson is sent over to make a final plea for government reform from Tryon. Tryon supposedly is angered by the reputed hothead, tries to arrest him despite his flag of truce, and then shoots Thompson in the back. This seems questionable, both because Tryon was an experienced officer, and because it seems like the Regulators would have opened fire at that point. Contemporary newspaper accounts do not mention this incident, including ones sympathetic to the Regulators, nor does Tryon state either a mild version of the story or a defense (as might be expected if it was being discussed at the time).

[9] Quoted in Butler 1976.

[10] Fries 1922.

[11] It’s unclear why a cannonade would not have either sent the untrained Regulators running or triggered an immediate assault, given that they had no artillery themselves. Perhaps they found cover in the trees, or maybe the novice artillerymen weren’t very effective. A more likely explanation is that sources are confusing or mis-stating cannon shots that were fired as signals for the army at its earlier stops (per Tryon in Powell 1980).

[12] The Annotated Newspapers (“Boston-Gazette”) 6/17/1771.

[13] Boston-Gazette 8/12/1771 & 10/21/1771.

[14] Butler.

[15] Powell 1980.

[16] Powell 1980.

[17] Sauthier (1771), a USGS topographic map, Google satellite map, and OpenStreetMap were overlaid, scaled, and rotated to align. Positions reproduce the Sauthier placements.

[18] Boston-Gazette 6/17/1771 (letter from Tryon dated May 17).

[a] Quotations and mileage from Sherman 2007.

Clapp’s Mill | Regulators Tour | Lindley’s Mill