North Carolina Regulators

DURING the next two years after the Boston massacre, the colonists were not disturbed by any obnoxious legislation by Parliament. At that period a spirit of adventure caused many persons to climb over the mountains west of the British-American colonies to explore the valleys of the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, and to penetrate the dark forests in the more southern portions of the Mississippi Valley. Washington then made himself thoroughly acquainted with the region of West Virginia on the borders of the Ohio River. Daniel Boone and companions from the Clinch and Holston rivers were traversing the wilds of Kentucky, and preparing the way for settlements there; and James Robertson and others were exploring the borders of the sinuous Cumberland, and planting a permanent settlement on the bluffs at Nashville. So these pioneers were revolutionizing that vast and rich country into which an industrious population soon flowed, pitched their tents, and made permanent habitations.

Robertson had come from the discontented regions of North Carolina, where the Regulators were resisting oppression with all their might. For more than two years anarchy prevailed there. Sheriffs dared not exercise their official functions. Judges were driven from the bench, and general lawlessness was observed. Governor Tryon met this state of things as a passionate and unwise ruler would. Instead of being just, and protecting the flock over which he had been set from rapacious wolves, he coalesced with the wolves and used the strong arm of military power to crush rising and righteous rebellion. Bad men had attached themselves to the Regulators and brought discredit upon their course, but a wise ruler would have discriminated between the good and bad of his opposers.

A rumor reached the governor that a band of armed Regulators were at Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) ready to march upon New Berne to release Herman Husbands, who had been temporarily imprisoned. Tryon fortified his palace and called out the militia of the several adjoining counties. Husbands was released and his partisans retired. But the governor went ahead, and made a virtual declaration of war against the Regulators. His council authorized him to march into the rebellious district with sufficient troops to restore law and order. With three hundred militia and a small train of artillery, he left New Berne late in April (1771), and early in May encamped on the Eno, where he was joined by reinforcements. General Hugh Waddell had been directed to collect the forces from the western countries; and at Salisbury, where he rendezvoused his troops, he waited for powder then on its way from Charleston. Its convoy was intercepted in Cabarras county by some Regulators with blackened faces, and routed, and the powder fell into the hands of the assailants. Waddell crossed the Yadkin to join Tryon, where he received a message from the Regulators telling him to halt or retreat. He found many of his troops wavering; and so he turned about, and re-crossed the Yadkin, hotly pursued by a band of insurgents. They captured many of his men, but the general escaped to Salisbury.

When Tryon heard of these disasters, he pressed forward toward the Allamance Creek, to confront the Regulators, whom, he heard, were gathering in force on the Salisbury road. When he approached, they sent to him a proposition for an accommodation, with a demand for an answer within four hours. He promised a reply by noon the next day. That night he treacherously moved forward, crossed the Allamance at dawn, and moving stealthily along the Salisbury road, formed a line of battle within half a mile of the camp of the Regulators, before he was discovered. The insurgents seized their arms, and the belligerents confronted each other with deadly weapons. A parley ensued. An ambassador of the Regulators, named Thompson, who was sent to Tryon, was detained as a prisoner. He resented the perfidy, and in bold words told Tryon some unpleasant truths. The governor, in hot anger, snatched a gun from the hands of a militiaman and shot Thompson dead. He instantly perceived his folly, and sent out a flag of truce. The Regulators saw Thompson fall, and they fired on the flag. At that moment the Rev. Dr. Caldwell, a staunch patriot, fearing bloodshed, rode along the lines and begged the Regulators to disperse. Tryon, on the contrary, full of wrath, gave the fatal word "Fire!" The militia hesitated. The governor, crazed with rage, rose in his stirrups and shouted "Fire! fire on them or on me!" A volley of musketry and discharge of cannon followed this order. The fire was returned. For a few minutes there was a hot fight. Some young Regulators rushed forward and seized the governor's cannon, but did not know how to use them. There was no acknowledged leader of the insurgents excepting Herman Husbands, who, when the firing began, declared that his peace-principles as a Quaker would not allow him to fight, and he rode away. He was not seen again in that region until the close of the war of the Revolution. In that conflict nine of the militia and more than twenty of the Regulators were killed, and many were wounded on both sides. It was the first battle in the war for independence. It was a sort of civil war, for it was fought on the soil of North Carolina between citizens of North Carolina. The Regulators were defeated, and the people in all that region--conscientious people--were compelled to take an oath of allegiance, which restrained their patriotic action when the war of the Revolution was earnestly begun.

The victor exercised savage cruelty toward his prisoners, showing a petty spite which was disgraceful to a soldier and a man. He condemned a young carpenter named Few, who had suffered much from the bad conduct of Fanning (even the loss of a maiden to whom he was affianced), to be hung on the night after the battle, and caused the property of his mother, at Hillsborough, to be destroyed. Other prisoners were marched through the country, as in a triumphal procession, and the conqueror marked his path by conflagrations and destruction of growing crops. At Hillsborough six more of the prisoners were hanged, as a terror to the inhabitants. Among them was Captain Messer, who had been sentenced to be hung with Few. His wife hurried to Tryon, with their little son ten years of age, and pleaded for her husband's life. The governor spurned her rudely, and Messer was led out to be executed. The boy broke away from his mother, who lay weeping on the ground, and going to the governor said: "Sir, hang me, and let my father live." "Who told you to say that?" asked Tryon. "Nobody," replied the lad. "Why do you ask that?" said the governor. "Because if you hang my father," said the boy, "my mother will die and the little children will perish." Tryon's heart was touched. Messer was offered his liberty if he would bring Husbands back. He consented, and his wife and children were kept as hostages. Messer returned in the course of a few days, and reported that he overtook Husbands in Virginia, but could not bring him back. The exasperated governor hung Messer at Hillsborough, with the other prisoners.

The movements of the Regulators was a powerful beginning of that system of resistance which marked the people of North Carolina in the impending struggle. It lacked the lofty moral aspect of the movements in New England. The North Carolinians were resisting actual oppression, in the form of heavy taxation and extortion; the New Englanders were moved by an abstract principle of justice and right. The three per cent. at pound duty on tea had no effect on the material prosperity of Massachusetts; but it represented oppression and injustice, and they resisted its collection.

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