Chapter 5 "Fire and be Damned!"

Chapter 5


THE date was May 16, 1771; the time, that last long hour — between yesterday and tomorrow, when the world seems to hang in suspenseful silence. A heavy gray mist had settled over the Creek. In the eastern sky the darkness of night gradually blended into a faint pronouncement of dawn. Across the broad fields drifted the sharp, satisfying smells of wood fires and freshly-ploughed earth, and occasionally, the sound of restless human voices. Here and there a shadowy figure became a sharp silhouette against the morning sky.

Throughout the long night a cloud of yellow dust hung over the Salisbury Road to the westward, and the thunder of tramping horses echoed continuously. From miles away homesteaders had journeyed to Alamance to keep a solemn vigil, and by the coming of dawn more than two thousand weary but determined men had seeped into the camp. In the homes nearby the young and old moulded bullets by the flickering light of candles. By dawn they must be ready.

Soon the mist melted away and a faint breeze drifted through the forest. The first fiery streaks of dawn stained the sky. Now the dark silhouettes began to move, assuming the forms of men— men with grim faces, with a strange hushed calmness about them. There would be no ploughing today, no Spring planting, no milking to do, no fences to mend; today there would be a greater task to perform.

Somewhere in the distance a cock crowed lustily, heralding the new day. This, said the feathered prophet, would be a day to live and to enjoy life, a day of new opportunities and new responsibilities. But in the voice there was also a note of ominous foreboding, for even the cock knew that this would be no ordinary day.



There was a chill in the air and the warmth of the campfires was inviting. The scarlet clouds turned golden and the trees glistened with small drops of dew. A pleasant aroma of boiling coffee and frying bacon rose above the fires.

Six miles from the Regulators' camp the redcoated soldiers of Governor William Tryon also awaited the dawn. All night the cavalry had kept their horses saddled, ready to march at a moment's notice. The governor had issued orders for the day. "The Army to march at break of day without the sound of drums." Never before had war been so close; the thought of it brought premonition of doom.

Hardly had it grown light when General Tryon emerged from his tent, resplendent in his cocked hat and bright coat. A command spread quickly among the troops and the horses were brought forward. The General swung into the saddle of his handsome white charger at the head of the march, and with the muffled sound of their horses' hoofs on the dusty road, the militia moved out of camp.

A tense moment in the Battle of Alamance is depicted in this oil painting by Robert and Margaret Thompson which hangs in the Alamance County Courthouse. It shows the Regulators as they await the advancing Tories.



The Governor was scarcely conscious of the men following him, so intent were his thoughts upon the men he soon would face. The sun rose behind him and its warmth burned into him. He thought, perhaps, of the petition which the Regulators had sent him the night before. Again these rebels had begged him to listen to their complaints against the officials. Even now, the thought caused Tryon to flush. He slouched into his saddle and grew more pensive.

The Regulators extended their ranks along the Salisbury Road, hoping that their strength alone might halt the militia. The morning dragged on and the enticement of Spring began to have its effect on the men. Some tinkered with their long hunting rifles in careless disinterest. Others detached themselves into small groups and turned to discussion of the weather and their crops and other matters. The importance of their gathering diminished as they remembered the chores left undone. A wrestling match was started by some of the younger men.

In late morning the camp was suddenly aroused by the sound of a horse racing toward them from the east. When the animal and its rider came into sight, the men recognized old Patrick Mullen, a Scotchman and fellow Regulator. Mullen reined up at the edge of the camp and, as he slid from his horse, gasped out the news that Governor Tryon and the militia were coming. The Regulators had better prepare for a fight. At once the camp rose in confusion, for there was no one in command. A few of the men formed a defiant line along the open edge of the field and stood their ground; others took up positions behind convenient rocks' and fences and among the trees.

Another rider now came into sight, close on the heels of Patrick Mullen. It was the Reverend Dr. David Caldwell who had been to Tryon's camp trying to negotiate for the Regulators, but the look on his face told the men that he had failed. At this last moment, the respected minister rode back and forth before the anxious Regulators, pleading with them not to resist the militia. In vain he told them that they had no chance against a well-armed, well-trained army. Even as he spoke, however, the unmistakable red coats of the troops and General Tryon's white horse came into sight. The moment of war had come.



The Governor was within twenty-five yards of the Regulators' front line when he ordered his men to halt. Philemon Hawkins, Tryon's aide de-camp, rode forward alone as the Regulators dared the soldiers to fire upon them. Pausing directly in front of the rebels, Hawkins unrolled a proclamation and began to read:

"To Those Who Style Themselves Regulators':

"In reply to your petition of yesterday, I am to acquaint you that I have ever been attentive to the interest of your Country and to every individual residing therein. I lament the fatal necessity of which you have now reduced me by withdrawing yourselves from the mercy of the Crown and from the laws of your country. To require you who are now assembled as Regulators, to quietly lay down your arms, to surrender up your leaders, to the laws of your country and rest on the leniency of the Government. By accepting these terms within one hour from the delivery of this dispatch, you will prevent an effusion of blood, as you are at this time in a state of REBELLION against your King, your country, and your laws.


As Hawkins rode back to join the militia, the Regulators held a hasty conference. A short time later they agreed to send Robert Thompson as their spokesman to the Governor. The Regulators had no intention of surrendering to men who offered them no justice. The Regulators were loyal subjects and were not in rebellion against His Majesty. The Regulators asked only that their grievances be fairly heard and that action be taken accordingly. Thompson may have said these things to General Tryon, and, being a man of outspoken boldness, may have said more. Without awaiting a reply, he turned when he had finished and started back toward his own lines.

Such impudence infuriated Tryon. Rage seethed through him. Without contemplation he snatched the musket of the nearest soldier and aimed it at Thompson. A single, stunning blast rang out, and Thompson crumpled to the earth.

Almost instantly Tryon realized the gravity of his error. He shouted for an aide to advance toward the Regulators with a flag

* Fitch, William Edwards. Some Neglected History, New York and Washington, 1905.



of truce. Hardly had the flagbearer advanced a yard before a Regulator bullet ripped the flag from his hands.

Across the narrow "no man's land," Tryon now rose in his stirrups.

"Fire!" he screamed. For a moment the militia hesitated. "Fire!" screamed Tryon again. "Fire on them—or fire on me!"

"Fire and be damned!" shouted one of the Regulators.

Muskets thundered on both sides, and again and again the whine of homemade bullets and the smoke of militia rifles seared the air. Forced to reman in the road, the militia had no protection, and their red tunics made excellent targets for Regulator marksmen. Tryon at once ordered his cannon to open fire. Artillery shells dropped among the Regulators, shaking the earth with tremendous explosions, and digging great pits as they landed. With the second blast the Regulator Captain Montgomery was killed. Many of the Regulators fled for their lives into the woods, but others took their places and continued to pour a deadly blanket of fire into the King's troops.

Governor Tryon rode boldly among his men, giving fanatical orders, until a Regulator bullet suddenly ripped through the crown of his cocked-hat. Tryon was terrified. He ordered the nearest man to take a second white flag onto the battlefield, which was obscured by a haze of smoke. Unable to recognize the flag, the Regulators fired upon the bearer as soon as he started toward them. As Tryon watched him fall, he ordered his men to retreat, and without ceasing their rifle fire the troops abandoned their cannon and began to fall back. Seeing the movement, a group of Regulators rushed forward to seize the cannon, but the militia had wisely left no ammunition for it. Neither force could now see its enemy clearly and the din of battle began to slacken.

Across the field, James Pugh, a brother-in-law of Herman Husband, and a noted sharpshooter, crouched behind a ledge of rock and fired at the retreating red coats with great accuracy. Three men loaded muskets and passed them to him. Each time he fired, Pugh saw another Britisher fall; fifteen victims he counted. The sound and smell of death was everywhere about him and Pugh was nauseated. Unaware, perhaps that their fellow-Regulators were



falling back also, Pugh and his companions continued to fire upon the enemy,

Many of the Regulators had no ammunition left, and as quickly as they had begun fighting, they now retreated into the woods. As the smoke cleared from the field, General Tryon perceived to his amazement that few Regulators opposed him. By a sudden and unexplainable reversal of fortune, the militia found the battle turned in their favor. Tryon commanded them to advance.

Circling through the woods, the militia closed in on James Pugh and took him and his companions prisoners. The battle was over. At Tryon's order the field and the woods were set afire in an effort to burn out any of the Regulators who sought refuge. Flames soon raced through the dry grasses and licked at the dry leaves on the floor of the forest. In vain the wounded attempted to draw themselves from the path of a flaming fate, but Tryon offered them no mercy.

Silently the conquerors stood, watching the earth turn black, realizing somberly that the battle was done. At last the field grew still, but the sounds of the battle still rang in the ears of those who had heard it. An awesome quietness descended over them. Not soon would they forget.

* * * * *

Several miles to the north of the Alamance Battlefield, an ancient swayback horse plodded along the Virginia Road on this morning. Upon its back rode an undistinguished old man, dressed in homespun garments which had long ago faded to a colorless gray. Both horse and rider moved carelessly and indifferently with an air of uncertainty as to their destination.

Ahead of the traveller lay a road junction, and as he approached it he heard the sound of several horses and soon saw a party of soldiers riding toward him. The militiamen stopped as they drew abreast of the old traveller. Had he, they asked, seen anything of a man riding fast along the trail. Without raising his head the old man replied that he had not. Where was the old man going, they asked. "I am about my Father's business," he replied. The inquisitive soldier looked at his companions. "Crazy old preacher," he whispered. The others laughed. "Would you favor us by carrying this note to the next village?" asked one of the militia. The travel-



ler nodded and silently tucked the message into his pocket. Having thanked him, the soldiers spurred their horses and rode away.

As soon as they were out of sight, the traveller carefully unfolded the note and read it: "To Squire E: Husband has escaped. He got word of our approach and barely saved himself, and if he comes this way, have him taken. He must not escape. Corning."

Herman Husband, still a Quaker by faith, did not believe in war. Although he himself had largely motivated the Regulation, he realized that the movement had outgrown his control. As he had done when threatened with death in Hillsboro, the radical philosopher abandoned his cause on the eve of the Battle of Alamance, and fled northward in disguise, toward the safety of his former home in Maryland.

Chuckling to himself and silently thanking Providence for this bit of luck, Husband folded the note which the soldiers had given him and urged his horse toward the nearby river ferry which would carry him to the village. He discovered the ferrymen sitting alone on the pier. Upon learning that the ferry had been stopped by the militia, Husband produced the letter, and a few minutes later he was across the stream. His good fortune still prevailing, the crafty Husband carried the note to the Squire, who, after reading it, wrote its bearer a permit to continue his journey and profusely thanked him for bringing the message.

Without hesitation Husband mounted his dilapidated steed once again and rode out of the village. For the first time in many hours he could breathe easily. It was several months before he learned of the Battle of Alamance.*

* * * * * *

Hardly had the sounds of battle died at Alamance when the militia announced its victory:

"A Signal and Glorious Victory obtained over the Obstinate and Infatuated Rebels at about Five Miles Distant from the Great Alamance Camp under the conduct and valor of our Noble and

* This is Herman Husband's own account of his escape, handed down in family tradition. There is also a story that Tryon permitted one of his prisoners, Captain Messer,to go after Husband following the battle, but Messer could not persuade Husband to return.

Lazenby, Mary Elinor. Herman Husband, A Story of His Life, Washington, D. C., 1940.



Victorious General Tryon, Governor of the Providence of North Carolina—Whom God Preserve . . . "

Searching parties scoured the countryside for days, taking hundreds of Regulators prisoner. Late on the afternoon of the battle, the squad which had been sent to Herman Husband's home on Sandy Creek returned with the report that Husband had fled. They had, however, seized some of his papers, and among them was a letter written by a carpenter named James Few, a poor demented young man who believed himself "sent by Heaven to relieve the world from opression." Few was among the prisoners captured during the battle, and Tryon ordered him brought forward. After questioning Few briefly, Tryon decided that it would be a good idea to make an example of him. Rallying to this idea, the soldiers formed a mob and dragged the helpless prisoner to the nearest tree and quickly hanged him.

The battle had been fought on the plantation of Captain Michael Holt.1 Tryon ordered the Holt home turned into a military hospital, and the wounded militia who could not walk were carried there for treatment. The Regulators had nine of their number killed in the action and a great number wounded; the Governor reported "loss in killed, wounded and missing was about sixty men and the enemy two hundred."2

Greatly humilated by the rebellious battle, Tryon broke camp at Alamance on May 19, and with a thirst for revenge, set out toward the Moravian settlement at Salem. En route he crossed the plantations of many Regulators, and each he left in complete devastation, destroying wheat fields and orchards, burning homes, and confiscating stock and supplies for his army. To the troops he offered a reward of twenty shillings for every horse and mare and ten shillings for every gun taken from the Regulators. After a few days among the Moravians, who had taken no part in the Regulation, Tryon began his return march to Hillsboro.

On May 31, fifteen days after the Battle of Alamance, the Governor issued a proclamation offering pardon to all Regulators who would lay down their arms, swear allegiance to King George,

1. Grandfather of Edwin M. Holt and great-grandfather of Governor Thomas M. Holt.

2. Tryon. Colonial Records of N. C., v. 8, pp 609-616.



and agree to pay their taxes. More than 1,300 took the prescribed oath, many of whom had taken no part in the battle.

Early in June a court martial was held in Hillsboro. Six of the prisoners—James Pugh, Benjamin Merrill, Robert Matear, Captain Messer, and two others whose identity remains unknown, were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged.

On June 19, 1771, a small crowd gathered on the outskirts of Hillsboro for the final act. The morning was very still. The sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. A long line of redcoated militia stood stiffly at attention, their faces without expression. For six men—simple, honest, courageous men—the last hour had come.

Slowly and calmly, James Pugh climbed the steps to the gallows. His head was bare. His large, brown hands hung limply at his sides. His boots were covered with dust—some of it, the dust from the soil where he was born, some of it, the dust of the battlefield. The rope was adjusted about his neck. Permission was granted him to speak his last words.

There were so many things to say. There was so little time to say them. To James Pugh the Regulation had been a dream, a dream that decent men could overcome injustice, a dream that government was the servant of the common man. This dream had gone now. But someday other men would dream. James Pugh was ready to face his Maker. It was not easy to die, but he had fought a good fight, he had finished his course.

"The blood that we have shed will be as good seed sown in good ground, which soon will reap a hundred fold."

Then there was silence. A sudden breeze blew against his face—a breeze which James Pugh could no longer feel.

* * * * * *

Today a simple granite monument marks the site of the Battle of Alamance, six miles southwest of Burlington on N. C. Highway 144. It was unveiled with appropriate ceremony on May 29, 1880. On it is carved the fact that "Here was fought the Battle of Alamance May 16, 1771 between the British and the Regulators," and on the reverse side, the single word "Liberty."

No spot in Alamance County is more historically important



"The blood that we have shed will be as good seeds sown in good ground—which soon shall reap a hundredfold!" James Pugh, a hero of the Battle of Alamance, thus prophesied from the gallows at Hillsboro, where he and six other Regulators were hanged for treason in June, 1771.



than the Alamance Battleground, rightfully the scene of the "first battle of the American Revolution." Some historians, disputing this claim, state that the Battle of Alamance was not a battle of independence, and in such statement they are right. The Regulators did not revolt against King George or the Government of Great Britain, but rather against the oppression of unjust officials and the disregard of their inherited rights. Following the Battle many swore an oath of loyalty to King George, and being men of their word, fought on the side of the British Tories during the later battles of the Revolution. But it is indisputable that the first bloodshed between the Americans and the British was at Alamance and that the Battle of Alamance was a great inspiration to the common uprising of the people in a struggle for independence,

Perhaps it is fitting that the battleground should remain as it was nearly two centuries ago. For here, indeed, was planted the seed of freedom, a seed that gave hope and opportunity, that, in the words of James Pugh, "soon would reap a hundred fold."

This monument, standing six miles southwest of Burlington on N, C, Highway 62, marks the site where Royal Governor William Tryon's Army defeated the Regulators on May 16, 1771. The Battle of Alamance, scene of the first colonial armed resistance to British domination, has been called "the first battle of the American Revolution."



Chapter 6

Chapter 11

Chapter 16

Chapter 21

Chapter 1

Chapter 7

Chapter 12

Chapter 17


Chapter 2

Chapter 8

Chapter 13

Chapter 18

Book Index

Chapter 3

Chapter 9

Chapter 14

Chapter 19

Chapter 4

Chapter 10

Chapter 15

Chapter 20