"An Astonishing Account of CIVIL WAR in North Carolina": Rethinking the Newspaper Response to the Battle of Alamance

Article excerpt

This article challenges the myth that the battle of Alamance, a bloody clash in May 1771 between rebellious North Carolina "Regulators" and the colonial administration, was what was popularly believed at the time to be the "first battle of the American Revolution." A thorough examination of American newspapers does not support this legend. Even though they would be at war with the British government in just four years, many American printers published a multitude of reports from North Carolina that supported the royal government and defended Governor William Tryon. In fact, there was little consensus about the Regufotors. During the months that followed the battle, a vigorous public debate raged in print throughout the colonies about the legitimacy of the backcountry disturbance. It seems, even in the 1770s, not all rebels were created equal.

In myth making, forgetfulness helps. Since hindsight is always perfect-and perfectly malleable-the ever-changing demands of the present often shift the way nations or people interpret the details of past events.

The powerful legacies of misremembering are evident in the case of the North Carolina Regulators. Current visitors to the battlefield at Alamance, North Carolina, encounter two monuments dedicated to the participants who fought there on May 16, 1771. Both memorials, erected in 1880 and in 1962, perpetuate a myth by describing the conflict between the forces of royal Governor William Tryon and the self-styled backcountry Regulators as the "first battle of the American Revolution." According to this legend of the battle, Americans in the throes of the "imperial crisis" instantly recognized that the Regulators' conflict was more evidence that the British government was plotting to enslave the colonies.1

A careful study of the print response to Alamance, however, belies this interpretation. On the surface, in the context of the 1770s, the Regulators' protests of political inattention and unjust practices by corrupt officials should have earned remarkable sympathy, and historians have accordingly agreed. Pointing to support mainly in two Boston newspapers, the Gaaytte and the Massachusetts Spy, they have claimed that colonists outside North Carolina were "nearly universal in their sympathy for the rioters." So understanding were pro-Whig Americans, one scholar argued in 1972, that the North Carolina Regulation "emerged as a paradigm for the entire American resistance movement."2

But if the camera lens pulls back from its traditional focus on Boston during the early 1770s, the picture seems less sharp. While some northern papers actively promoted the Regulators' cause and served as the voice of backcountry discontent, other printers were more cautious in their conclusions and printed articles that supported the royal government. A close look at the entirety of public opinion following Alamance reveals significant differences of opinion about the relative merits of the Regulators on one hand and Governor Tryon and his supporters on the other. Hardly voicing universal assent for the frontiersmen, throughout the summer of 1771 a vociferous public debate in colonial newspapers over the legitimacy of the Regulators raged up and down the continent, one that would have significant legacies for the subsequent Revolution in North Carolina.3

For most of the eighteenth century, the colony suffered like a neglected middle child. Lagging behind neighbors South Carolina and Virginia in population and economic power, North Carolina suffered from the absence of a staple crop, a deep-water port, and an adequate labor force. Poor inland navigation and dangerous coastlines also acted as a brake on commerce inside North Carolina, keeping shipping costs high and preventing the growth of port towns. Indeed, it had no real capital to compare with Williamsburg or Charlestown (now Charleston, South Carolina), and the two largest coastal towns-Wilmington and New Bern-numbered only 1,500 inhabitants each on the eve of the Revolution. …