RALEIGH – On this date in 1771, two large groups of armed North Carolinians were camped about six mile away from each other in what is now Alamance County. A force of some 1,000 state militia, led by North Carolina Gov. William Tryon, had come to suppress a popular revolt known as the Regulator movement. About twice that many Regulators had gathered together to resist what they saw as unjust taxation and other tyrannical policies by Britain’s colonial authorities.
Neither side was certain that a full-fledged battle would be necessary to settle the matter. The Regulators speculated their larger numbers might convince Gov. Tryon not to try an attack. For his part, the governor speculated that the sight of a thousand militiamen, better armed and organized, might prompt the Regulators to disperse and flee.
Neither speculation proved accurate. The following day, May 16, Tryon gave the Regulators a final ultimatum: disarm and surrender. “Fire and be damned!” they responded. The ensuing Battle of Alamance would result in a defeat for the Regulators and an end to North Carolina’s first civil war.
Among Gov. Tryon’s militia officers was a 49-year-old lieutenant colonel from Mecklenburg County named Moses Alexander. Originally from Maryland, he was a member of the large Alexander clan of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who moved to North Carolina during the mid-18th century and settled in what would later be Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties.
Several of Moses Alexander’s cousins, nephews, and descendants became prominent North Carolina leaders during and after the Revolutionary War. For example, his son Nathaniel Alexander, a Princeton-trained physician, was elected governor of North Carolina in 1805 after representing the Charlotte area in the U.S. Congress.
As for Colonel Alexander himself, while he survived the Battle of Alamance, he died just a year later and thus never saw his family members decide in 1775 to turn against the British authorities for whom they had fought at Alamance in 1771.
Probably waiting on the other side of the battlefield on that spring day in 1771 was Alexander Clarke, a Scottish immigrant. I say “probably” because there are no official muster rolls of the North Carolina Regulators who fought in the battle. But judging by the behavior of Alexander and his brother Jeremiah Clarke just before and just after the battle, it seems likely that they were among the participants.
The Clarke brothers had moved to present-day Alamance County in the early 1760s. It was there that Alexander Clarke befriended a man named Veazey Husband, a cousin of one of the leaders of the Regulator movement, the Quaker activist Herman Husband. Right after the Battle of Alamance, many of the defeated Regulators decided to move west to get away from corrupt colonial officials and unfriendly neighbors. Among them were Veazey Husband and the Clarke brothers, all of whom ended up living in present-day Caldwell County on the banks of what became known as Husbands Creek.
One reason to think that Alexander Clarke was a Regulator was what happened next. Many Regulators, including Veazey Husband, continued to fume against the North Carolina leaders (such as Moses Alexander) who sided with Gov. Tryon during the early 1770s. When those same leaders changed their minds in 1775-76 and declared that North Carolina should be independent from Great Britain, some of the angriest Regulators switched sides themselves. They became Tories – supporters of the king and foes of the Patriot leaders. Veazey Husband himself became a colonel in the service of Britain and commanded a Tory unit at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, where he lost his life.
Alexander Clarke may have been a Tory, as well. In 1782, he and his brother received a summons to appear in a Burke County court to face charges of being Tories. Before the Clarkes could answer the charges, both suddenly died. I suspect that their Patriot neighbors decided to take the law into their own hands and, uh, expedite the proceedings.
So on May 15, 1771, as Colonel Moses Alexander and his militiamen camped just a few miles from Alexander Clarke’s Alamance home, neither man could have guessed that a decisive battle would occur the following day – and that it would have a profound effect on their families and their state.
I wish I could go back in time and ask my cousin Moses Alexander and my 5th great-grandfather Alexander Clarke what they were thinking about, 241 years ago today.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.