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County prepares to celebrate 250th anniversary of Battle of Alamance

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Sunday, May 16, marks the 250th anniversary of the Regulators’ 1771 battle with troops of Royal Governor William Tryon

Before the first shots at Lexington and Concord reverberated across the rest of the world, a ragtag collection of farmers in North Carolina took a stand against their colonial government in what would later become the southeastern corner of Alamance County.

Dubbed the Battle of Alamance, this clash might not have seemed like an epoch-defining moment when it erupted on May 16, 1771. In the short-term, at least, this confrontation was a rather inglorious end to the revolt of the so-called Regulators, whose exasperation with taxes and official corruption had inspired them to take up arms against North Carolina’s Royal Governor William Tryon.

This is the main marker at the Alamance Battleground Historic site on NC 62 South of Burlington. The inscription is below.

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But though the battle was a resounding victory for Tryon, its memory would live on in the cadence of the American Revolution, whose eventual success would ignite other struggles for self-determination all over the globe.

Now, nearly 250 years after its anticlimactic conclusion, the Battle of Alamance holds a special place in the hearts of Revolutionary War aficionados like Sam Powell of Burlington.

This monument commemorating the Battle of Alamance (dedicated in 1901) was originally located at the historic site of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, but was moved to the Alamance Battleground Historic site in 1962 after the latter was made a state historic site.

A one-time county commissioner and former member of Burlington’s city council, Powell has earned his own tricornered hat through his long-time affiliation with the Sons of the American Revolution, whose local chapter has been an especially enthusiastic booster of the Battle of Alamance. As he and other latter-day patriots prepare to mark the event’s 250th anniversary, Powell insists that this colonial-era conflict is more than a purely parochial footnote in this nation’s history.

Sam Powell in his colonial attire during one of the annual Memorial Day celebrations at the war memorial outside the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House on West Elm Street in Graham.

“The main significance to me is that the Battle of Alamance was fought in 1771. That’s five years prior to this country’s declaration of independence,” he said in an interview. “It was really too early to be considered a battle of the revolution. But it was fought for the same reasons as the American Revolution…So, I’d say it’s the first large-scale armed rebellion against royal authority in the colonies.”

Rather than a proper set-piece battle, Powell characterizes this clash on the outskirts of Snow Camp as a show of force by the royal militia which Governor Tryon had raised to put down the Regulators. This 1,000-member detachment ultimately confronted at least twice as many rebellious settlers in a field near Great Alamance Creek. While the regulators had the advantage of numbers in this engagement, the royal militia boasted the field-leveling benefit of artillery. In the end, it took a few bursts from these cannon to put most of the regulators to flight – albeit not before they had picked off a few of the governor’s troops with their muskets.

By the time the smoke cleared, nine men from each side lay dead, while an untold number of others were wounded. The battle also delivered a coup de grâce to the armed insurrection against Tryon, although it didn’t exactly settle the grievances that drove the rebellion, which would flare up again with a vengeance a half decade later.

Despite having gone badly for these early opponents of royal authority, the Battle of Alamance has won some postmortem recognition as a milestone in the movement toward American independence. Its 250th anniversary has consequently been eagerly awaited by Powell and his fellow Sons – not to mention their sister organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Powell acknowledged that both groups intend to commemorate the battle this May 16 in spite of the wrinkle that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has put in their original plans.

“The Daughters of the American Revolution are unveiling a historical marker at 11:00 a.m.,” Powell went on to explain. “At 1:00 p.m., there’s going to be a guided tour of the battlefield, and at 2:00 p.m., the Sons of the American Revolution are going to have a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of those who were killed in the battle.”

This woodcut depicts the Regulators’ clash with Gov. Tryon’s royal militia on May 16, 1771 in what is now southeastern Alamance County.

Powell added that, due to lingering pandemic-inspired restrictions on gatherings, attendance at the wreath-laying ceremony will theoretically be limited to members and guests of the sponsoring organization. He added, however, that members of the general public can still watch the event from a respectful distance.

Area residents will also be able to drive to the battlefield on the eve of the anniversary to witness another “illuminating” display that’s in the offing. During a recent meeting of Alamance County’s commissioners, Jeremiah Degennaro, the manager of this state-recognized historic site, offered the county’s governing board a quick preview of what they’ll be able to see on the battlefield later this month.

“We’re going to have luminaries across the site marking the positions of the two sides that were fighting,” he said. “One lantern will represent 10 people for a total of 300 lanterns across the site. It will be a unique way of visualizing and commemorating the battle.”

This forthcoming tribute proved particularly poignant for John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who presented Degennaro with a proclamation last Monday to mark the battle’s 250th anniversary. A descendant of officers in Governor Tryon’s militia, Paisley acknowledged that he isn’t entirely sure if his illustrious forbearers were present when the militia clashed with the Regulators.

“I was not there,” he confessed. “But I particularly have great pride in joining you for the presentation of this proclamation.”

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