Alamance Battleground, 3 miles south of U.S. Highway I-40 as it runs through Burlington North Carolina, is an old farm field bisected by the old state highway 62. On May 16 1771, two thousand armed local men of the Regulator Movement crossed paths with one thousand men who had answered the call of raising a militia by North Carolina’s Royal Governor William Tryon to stop the Regulator Movement. A short battle ensued, and in the end the Royal Militia, outnumbered 2:1, had won, effectively ending the Regulator Movement in the area. The battle took place years before the litany of events every elementary school child can list; Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, Cornwallis at Yorktown, the Articles of the Confederation, and finally the Constitution of the United States of America.
Alamance Battleground is preserved and maintained by the State of North Carolina, which operates the battleground as a park as part of the N.C. Historic Sites Program. The battleground as historic site is a bit under-appreciated. It is amazing how many inhabitants of central North Carolina are unaware of the site, which has sat in their own backyard for generations longer than they will ever be a living being on Earth.
The battleground has held my interest for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Hillsborough NC, the site of the hanging of 7 of the Regulators who were captured at the Battle of Alamance by Tryon’s militia. I heard the stories many times, in schools, and in the library. And in the reenactment of the historic events of Hillsborough by Revolutionary period actors.
Alamance Battleground has been around so long, 218 years now, that it has become part of a history not only of the events of May 16 1771, but of the American experience its presence helped birth. In 1880 a granite statue in the obelisk style was erected on the site, still privately owned at the time, to commemorate the event 109 years before. The timing is interesting; 1880, when the Reconstruction Era was ending, and the American South, North Carolina included, looked to again exert its domain. Looking for optimism after years of perceived psychological and economic destruction by the North, people started to seek out symbols and events that could remind them of a happier time. Of times when they were on the correct ideological side of the fence.
The second granite statue was created in 1915, and erected at the Guilford Courthouse Battleground in Greensboro until being moved to the Alamance Battleground in 1961. This period of time, 1915 until the early 1920’s, saw an increased feeling of patriotism that permeated the American landscape, coincideing with World War I, fought from 1914-1918. The patriotic fervor was seen in the art and letters of the time, in jewelry and fashion, and in an increased interest in history. Citizens sought out what was truly American for a country just 133 years old at the time.
Both statues reflect North Carolinians’ zeal for their part in history. The 1880 statue proclaims the Battle of Alamance the “First Battle of the Revolution.” The 1915 statue also calls the hallowed ground underneath as site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. Most historians agree that the Revolutionary War began 4 years later, with the April 18 1775 skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. But, early historians in North Carolina, or excited members of the local business community saw parallels in the story, and pronounced their Battle as the first. Everyone wants to be a part of something big.
Those mis-truths still stand on the markers you will experience at the battlefield, in the present day 21st Century. They are not stricken from the granite record. The words in the picture above have sat in an Alamance County farm field for 129 years, morning, noon and night; and have become as much a part of the history of the place as anything else.
The sparse battlefield remained just a field with a monument surrounded by boxwoods for 59 years. 1939 would see the site marked again by the times in the guise of the Great Depression. Federal government (under Roosevelt’s New Deal) and State Governments started the American economy again over a period of 10 years by putting millions to work improving the landscape, and noting America’s past. In North Carolina, the General Assembly authorized a State Historical Marker program in 1936, and three years later, a marker was erected at the Alamance Battlefield. Two years after, in 1941, a bronze plaque explaining the battle with map of events was erected at the edge of the battlefield, in an attempt to educate visitors who stopped to rest or picnic.
The battlefield remained in this state until 1961, when a visitors center was built to accommodate the many tourists starting to visit; the men and women finding a greater mobility with a middle class paycheck and a dependable mode of transportation in which to see the world (“See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet!”). Along with them came their children, the first baby boomers, who were from 5 to 15 at the time and eager to learn. School groups in buses and suntanned tourists could make a trip of it, to see the battlefield. And a state employee was there to greet them, to show them around and tell of the history of the place. Pamphlets and t-shirts and xeroxed copies of the Declaration of Independence in a red, white and blue folder were on display, to be taken home as a remembrance of what one had seen.
The battlefield site remains relatively unchanged from the 1961 additions, 50 years later. Ready for you to visit, to interpret the events of May 16, 1771. To think of how those events relate to you. Everyone’s answer is different.