For the hanging, they chose a hill overlooking the Eno River, just outside the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina. William Tryon, governor of the Province of North Carolina, had the area cleared so the townspeople could better view the execution. Armed militiamen stood shoulder to shoulder before the scaffold.
Governor Tryon and his officers attended the hanging in full dress uniform. Behind these gentlemen, their high-bred horses, held close to the bit, snorted and rattled their bridles, hooves thumping nervously. From posts on either end of the scaffold, the red, white and blue Union Flag of St. George, Patron Saint of England, and of St. Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland, curled and lifted in the summer breeze.
The North Carolinians on the scaffold were to be executed for high treason against their sovereign, King George III of England. They had participated in the Regulator Rebellion and taken up arms against their government in a two-hour battle near Alamance Creek on the late morning of Thursday, May 16, 1771. Just over four weeks ago.
Colonel Richard Caswell, who stood near Governor Tryon, shifted his weight uncomfortably. He was unbearably hot. He itched to loosen his cravat, run a finger around his sweaty neck. Caswell was forty-one years old, an attorney, and speaker of the North Carolina General Assembly. He had commanded the right wing of Tryon’s army at the battle. Now he clenched his teeth and willed himself to endure the suffocating heat and this seemingly interminable “ceremony.” The Sheriff of Orange County was reading, yet again, the governor’s amnesty proclamation. Colonel Caswell caught only snatches of the text:
“…His Majesty’s most gracious and free pardon for all treasons…rebellings… excluded…the prisoners, all those concerned in… blowing up … General Waddell’s ammunition…”
Ah yes. General Waddell’s ammunition. Quite a lark for those boys. Apparently some boys from Mecklenburg County blackened their faces with soot and sneaked up at night on a wagon train of gunpowder at Phifer’s mill near Rocky River. Blew it all to hell. Enraged Governor Tryon, as the ammunition was intended for General Waddell. Caswell restrained a smile. Foolish and traitorous perhaps, but what pluck.
The sheriff was now reading the names of those excluded from the King’s pardon. Colonel Caswell heard “Benjamin Merrill” and he glanced from the corner of his eye at the scaffold. He could just see the trousers of the man standing nearest him, the trembling of the fabric.
Softly, almost inaudibly, Governor Tryon cleared his throat. Colonel Caswell cut his eyes to his commander-in-chief, resting them on the ruffled edge of the governor’s sleeve, just below the black velvet cuff of his scarlet dress coat. A fly touched the governor’s hand. His hand twitched, but the fly stuck. Frowning, the governor swatted at it with his left hand.
He is not going to get rid of these people any more easily than he is that fly, Caswell thought. This hanging may seem to end the rebellion, but I would not be too sure. Caswell scratched his left ankle with the toe of his right boot. Certainly their grievances are real enough. Governor Tryon may be a bit of a fop, with his eye more to advancement than to the welfare of the people he governs, but he is no fool. He knows these people are ill used by his appointed officials. He said himself years ago that the sheriffs out here have embezzled more than half the taxes they’ve collected. The court justices and clerks, the sheriffs and their deputies are sucking the life’s blood from these farmers with extortionate fees and taxes. When a man cannot pay his taxes, the sheriff imposes arbitrary and illegal late fees that simply ruin him. Or he confiscates the man’s property. Either way a family is rendered destitute.
In the face of this rampant corruption, people had assembled for the avowed purpose of “regulating public grievances and abuses of power.” These “Regulators” were quick to point out that they were not opposed to the governor nor to the laws of the land, but only to those officers of the county courts who were misusing their power. It was most illustrative of their good intentions that they pled for Dr. Benjamin Franklin, or some other trusted patriot, to carry their complaints and petitions to His Majesty.
Governor Tryon issued proclamations against illegal fees, but the county court officials paid about as much attention to that as to the mewing of a cat.
Then on the first day of the Superior Court session in Hillsborough in September of the past year, all hell broke loose. About 150 Regulators appeared in the main street of town armed with clubs and whips tipped with lead. They made straight for the courthouse, beat the veritable crap out of first attorney who entered, then dragged another down the steps of the courthouse, his head banging on each step, and threw him into street. Raging back inside, they knocked aside the deputy clerk, and brandished their bloody weapons over the head of a badly frightened Associate Justice Richard Henderson. The petition they thrust at him urged that they were “serious and in good earnest” and poignantly admitted that its authors and the people they represented might not “have the gift and art of reasoning, yet every man has a feeling and knows when he has justice done him as well as the most learned.”
Judge Henderson, with what dignity he could muster, begged to be allowed to defer action on this petition until Monday. He was allowed to leave the courthouse unmolested. The Regulators then amused themselves by grabbing Attorney General Hooper and dragging him through the streets with kicks and insults.
Justice Henderson quietly left town. When the Regulators found themselves standing in an empty courtroom Monday morning, they were pitiable in their impotent rage. All they could do was scribble insults and curses into the court records.
Then they destroyed Edmund Fanning’s house. A lawyer from New York, Fanning was one of the political opportunists who were descending upon the new counties in the Piedmont like hawks on baby birds. He had opposed every effort of the Regulators to reform county government, labeling their actions “insurrectionary.” Frustrated and enraged, the Regulators first ransacked his house, demolishing the furniture and throwing the china and glassware and all the man’s books and papers into the street, and when they had thoroughly intoxicated themselves on the liquor in his cellar, they literally pulled down the standing walls of the house. When they discovered that Justice Henderson had appealed to Governor Tryon for help, they burned down his house as well.
County officials in the Piedmont urged Governor Tryon to call up the militia. Instead, at the General Assembly just over two months later, he introduced legislation that would address the grievances of the Regulators. But even as acts were being passed in conformity with many of the Regulator petitions, word was received by the Assembly that the Regulators were massing to march on New Bern.
A riot act was quickly passed, and the governor called up the militia.
Colonel Caswell ventured a quick glance at the Governor Tryon, noting the slight tightening of the muscles at the corners of Tryon’s eyes. What was he thinking? Was he taking vengeful satisfaction in this hanging? After all, he had sought his appointment as governor of North Carolina for the sole purpose of advancing his career. Armed rebellion against his provincial government would not win him favor at home.
But Tryon disliked them personally. Caswell had seen it in his eyes. William Tryon was an English gentleman, an aristocrat, his wife one of the most beautiful women in the American colonies, his sister a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte. He disliked the common herd. They were unclean and they were ignorant and ignorance is deadly dangerous.
But I don’t think he is enjoying this hanging, Colonel Caswell thought. I don’t think he is that kind. Caswell remembered the battle at Alamance Creek. When they were within one half mile of the Regulator camp, Tryon had ordered the militia to halt and form battle lines. He had then dispatched the Sheriff of Orange County to inform the Regulators that although he had been attentive to their interests from the start, they were now acting outside the law, and he was compelled to demand that they lay down their arms. If they would not, he would order his troops to fire upon them. They had one hour to decide.
“You are at this time in a State of War and Rebellion against your King, your Country, and your Laws.” The sheriff’s words were lost in the jeering and rude noises that interrupted his reading. Some of the Regulators ran forward toward the governor’s lines, taunting and insulting his troops.
An hour later Governor Tryon sent his aide to receive their decision. His aide returned, reigning in sharply before his commander.
“Well?” Tryon asked.
“The answer is,” the officer’s face flushed with anger, “fire and be damned!”
Governor Tryon’s officers, the militiamen in the ranks, looked at him. It was a difficult moment. The people out there facing him were not an army. They were untrained, not well armed, and had no officers to lead them. They were farmers, facing a militia of fellow North Carolinians.
Governor Tryon gave the command to fire with a nod. The militiamen wavered, glancing nervously at one another, at their officers. Instantly, Tryon stood in his stirrups, shouting, “Fire. Fire on them or fire at me!”
The report of the guns was instantaneous.
After the battle, Governor Tryon had had his own surgeon care for the enemy wounded. And of the twelve Regulators found guilty of high treason, he had requested pardons for six. And yet the night after the battle, he had let his militia lynch a captured boy named James Few. The militia had just buried their fallen comrades and they were angry. By torchlight they jerked the frightened and confused boy up by the neck with a rope thrown over the limb of a tree.
Governor’s Tryon’s face remained impassive as the sheriff’s deputies prepared to drop the traps on the scaffold. He may be miles away from all this, Colonel Caswell thought. For all any one knows, he may be planning his trip to New York. He leaves in two days to assume the governorship of that province.
A boy with the militia stepped forward and sounded his snare drum, faltering a bit at the beginning. He stopped, let his arms fall to his sides. The sticks trembled in his fingers. A second later, the traps dropped. The men plunged heavily.
The hanging was not well done. They had not calculated body weight versus the length of the drop and the men’s necks were not broken. They strangled to death, kicking and writhing, for nearly a full three minutes of shocked silence. A woman shrieked. When the bodies at last hung still, a few men cheered.
Colonel Caswell clenched his teeth against his growing nausea. Among the scaffold guard filing past him, he noticed that one, a boy not yet twenty, was white around the mouth.
If trouble comes, Caswell thought suddenly, in an instant of foreboding so terrible that he felt his heart lurch, will this boy continue to stand with this government against his kinsmen? Or will he not? Unthinkable to imagine widespread rebellion.
With his fellow officers, Colonel Caswell turned away from the place of execution and took the reins of his horse. He felt worse than he had felt in a very long time. He wanted to go home.
Five years later, the unthinkable occurred. REVOLUTION.
Many of the Regulators who, in return for amnesty after the battle of Alamance, had taken an oath of allegiance to the King, remained true to that oath, while many of the officers who had led the governor’s militia against them became revolutionaries.
And in Governor Tryon’s “palace” on January 16, 1777, Richard Caswell took the oath of office as the first governor of the new state of North Carolina, twelfth of the thirteen United States of America.