Benjamin Merrill and the Battle You Never Heard Of.

Benjamin Merrill

1731-1771

When I first heard the Battle of Alamance, I thought of France and WWI.  Alamance Creek actually runs through North Carolina. In the book, Captain Merrill and the Merrill Family of North Carolina , I learned about an important  Revolutionary War battle that preceded the battle of Concord and Lexington (April, 1775) by four years. Boston, site of the Boston Massacre in 1771, is thought to be the fuse that lit the fire under colonists to finally break from the British. But the same sort of harassment occurred in North Carolina around the same time, and concluded with an actual battle that later dropped from history books.

Why have we forgotten the Battle of Alamance the site of the first American blood spilled in the War of Independence? In the aftermath of the American Revolution, people numbered that battle among the important events in winning freedom. After the Civil War, Northerners tended to erase the South from history books, and their participation in the Civil War ( with a few exceptions like the Battle of New Orleans) disappeared. Not only did the winners write the history of the Civil War—they went farther back and rewrote the history of the Revolution as well. Today, the story is told differently, and I will meld the two versions as I tell the story.

BENJAMIN MERRIL, FARMER, SOLDIER

Benjamin Merrill was born in New Jersey. We share common 8 times great-grandparents—Richard and Penelope Stout. His mother, Penelope Stout (Jr.),  married into the French Huguenot Merrill family. According to a book called A Merrill Memorial, Penelope’s son Benjamin moved to North Carolina to an area called “Jersey Settlement” because a group of people from New Jersey, including his brother William, moved there. The move would have occurred about 1750, because his second son Andrew’s birth is recorded in North Carolina.

Benjamin was a farmer and a gun maker. He became the deacon of the Jersey Settlement Baptist Church, and a Captain in the militia.

Living in western North Carolina meant he was a frontiersman and fought battles with indigenous people still populating the area. The Jersey Settlement had more in common with neighboring Tennessee than with Eastern North Carolina with its elite plantation owners and businessmen. The local government operated on wild west principles—Sheriffs and Judges representing the English Crown, running rough-shod over the rights of the farmers.

According to a DAR application, Benjamin had a son named John born in 1750 in New Jersey. According to some sources, he married in 1753, which would have been after he moved to North Carolina, but I have not researched further to try to locate documentation. (John later lived in Georgia and in Monroe County, Mississippi.) According to most other sources, Benjamin had a total of 7 sons, including: John, Andrew (b. 1757 in North Carolina and continued to live there), Charles (b. 1761, later lived in S. Carolina), Elijah/Eli (b. circa 1763), William, (b. circa 1763), Jonathan (b. 1765), Samuel/Azariah (b. ?) and two daughters: Penelope (b. 1759), Nancy/Anna (b. 1760) .Some accounts list Samuel as the oldest son. In fact the information about his children is sketchy, and I have not rigorously  researched them. A tax record in 1757 also lists a Negro girl, Phyllis.

Apparently, Benjamin Merrill, tended toward independent thought early on. In 1756, he defied an order for “going out against a man who committed misdemeanors.” However, in 1759, he was among militia sent out on an alarm to aid a man attacked by Indians.

THE REGULATORS

Farmers in North Carolina, frustrated by corruption and excessive taxes and fees, formed an organization called The Regulators. This was in April 1767. They objected to local enforcement of English law rather than to the King’s rule. The same ambivalence shows up in documents about colonists in the north during this period. They wanted to be good British citizens. But they wanted fair treatment. They shied away from the idea of breaking with England.

An example of the abuse they suffered: By law a marriage license cost $1, but local officials charged $15. (Note, accounts I read said dollars, but I assume it was actually English pounds.) At first the Regulators tried by peaceful petition and argument to get more equitable treatment.

‘FIRE AND BE DAMNED“

However, making no headway, the Regulators turned to refusal to pay taxes, disruption of court proceedings, threats against officials, and vandalism. The ranking King’s officer, Governor Tryon, finally called together the militia to march against the Regulators after giving warning to the dissidents. Their reply–”Fire and be damned.”

JMay 14, 1771, Tryon’s 1000 militiamen were heading toward the Alamance Creek, about five miles away, where a ragtag, ill-armed and poorly-organized group of about 2000 dissidents assembled. A man representing the Regulators approached Tryon to talk, but as he turned away, the Governor shot him in the back.

Apparently some of the militia were sympathetic with the Regulators, because when the Governor ordered them to fire, some hesitated. He commanded the troops, “Fire on them, or fire on me.”

Tryon’s militia easily won the May 16 Battle of Alamance (also called the Battle of the Regulators). The King’s militia lost nine soldiers and had 61 wounded. The losses on the Regulator’s side is unknown.

The victorious Governor issued a proclamation that those who would swear allegiance and pay their taxes would be forgiven, except Captain Merrill and five others. The Governor declared them outlaws who would be hanged, drawn and quartered. Tryon took 15 prisoners, including Benjamin Merrill, who was not actually present on May 16. All but 6 escaped execution.

CAPTAIN MERRILL’S ROLE IN THE BATTLE

About May 12, Captain Merrill was heading toward Alamance with his company of 300-400 men, when he encountered General H. Waddell, who commanded a component of the King’s forces. Merrill took the General’s men prisoner and General Waddell fled to Salisbury.

Merrill and his men proceeded toward Alamance, but when they were within a day’s march, they heard the battle and a scout informed them of the Governor’s victory. Merrill released his troops and returned to his home in Ronan County. The Governor’s men arrested Merrill in short order, and took him to Tryon’s camp on June 6, 1771. The captors put Merrill in chains and dragged him through the countryside to Hillsborough where on June 19, 1771, a judge proclaimed the official sentence.

(Warning: The following contains explicit language that can be quite unsettling.)

The Judge’s sentence concluded:

“I must now close my afflicting Duty, by pronouncing upon you the awful sentence of the law; which is that you, Benjamin Merrill, be carried to the place whence you came, you be drawn from thence to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your Body divided in Four Quarters and this be it his Majesty’s Disposal and the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

When allowed final remarks on the gallows, Merrill asked for mercy for his widow and ten children and that they be allowed to keep some of his property. The Governor later signed an order fulfilling that wish. Then Merrill, professing some doubts about having rebelled against the King, and professing his own faith in God, went to his death singing a Psalm.

THOUGHTS ON ALAMANCE

It is interesting to note that Merrill’s final statement refers to ten children, but the Governor’s order refers to eight children, and a later document refers to nine children.

As for the Regulators, one account I read speculated that had Merrill reached Alamance in time, the result could have been much different. That writer believed that Merrill was a better military leader than any of the men involved at Alamance. He certainly seemed to have no trouble subduing the branch of the King’s militia led by Waddell.

Although the Battle of Alamance did not prove to be the beginning of the Revolution, coming five years before the Revolution started in earnest in Massachusetts, it certainly illustrates the long simmering resentment of English government in the colonies. The Regulators were using the same arguments later used in Philadelphia by the crafters of the Declaration of Independence. And their struggle had tangible results in North Carolina. Of the 47 sections of the state constitution that was adopted in 1776, ¼ of them—thirteen sections— were reforms sought by the Regulators.

While I have written extensively about my New England ancestors in the American Revolution, this July 4th, I want to turn my attention to the North Carolinians who were the first to fight the British in actual battle, and to my relative, Benjamin Merrill, who became a martyr for the cause five years before the Declaration of Independence.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

22 thoughts on “Benjamin Merrill and the Battle You Never Heard Of.

  1. Cathy Meder-Dempsey

    I read this post with interest as John Merrill married Elizabeth Wiseman and Andrew Merrill married Rachel Wiseman. The Wiseman brides were daughters of my 6th great-grandparents Isaac and Mary Wiseman of Jersey Settlement. I have not researched either of the Merrill couples. Isaac Wiseman mentioned only one son in his will. His widow Mary Wiseman named her daughters Elizabeth Marrell and Rachel Marrell in her 1791 will and made Andrew Marrell one of her executors.
    Happy 4th of July, Vera.

    Reply
  2. Vera Marie Badertscher

    Love it! I don’t know how many degrees of separation that equals,Cathy, but it was inevitable that our family trees would rub branches.

    I cut the info about the marriage to sisters because it was not germaine to my story, and also because I have ‘t authenticated the Merrill family. I suspect John might be the son of Wlliam rather than Benjamin if birth date is correct.

    Reply
  3. Kathleen Sullivan

    Interesting post! Actually I have heard of this battle as it was featured in this year’s episodes of Outlander

    Reply
  4. Frank Mohler

    Horn In the West, the outdoor drama presented in Boone, NC, begins with the Battle of Alamance. The son of a doctor is arrested as a Regulator. He escapes and the family flees to the mountains of North Carolina led by Daniel Boone. They establish a community after dealing with the Cherokee and British meanies. The play ends with the Battle of King’s Mountain. The entire story is fictional. Daniel Boone camped in the Boone area, but didn’t establish or assist a community here in Watauga County. He did assist the Watauga Community in Tennessee. Horn in the West opened in 1952 and has been performed each year until this year. It is the oldest Revolutionary War outdoor drama.

    An ancestor of mine fought and died at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Many of my students got their first professional theatre job as an actor or crew member at Horn.

    Reply
  5. Michele DeBerry

    Hi Vera!
    I have been researching my family history and uncovered my mother’s 1st cousin 8 times removed, Captain Benjamin Merrill. I read your blog on the Battle of Alamance and the role Benjamin played in forwarding the cause of freedom from British rule. Thank you for sharing this history.

    Reply
  6. Deborah HICKS

    My husband is a descendant of Benjamin Merrill. A family history was done in 1960, annotated with footnotes, called ‘Journey to the South’, by David L. Merrill, 1960, published in Texas (Dallas??). I have it.
    It’s remarkable the info he collected, especially since people are just now finding some of his resources.

    My husband is descended through his son Andrew Merrill and Rachel Wiseman, who moved to Estil, KY. Our line moved to Carroll County, MS (James William Simpson ‘JWS’ Merrill) and David’s family went to TX.

    David sent my husband a copy because he is Merrill. He knew my father-in-law and was glad the name was still in use. I have loads of info on many descendants.

    Deborah Hicks

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie Badertscher Post author

      That sounds like a terrific book. Although my relationship to Merrill is not as firm as your husband’s, I was drawn to the story. Shouldn’t it be a movie?

      And, please, if you have spotted any errors in my abbreviated retelling, please let me know.

      Reply
  7. Sharon Pike

    Here I sit at nearly midnight looking into family history. My husband’s 7x grandfather was Captain Benjamin Merrill. In my curiosity to see if any Merrill/Morrell are still in the Lexington, North Carolina area, I stumbled upon this article. I was shocked to find out the rich history of his maternal grandfather’s side. I was excited to find local things in Phx. were we reside and where the family had some history as very early settlers. It appears there was a migration into Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Arizona and eventually landing in Los Angeles County. I only wish that Ancestry had been around 25 yrs. ago to share this with the family elders. I am amazed at the work that you have done on this and many others involved in genealogy. I am still struggling with Ancestry, but I’ll get there. Thank you for another wonderful post about the bravery of Capt. Merrill as he and thousands other fought for independence.

    I will share this along with all my other historical finds with other family members. I have a Revolutionary War hero on my side as well. A 6th times grandfather who served with General George Washington.

    Blessings to all. Sharon

    Reply
  8. Claudia Kovar

    Vera, thank you for your account of the Battle of Alamance and of your brave ancestor’s role in it. Robert Thompson is my sixth great-grandfather. He was the first casualty of the battle. He was shot by Gov. Tryon while attempting to return to the Regulator camp after trying to mediate a peaceful settlement. Somehow the story of this battle was not passed down to my generation. I recently discovered it and now I know why several of my paternal grandmother’s male line had the first name of Thompson! This month is the 250th anniversary of the battle. I will remember your ancestor as well as the others who were killed in the battle or hung afterwards. My tribute is to do as much as I can to share their stories with my family and others, as you have done. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie Badertscher Post author

      It is rather amazing how this piece of history got lost in our national story telling. Thanks for telling me about your 6th great grandfather. And particularly thank you for telling me that this month is the 250th anniversary of the battle. I will try to publicize that fact.

      Reply
  9. Merrill Watkins

    Unfortunately, since being unduly removed from accessing my Facebook page and data, I cannot download history contained on the Merrill Group site. A lot of information there I wish to retrieve had I’d only thought beforehand.

    Reply
  10. Amanda M McCrary

    As a descendant of Captain Merrill, I greatly appreciate these pages, such as these. I try to pass it on to my children as well. I have been looking for his last words, but haven’t found them just yet. He was such an amazing person and I feel very fortunate that he is my 6th great grandfather.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Real Life In The World of RICHARD STOUT - Ancestors in Aprons

  12. Pingback: The Slaves Name Roll Project - Ancestors in Aprons

  13. Dustin

    Thank you for sharing this! I am going to see the site where the six were hung tommorow. My 5th Great Grandfather was Captain Robert Messer and from what i have heard was a leader of the Regulators and would never swear allegiance to the King of England!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.