Thursday, December 11, 2014

Traitor or Patriot?

For my second installment of remarkable relatives I turn to good ole Uncle Ben who was hung for treason in1771.
        Captain Benjamin Merrill was a farmer, gunsmith and captain in the Rowan County Militia in North Carolina. He lived on the Yadkin River in an area called Jersey Settlement. Like most of the people in that area, Ben had come from New Jersey where he watched the Royalist Supreme Court take away his family's property saying the proprietors that sold it to them didn't have rights to the land and  the deeds weren't properly registered. High school history books make it sound like the colonists revolted against the British over the cost of tea, but my ancestors tell me the the British abuse of power was much more severe.
          Ben flourished for 15 years in the backcountry of North Carolina. He was a deacon in the Jersey Baptist Church. He built a waterwheel to power the machinery in his gun shop. But in the 1760s Ben became involved with the Regulator movement to "regulate" the corrupt local officials.Thousands of men banded together to protest corrupt practices and defend people whose property was taken by unscrupulous officials.But from the government's point of view, the Regulators were outlaws.
          In  1771 Governor William Tryon announced he would hold court in Hillsborough to deal with the Regulators. He arrived in May and set up camp on the  Alamance Creek with about 1500 troops. About 2,000 regulators showed up but most of the men were unarmed. They didn't come to fight. They thought they could meet with the Governor and explain their grievances. But when they sent a representative to meet with the Governor, Tryon personally shot and killed him and ordered his troops to attack. After a few hours of fighting, Tryon claimed victory. Nine of his troops had been killed and 16 injuried compared to 20 of the Regulators dead and more than 100 wounded. One account says the troops set fire to the woods where the Regulators were hiding so the wounded had no chance to get out alive. In his "Neglected History of North Carolina" (1905), historian W.E. Fitch called the Battle of Alamance the first battle of the Revolution.
         Good ol' Uncle Ben, who would have been 40 at the time,  was enroute with about 300 militia to help the Regulators, but he got sidetracked by a confrontation with another British General Hugh Waddell. He was still a day's march away when he heard how Tryon had beat back the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance. Ben and his troops returned home. On June 1 Ben was arrested at his home and dragged in chains with about 30 prisoners as Tryon toured the backcountry burning homes and crops and forcing people to take an oath of loyalty to the British Crown.
          Fitch's history says Tryon's troops camped at Ben's place and let their horses graze, hanging a bell around the neck of each animal so it could be found later. In the dark, some of the pillaging soldiers knocked over a bee hive in Ben's apiary. The swarm of bees stung soldiers and horses who came stampeding back into the camp with the clanging of 100 bells and Tryon thought the devil himself had attacked.
          In June, a trial was held at Hillsborough. Twelve men were charged with treason. Six of them, including Benjamin, were hanged on June 19. The exact sentence was the traditional British sentence for treason: "That the prisoner should be carried to the place from whence he came; that he should be drawn from thence to the place of execution and hanged by the neck; that he should be cut down while yet alive; that his bowels should be taken out and burned before his face; that his head should be cut off, and that his body should be divided into four quarters, which were to be placed at the King's disposal, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul."
           We have no indication that the prisoners were actually drawn and quartered but we know they were hung. My ancestor, Daniel Merrill, would have been a 16-year-old boy watching his uncle's execution.
          Fitch reports that Ben professed his faith in Christ and sang a psalm before his execution. He said he had converted 15 years before and felt he was freely forgiven and ready to die. He asked only that his estate be spared for his wife and eight children.
        "I entreat that no reflection be cast upon them on my account" he said. Supposedly  one of Tryon's soldiers was heard to declare that if all men went to the gallows with a character such as Captain Merrill's, "hanging would be an honorable death."
         Tryon offered amnesty to all Regulators who would lay down arms and submit to authority. Within six weeks he had received 6,409 requests for pardon.

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