The whole of the North Carolina backcountry, wrote the Patriot General Nathanael Greene (pictured at left) in 1780, was in danger of being laid waste by the Patriots and Tories, “who pursue each other with as much relentless Fury as Beasts of Prey.” His warnings were echoed by other Patriot officers. “Good God! Sir,” cried General Stephen Drayton to the Governor, “let us not countenance barbarities that would disgrace the Savage!”
“Civil war” is too decorous a term for the conflict that raged in Cumberland County during the latter years of the Revolution. The violence was unceasing and from all sides. Patriots and Loyalists were probably equal in numbers, but more numerous than either were the small farmers who simply wanted to be left alone.
They were not given the chance.
The militias on both sides were the worst offenders, descending on local farms to quarter their men and horses and appropriating whatever provisions they could find. Ordinary inhabitants on each side of the conflict terrorized their neighbors on the other, plundering farms and leaving women and children on the edge of starvation. There were men who were forced to hide out in the swamps when the other party was in control, and who turned to brigandage to support themselves, and there were freelance bandits with allegiance to neither side.
A petition from Rowan County, begging the authorities for the restoration of public order, relates that “numbers of persons such as Women and Children have been tortured, hung up and strangled, cut down again, sometimes branded with brands…in order to extract Confessions from them.” When the British Major Craig and 450 regular troops gained control of the Cape Fear Valley in 1781, victims and victimizers simply switched roles.
On the Patriot side, the most notorious of the local leaders was Colonel Phil Alston. According to another Patriot, “Mr. Alston seems to rule them all, and a greater tyrant is not upon earth according to his power, and it is much to be lamented that about two or three years ago, no Gentleman that had the least regard for his character would have kept this hectoring, domineering, person company.” Alston capriciously imprisoned farmers for minor offenses, and at least once is known to have murdered an elderly non-combatant in cold blood for the crime of sheltering Tories. His behavior, and that of many of his Patriot colleagues, turned a large number of formerly neutral farmers against the Patriot cause, and as a result some of them took up arms with Loyalist guerrillas.
Still in power after the Revolution, Alston was appointed Justice of the Peace and elected to the State Senate from the newly created Moore County. At the same time, however, he became involved in a fierce personal feud with another local politician, Dr. George Glascock, who may have been the mentor to my ancestor, Dr. Elijah Bettis Jr. Glascock and others successfully petitioned the Assembly to remove him as Justice, based on allegations that he had murdered a Tory prisoner and had stated that he did not believe in God.
Three months later Glascock was murdered. A slave belonging to Alston was accused of the murder; Alston bailed him out and he promptly disappeared. Alston was then arrested as an accessory. He escaped from the jail, fled the state with his family, and a year later was himself murdered – perhaps by the same slave. And Moore County settled down to the hard, painful work of reconciliation.