Thomas Raper, 18, finished his second deployment in the Revolutionary War on Sunday with a performance as a rifleman trying to help defend the home of Col. Philip Alston against avenging Loyalists.
Before his first battle re-enactment, at Moore’s Creek in April, Raper says he spent a lot of time studying the events leading up to the skirmish so that when visitors asked questions, he could offer sensible answers.
“But the questions are things like, ‘Is that a real fire?’ ” Raper said. “So this time, I just sort of showed up.”
Some of those who fought in the real battle at the Alston House — known as the House in the Horseshoe on the state’s inventory of historic sites — may not have known the whole story of the grudge match in which they were about to be involved, either. The battle, which took place on July 29, 1781, and has been re-enacted with costumed participants for 32 years, was an attempt to settle a score between Alston, who led a band of colonists seeking independence from Britain, and the followers of Col. David Fanning, who were loyal to the British throne.
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A few days before, Alston and his men, in pursuit of Fanning, who had headed to Wilmington to deliver a group of prisoners, encountered a Loyalist friend of Fanning’s and smashed his head with a rifle butt. He died, but not before telling Fanning who had attacked him.
Fanning led his men back up to the Deep River in what is now Moore County, crossed at a shallow point and arrived at Alston’s house sometime after 4 a.m. on a Sunday.
A shootout ensued between Fanning and his men, and Alston and his. As the lead flew, Alston’s wife, Temperance, reportedly placed her children inside the brick chimney to try to protect them.
To re-create the battle, re-enactors from the 7th Company, 2nd Battalion, 84th Royal Highland Emigrants, based in North Carolina, invited other re-enactors from out of state and a total of about 80 people in period dress moved onto the grounds of the House in the Horseshoe for the weekend, where they set up canvas tents, built small fires and told stories. They were joined by a dozen or so vendors offering scented soaps, spiced teas, sterling jewelry, leather pouches and hand-wrought iron hardware.
About 5,000 people visited the site during the weekend, a small crowd compared with some state historic sites but a good showing for a place that’s far enough from the nearest four-lane highway — it’s 22 minutes back to U.S. 1 — that the setting still looks much like it would have in 1781.
We’re one of the few sites where you can re-enact the actual battle in the place where it happened. We’ve still got the bullet holes.
Roy Timbs, historical interpreter
That’s one of the reasons re-enactors like to participate in the battle at the House in the Horseshoe, said Roy Timbs, historical interpreter for the site.
“We’re one of the few sites where you can re-enact the actual battle in the place where it happened. We’ve still got the bullet holes.”
Indeed, the two-story white clapboard house still bears the pockmarks from the stray musket and rifle fire of the assault; visitors touring the home poke their fingers into the holes.
In re-creating the battle, combatants approach the house close enough to exchange fire and insults, both of which ring in the ears of spectators who spread out along a rope line facing the front of the house. Before the shooting starts, men playing the parts of Fanning and Alston address the crowd, each making their case of being in the right.
“I want Fanning’s head!” came a call from the porch, where Alston and his men were poised.
“Why? You need his brains?” answered one of Fanning’s followers from behind a tree.
During the battle, Fanning’s men twice tried to set the house on fire, taking casualties but proving to Alston his options were limited. After the second attempt at arson, Alston’s wife came out to negotiate a surrender. Under the terms, Alston became a prisoner and promised not to take part in any additional fights against the throne.
But those who play him and his followers in the re-enactment will be at it again next August.