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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nat Turner's slave rebellion

Nat Turner's Rebellion (also known as the Southampton Insurrection) was a slave rebellion that took place in Southampton County, Virginia during August 1831. Over 50 people were reported killed. It lasted only a few days before being put down, but leader Nat Turner remained in hiding for several months afterwards.

In the aftermath, both participants and non-participants were punished. New laws across the South blocked literacy for free blacks and mulattoes, as well as slaves.

Nat Turner's background

Turner was an American slave who had lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites. After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather bright complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.

Turner was singularly intelligent, and learned how to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently received visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 21 years old he ran away from his owner, Samuel Turner, but returned a month later after receiving a vision that told him to "return to the service of my earthly master." In 1824, while working in the fields under his new owner, Thomas Moore, Turner had his second vision, in which "the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand." Turner often conducted Baptist services, and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him as "The Prophet".

Turner also had an influence over white people, and in the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to "cease from his wickedness." By the spring 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty." While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner "heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."

In 1830, Turner came into the possession of Joseph Travis. Turner later recalled that Travis was a "a kind master" who had "placed the greatest confidence in me." Despite the decent treatment he received from his present owner, Turner still eagerly anticipated God's signal to start his task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons." Turner witnessed a solar eclipse on February 12, 1831 and was convinced that this was the sign from God that he was waiting for. He took this as a signal to start preparations for a rebellion against the white slave-owners of Southampton County. Turner "communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam


Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves, but the insurgency ultimately numbered more than 70 enslaved and free blacks, some of whom were on horseback. On August 13, 1831, there was an atmospheric disturbance which made the sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as the final signal, and a week later, on August 21, the rebellion began. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they found.

(1831 woodcut purporting to illustrate various stages of the rebellion)

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. Historian Stephen B. Oates states that Turner called on his group to "kill all whites." Historian Herbert Aptheker, quoting the Richmond Enquirer, writes that "Turner declared that 'indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'"
The rebellion spared almost no one. A small child who hid in a fireplace was among the few survivors. Before Turner and his brigade of insurgents were defeated by a white militia twice its size, reinforced by three companies of artillery, 55 white men, women and children were killed.


Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina surrounding Southampton. At least 100 blacks, and probably many more, were killed. The number of black victims far exceeded the number of rebels.

Contemporary accounts indicate the brutality with which the blacks were killed. The editor of the Richmond Whig, writing "with pain," described the scene as "the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity." Two weeks after the rebellion had been suppressed, the violence against the blacks continued and General Eppes felt it necessary to order that the troops and the white citizens stop the killing:

He [the General] will not specify all the instances that he is bound to believe have occurred, but pass in silence what has happened, with the expression of his deepest sorrow, that any necessity should be supposed to have existed, to justify a single act of atrocity. But he feels himself bound to declare, and hereby announces to the troops and citizens, that no excuse will be allowed for any similar acts of violence, after the promulgation of this order.

In a letter to the New York Evening Post, Reverend G. W. Powell wrote that "many negroes are killed every day. The exact number will never be known.
A company of militia from Hertford County, North Carolina reportedly killed 40 blacks in one day and took $23 and a gold watch from the dead. Captain Solon Borland who led a contingent from Murfreesboro, North Carolina condemned the acts "because it was tantamount to theft from the white owners of the slaves." Blacks suspected of participating in the rebellion were beheaded by the militia "and their severed heads were mounted on poles at crossroads as a grisly form of intimidation."


The rebellion was suppressed within 48 hours, but Turner eluded capture for months. On October 30, he was discovered in a swamp by a white farmer and then arrested. After his capture, his court appointed trial lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, took it upon himself to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner, derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from conversations with Turner before his trial. This document remains the primary window into Turner's mind. Because of its author's obvious bias, it is a subject of much contention among historians.

On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia.

In the aftermath of the revolt 48 black men and women were tried on charges of conspiracy, insurrection, and treason. In all, eighteen blacks, one of whom was female, were convicted and sentenced to execution in the form of hanging by the neck until dead.

Legal Response

In the aftermath of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion, the Virginia General Assembly passed new legislation making it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write. The General Assembly also passed a law restricting all blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister. Similar laws were also enacted in other slave-holding states across the South.
Some free blacks chose to move their families north to obtain educations for their children. Some individuals such as a young teacher named Thomas J. Jackson (better known to history as "Stonewall Jackson") and another named Mary Smith Peake chose to violate the laws. Notwithstanding the efforts of these individuals and many others, the laws enacted in the aftermath of the Turner Rebellion undoubtedly contributed greatly to the widespread illiteracy facing the freedmen and other African Americans after the American Civil War and Emancipation 35 years later.

The unfairness of such laws helped draw attention to the problem of illiteracy as one of the great challenges confronting these people as they sought to join the free enterprise system and support themselves during Reconstruction and thereafter. Consequently, many religious organizations, former Union Army officers and soldiers, and wealthy philanthropists were inspired to create and fund educational efforts specifically for the betterment of African Americans in the South. They helped create normal schools to generate teachers, such as those which eventually became Hampton University and Tuskegee University. Stimulated by the work of educators such as Dr. Booker T. Washington, by the first third of the 20th century, over 5,000 local schools had been built for blacks in the South with private matching funds provided by individuals such as Henry H. Rogers, Andrew Carnegie, and most notably, Julius Rosenwald, each of whom had arisen from modest roots to become wealthy.

CasualtiesAccording to the book The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates, Nat Turner had ordered his followers to "kill all the white people", including women and children. Because their lives were considered of little or no value, no record exists of the number and names of Turner's followers who lost their lives.

Fifty-seven white men, women and children were killed during Nat Turner's Rebellion; most were hacked to death with axes, stabbed, or bludgeoned. The largest number of casualties were children. In one instance, Turner and his insurgents stopped at the house of Levi Waller where they killed him, his wife, and children. Ten of the children were decapitated and their headless bodies piled in the front yard.
Nat Turner's Rebellion resulted in a vicious response by Southern plantation owners. Eager to show that actions such as Turner's would not be tolerated, plantation owners throughout the south executed vigilante justice, killing slaves and other persons of African descent (many of whom had no connection with the rebellion).

Get the book Nat Turner


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