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Nat Turner launches massive insurrection in Virginia

Nat Turner launches massive insurrection in Virginia

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Believing himself chosen by God to lead his people out of slavery, Nat Turner launches a bloody insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner, an enslaved man and educated minister, planned to capture the county armory at Jerusalem, Virginia, and then march 30 miles to Dismal Swamp, where his rebels would be able to elude their pursuers. With seven followers, he slaughtered Joseph Travis, his owner, and Travis’ family, and then set off across the countryside, hoping to rally hundreds of enslaved people to his insurrection en route to Jerusalem.

During the next two days and nights, Turner and 75 followers rampaged through Southampton County, killing about 60 whites. Local whites resisted the rebels, and then the state militia—consisting of some 3,000 men—crushed the rebellion. Only a few miles from Jerusalem, Turner and all his followers were dispersed, captured, or killed. In the aftermath of the rebellion, scores of enslaved people were lynched, though many of them were non-participants in the revolt. Turner himself was not captured until the end of October, and after confessing without regret to his role in the bloodshed, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. On November 11, he was hanged in Jerusalem.

Turner’s rebellion was the largest rebellion of enslaved people in U.S. history and led to a new wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting the movement, assembly and education of enslaved people.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Nat Turner launches massive insurrection in Virginia - HISTORY

Nat Turner's Rebellion

"To Rebel and Make Insurrection"

On 23 August 1831Governor John Floyd received a hastily written note from Southampton County postmaster James Trezevant stating "that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down." Fifty-seven whites, many of them women and children, died before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers could converge on the region and crush the insurrection. Angry white vigilantes killed dozens of slaves and drove hundreds of free persons of color into exile in the reign of terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon confirmed that the insurgents were not runaways but, rather, slaves from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 black insurgents gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders: a free man of color named Billy Artis, a celebrated slave known as "Gen. Nelson," and a slave preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner it was his "imagined spirit of prophecy" and his extraordinary powers of persuasion, local authorities reported, that had turned obedient slaves into bloodthirsty killers. Turner's ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.

While Nat Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. An abolitionist writer named Samuel Warner suggested that Turner had hidden himself in the Dismal Swamp with an army of runaways at his disposal. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and safe return to the Southampton County jail. On 30 October 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave not far from the place where Turner lived. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his "Confessions," and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed. In tracing the "history of the motives" that led him to undertake the insurrection, Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act, that he had shared his plans with only a few trusted followers, and that he knew nothing of any wider conspiracy extending beyond the Southampton County area. Certified as authentic by six local magistrates and said to be authorized by Turner himself, the "Confessions" became the definitive source for nearly all subsequent accounts of the event.

"Nat’s War": The Southampton Slave Rebellion of 1831

On 23 August 1831, Governor John Floyd received a hastily written note from the Southampton County postmaster stating “that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.” Fifty-seven whites died, many of them women and children, before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers could converge on the region and crush the rebellion. Angry white vigilantes killed hundreds of slaves and drove free persons of color into exile in the terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon identified the participants as enslaved people from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 insurgents gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders: a free man of color named Billy Artis, a celebrated slave known as “Gen. Nelson,” and a slave preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner it was his “imagined spirit of prophecy” and his extraordinary powers of persuasion that had, according to local authorities, unleashed the fury. Turner’s ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.

While Nat Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. An abolitionist writer named Samuel Warner suggested that Turner had hidden himself in the Dismal Swamp with an army of runaways at his disposal. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and safe return to the Southampton County jail. On 30 October 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his “Confessions,” and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed. In tracing the “history of the motives” that led him to undertake the insurrection, Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act, that he had shared his plans with only a few trusted followers, and that he knew nothing of any wider conspiracy extending beyond the Southampton County area.

Nat Turner’s revolt prompted a prolonged debate in the Virginia General Assembly of 1831-1832. As a result of Turner’s actions, Virginia’s legislators enacted more laws to limit the activities of African Americans, both free and enslaved. The freedom of slaves to communicate and congregate was directly attacked. No one could assemble a group of African Americans to teach reading or writing, nor could anyone be paid to teach a slave. Preaching by slaves and free blacks was forbidden. Other southern states enacted similarly restrictive laws.

Nat Turner

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Nat Turner, (born October 2, 1800, Southampton county, Virginia, U.S.—died November 11, 1831, Jerusalem, Virginia), Black American slave who led the only effective, sustained slave rebellion (August 1831) in U.S. history. Spreading terror throughout the white South, his action set off a new wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of slaves and stiffened proslavery, antiabolitionist convictions that persisted in that region until the American Civil War (1861–65).

What did Nat Turner do?

In Virginia in August 1831, Nat Turner led the only effective and sustained slave revolt in U.S. history, during which some 60 white persons were slain.

What did Nat Turner believe in?

A deeply religious person, Nat Turner believed that he had been called by God to lead African Americans out of slavery.

How did Nat Turner die?

After his revolt was violently suppressed by local whites and the Virginia state militia, Nat Turner went into hiding but was eventually captured, tried, and hanged.

What was Nat Turner’s legacy?

Nat Turner destroyed the white Southern myth that slaves were actually happy with their lives or too docile to undertake a violent rebellion. His revolt hardened proslavery attitudes among Southern whites and led to new oppressive legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of slaves.

Turner was born the property of a prosperous small-plantation owner in a remote area of Virginia. His mother was an African native who transmitted a passionate hatred of slavery to her son. He learned to read from one of his master’s sons, and he eagerly absorbed intensive religious training. In the early 1820s he was sold to a neighbouring farmer of small means. During the following decade his religious ardour tended to approach fanaticism, and he saw himself called upon by God to lead his people out of bondage. He began to exert a powerful influence on many of the nearby slaves, who called him “the Prophet.”

In 1831, shortly after he had been sold again—this time to a craftsman named Joseph Travis—a sign in the form of an eclipse of the Sun caused Turner to believe that the hour to strike was near. His plan was to capture the armoury at the county seat, Jerusalem, and, having gathered many recruits, to press on to the Dismal Swamp, 30 miles (48 km) to the east, where capture would be difficult. On the night of August 21, together with seven fellow slaves in whom he had put his trust, he launched a campaign of total annihilation, murdering Travis and his family in their sleep and then setting forth on a bloody march toward Jerusalem. In two days and nights about 60 white people were ruthlessly slain. Doomed from the start, Turner’s insurrection was handicapped by lack of discipline among his followers and by the fact that only 75 Blacks rallied to his cause. Armed resistance from the local whites and the arrival of the state militia—a total force of 3,000 men—provided the final crushing blow. Only a few miles from the county seat the insurgents were dispersed and either killed or captured, and many innocent slaves were massacred in the hysteria that followed. Turner eluded his pursuers for six weeks but was finally captured, tried, and hanged.

Nat Turner’s rebellion put an end to the white Southern myth that slaves were either contented with their lot or too servile to mount an armed revolt. In Southampton county Black people came to measure time from “Nat’s Fray,” or “Old Nat’s War.” For many years in Black churches throughout the country, the name Jerusalem referred not only to the Bible but also covertly to the place where the rebel slave had met his death.

Turner has been most widely popularized by William Styron in his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.

General Overviews

The most reliable book-length account of the revolt itself is Breen 2015. Allmendinger 2014 provides the most deeply researched account of the revolt, with a strong focus on documentary evidence from Southampton County produced before the revolt began. Most generally accessible short scholarly accounts of the revolt are Breen 2019 and Greenberg 2017. Important older accounts of the Nat Turner Revolt include Oates 1990 and Aptheker 1974. Drewry 1900 adopts an unmistakably racist point of view but contains valuable resources unavailable anywhere else. As a part of a series on slave resistance published as the United States was headed into Civil War, Higginson 1861 provides an account of the revolt from the point of view of a New England abolitionist, while Nell 1855 and Brown 1863 are both brief early histories of the Southampton Revolt and Nat Turner written by black authors.

Allmendinger, David F., Jr. Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

The most thoroughly researched scholarly account of Southampton before and during the revolt. Although this account spends relatively little time on the revolt itself, it includes important interventions on potential familial motivations for the revolt, including the possibility that Turner decided to launch the revolt after hearing about the use of his son as collateral on a loan. An important reference for scholars working in the field, but sometimes overconfident in what can be known based upon the sources.

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel and Others. Reprint. New York: International Publishers, 1974.

Aptheker’s chapter on Nat Turner is at the heart of a seminal revisionist work on slavery. Rejecting the older view that slaves were docile and content, Aptheker presents slaves as dissatisfied with slavery and willing to fight for a better world. First published 1943.

Breen, Patrick H. The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Slave Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

The most reliable scholarly monograph on the revolt. Heterodox in important ways, Breen challenges important ideas about slave resistance, which he shows is contested within the black community. Also presents a new reading of the whites’ responses, challenging the idea of a practically unrestrained white response against the black community.

Breen, Patrick H. “Nat Turner’s Revolt.” In Encyclopedia Virginia. Edited by Patti Miller. Charlottesville: Humanities Virginia, 2019.

A brief, historiographically informed, and up-to-date synopsis of the revolt.

Brown, William Wells. “Nat Turner.” In The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. 2d ed. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1863.

One of the earliest histories of Nat Turner written by a black man. Relies unapologetically on Gray 1831 (cited under Reference Works) and adds an imagined speech delivered by Turner on the eve of the revolt. Electronic edition available from Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH.

Drewry, William Sidney. The Southampton Insurrection. Washington: Neale, 1900.

While containing unique sources—including oral histories with survivors of the revolt—also exemplifies the racism common in Progressive Era scholarship. Available online from Google Books.

Greenberg, Kenneth S. “Introduction: The Confessions of Nat Turner—Text and Context.” In The Confessions of Nat Turner with Related Documents. Edited by Kenneth S. Greenberg, 1–33. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.

Greenberg’s preface to this anthology of documents on Nat Turner only briefly describes the revolt. Nevertheless, it is one of the best historiographically informed discussion of many important issues in scholarship on Nat Turner that have risen since the civil rights movement.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Nat Turner’s Insurrection.” Atlantic Monthly 8.46 (August 1861).

A readily available account of the Nat Turner Revolt, told from the perspective of a prominent New England abolitionist. Puts Turner’s resistance within a hemispheric context as part of a series Higginson wrote in the Atlantic Monthly on slave revolts in the Atlantic world.

Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1855.

The first history of the revolt written by a black author. Relies on Gray, newspaper articles, and personal accounts to give a very brief history of the Southampton revolt. Electronic edition available from Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.

Presents a standard heroic account of Turner. Although this work is not as reliable as the other sources, it remains the most readable book-length historical account of the revolt. First published 1975.

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American Slave Insurrections

Auribus teneo lupum, nam neque quomodo a me amittam invenio neque uti retineam scio.

“I hold the wolf by its ears, for I neither know how to get rid of her, nor yet how to keep her.” – Terrence, c. 165 BC

Race relations in the 13 colonies and the later United States of America is a story of deep antagonism. This truth seems obvious today, and Americans from the settlement of Jamestown until the “Civil Rights movement” understood that truth. Americans before the Civil War understood it best they had to deal with slave uprisings.

Records about antebellum slave insurrections are scarce. Whites generally suppressed reports of servile insurrection because they didn’t want to encourage other slaves, so many of the rebellions we know about were the ones too large to censor.[i] Slaves tried to revolt hundreds of times in the antebellum period. The first settlement within the present-day United States had a slave revolt. San Miguel de Gualdape — established by Spaniards in what is now Georgia in 1526 — failed in just a few months, due to shipwreck, hunger, cold, disease, hostile Indians, and a slave rebellion.[ii]

Evidence suggests that black slaves were often disaffected and rebellious.[iii] Mass insurrections were rare, but abortive attempts and conspiracies were common, as were other forms of resistance. Sometimes slaves would steal. They also worked slowly, sabotaged machinery, and carelessly or deliberately destroyed crops, fences, and tools. They neglected animals.[iv]

Blacks often tried to kill their masters,[v] and the preferred methods were arson and poison. Arson was so common that it raised insurance premiums. Entire towns could be lost to the torch.[vi] In the 1790s, prominent citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, organized a committee to ensure that brick or stone be used in building new buildings instead of wood, making them harder to burn. Servile arson also encouraged construction of fire-escapes, which became common in 19th-century Virginia.[vii]

Newspaper reports from the time show poisoning was also common. In 1751, South Carolina ordered the death penalty for slaves who tried to poison whites, and the guilty would not receive benefit of clergy. The preamble to this legislation explained that it was necessary because the crime was attempted so often.

A decade later, the Charleston Gazette said that “the negroes have again begun the hellish practice of poisoning.” In 1770, Georgia passed a law identical to that of South Carolina.[viii] In 1740, slaves in New York City tried to exterminate whites by poisoning the water supply. Citizens were so frightened that they bought spring water from street vendors, showing “how strong was the suspicion and fear of the approximately two thousand slaves among the ten thousand white inhabitants of the city.”[ix]

Fugitives slaves, or maroons, also harassed whites. They formed loose bands and communities, and preyed on whites, plundering plantations and robbing travelers. Maroons “plagued every slave society in which mountains, swamps, or other terrain provided a hinterland into which slaves could flee.”[x]

Occasionally, maroons made alliances with American Indians the Florida Seminole Wars are the best example.[xi] In 1823, maroons in Norfolk County, Virginia, killed several whites, and one terrified citizen wrote: “[N]o individual after this can consider his life safe from the murdering aim of these monsters in human shape. Everyone who has haply rendered himself obnoxious to their vengeance, must, indeed, calculate on sooner or later falling a victim.”[xii] Until the final days of the Confederacy, Southerners sought out and suppressed maroons.[xiii]

Insurrections could involve any number from a dozen to several thousand slaves. On most occasions, authorities discovered conspiracies and smashed them. When this failed, insurrections had one main purpose: to slaughter as many whites as possible. The most murderous insurrection killed nearly 60 whites.[xiv] Here are some of the most significant revolts.

Detail from Maroon Leader, 1796.

In 1712, a band of around two dozen slaves and Indians in New York City got hold of guns, swords, knives, and axes. Early one Sunday morning, one of the insurrectionists set fire to his master’s plantation while others hid in the dark as local whites arrived to douse the blaze. Blacks ambushed and killed at least nine.[xv]

This incident was partially responsible for the intense fear that surrounded another servile conspiracy in New York City three decades later. In early 1741, several mysterious fires broke out in the city. Residents saw blacks running from some of these fires, and suspected insurrection, not random arson.

Authorities traced the plot to a disreputable bar on Crown Street, where the lower-class whites socialized with blacks. The plan, according to several conspirators, was “to destroy, root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.”[xvi] At the trial of the white co-conspirators, the judge marveled at whites who proclaimed themselves Christians but who would make “negro slaves [not only] their equals, but even their superiors, by waiting upon, keeping with, and entertaining them with meat, drink, and lodging, and, what is much more amazing, to plot, conspire, consult, abet, and encourage these black seed of Cain to burn this city, and to kill and destroy us all.”[xvii] The judge sentenced the whites to death.

The conspiracy was led by African-born slaves and was said to have involved 30 or 40 blacks. The insurrectionists “called for a war on the Christians in a manner suggestive of the early Caribbean Obeahmen [witch doctors] and foreshadowing the call to arms of the Vodûn priests of Saint-Domingue.”

African-born slaves also led the 1739 insurrection near the Stono River in South Carolina.[xviii] The only eyewitness account of that event, the bloodiest insurrection in South Carolina, was that of Lieutenant-Governor Lawrence Bull. Returning to Charles Town from Granville County on horseback, Bull happened upon a band of 80 or so blacks, carrying guns and flags and chanting, “Liberty!” Bull rode off and notified the militia.

The site of the Stono Slave revolt. (Credit Image: ProfReader via Wikimedia)

The black leader was an illiterate slave named Jemmy (also known as Cato). The rebels decapitated their first two white victims, and displayed the heads on a staircase. The blacks then sacked several plantations, plundered liquor stores, and killed whites.[xix] By the time the insurrection was put down, slaves had razed a dozen plantations and killed and at least 25 white men, women, and children.[xx]

Many contemporary sources blame Spanish agents for the insurrection. Lieutenant-Governor Bull told his superiors in London that the Stono revolt had been instigated by a Spanish proclamation issued from St. Augustine offering “freedom to all negroes who should desert . . . from the British Colonies.” In 1738, two different bands of slaves in the region escaped their plantations to head for what they hoped would be freedom in Spanish Florida. One of them, passing through Georgia, murdered several whites.[xxi] Some time after the Stono insurrection, a Spanish agent was arrested in Georgia with instructions to foment “a general insurrection of negroes” in the British South. This charge was made against Spain well into the 19th century.[xxii]

Gabriel Prosser marked the turn of the nineteenth century with a vast plot in Henrico County, Virginia. He was literate, willful, stood six feet two or three inches tall, and was considered by both blacks and whites as “a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life.”[xxiii] In the spring of 1800, slaves in Virginia quietly made crude swords and bayonets, and hundreds of bullets. About one thousand — some mounted — armed with clubs, scythes, homemade swords and bayonets and a few guns, gathered six miles outside of Richmond. However, a downpour delayed their invasion of the city. Word got out about the insurrection, and Governor James Monroe of Virginia posted artillery and called up 650 militiamen. Before the slaves could attack, authorities arrested any they could identify.

Governor Monroe interviewed Prosser, noting that “from what he said to me, he seemed to have made up his mind to die, and to have resolved to say but little on the subject of the conspiracy.” John Randolph, who saw several of the blacks in custody, wrote: “[The slaves] have exhibited a spirit, which, if it becomes general, must deluge the Southern country in blood. They manifested a sense of their rights, and contempt of danger, and a thirst for revenge which portend the most unhappy consequences.”

Mississippi Territorial Governor W.C.C. Claiborne suggested that 50,000 slaves may have been in on the plot others estimated their numbers at between two and 10 thousand. Governor Monroe believed that the plot had reached Virginia’s entire slave population.[xxiv] The blacks had decided to spare all Frenchmen, Methodists, and Quakers whom they considered sympathetic to emancipation. They would kill all others, but show mercy to whites who agreed to emancipation — by only cutting off an arm.[xxv]

In 1811, there was a large insurrection in Louisiana. It began when the ringleader, together with two dozen subordinates, hacked his master’s son to death as he slept. The boy’s father escaped and sounded the alarm.[xxvi] Panic set in:

It was pouring rain in New Orleans on the morning of January 9, 1811, and the road running into the city was quickly transformed into thick mud that sucked in horse hooves, carriage wheels, and human feet alike. The miserable weather contributed to the traffic jam, stretching as far as nine miles, of frantic planters, along with their families and servants, who were fleeing their plantations for the safety of the city. As one observer described it, the road to New Orleans ‘for two or three leagues was crowded with carriages and carts full of people, making their escape from the ravages of the banditti—negroes, half-naked, up to their knees in mud with large packages on their heads driving along toward the city.’[xxvii]

As many as 500 slaves, led by a free mulatto from Saint-Domingue and armed with axes, clubs, knives, and a few firearms, marched on New Orleans. They sacked plantations, intent on “killing every white they could get their hands on.” Local planters and militiamen took action, but the slaves were not fully subdued until Governor Claiborne called out the full militia. Brigadier-General Wade Hampton led 400 militiamen and 60 U.S. Army soldiers, joined by 200 soldiers from Baton Rouge, to destroy the insurrection.[xxviii]

In 1822, in Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey led what Thomas Higginson, Unitarian minister and member of the Secret Six (the group of wealthy Northern abolitionists who financed John Brown’s attack at Harper’s Ferry), called “the most elaborate insurrectionary plot ever formed by American slaves.” Vesey’s conspiracy involved thousands of slaves who planned to exterminate every white in Charleston, seize bank reserves, and sail to Haiti.[xxix] One of the black leaders reportedly remarked that the men “would know what to do with the white women.”[xxx] Their plan was ambitious, with simultaneous attacks from five directions and a sixth force on horseback to patrol the streets.[xxxi]

Slaves within the city were set to start fires and set explosions with stolen black powder. When whites ran out of their homes to put the fires out, the blacks were to slaughter them. In the chaos, columns of slaves would fall upon the city from every direction, seizing the state and federal arsenals. Preparations were elaborate:

The negroes had made about 250 pike-heads and bayonets and over three hundred daggers. They had noted every store containing any arms and had given instructions to all slaves who tended or could get horses as to when and where to bring the animals. Even a barber had assisted by making wigs and whiskers to hide the identities of the rebels. Vesey had also written twice to St. Domingo telling of his plans and asking for aid. All who opposed were to be killed. [xxxii]

The plot failed and the authorities sentenced Vesey to death. On the day of his execution, federal soldiers were called to help the militia suppress another insurrection.[xxxiii] The fact that Vesey was a free black, rather than a slave, “sent shockwaves throughout Charleston’s white community, the members of which had always considered the free blacks living in their midst to be a nonthreatening, although unwelcome, presence.”[xxxiv] Though Vesey and his subordinates had maintained lists of their co-conspirators, only one list and part of another were recovered. One witness testified that nearly 7,000 slaves had been involved, while another implicated 9,000.

The Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina. (Credit Image: MsBJPeart via Wikimedia)

In 1831, Nat Turner led the deadliest slave revolt in American history, in Southampton County, Virginia. Thomas Gray, the lawyer for several of the slaves involved in the revolt and the man who published Turner’s confession, wrote that the insurrection “was not instigated by motives of revenge or sudden anger, but the results of long deliberation, and a settled purpose of mind.” Gray continued: “It will thus appear, that whilst everything upon the surface of society wore a calm and peaceful aspect whilst not one note of preparation was heard to warn . . . of woe and death, a gloomy fanatic was revolving in the recesses of his own dark, bewildered, and overwrought mind, schemes of indiscriminate massacre to the whites.”[xxxv] Virginia had a white majority, so any rebellion was sure to be suicide.[xxxvi]

Around two in the morning, Turner and fellow conspirators broke into the cider press and got drunk. Turner later acknowledged that, as the leader, “I must spill the first blood.” He crept up to his master’s house with his men and took a hatchet to his master’s head.[xxxvii] Turner later recalled that “the murder of this family, five in number, was the work of a moment . . . there was a little infant sleeping in a cradle, that was forgotten, until we had left the house and gone some distance, when Henry and Will returned and killed it.”[xxxviii] Ironically, Turner later admitted that he had had a kind master and that he had “no reason to complain of his treatment of me.”

The slaves fanned out across the countryside and marched house to house, killing every white they found. The slaughter continued well into the next day as the death toll mounted, so too did Nat Turner’s band. By the end, he had about 60 slaves, “all mounted and armed with guns, axes, swords and clubs.” At one home, the family tried to barricade the door. Turner later explained:

Vain hope! Will, with one stroke of his axe, opened it, and we entered and found Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Newsome in the middle of a room, almost frightened to death. Will immediately killed Mrs. Turner, with one blow of his axe. I took Mrs. Newsome by the hand, and . . . struck her several blows over the head, but not being able to kill her, as the sword was dull. Will, turning around . . . dispatched her also.[xxxix]

When Turner arrived at the Whitehead family’s home, he said he was:

[Ready] to commence the work of death, but they whom I left, had not been idle all the family were already murdered, but Mrs. Whitehead and her daughter Margaret. As I came ‘round to the door, I saw Will pulling Mrs. Whitehead out of the house, and at the step he nearly severed her head from her body, with his broad axe. Miss Margaret. . . had concealed herself. . . on my approach, she fled, but was soon overtaken, and after repeated blows with a sword, I killed her by a blow on the head, with a fence rail.

Turner remembered details:

I sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed, viewing the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims. Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. William Williams’, having killed him and two little boys that were there while engaged in this, Mrs. Williams fled and got some distance. . . but she was pursued, overtaken, and compelled to get up behind one of the company, who brought her back, and after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead.

There was a school at the Waller house, where Nat Turner’s army killed 10 children. An 11th girl managed to escape and hid in the swamp, where she was discovered days later, terrified and whimpering.

Composite of scenes of Nat Turner’s rebellion. (Image from Authentic and impartial narrative of the tragical scene which was witnessed in Southampton County, 1831 via the Library of Congress.

John Baron, “discovering them [the slave rebels] approaching his house, told his wife to make her escape, and, scorning to fly, fell fighting on his own threshold.” He fired his rifle and then used it as a melee weapon but was “overpowered and slain.” The slaves’ lawyer Thomas Gray wrote of Baron: “His bravery, however, saved from the hands of these monsters, his lovely and amiable wife . . . . As directed by him, she attempted to escape through the garden, when she was caught and held by one of her servant girls, but another coming to her rescue, she fled to the woods, and concealed herself.”[xl]

On the third day, three companies of federal artillery arrived at Southampton — with seamen from two warships in the Chesapeake — and put down the insurrection. Turner and his men had killed at least 57 men, women, and children in a 20-mile-wide swathe.[xli]

Discovery of Nat Turner by William Henry Shelton. (Image via Wikimedia)

Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, a niece of George Washington, wrote of the Turner rebellion: “[I]t is like a smothered volcano — we know not when, or where, the flame will burst forth, but we know that death in the most horrid forms threaten us. Some . . . have become deranged from apprehension since the South Hampton affair.”[xlii]

Though written after a different conspiracy, one New Orleans editorial could easily have been written about the Turner rebellion: “[E]nmity between the white and black race is rapidly maturing.” The recurrent “attacks of the negro upon the white man in our city . . . should excite our suspicions, whether they be not the piquet guard of some stupendous conspiracy among the blacks to fall upon us unawares.” The editorial continued with a warning: “Let us always be on our guard, and grant no indulgences to the negro, but keep him strictly within his sphere.” [xliii]

One slave insurrection succeeded: a mutiny aboard the slave transport Creole in 1841. One black and one white were killed in the mutiny, after which the blacks forced the white navigator to sail to the British Bahamas. Most of the blacks escaped to freedom.[xliv]

Slave insurrections were most frequent where the black population was greatest.[xlv] The countries of the New World most plagued by insurrection had a high ratio of blacks to whites. In British Guinea, slaves were 90 percent of the population. Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, and the rest of the Caribbean had black majorities of over 80 percent.

For this reason, in the United States, slaveholders did their best to maintain white majorities. In 1860, blacks were a majority only in South Carolina and Mississippi, where their proportion ranged from 55 to 57 percent. Blacks approached half the population in Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia, and made up between 20 and 30 percent of the other slave states. No more slaves were being imported by this time. After what happened to Saint-Domingue, whites knew the dangers of a large black majority.[xlvi]

Blacks lynch a French soldier during the Haitian Revolution.

At the time of the 1739 Stono Rebellion, South Carolina whites were heavily outnumbered by slaves. In 1737, it was estimated that the colony could muster no more than 5,000 fighting men, as opposed to 22,000 slaves.[xlvii] At the time of Nat Turner’s rebellion, Southampton County, Virginia, had about 6,500 whites and 9,500 blacks.[xlviii]

As for weapons, large numbers of slaves had access to axes. Slaves who worked in the sugar fields carried knives large enough to decapitate a man with one blow, and every slave who worked in the tobacco fields carried a blade. Many slaves knew how to use firearms despite legal restrictions. As one former slave recalled, “culled folks been had guns all their life. They kept them hid.”[xlix] Planters often let favored, trusted slaves hunt with guns. Some slaves carried rifles and stood guard at plantations. Many of the bloodiest insurrections were led by favored, privileged slaves.

Why were there not more insurrections? One historian explains:

Even with some guns, the slaves faced overwhelming odds. The whites . . . of the plantation districts, the upcountry, and the backcountry raised their sons to shoot. Sharpshooting and extraordinary feats with arms became elementary marks of manhood. The white population constituted one great militia — fully and even extravagantly armed, tough and resourceful.[l]

Southern settlers and militiamen could also count on military garrisons,[li] there were few absentee landlords as was common on Saint-Domingue, and there was no vast hinterland to sustain maroon communities. The small-scale, dispersed nature of antebellum slavery also discouraged mass insurrections.[lii] Nevertheless, as one historian explains, “general risings of thousands, such as those in Jamaica, Demerara, and Saint-Domingue, or even of hundreds such as those in many countries, remained a possibility, which, however slim, rendered the hopes of a Gabriel Prosser, a Denmark Vesey, or a Nat Turner rational.”[liii]

Division among whites could spark an insurrection.[liv] The 1712 New York City uprising may have taken advantage of lingering divisions among white colonists that was related to the English Civil War and that led to Leisler’s Rebellion in New England. In South Carolina, hostile Indians and black maroons might help slaves rebel. Black slaves also knew about the national divisions between whites and how to exploit them. The slaves in the Stono insurrection knew the Spanish were offering freedom to runaway slaves from the English colonies.[lv]

Slaves were an effective weapon — a fifth column of sorts — in imperial intrigues. European powers frequently incited the slaves of rival colonies to revolt. In the fall of Saint-Domingue, “the ruling class split asunder” and Toussaint Louverture played the Spanish, French, and English against each another as he assembled the army that would eventually kill every Frenchman in Haiti.[lvi] Dessalines, the black leader responsible for the last mass murder of whites, was reportedly urged by the British to murder the French.[lvii]

Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 conspiracy took place against the backdrop of an undeclared war with France, leading Prosser to expect French help. The bitter political division between Federalists and the Republicans, especially over the French Revolution, “made a deep impression on the slaves, who may well have thought that they saw a white nation on the verge of civil war.”[lviii]

France had abolished slavery in 1794 (Napoleon reestablished it), and after Prosser’s conspiracy, an editorial in the Fredericksburg Herald declared: “[I]t is very certain from all that has been discovered, that this dreadful conspiracy originates with some vile French Jacobins, aided and abetted by some of our own profligate and abandoned democrats. Liberty and equality have brought the evil upon us.”[lix]

Some blacks, especially those who were free, had a sophisticated understanding of politics. Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 insurrection took place just after the protracted Missouri controversy. Vesey and his followers had carefully followed the debate. The conspirators had “firm evidence that antislavery sentiment was rising and that the slaveholders were being thrown on the defensive.”[lx] Vesey hoped that Northern whites would come to his aid.

Nat Turner made his move in 1831 after a tense constitutional convention in Virginia. The counties that would eventually become West Virginia demanded abolition and colonization (sending blacks back to Africa).[lxi] Ironically, Turner’s massacre united Southern whites as never before, as “whites of all classes effectively closed ranks against the slaves.”[lxii]

Nat Turner and His Confederates in Conference

There was widespread concern over the possibility of slave insurrection during colonial and American military campaigns, such as the war with the Dutch in Virginia in 1673, early Indian Wars in South Carolina in the late 1720s, the French and Indian War, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Texian Revolution, the Mexican War, and, of course, the War Between the States.[lxiii]

Fears of servile revolt were so serious that they affected Confederate troop movements.[lxiv] Throughout the war, there were steady reports of conspiracies and individual acts of sabotage, arson, and murder. Maroons dramatically increased their depredations. In several cases, white deserters and escaped Yankee prisoners formed biracial groups of bandits who preyed on lightly-defended Southerners while the Confederate Army was away fighting.[lxv]

According to James Gilmore, a wealthy merchant and emancipationist, in 1860 there was a large secret society of insurrectionary slaves in South Carolina. One told Gilmore that the South would be defeated in the coming War: “‘[C]ause you see dey’ll fight wid only one hand. When dey fight de Norf wid de right hand, dey’ll hev to hold de nigga wid de leff [sic].”[lxvi] Frederick Olmsted said that “any great event having the slightest bearing upon the question of emancipation is known to produce an ‘unwholesome excitement’” among the slaves.

On some occasions, unusual events that had no apparent connection with slavery were interpreted by blacks as harbingers of emancipation.[lxvii] The “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” campaign of 1840, in which each side denounced the other as “abolitionist,” raised false hopes among blacks in Alabama.[lxviii]

Another common factor in many conspiracies was white abolitionist agitation. Nat Turner’s 1831 rampage was a turning point in antebellum America because Northern abolitionists, including radical clergymen, could plausibly be blamed for inspiring it.[lxix] In his December legislative message, Virginia Governor John Floyd hinted darkly that the plot was “not confined to the slaves,” and that the animating spirit “had its origin among, and emanated from, the Yankee population,” with the slaves learning abolitionist doctrine from “Yankee peddlers and traders.”[lxx]

Virginia Governor John Floyd

Governor Floyd had reason to believe this. “[H]orrified as Southern whites were by the uprising, some Northerners . . . could hardly suppress their satisfaction at what they took to be a justified rebellion against the horrendous institution of slavery.”[lxxi] As news of the Turner insurrection spread, so too did slave disturbances across the South. Governor Floyd was “fully convinced that every black preacher in the whole country east of the Blue Ridge, was in [on] the secret,” and that, “to the extent of the insurrection, I think it greater than will ever appear.”[lxxii]

Then-senator Jefferson Davis argued that servile insurrections were rarely initiated by blacks alone, but with the help of white abolitionists, and Southern authorities worked hard to prevent propaganda from reaching slaves.[lxxiii] In his seventh annual message in 1835, a year of many slave conspiracies, President Andrew Jackson demanded that Northern agitators stop sending propaganda to the South that was “calculated to stimulate them to insurrection and to produce all the horrors of servile war.”[lxxiv] With varying levels of certainty, authorities implicated whites in dozens of insurrectionary conspiracies, many of which involved mass slaughter.[lxxv]

An 1853 conspiracy in New Orleans that was said to have involved some 2,500 slaves was blamed on the activities of “malicious and fanatical” whites, “cutthroats in the name of liberty — murderers in the guise of philanthropy.”[lxxvi] In 1856, whites were implicated in a plot involving the slaves of three counties in southeastern Texas. In preparation for the bloodshed, the blacks “killed off all the dogs in the neighborhood” so they could not sound the alert.[lxxvii]

Southerners had good reason to blame egalitarian propaganda and even American Revolutionary war slogans about liberty and freedom.[lxxviii] In 1862, Bishop Elliot of Savannah, Georgia, wrote that after the War of Independence, the American people had:

declared war against all authority . . . . The reason of man was exalted to an impious degree and in the face not only of experience, but of the revealed Word of God, all men declared equal, and man was pronounced capable of self-government . . . . Two greater falsehoods could not have been announced, because the one struck at the whole constitution of civil society as it had ever existed, and because the other denied the Fall and corruption of man.

Southern leaders were aware of where Jeffersonian rhetoric could lead. To some, the Declaration of Independence “became but the mouthings of an irresponsible and dangerous fanatic, a ridiculous, high-sounding concoction of obvious absurdities.”[lxxix] Southern Federalists attacked the Republicans for their “French gospel of liberty, equality, and fraternity that the slaves would hear, interpret with deadly literalness, and rally around,” and it became increasingly common for whites to keep blacks far away from Fourth of July orations.[lxxx] Reverend C.F. Sturgis of South Carolina wrote that “their weak minds are liable to be led astray — the plainest things are likely to be perverted or exaggerated.”[lxxxi] It is probably no coincidence that the Fourth of July was often picked as the date to launch insurrections, or that Denmark Vesey had originally chosen Bastille Day.[lxxxii]

Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner all appealed to the Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.[lxxxiii]

Some white refugees from Saint-Domingue spread across the Caribbean, to the northern coast of South America, and to the American South, especially South Carolina and Louisiana. They brought slaves with them. Their slaves “had seen and heard much during the revolutionary conflagration, and everywhere they became carriers of new doctrines” and played a part in many insurrectionary conspiracies.[lxxxiv] In 1800, Representative Rutledge of South Carolina told Congress that the slaves had already heard “this newfangled French philosophy of liberty and equality.” In the aftermath of the Vesey conspiracy, Edwin Clifford Holland noted the rhetorical significance of the French Revolution: “Let it never be forgotten that our negroes are freely the Jacobins of the country that they are the Anarchists and the Domestic Enemy: the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.” [emphasis in the original] [lxxxv]

American abolitionists developed contacts with Haiti, and slaves looked to the black republic for inspiration. In the mid-19th century, slaves in Louisiana were heard singing revolutionary songs first heard during the fall of Saint-Domingue. Southern whites “were not amused by celebrations of Haitian independence, such as that staged in 1859 by free negro masons in St. Louis, Missouri — a slave state.”[lxxxvi]

Still, the history of attempted slave revolts is mostly a story of suicidal rebellions. Despite their political sophistication, uprisings usually culminated in nihilistic violence preceding inevitable failure. However, from another perspective, every servile insurrection succeeded by striking terror in the hearts of whites, who never forgot Saint-Domingue.

The American experiment in multiracial egalitarianism was doomed from the start. Even Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence arguably inspired slaves, was right when he wrote that the “two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”

[i] Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts (International Publishers, 1993): 155-61.

[ii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 163.

[iii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 374.

[iv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 141.

[v] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 143.

[vi] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 144, 147, 178, 189-90, 217-18, 281-82, 331, 353-54.

[vii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 145.

[viii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 143.

[ix] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 192.

[x] Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (LSU Press, 1992): 51.

[xi] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 72 Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 81-82, 91, 93.

[xii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 276-77.

[xiii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 68-69 Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 165, 171, 178-79, 191, 197, 206, 208, 217, 251, 258-59, 262, 266-67, 273, 277, 279, 280, 285, 288-90, 329, 335-36, 343, 345-46, 351-52.

[xiv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 163-64, 166-67, 169, 172-73, 175-76, 180-84, 197-201, 204, 210-11, 215-17, 231, 240-46, 248, 254, 257, 262-63, 266, 277-78, 283-84, 286-88, 290-91, 307, 311, 331-32, 336-37, 339-43, 346-48, 351, 353, 356 Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 129 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 451 Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 128-29.

[xv] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 36-37.

[xvi] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 35, 40-41, 43, 197.

[xvii] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 45.

[xviii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 41-42.

[xix] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 24, 26-27.

[xx] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 19.

[xxi] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 22.

[xxii] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 29-30.

[xxiii] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 51.

[xxiv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 219-26.

[xxv] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 63.

[xxvi] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 72.

[xxvii] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 67.

[xxviii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 43 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 451 Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 249-51 Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 67-68.

[xxix] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 8 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 452.

[xxx] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 104.

[xxxi] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 268-73.

[xxxii] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 106, 109.

[xxxiii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 268-73.

[xxxiv] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 110.

[xxxv] Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia (Baltimore: Lucas & Deaver, 1831).

[xxxvi] Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 452.

[xxxvii] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 117.

[xxxviii] Gray. The Confessions of Nat Turner.

[xli] Ibid. Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 452 Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 118-19.

[xlii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 299, 306-07.

[xliii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 334-35.

[xliv] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 14, 135, 137, 139-40, 144, 232-33.

[xlv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 114.

[xlvi] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 14-15.

[xlvii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 185 Walters, Kerry. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies: A Reference Guide (ABC-CLIO, 2015): 21.

[xlviii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 293.

[xlix] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 15-16.

[l] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 16-17.

[li] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 17.

[lii] Egerton, Douglas R. “Slave Resistance” in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas. Paquette, Robert L., & Smith, Mark M., Eds. (Oxford University Press, 2016): 447.

[liii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 8.

[liv] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 26 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 449.

[lv] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 42 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 448.

[lvi] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 22, 86.

[lvii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 105.

[lviii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 45.

[lix] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 204.

[lxi] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 45 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 448.

[lxii] Genovese. From Rebellion to Revolution, 27.

[lxiii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 202 Walters, Kerry. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 147.

[lxiv] Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 461.

[lxv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 359-67 Egerton, in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, 460.

[lxvi] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 357-58.

[lxvii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 79, 81.

[lxviii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 83.

[lxix] Walters, Kerry. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 242.

[lxx] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 303 Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 12.

[lxxi] Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 121.

[lxxii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 305.

[lxxiii] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 105.

[lxxiv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 109.

[lxxv] Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts, 94, 111, 232-34, 255-56, 279-80, 325-29, 333-34, 338, 344-46, 351, 354-57 Walters. American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies, 152.


This article shared 406 times since Wed Jan 24, 2018

"I've been describing it, like, the playwright does Roots meets The Wizard of Oz meets In Living Color. With a big gay love story between two African Americans right in the middle of everything," said leading man Breon Arzell, who plays Ron, a gay historian swept into a time-tripping odyssey where fact, fiction, romance and adventure collide.

Zig-zagging from the present day to antebellum south, "Insurrection" is a genre-defying epic centered on Ron's doctoral research into Nat Turner, the preacher/slave ( played by Christopher Jones ) who led a doomed uprising against slavery in 1831.

Like the blockbuster musical "Hamilton," "Insurrection" asks who gets to tell the stories of history. In O'Hara's drama, the story of Nat Turner—who he was, what he did and how he is remembered—looms large in Ron's discovery of both his thesis material and his own self-discovery. The setting notwithstanding, O'Hara's narrative digs deep—this is not a story wholly focused on the evils of slavery and the centuries-long struggle to overcome it.

"I see this as a story of hope," Arzell adds, "It's about bringing things to the light, and taking them out of the darkness."

Leaf through most mainstream history texts and you'll find precious little light shed on Nat Turner. Beyond William Styron's engrossing but fictionalized novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," the biography of the childhood preacher-turned-rebel leader remains largely unexplored in both popular culture and American history txts.

"We don't know more about Nat Turner because the very idea of Nat Turner is terrifying to many people," says director Wardell Julius Clark, "Turner is what happens when you disregard people's essential humanity. There's a reckoning. You can't rape and beat and starve someone and then expect them to lick your hand when you come around to pet them."

Turner's reckoning unfolded in 1831. A charismatic speaker since childhood, Turner gathered a group of slaves and free Blacks together and attempted to reclaim their lives. They unleashed havoc in Southampton County, Virginia, going from plantation to plantation, collecting arms and horses and leaving behind a trail of some 60 dead white people. The uprising was eventually crushed. In its aftermath, more than 100 Black people—many of them free and with no connection to the uprising—were killed. Turner hid for two months before he was caught and hanged.

"Insurrection" takes off when Ron's ancient great-great-great grandfather offers to take the young historian back in time to meet Nat Turner in person. With a mix of magical realism and kitchen-sink grittiness, the plot spirals through centuries to show how events in Turner's time reverberate through the centuries.

"We might not physically have the chains anymore, but they're still there in many respects. We're still living with the aftermath, the residuals of what happened hundreds of years ago," says Arzell, "Years and years of degradation and dehumanization, they manifest in many ways. Self-doubt is one, believing that you can't accomplish something. That's embedded in a lot of people, and it can be a very real barrier toward success.

"Colorism is another example," he continues, "The whole idea that lighter is more beautiful and dark is not—that's not something ( people of color ) came up with on their own. Colorist is within our own community, but we didn't put it there.

"There's a line in the play where Ron's grandfather talks about carrying the scars of our ancestors," Arzell concludes, "To some extent, we all carry those scars still."

The love story near the heart of Ron's narrative offers both hope and speaks to the enduring legacy of those scars, says Clark. "Ron is trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs in the world. The idea of going back in time and learning something about yourself and your own history—that's integral here. Ron learns to open up. That's important—We still have huge issues with homophobia in some communities, and we don't really talk about it.

"Especially in church communities there can be a deep-seated sense of homophobia. It's like, everybody knows the choir director might be gay, but no one wants to talk about it. With the love story in "Insurrection," we give light and a voice to something that's often hidden and problematic," Clark finishes, "The love story here, it's all part of ( the ) discovery when you accept who you really are and living in your truth."

This article shared 406 times since Wed Jan 24, 2018

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The novel is based on an extant document, the "confession" of Turner to the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray. [1] In the historical confessions, Turner claims to have been divinely inspired, charged with a mission from God to lead a slave uprising and destroy the white race.

Styron's ambitious novel attempts to imagine the character of Nat Turner it does not purport to describe accurately or authoritatively the events as they occurred. Some historians consider Gray's account of Turner's "confessions" to be told with prejudice, and recently one writer has alleged that Gray's account is itself a fabrication. [3]

The time is November, 1831. African American slave Nat Turner sits in a Virginia jail awaiting execution for his crimes. Nat led a slave rebellion which ended in the deaths of dozens of white people as well as many of his own closest friends. Thomas Gray, a smug, oily prosecuting attorney, urges Nat to "confess" his crimes and make peace with God. Nat begins to think back on his past life and tells the novel in a series of flashbacks.

Nat's first master was Samuel Turner, a wealthy Virginia aristocrat who believed in educating his slaves. Nat learned to read and write, and also became a skilled carpenter. Unfortunately, when he was still a child Nat's mother was brutally raped by an Irish overseer while the master was away. This traumatic experience gives Nat both a burning hatred of white people and a secret revulsion from women's bodies and the sexual act.

Samuel Turner has vaguely promised Nat his freedom, but through a series of misunderstandings Nat is sold instead to an impoverished preacher named Reverend Eppes. Eppes is a filthy, drooling homosexual who is obsessed with young boys, and he is determined to make Nat "pleasure" him at the earliest opportunity. Though Nat is not especially interested in young women at this point, he finds Eppes physically distasteful and shies away from physical contact. Discouraged, Eppes soon sells young Nat to a pair of cruel redneck farmers who brutally whip the frightened, timid slave and treat him like an animal. This intensifies his growing hostility towards whites.

After bouncing around different masters for a number of years, Nat finally ends up as the property of a decent, hard-working farmer named Travis. Travis allows Nat to do skilled work as a carpenter and to read his Bible and preach to other slaves. During his religious fasts deep in the deserted woods, Nat begins to have strange visions of black and white angels fighting in the sky. Gradually he comes to believe these visions mean he is to lead the black race in a holy war to destroy all whites.

Complications arise, however, when Nat meets Margaret Whitehead, the beautiful, vivacious daughter of a wealthy widow who lives nearby. Though her family owns many slaves, high-spirited Margaret opposes slavery and openly admires Nat's preaching. Gradually the two of them become friends, though Nat is haunted by the fear that if his plans succeed lovely Margaret must die.

With several loyal slaves behind him, Nat finally launches his rebellion in late August 1831. This is a time when most wealthy whites are away on vacation, which will make it easier for the slaves to seize weapons and attack the nearby town of Jerusalem. From the very beginning, however, Nat's rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat's leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army. And Nat himself, unexpectedly sickened by the sight of blood and the screams of his white victims, begins to doubt both his own mission and God's plan for his life.

The final crisis occurs as the slaves storm the Whitehead plantation. In a tragic twist, Margaret and her sisters have not gone away on vacation after all. Filled with unreasoning hatred, Will the axe-wielding maniac slays all the white women but Margaret, openly taunting Nat and daring him to prove his black manhood to the rest of the recruits. With a heavy heart, Nat grabs his sword and chases Margaret into a nearby field, where he slays her with great reluctance. As the breath leaves her body, the pure young maiden sighs her forgiveness for her unwilling executioner.

Back in the jail cell, lawyer Gray smugly announces that the hangman is ready to punish Nat for his crimes. As he concludes their final interview, he asks the failed black leader if he has any regrets for having caused so much suffering and death.

Despite defenses by notable African-American authors Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, the novel was strongly criticised by many black Americans. Styron's portrayal of a legendary black resistance leader as a reluctant warrior who bumbles every attack and fumbles his way to total defeat generated enormous resentment. No less offensive to many black readers was the narrator's flattering portrayal of many of the novel's slaveowners, such as the "saintly" Samuel Turner. The character of Margaret Whitehead, in particular, seemed to enrage black readers, as she is permitted to flirt with Nat and chatter on endlessly about her love for poor downtrodden blacks while remaining sunnily unaware of her own slaveowning status. For much of the novel Nat sighs over the slim, virginal blonde like a love-struck adolescent, while showing little or no interest in women of his own race.

Issues of class divided readers as well. While the white slaveowners in the novel, especially the wealthy ones, are represented as generous, courteous, and basically decent, poor whites are held up to ridicule as simpletons and deviants. Turner and his supporters (particularly the scene-stealing, scenery-chewing madman Will, who many readers saw as a thinly disguised version of black rock and roll pioneer Little Richard) are caricatured as disturbed, monstrous figures. Nat and his rival Will are both continually shown fantasizing about sexually assaulting white women. Critics took issue with Styron using the "myth of the black rapist", as portraying black men as prone to sexual violence against white women. Suspected sexual assault was a longstanding racist stereotype used as rhetorical justification for lynching black men. [4]

In order to address these concerns, ten black intellectuals wrote essays criticizing the work, collected in William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). [5] Elsewhere, historian Eugene D. Genovese defended Styron's right to imagine Turner as a fictional character.

Despite protests against the novel, Styron's work won critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut has Billy Pilgrim in a Manhattan radio studio amongst a group of literary critics there "to discuss whether the novel was dead or not." "One of them said that it would be a fine time to bury the novel now that a Virginian, one hundred years after Appomattox, had written Uncle Tom's Cabin" – a reference to Styron's novel.

Nat Turner launches massive insurrection in Virginia - HISTORY

Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, the week before Gabriel was hanged. While still a young child, Nat was overheard describing events that had happened before he was born. This, along with his keen intelligence, and other signs marked him in the eyes of his people as a prophet "intended for some great purpose." A deeply religious man, he "therefore studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped [him]self in mystery, devoting [his] time to fasting and praying."

In 1821, Turner ran away from his overseer, returning after thirty days because of a vision in which the Spirit had told him to "return to the service of my earthly master." The next year, following the death of his master, Samuel Turner, Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. Three years later, Nat Turner had another vision. He saw lights in the sky and prayed to find out what they meant. Then ". while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood and then I found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens."

On May 12, 1828, Turner had his third vision: "I 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. And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men and on the appearance of the sign. I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."

At the beginning of the year 1830, Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Thomas Moore's widow. His official owner was Putnum Moore, still a young child. Turner described Travis as a kind master, against whom he had no complaints.

Then, in February, 1831, there was an eclipse of the sun. Turner took this to be the sign he had been promised and confided his plan to the four men he trusted the most, Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. They decided to hold the insurrection on the 4th of July and began planning a strategy. However, they had to postpone action because Turner became ill.

On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. This was the final sign, and a week later, on August 21, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans. At 2:00 that morning, they set out to the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping. They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner's force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback.

By about mid-day on August 22, Turner decided to march toward Jerusalem, the closest town. By then word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites confronted by a group of militia, the rebels scattered, and Turner's force became disorganized. After spending the night near some slave cabins, Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but were repulsed. Several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then met the state and federal troops in final skirmish, in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels had stabbed, shot and clubbed at least 55 white people to death.

Nat Turner hid in several different places near the Travis farm, but on October 30 was discovered and captured. His "Confession," dictated to physician Thomas R. Gray, was taken while he was imprisoned in the County Jail. On November 5, Nat Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to execution. He was hanged, and then skinned, on November 11.

In total, the state executed 55 people, banished many more, and acquitted a few. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 200 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered by white mobs. In addition, slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the insurrection, and were subsequently tried and executed.

The state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery, but in a close vote decided to retain slavery and to support a repressive policy against black people, slave and free.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

In February 1831, four slaves in Southampton County, Virginia, went to a clandestine meeting called by an enslaved preacher named Nat Turner. When they got there, Turner told them the time had come to launch a slave revolt. All agreed. Over the next few months, the conspirators planned to launch the revolt on the Fourth of July, a date that implicitly invoked Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal.” As the day approached, however, Nat Turner fell ill. Independence Day passed without any noticeable unrest among the slaves.

Despite the surface appearance of calm, however, slavery was becoming an increasingly intractable problem in an age of revolution. Slave rebels had used the ideology of American and French revolutionaries in creating a second republic in the new world, Haiti. Also inspired by revolutionary ideology, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith outside Richmond, Virginia, had organized a conspiracy in 1800 that planned to capture Richmond’s armory and, if possible, Virginia’s governor, James Monroe. Another slave told his master about this conspiracy, allowing whites to quash it before it began. The largest slave revolt in U.S. history had occurred in Louisiana in 1811, when hundreds of slaves took up arms and headed for New Orleans. Two whites were killed before this revolt was brutally put down, resulting in the deaths of nearly ninety-five African Americans whether or not they were involved in the plot. In 1822, whites uncovered evidence that Denmark Vesey, a free black man in Charleston, South Carolina, was at the heart of a plan for scores of enslaved persons to revolt and perhaps flee to Haiti. Thirty-five enslaved persons were hanged and another thirty-one were transported out of South Carolina.

This 1888 sketch depicts the German Coast of Louisiana Uprising of 1811 led by Charles Deslondes, whose force grew to more than one hundred rebellious slaves. (credit: “On to Orleans: The Negro Insurrection” from The New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-18d2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

It is unknown how much the Southampton rebels knew about any of these earlier revolts or conspiracies, but they knew enough to intuit one thing. As one of them explained, “the negroes had frequently attempted, similar things, and confided their purpose to several, and that . . . it always leaked out.” So when Nat Turner approached his first four recruits with the idea of a slave revolt, they decided they would neither tell other slaves nor stockpile arms. Instead, they sought an answer to what seemed an insoluble problem: overcoming the whites’ advantages in numbers, organization, communication, and supplies. Their solution was to launch a surprise attack so bloody and stunning that news of the revolt would rouse Virginia’s enslaved population to rally to the rebel’s banner.

The rebels understood that the revolt would likely fail, but they were ready to die fighting for their freedom. One early recruit explained why he joined them: “his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him.” Nat Turner was as clear-eyed about the odds as the other recruits, but he had an additional reason to undertake what appeared to be a suicidal mission: He believed God wanted him to launch the revolt. Like many of his generation, Turner was a millennialist – he believed the end of time described in the Bible was at hand. According to Turner, God used nature to provide clues to what was about to happen. Thus, in August 1831, an unusual appearance of the sun (which a woman in Richmond described as being “as blue as any cloud you ever saw”) convinced Turner that the time to strike had come.

On Sunday, August 21, 1831, five conspirators gathered with two new recruits for a feast, at which they decided they would begin with a predawn attack against the farm where Nat Turner lived. Prodded by his own men, Turner struck the first blow. The rebels killed the entire family in their sleep, but on remembering “a little infant sleeping in a cradle,” they returned to finish the job. The rebels then attacked several farms near the starting point of the revolt, killing nearly all the whites and gathering slaves to join them. By Monday morning, August 22, they had turned toward Jerusalem, Southampton County’s seat. At each farm the rebels visited, they killed almost all the whites who had not fled. Turner himself killed one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he caught after she had evaded the other rebels. The highest toll occurred at Levi Waller’s farm. Waller hosted a school on his farm, and when word of the revolt reached him, he instructed the children to gather together. But the rebels arrived before he could prepare a defense and killed ten children and Waller’s wife.

For about eighteen hours, the rebels were unchecked. They killed at least fifty-five whites, making Nat Turner’s Rebellion the deadliest slave revolt in the history of the United States. But they were notably less successful in another task: recruiting fellow slaves. As they traveled east, Turner’s army gathered free black and enslaved men who lived on the farms they visited. Their number increased to as many as five dozen, but most refused to join the revolt, even at the largest plantations. And the rebels faced another problem. News of the revolt did not lead to the spontaneous uprising they hoped for. Most blacks in Southampton simply were not ready to risk their lives in a revolt, especially one that faced such long odds.

While the rebels were adding a few people at a time, whites quickly rallied from all directions. By the middle of the day on Monday, August 22, several armed white groups were in pursuit. One small force encountered the rebels at a farm just outside Jerusalem. After a brief skirmish, the whites retreated. The rebels set off in pursuit but were ambushed by a second group of armed whites who had been drawn to the sound of fighting. After this defeat, Turner’s army was reduced to about twenty men. After another defeat on Tuesday morning, August 23, 1831, Turner was separated from the remnant of his army. The revolt was over.

This 1831 depiction of Nat Turner’s Rebellion shows enslaved persons attacking men, women, and children, and a group of armed whites ending the revolt.

Whites from southern Virginia and parts of North Carolina regained control of Southampton within two days, but immediately after the revolt, whites throughout the country were on edge. As a result, they responded brutally. One newspaper editor who had travelled to Southampton County admitted that the white retribution was “hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the rebels.” Whites also reported using torture. Even enslaved persons who had helped whites were not necessarily safe. For instance, white interrogators had not believed one enslaved man, Hubbard, when he told them he had saved his mistress from the rebels. They were about to execute him when his mistress appeared and assured Hubbard’s tormentors his account was true.

Slaveholders in Southampton soon realized the danger of “an indiscriminate slaughter of the blacks who were suspected.” If any slaveholder could kill any enslaved person on a mere suspicion, the wealth embodied in slave property could disappear overnight. As a result, soon after the revolt, the military and political leaders turned their attention to preventing the lynching of suspected blacks. About three dozen blacks were killed without trial, violating even the pretense of a rule of law. But whites achieved the goal of the limiting the killing of enslaved persons because of their value as property. As Richard Eppes, a leader of the militia forces, later boasted, “I put an end to this inhumane butchery in two days.” Within a week, Eppes had formalized the prohibition on killing blacks by proclaiming martial law. In his declaration, he promised to prosecute any white who killed any enslaved person not actively resisting white authority.

By stopping the killing, white leaders ensured that the surviving rebels would be tried. The trials were by no means fair – the accused slaves were tried by an unsympathetic court of slaveholders – but the most remarkable thing about them was the protections the court offered the accused. Thirty enslaved persons and one free black were convicted, but a dozen of them escaped the gallows when the governor, following the recommendation of the court, commuted the sentences of those who had contributed little to the rebels’ cause. Others had their sentence commuted because they were young or reluctant rebels. In the end, Southampton executed eighteen enslaved persons and one free black.

Nat Turner himself remained at large until October 30, 1831, when he was finally captured and brought to the county seat of Southampton. While in jail awaiting trial, he spoke freely about the revolt, and local lawyer Thomas R. Gray approached him with a plan to take down his story. The Confessions of Nat Turner was published within weeks of Turner’s execution on November 11, 1831.

The title page of The Confessions of Nat Turner, an account of Turner’s life and motives for the rebellion, was published shortly after his execution.

Because the revolt reminded whites about the dangers of slavery, approximately two thousand Virginians petitioned their legislature to do something to end the practice. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, introduced a gradual emancipation bill that failed by a narrow margin. It was the last time Virginia would consider a proposal to gradually eliminate slavery until after the end of the Civil War. The Virginia assembly passed restrictions on free African Americans’ rights and religious practice. With this decision, a window of opportunity to abandon slavery in Virginia, and perhaps the rest of the upper South, was shut.

In 1832, Thomas R. Dew, a professor at the College of William and Mary, penned a review of the legislative debate in Virginia in which he argued against reform and said slavery was the proper foundation for a rightly ordered society. This line of thinking was taken up by later southern writers such as George Fitzhugh and politicians such as James Henry Hammond. They developed the new idea that slavery was a positive good, a position that put these southern “fire-eaters” (as pro-secession Southerners were labeled by northerners) in direct conflict with the abolitionists, who called for the immediate end of the immoral system of slavery.

Review Questions

1. Nat Turner is best characterized as

  1. a runaway slave who arrived in Southampton County, Virginia, intent on leading a slave revolt
  2. an enslaved preacher who led a revolt against slaveowners
  3. an enslaved man who led the fight for abolition in Virginia
  4. a free black man who encouraged local enslaved persons to revolt

2. Despite poor odds for success, what indication did Nat Turner say led him to believe the time was right to lead a slave rebellion?

  1. Several enslaved people independently came to Turner and whispered that they would join a revolt if he would lead it.
  2. He believed God used nature to give him a sign that the time had come.
  3. Unrest among slaves led many to be ready to risk everything to gain their freedom.
  4. Plantation owners throughout the South had gradually become much harsher in their treatment of enslaved workers by 1830.

3. When Nat Turner’s slave rebellion began in August 1831, the rebels killed

  1. men, women, children, and infants
  2. only exceptionally harsh overseers and plantation owners
  3. enslaved persons who did not join the revolt
  4. enslaved persons who threatened to inform plantation owners about the identity of the rebels

4. One major result of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia was

  1. the abolition of slavery in the state
  2. a law outlawing the import of more enslaved people
  3. the passage of legislation allowing slavery to disappear by attrition
  4. a debate in the legislature about whether to abolish slavery

5. Thomas Dew’s influence on the issue of slavery in Virginia came from his belief that

  1. slavery was immoral and needed to be abolished immediately
  2. slavery was immoral but should be eliminated gradually
  3. slavery was a moral good and needed to be preserved
  4. slaves were inferior

6. Which best describes the white response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion?

  1. Whites responded brutally, but after a few days, leaders were able to limit the retribution.
  2. Whites were relatively subdued at first, but as the extent of devastation became clear, they sought ever more brutal retribution.
  3. The white response was surprisingly mild.
  4. Whites sought vengeance however they could get it.

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain to what extent slave rebellions were successful in the South.
  2. Explain the impact of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on Virginia.

AP Practice Questions

“This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. . . . There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny?”

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Based on the excerpt, what attributes did Frederick Douglass believe were missing in America’s story up to that time?

  1. Courage and independence
  2. Hope, confidence, and success
  3. Inspiring stories of political freedom for some
  4. Wisdom, justice, and truth

2. Why does Douglass repeatedly use the word “your,” “your national independence”. . . “your political freedom”. . . “your great deliverance,” in this address to an audience he calls “fellow citizens”?

  1. He does not believe the nation is truly independent.
  2. He rejects the idea that all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  3. He sarcastically regards the Declaration of Independence as based on flawed principles.
  4. His choice of wording repeatedly reminds the audience that the freedom they celebrate does not extend to enslaved people.

Primary Sources

Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Baltimore, MD: Thomas R. Gray, 1831.

Suggested Resources

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: Columbia University, 1943.

Breen, Patrick H. The Land Shall Be Deluged with Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Watch the video: This Day in History Nat Turner Launches Massive Slave Revolt in Virginia August 21 (July 2022).


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