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The  Slave Rebellion of Gereral Nat Turner
Slaveowners in the United States  always       insisted that “their” slaves were content and obedient. But  research has       documented at least 250 revolts, both large and  small, in the U.S. during slavery times.       And much was done to hide  their existence. James Madison, the main author of the U.S.        Constitution, warned in 1774 that it was best that “such attempts should  be concealed       as well as suppressed.” One of the largest revolts  was led by the slave Nat Turner in       Southampton County, Virginia  during the summer of 1831. 
Nat       Turner was born on the  Virginia farm of Benjamin Turner on October 2, 1800. It is said        that his African-born mother so hated slavery that she wanted to kill  Nat at birth rather       than let him grow up in bondage. These were  times marked by an intensifying struggle over       slavery. Five days  after Nat’s birth, the slave leader Gabriel Posser was executed in        Richmond, the Virginia state capital. Posser, a blacksmith, had  assembled hundreds of       slaves on his master’s estate on August 30,  1800. He planned to recruit Catawba Indians       and poor whites, and  capture Richmond. Sudden rain and flash floods caused their defeat. 
When Nat was 11 years old, 500  slaves rose up on the Andry       plantation in Louisiana. They marched  from plantation to plantation gaining strength,       until they were  defeated by the U.S. Army. 
When Nat was 22, a Black freeman  named Denmark Vesey organized a       conspiracy to seize Charleston,  South Carolina, the sixth largest city in the U.S. His        organization involved thousands of slaves who stockpiled weapons.  Unfortunately, an       informer betrayed the conspiracy. Thirty-five  people, including Vesey, were hanged. To       suppress news of this  conspiracy, the authorities even destroyed the records of the trial. 
By 1830, tobacco farming had  exhausted the soil of Virginia. As       Virginia plantations went  bankrupt, many slaveowners moved to Georgia, Mississippi or        Alabama–where vast lands had recently been stolen from the Creeks,  Cherokees and other       Native people. Virginia slaves were often  “sold down the river” to carve the new       cotton plantations out of  southern forests. Slave families were broken up. Discontent was        intense. 
The Prophet of Cross Keys
“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.”Nat Turner’s description of his 1828 vision
Nat Turner displayed remarkable  abilities from an early age. He       taught himself to read and  conducted experiments in the manufacture of gunpowder, paper       and  sand-cast moldings. Even when he was a small child, fellow slaves came  to him for help       planning secret activities. 
Nat believed he was destined for  some great mission. To prepare       himself, he refused to touch  tobacco, money or liquor and spent much time fasting and        meditating. He had a reputation as a holy man–which played a role in his  ability to       organize people. 
Nat Turner had a series of vivid  visions, which he believed revealed       his mission–to lead slaves in a  war for freedom. He expected a final sign telling him       when “I  should rise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own        weapons.” 
Nat wanted to avoid the betrayal  that exposed Vesey’s conspiracy. He       chose an inner circle of only  four disciples–Henry Porter, Hark Travis, Nelson Williams       and  Samuel Francis–and even they were not told all his plans. The group  developed wide       contacts among small farms of Southampton, where  slaveowners typically had three or four       slaves. Nat traveled  preaching, learning about the roads and identifying potential        recruits. He filled pages with maps and plans–often written in his own  blood–using       special hieroglyphs that, even after his death, the  slavemasters could not decipher. 
On August 13, 1831, Nat Turner saw a  black dot move across the sun.       He decided that it was time for  Black folks to go on the move. “The seal was lifted       from my lips.”  He told his core supporters to meet on Sunday, August 21, by Cabin        Pond in the Cross Keys district of Southampton. 
Lightning Strikes
On the appointed day, six men  gathered by the pond–Nat’s four       tested supporters, plus two new  recruits. They ate barbeque and drank apple brandy as they       waited.  Late in the afternoon, after Nat arrived, the group discussed things  deeply and       seriously. Could they win? Were the risks worth it? Nat  questioned one of the new recruits       closely. Will was a tall,  powerful man, whose back was a mass of scars from whippings.       Will  told Nat that his wife had recently been sold to a slave trader–and that  he was       willing to die for freedom. 
 Morale was high, their resolve was fierce. General Nat laid out his plan: They  would strike hard and fast that       night–marching toward the county  seat at Jerusalem. Along the way, they would kill every       slaveowner  they could find–regardless of age or sex–to stampede slaveowners out of  the       county in panic. They wanted no one left alive during their  raids who could sound an alarm       or provide intelligence to the  slaveowners’ armed forces. They planned to gather arms,       supplies  and especially new recruits along the way. They expected the slaves of  Virginia       to rally to their cause. 
Slaveowners would later report that no specific incidents       drove these men to act and there was no sign that the  conspiracy was motivated by desire       for revenge against specific slavemasters and overseers. The slaveowners tried to       imagine how  the slaves intended to escape–by fleeing North or by seizing ships in        Norfolk? None of these speculations added up–and the southern  newspapers insisted that       this uprising was simply an insane act of  murderous fanaticism. 
In fact, it was nothing of the kind.  It was a deliberate, planned       revolutionary uprising–an attempt by  slaves to liberate themselves by class warfare that       would  overthrow the slaveowners. 
Nat Turner was not looking for escape. He had already       successfully escaped once, but (to the amazement of other  slaves) had voluntarily returned       to his master so he could  continue his mission. Nat Turner expected to seize Jerusalem’s        arsenals and rally all the slaves of the county to his side. Southampton  was, by then, 60       percent Black. It is believed that he expected  to retreat into the nearby Dismal Swamp and       wage an expanding  guerrilla war from that base. 
This plan involved tremendous daring  and deep faith in the masses of       slaves. The state of Virginia,  like most slave states, was an armed camp. The slaveowners’       white  militias had 100,000 part-time soldiers. Nat’s forces started with only  one hatchet       and a broadax. 
At 10 p.m., they moved out of their  sanctuary and entered the home       of Joseph Travis–whose papers said  he owned Nat Turner. Nat Turner struck the first blow       with the  hatchet. And Will finished the killing with the broadax. They took arms  and       horses, and rode into the night. 
The slave rebels arrived at a  slaveowner’s compound at a full       gallop, completely unexpected, and  swiftly killed all the slaveowners. No mercy was shown.       Then they  set out to explain their uprising to the slaves. At almost every stop,  slaves       joined General Nat and his cause. They would leave with  more fighters, more horses,       muskets (mostly loaded with birdshot),  swords, and any other weapons at hand. A letter       later reported:  “Their banner was a red cross on a white field. Some of the wretches        wore red caps, and other had their hats ornamented with red bands of  various       materials.” 
Through those dark, early hours of  August 22, General Nat’s forces       grew as he had planned–first a  dozen, and then 30 and then 60, and perhaps 80. He divided       his  fighters into two units. The most resolute 10 or 15, including Will,  were given the       horses, to ride up rapidly on the farm houses and  kill the slaveowners. Nat took his post       at the rear with a second  contingent including those on foot. They would arrive running       soon  after the farmhouses had been taken, discuss the revolt with new  recruits and go on       to plan the next operation. 
Two reports reveal their discipline  and class consciousness: First,       no woman was sexually abused  during the revolt. And second, though they showed no mercy       toward  any slaveowners, they spared a family of poor white farmers, who Turner  believed       “thought no better of themselves than they did of the  Negroes.” 

Battle
At dawn bodies were discovered and  word went out–creating an       instant panic. Slaveowners simply left  their farms–often in the hands of their slaves.       Armed groups of  whites started to form. At that point, the slave rebels were approaching        the county seat in Jerusalem, intent on seizing the arsenal and  supplies there. 
Monday afternoon Nat sent fighters  to one last farm, Parker’s Farm,       for recruits before advancing on  Jerusalem, only three miles away. A rear guard of Nat’s       rebels  were guarding the Parker’s gate and suddenly came under attack from 18  whites with       guns. Nat rushed to the scene with his main force.  This was a decisive moment. Nat rallied       his men and led a charge  that scattered the whites. As they pursued the whites over a       hill,  they found them reinforced by a unit of militia. In the firefight that  followed, a       core of 20 men rallied to Nat, but many of the rest  were scattered. Nat realized that he       could not take Jerusalem  without regrouping. He moved on through the countryside–though       by  now most farms they reached were deserted. 
It is not known how many slaves were  wandering the countryside       trying to hook up with Nat’s forces–but  that night, at Major Ridley’s plantation, at       least 20 new  recruits arrived, bringing Nat’s forces to 40. Even though his forces  were       growing again, at this point Nat had lost the initiative and  the element of surprise.       Armed forces of the system were now  pouring into the county seat–and three companies of       federal troops  with artillery were advancing from Fort Monroe. Jerusalem had become        impossible to seize. 
That next Tuesday morning, Nat’s  forces fought several skirmishes.       Again his men fought well, but  they were exhausted. They were also very low on ammunition       and had  started loading gravel into their guns. In the last battle, they faced a  force of       over 100 armed men. Will died, reportedly leaving three  whites dead at his feet. His last       words were said to be “Bury me  with my ax.” 
By midday, the slave rebels had been  dispersed into smaller groups       of three or four–still moving  through the countryside, trying to regroup or escape.       Turner  returned to Cabin Pond, hoping his forces would join him there. No one  made it. The       revolt had lasted 48 hours. The fighters had killed  about 60 slaveowners–and had shaken       the whole system to its core.  Nat dug a hole under a pile of fence rails and went into       hiding. 
Trying to Smother the Fire

“Historically, all  reactionary forces on the verge of         extinction invariably conduct  a last desperate struggle against the revolutionary         forces.”



Mao Tsetung, the Red Book

“The brightest and  best men were killed in Nat’s time. Such         ones are always  suspected. All the colored folks were afraid to pray in the time of the          old Prophet Nat. There was no law about it; but the whites  reported it round among         themselves that, if a note was heard, we  should have some dreadful punishment; and after         that, the low  whites would fall upon any slaves they heard praying, or singing a hymn,  and         often killed them before their masters or mistresses could  get to them.”



Charity Bowery, who was a slave in North Carolina during 1831

“Slaves were  whipped, hung, and cut down with swords in the         streets, if found  away from their quarters after dark. The whole city was in the utmost          confusion and dismay; and a dark cloud of terrific blackness,  seemed to hang over the         heads of the whites…. Great numbers of  the slaves were locked in the prison, and many         were `half hung,’  as it was termed; that is, they were suspended to some limb of a tree,          with a rope about their necks, so adjusted as to not quite  strangle them, and then they         were pelted by men and boys with  rotten eggs.”



Henry Brown, who escaped slavery in Richmond, Virginia

“And that servant  which knew his lord’s will, and prepared         not himself, neither  did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”



Luke 12:47, verse often quoted by slaveowners

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our         nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”



Slaveowner, after Nat Turner’s revolt
In the weeks that followed, the  authorities carried out an intense       and brutal terror aimed at the  slaves. Militia came from neighboring counties. Federal       troops and  artillery arrived. Marines from Norfolk marched through the        countryside–showing that the federal government firmly backed the  counterrevolution. 
On August 31, the Southampton county  court convened to try the       captured rebels of General Nat’s army.  Sixteen were executed. 
Everywhere, slaves were reported to  be surly and unruly. Slaveowners       were terrified that Nat Turner’s  revolt would be followed by more uprisings–especially       because  General Nat himself was uncaptured, and no one knew if he still had an  armed       force. Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, niece of George Washington, said  that to slaveowners, slave       revolt appeared to be “a smothered  volcano–we know not when, or where, the flame       will burst forth,  but we know that death in the most horrid form threatens us.” 
The slaveowners lashed out in  Dixieland’s infamous lynching       tradition. Bands of armed men  descended on the slave shacks. Many hundreds of Black       people–both  freemen and slaves–were brutalized and executed, not just in Southampton  but       in all the surrounding counties and states from Maryland to  Georgia. In many towns and       rural districts, every Black home was  searched. Slaves everywhere were told that if they       dared another  revolt, every single slave–adult or child–would be systematically       murdered. The slaveowners’ bloody message: submit or die. 
The Richmond Whig reports  that “men were tortured to       death, burned, maimed and subjected to  nameless atrocities. The overseers were called upon       to point out  any slaves whom they distrusted, and if any tried to escape they were  shot       down.” 
One early historian, James Wells  Brown, reports that a slaveowner,       Captain Harris, had been saved  from Nat Turner’s fighters by a slave Jim, believed to be       the  Captain’s half-brother. Afterwards Jim refused to join Captain Harris in  hunting down       escaped rebels. Jim said they were only men, like  him, who wanted to be free. Harris       reportedly drew his gun and  shot Jim dead on the spot. 
Slaves were tortured to gather  information about plots for       revolt–including General Nat’s wife  (whose name was not recorded). In North Carolina,       dozens of slaves  were jailed, tortured and executed for plotting revolt in the counties  of       Duplin, Cape Fear and Pedee River. A letter from Raleigh, North  Carolina, September 5,       1831 said, “Yesterday, every free negro in  the city, without exception was arrested       and underwent an  examination before the Committee of Vigilance constituted at our town        meeting.” 
New laws were imposed. Slaves were  forbidden to meet in groups of       more than five, except for work.  There were new and intense efforts to forbid teaching       slaves to  read, and Black preachers were forbidden to travel and preach. Several  states       considered laws against the interstate trade in slaves–so  that no Virginia slaves could       bring the “infection” of revolt.  Alabama announced it would hang anyone caught       with revolutionary  abolitionist literature. Georgia offered a $500 reward for anyone who        would kidnap the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and  bring him to that state       for trial and execution. One Virginia  legislator said, “We have, as far as possible,       closed every avenue  by which light might enter their minds. If you could extinguish the        capacity to see the light, our work would be completed; they would  then be on a level with       the beasts of the field, and we should be  safe!” 
The Death of the Prophet

“To die for the people is heavier than Mount Tai.”



Mao Tsetung
“The calm,  deliberate composure with which he spoke of his         late deeds and  intentions,…clothed in rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise          his manacled hands to heaven; with a spirit soaring above the  attributes of man; I looked         on him and my blood curdled in my  veins.”T.R. Gray, after interrogating Nat Turner, November 1931

On October 30, Nat Turner  surrendered in Cross Keys after two months       in hiding and was  brought in chains to Jerusalem. A lawyer, T.R. Gray, interrogated        him–producing a document called The Confessions of Nat Turner, containing many       details of the revolt. 
In court, Nat Turner pled “Not  guilty”–saying he felt no       guilt. On November 5 he was convicted of  insurrection. On November 11, he walked to the       hanging tree  without any signs of fear, refused to speak last words, and was  executed. The       heirs of his owner were given $375 after his  execution –apparently what the slave-state       of Virginia thought  this heroic leader was worth. His body was cut up by the oppressors. 
All the counterrevolutionary terror  of the slaveowners could not       save their system. Though Nat  Turner’s revolt ended in defeat–it had a huge impact.       Millions,  North and South, could see that slaves were not, in fact, content in        bondage–but were straining against the most brutal conditions. The  most radical activists       of the abolitionist movement looked for  ways to encourage and support future slave       insurrections. Within  30 years, the country would be gripped by a great civil war in which        the revolutionary task of abolishing slavery would finally be carried  out, by force of       arms. 
Nat Turner’s memory and spirit lived on among the slaves and free       Blacks. In the shacks of slave row, people sang: 

“And your name it might be Caesar sure, And got you cannon can shoot a mile or more, But you can’t keep the world from moverin round Nor ol’ Nat Turner from gainin ground.”


Sources 
Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion,  by Herbert Aptheker,             (including Nat Turner’s “1831  Confessions” recorded by the lawyer Thomas R. Gray.),              Evergreen, 1968 
Nat Turner, edited by Eric Foner, Prentice-Hall, 1971 
Before the Mayflower–A History of Black America, by Lerone             Bennett, Jr, Penguin Books, 1983 
A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, by             Howard Zinn, HarperCollins, 1995 
Breaking the Chains–African-American Slave Resistance, by             William Loren Katz, Macmillan Publishing, 1990
A valuable online source is Chickenbones which has gathered a rich archive of materials on Nat Turner.

The  Slave Rebellion of Gereral Nat Turner

Slaveowners in the United States always insisted that “their” slaves were content and obedient. But research has documented at least 250 revolts, both large and small, in the U.S. during slavery times. And much was done to hide their existence. James Madison, the main author of the U.S. Constitution, warned in 1774 that it was best that “such attempts should be concealed as well as suppressed.” One of the largest revolts was led by the slave Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia during the summer of 1831.

Nat Turner was born on the Virginia farm of Benjamin Turner on October 2, 1800. It is said that his African-born mother so hated slavery that she wanted to kill Nat at birth rather than let him grow up in bondage. These were times marked by an intensifying struggle over slavery. Five days after Nat’s birth, the slave leader Gabriel Posser was executed in Richmond, the Virginia state capital. Posser, a blacksmith, had assembled hundreds of slaves on his master’s estate on August 30, 1800. He planned to recruit Catawba Indians and poor whites, and capture Richmond. Sudden rain and flash floods caused their defeat.

When Nat was 11 years old, 500 slaves rose up on the Andry plantation in Louisiana. They marched from plantation to plantation gaining strength, until they were defeated by the U.S. Army.

When Nat was 22, a Black freeman named Denmark Vesey organized a conspiracy to seize Charleston, South Carolina, the sixth largest city in the U.S. His organization involved thousands of slaves who stockpiled weapons. Unfortunately, an informer betrayed the conspiracy. Thirty-five people, including Vesey, were hanged. To suppress news of this conspiracy, the authorities even destroyed the records of the trial.

By 1830, tobacco farming had exhausted the soil of Virginia. As Virginia plantations went bankrupt, many slaveowners moved to Georgia, Mississippi or Alabama–where vast lands had recently been stolen from the Creeks, Cherokees and other Native people. Virginia slaves were often “sold down the river” to carve the new cotton plantations out of southern forests. Slave families were broken up. Discontent was intense.


The Prophet of Cross Keys

“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.”

Nat Turner’s description
of his 1828 vision

Nat Turner displayed remarkable abilities from an early age. He taught himself to read and conducted experiments in the manufacture of gunpowder, paper and sand-cast moldings. Even when he was a small child, fellow slaves came to him for help planning secret activities.

Nat believed he was destined for some great mission. To prepare himself, he refused to touch tobacco, money or liquor and spent much time fasting and meditating. He had a reputation as a holy man–which played a role in his ability to organize people.

Nat Turner had a series of vivid visions, which he believed revealed his mission–to lead slaves in a war for freedom. He expected a final sign telling him when “I should rise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”

Nat wanted to avoid the betrayal that exposed Vesey’s conspiracy. He chose an inner circle of only four disciples–Henry Porter, Hark Travis, Nelson Williams and Samuel Francis–and even they were not told all his plans. The group developed wide contacts among small farms of Southampton, where slaveowners typically had three or four slaves. Nat traveled preaching, learning about the roads and identifying potential recruits. He filled pages with maps and plans–often written in his own blood–using special hieroglyphs that, even after his death, the slavemasters could not decipher.

On August 13, 1831, Nat Turner saw a black dot move across the sun. He decided that it was time for Black folks to go on the move. “The seal was lifted from my lips.” He told his core supporters to meet on Sunday, August 21, by Cabin Pond in the Cross Keys district of Southampton.

Lightning Strikes

On the appointed day, six men gathered by the pond–Nat’s four tested supporters, plus two new recruits. They ate barbeque and drank apple brandy as they waited. Late in the afternoon, after Nat arrived, the group discussed things deeply and seriously. Could they win? Were the risks worth it? Nat questioned one of the new recruits closely. Will was a tall, powerful man, whose back was a mass of scars from whippings. Will told Nat that his wife had recently been sold to a slave trader–and that he was willing to die for freedom.

 Morale was high, their resolve was fierce.



General Nat laid out his plan: They would strike hard and fast that night–marching toward the county seat at Jerusalem. Along the way, they would kill every slaveowner they could find–regardless of age or sex–to stampede slaveowners out of the county in panic. They wanted no one left alive during their raids who could sound an alarm or provide intelligence to the slaveowners’ armed forces. They planned to gather arms, supplies and especially new recruits along the way. They expected the slaves of Virginia to rally to their cause.

Slaveowners would later report that no specific incidents drove these men to act and there was no sign that the conspiracy was motivated by desire for revenge against specific slavemasters and overseers. The slaveowners tried to imagine how the slaves intended to escape–by fleeing North or by seizing ships in Norfolk? None of these speculations added up–and the southern newspapers insisted that this uprising was simply an insane act of murderous fanaticism.

In fact, it was nothing of the kind. It was a deliberate, planned revolutionary uprising–an attempt by slaves to liberate themselves by class warfare that would overthrow the slaveowners.

Nat Turner was not looking for escape. He had already successfully escaped once, but (to the amazement of other slaves) had voluntarily returned to his master so he could continue his mission. Nat Turner expected to seize Jerusalem’s arsenals and rally all the slaves of the county to his side. Southampton was, by then, 60 percent Black. It is believed that he expected to retreat into the nearby Dismal Swamp and wage an expanding guerrilla war from that base.

This plan involved tremendous daring and deep faith in the masses of slaves. The state of Virginia, like most slave states, was an armed camp. The slaveowners’ white militias had 100,000 part-time soldiers. Nat’s forces started with only one hatchet and a broadax.

At 10 p.m., they moved out of their sanctuary and entered the home of Joseph Travis–whose papers said he owned Nat Turner. Nat Turner struck the first blow with the hatchet. And Will finished the killing with the broadax. They took arms and horses, and rode into the night.

The slave rebels arrived at a slaveowner’s compound at a full gallop, completely unexpected, and swiftly killed all the slaveowners. No mercy was shown. Then they set out to explain their uprising to the slaves. At almost every stop, slaves joined General Nat and his cause. They would leave with more fighters, more horses, muskets (mostly loaded with birdshot), swords, and any other weapons at hand. A letter later reported: “Their banner was a red cross on a white field. Some of the wretches wore red caps, and other had their hats ornamented with red bands of various materials.”

Through those dark, early hours of August 22, General Nat’s forces grew as he had planned–first a dozen, and then 30 and then 60, and perhaps 80. He divided his fighters into two units. The most resolute 10 or 15, including Will, were given the horses, to ride up rapidly on the farm houses and kill the slaveowners. Nat took his post at the rear with a second contingent including those on foot. They would arrive running soon after the farmhouses had been taken, discuss the revolt with new recruits and go on to plan the next operation.

Two reports reveal their discipline and class consciousness: First, no woman was sexually abused during the revolt. And second, though they showed no mercy toward any slaveowners, they spared a family of poor white farmers, who Turner believed “thought no better of themselves than they did of the Negroes.”



Battle

At dawn bodies were discovered and word went out–creating an instant panic. Slaveowners simply left their farms–often in the hands of their slaves. Armed groups of whites started to form. At that point, the slave rebels were approaching the county seat in Jerusalem, intent on seizing the arsenal and supplies there.

Monday afternoon Nat sent fighters to one last farm, Parker’s Farm, for recruits before advancing on Jerusalem, only three miles away. A rear guard of Nat’s rebels were guarding the Parker’s gate and suddenly came under attack from 18 whites with guns. Nat rushed to the scene with his main force. This was a decisive moment. Nat rallied his men and led a charge that scattered the whites. As they pursued the whites over a hill, they found them reinforced by a unit of militia. In the firefight that followed, a core of 20 men rallied to Nat, but many of the rest were scattered. Nat realized that he could not take Jerusalem without regrouping. He moved on through the countryside–though by now most farms they reached were deserted.

It is not known how many slaves were wandering the countryside trying to hook up with Nat’s forces–but that night, at Major Ridley’s plantation, at least 20 new recruits arrived, bringing Nat’s forces to 40. Even though his forces were growing again, at this point Nat had lost the initiative and the element of surprise. Armed forces of the system were now pouring into the county seat–and three companies of federal troops with artillery were advancing from Fort Monroe. Jerusalem had become impossible to seize.

That next Tuesday morning, Nat’s forces fought several skirmishes. Again his men fought well, but they were exhausted. They were also very low on ammunition and had started loading gravel into their guns. In the last battle, they faced a force of over 100 armed men. Will died, reportedly leaving three whites dead at his feet. His last words were said to be “Bury me with my ax.”

By midday, the slave rebels had been dispersed into smaller groups of three or four–still moving through the countryside, trying to regroup or escape. Turner returned to Cabin Pond, hoping his forces would join him there. No one made it. The revolt had lasted 48 hours. The fighters had killed about 60 slaveowners–and had shaken the whole system to its core. Nat dug a hole under a pile of fence rails and went into hiding.

Trying to Smother the Fire

“Historically, all reactionary forces on the verge of extinction invariably conduct a last desperate struggle against the revolutionary forces.”

Mao Tsetung, the Red Book

“The brightest and best men were killed in Nat’s time. Such ones are always suspected. All the colored folks were afraid to pray in the time of the old Prophet Nat. There was no law about it; but the whites reported it round among themselves that, if a note was heard, we should have some dreadful punishment; and after that, the low whites would fall upon any slaves they heard praying, or singing a hymn, and often killed them before their masters or mistresses could get to them.”

Charity Bowery, who was a slave
in North Carolina during 1831

“Slaves were whipped, hung, and cut down with swords in the streets, if found away from their quarters after dark. The whole city was in the utmost confusion and dismay; and a dark cloud of terrific blackness, seemed to hang over the heads of the whites…. Great numbers of the slaves were locked in the prison, and many were `half hung,’ as it was termed; that is, they were suspended to some limb of a tree, with a rope about their necks, so adjusted as to not quite strangle them, and then they were pelted by men and boys with rotten eggs.”

Henry Brown, who escaped slavery
in Richmond, Virginia

“And that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

Luke 12:47, verse often
quoted by slaveowners

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”

Slaveowner, after Nat Turner’s revolt

In the weeks that followed, the authorities carried out an intense and brutal terror aimed at the slaves. Militia came from neighboring counties. Federal troops and artillery arrived. Marines from Norfolk marched through the countryside–showing that the federal government firmly backed the counterrevolution.

On August 31, the Southampton county court convened to try the captured rebels of General Nat’s army. Sixteen were executed.

Everywhere, slaves were reported to be surly and unruly. Slaveowners were terrified that Nat Turner’s revolt would be followed by more uprisings–especially because General Nat himself was uncaptured, and no one knew if he still had an armed force. Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, niece of George Washington, said that to slaveowners, slave revolt appeared to be “a smothered volcano–we know not when, or where, the flame will burst forth, but we know that death in the most horrid form threatens us.”

The slaveowners lashed out in Dixieland’s infamous lynching tradition. Bands of armed men descended on the slave shacks. Many hundreds of Black people–both freemen and slaves–were brutalized and executed, not just in Southampton but in all the surrounding counties and states from Maryland to Georgia. In many towns and rural districts, every Black home was searched. Slaves everywhere were told that if they dared another revolt, every single slave–adult or child–would be systematically murdered. The slaveowners’ bloody message: submit or die.

The Richmond Whig reports that “men were tortured to death, burned, maimed and subjected to nameless atrocities. The overseers were called upon to point out any slaves whom they distrusted, and if any tried to escape they were shot down.”

One early historian, James Wells Brown, reports that a slaveowner, Captain Harris, had been saved from Nat Turner’s fighters by a slave Jim, believed to be the Captain’s half-brother. Afterwards Jim refused to join Captain Harris in hunting down escaped rebels. Jim said they were only men, like him, who wanted to be free. Harris reportedly drew his gun and shot Jim dead on the spot.

Slaves were tortured to gather information about plots for revolt–including General Nat’s wife (whose name was not recorded). In North Carolina, dozens of slaves were jailed, tortured and executed for plotting revolt in the counties of Duplin, Cape Fear and Pedee River. A letter from Raleigh, North Carolina, September 5, 1831 said, “Yesterday, every free negro in the city, without exception was arrested and underwent an examination before the Committee of Vigilance constituted at our town meeting.”

New laws were imposed. Slaves were forbidden to meet in groups of more than five, except for work. There were new and intense efforts to forbid teaching slaves to read, and Black preachers were forbidden to travel and preach. Several states considered laws against the interstate trade in slaves–so that no Virginia slaves could bring the “infection” of revolt. Alabama announced it would hang anyone caught with revolutionary abolitionist literature. Georgia offered a $500 reward for anyone who would kidnap the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and bring him to that state for trial and execution. One Virginia legislator said, “We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light might enter their minds. If you could extinguish the capacity to see the light, our work would be completed; they would then be on a level with the beasts of the field, and we should be safe!”

The Death of the Prophet

“To die for the people is heavier than Mount Tai.”

Mao Tsetung

“The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions,…clothed in rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven; with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”

T.R. Gray, after interrogating
Nat Turner, November 1931

On October 30, Nat Turner surrendered in Cross Keys after two months in hiding and was brought in chains to Jerusalem. A lawyer, T.R. Gray, interrogated him–producing a document called The Confessions of Nat Turner, containing many details of the revolt.

In court, Nat Turner pled “Not guilty”–saying he felt no guilt. On November 5 he was convicted of insurrection. On November 11, he walked to the hanging tree without any signs of fear, refused to speak last words, and was executed. The heirs of his owner were given $375 after his execution –apparently what the slave-state of Virginia thought this heroic leader was worth. His body was cut up by the oppressors.

All the counterrevolutionary terror of the slaveowners could not save their system. Though Nat Turner’s revolt ended in defeat–it had a huge impact. Millions, North and South, could see that slaves were not, in fact, content in bondage–but were straining against the most brutal conditions. The most radical activists of the abolitionist movement looked for ways to encourage and support future slave insurrections. Within 30 years, the country would be gripped by a great civil war in which the revolutionary task of abolishing slavery would finally be carried out, by force of arms.

Nat Turner’s memory and spirit lived on among the slaves and free Blacks. In the shacks of slave row, people sang:

“And your name it might be Caesar sure,
And got you cannon can shoot a mile or more,
But you can’t keep the world from moverin round
Nor ol’ Nat Turner from gainin ground.”

Sources

  • Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, by Herbert Aptheker, (including Nat Turner’s “1831 Confessions” recorded by the lawyer Thomas R. Gray.), Evergreen, 1968 
  • Nat Turner, edited by Eric Foner, Prentice-Hall, 1971 
  • Before the Mayflower–A History of Black America, by Lerone Bennett, Jr, Penguin Books, 1983 
  • A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, by Howard Zinn, HarperCollins, 1995 
  • Breaking the Chains–African-American Slave Resistance, by William Loren Katz, Macmillan Publishing, 1990
  • A valuable online source is Chickenbones which has gathered a rich archive of materials on Nat Turner.
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