August 13, 1831: The Slave Rebellion of General Nat Turner

by Mike Ely

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 strikes hardGeneral 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

The surrender of Nat TurnerOn 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.

    People in this conversation

    • Guest - Dennis

      For your "Sources" the portrait on the left is the cover from Nat Turner, Terry Bisson's splendid bio in the young adult Black Americans of Achievement series. a well-written, accessible and completely unapologetic history.

    • Guest - Dennis

      um, make that portrait on the right, second one down from the top

    • Guest - jeri

      I would like to recommend The Old Man: John Brown at Harper's Ferry
      by Truman Nelson. He's no madman, he's a socialist. It's an excellent,
      exciting story of John Brown and his dreams of a just world. He was a
      laughinstock not a hero when I was growing up-this is what school taught
      me.

    • Guest - Gary

      Beautifully written and very informative as usual, Mike.

      The reference to Luke 12:47 (as a passage used by slave owners to support the beating of slaves) intrigued me.

      I was aware of the use of the myth of Ham (Genesis 9:25) to depict Black people as cursed by Noah to eternal slavery, and the use of passages in (real or spurious) epistles of Paul exhorting slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9) to encourage a submissive slave mentality. But I didn’t know that this passage from Luke was used as it apparently was.

      The context in the gospel is that Jesus is telling his disciples that no one can know when “the Son of Man” (meaning him) is going to return to judge humanity. He tells a parable in which a “steward” (oikonomos in the original Greek) misbehaves. Oikonomos refers to a domestic overseer, and could mean a freedman or slave trusted with household management. Later in the text the hypothetical steward is referred to a doulai, which probably means slave, so let’s assume that. But there were many types and gradations of slaves, especially in the eastern part of the Roman empire, and the text (12:44) is clear that the oikonos could advance to be “place[d] over everything [the master] owns.”

      In the parable the steward is put in charge of the household in his master’s absence and, misjudging the amount of time he would be absent, “sets about beating the manservants and the maids” (paidas, literally “boys,” and paidiskas or “girls,” probably but not necessarily slaves), “and eating and drinking and getting drunk.” When the master comes home and sees all this, he “cut(s) him off” and (it’s implied at least) receives “many strokes of the lash.”

      So here the master (representing God) is depicted as a judicious figure indignant at the overseer-slave’s abuse of the other slaves and general negligence. The likely point of the (probably Greek) author of the Gospel of Luke was that those in the upper echelons of power (in which few people, including slaves themselves, questioned the institution of buying and selling people such as war captives in itself) who beat those beneath them and behave irresponsibly will be punished. That’s rather different than justifying the beating (or cutting up) of disobedient slaves in general.

      But of course the slave owners of Nat Turner’s time wanted to spin scripture as they did, even as it drew Nat Turner to completely opposite conclusions.

    • Guest - Domi

      what happened to Virginia though, like did it they recall slaving blacks, did they continue slaving people WTF!!!???

    Leave your comments

    Post comment as a guest

    0 Character restriction
    Your text should be more than 10 characters
    Your comments are subjected to administrator's moderation.