On This Day

nat turner, nat turner slave, nat turner rebellion
The Granger Collection
Nat Turner preaching his religion.

On This Day: Nat Turner Leads Slave Rebellion

August 22, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Aug. 22, 1831, Nat Turner led a group of fellow slaves in an attack against white slave owners in Virginia.

“Unparalleled and Inhuman Massacre”

On the night of Aug. 21, 1836, Nat Turner and six fellow slaves met in the woods near their Virginia plantation, where they made final plans to launch a rebellion.

At 2 a.m., they set out for the home of their masters, the Travis/Moore family. Armed with hatchets and axes, they killed Joseph Travis, his wife and child, and two apprentices in their sleep. They originally left an infant alone, but two slaves would return later to shoot the child.

The slaves found firearms and continued traveling from home to home, killing every white person they could find. They rounded up slaves from other plantations and rode toward Jerusalem, Va., on horseback.

“They were mounted to the number of 40 or 50; and with knives and axes-knocking on the head, or cutting the throats of their victims,” wrote the Richmond Enquirer. “They had few firearms among them-and scarcely one, if one, was fit for use.”

By sunrise, news of the rebellion had spread, prompting local whites to organize armed resistance and call for troops. Turner’s rebels attempted to seize Jerusalem, where they were confronted by armed whites. Several rebels would be captured after skirmishes, while Turner and others retreated to the woods.

There would be several more small skirmishes, and many of the rebels—including Turner—dispersed. Turner’s slave rebellion was effectively ended after a day and a half, during which time Turner and 60-80 slaves had killed at least 55 whites.

After the Rebellion: White Retaliation and Turner’s Capture

The rebellion had ended, but there were rumors of a widespread rebellion stretching as far south as North Carolina. Whites brutally retaliated against the black population over the next ten days, killing several hundred slaves and free blacks regardless of whether or not they were involved in the rebellion.

Turner spent two months on the run before finally being captured on Oct. 30 near his owner’s farm. He was taken to jail in Jerusalem, where he told his story to a lawyer named Thomas R. Gray. Gray wrote Turner’s story and later published it as “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” though it is impossible to know how accurately Gray portrayed his story.

Turner was tried and convicted on Nov. 5. Six days later, he was hanged. His body was skinned, and his skull was removed and put on tour.

Virginia lawmakers debated how to prevent future rebellions. Some proposed ending slavery or sending blacks to Africa, but instead they passed laws cracking down on slaves and free blacks. They outlawed teaching blacks to read or write, and forbade blacks from preaching or holding religious services.

Biography: Nat Turner

Nat Turner was born a slave in Southampton County, Va. As a child, he reportedly described events that happened before his birth and was considered a prophet. He was very intelligent and learned to read and write.

He escaped in 1821, but had a vision that told him to return. He would have two other visions telling him rebel against his master. “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,” Turner described to Gray. “And on the appearance of the sign … I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”

The sign was an eclipse that appeared in February 1831. Turner set out planning the rebellion with four of his closest friends. They originally planned to stage the rebellion on July 4, but it was delayed when Turner became ill. On Aug. 13, Turner saw a bluish-green sun and took it as a sign to stage to begin the insurrection.

After his death, Turner would be vilified in the white media, which described him as a religious fanatic who was given too much power to influence others. “What strikes us as the most remarkable thing in this matter is the horrible ferocity of these monsters. They remind one of a parcel of blood-thirsty wolves rushing down from the Alps,” wrote the Richmond Enquirer. “The case of Nat Turner warns us. No black man ought to be permitted to turn a Preacher through the country.”

Turner was hailed as a hero by abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, who warned of future violence if slaves were not set free. Writing in The Liberator, he said, “The first step of the earthquake, which is ultimately to shake down the fabric of oppression, leaving not one stone upon another, has been made. the first drops of blood, which are but the prelude to a deluge from the gathering clouds, have fallen.”

Contrasting portrayals of Turner have continued through the 19th and 20th century. Christine Gibson of American Heritage magazine writes, “Over the next century and more he would be appropriated by slaveholders and abolitionists, New Dealers and supremacists, and segregationists, passive resisters, and Black Panthers, as either guiding hero or incarnation of an inferior race. Each put forth a different Nat Turner … To twentieth-century blacks, those characterizations downplayed the horrors of slavery, wrote off black anger as insanity, and disconnected him from the through-line of black history—the long battle for freedom.”

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