Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion of 1831

Submitted by FHMaster on Fri, 01/06/2017 - 23:49

"Nat Turner's Rebellion (also known as the Southampton Insurrection) was a slave rebellion that took place in Southampton County, Virginia, during August 1831.[1] Led by Nat Turner, rebel slaves killed anywhere from 55 to 65 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by any slave uprising in the American South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for more than two months afterwards.

In the aftermath, there was widespread fear, and white militias organized in retaliation against slaves. The state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of the rebellion. In the frenzy, many innocent enslaved people were punished. At least 100 blacks, and possibly up to 200, were murdered by militias and mobs. Across the South, state legislatures passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

Nat Turner's background

Main article: Nat Turner

Nathaniel "Nat" Turner was an enslaved American who had lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites.[2] After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather "bright" [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.[3]

Turner was highly intelligent, and learned how to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible.[4] He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. For instance, when Turner was 21 years old he ran away from his owner, Samuel Turner, but returned a month later after becoming delirious from hunger and receiving a vision that told him to "return to the service of my earthly master."[5] In 1824, while working in the fields under his new owner, Thomas Moore, Turner had his second vision, in which "the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand."[6] Turner often conducted Baptist services, and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him "The Prophet."

Turner also had an influence over white people. In the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to "cease from his wickedness."[7] By the spring of 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty."[5] While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner "heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."[8]

In 1830, Joseph Travis purchased Turner and became his master. Turner later recalled that Travis was "a kind master" who had "placed the greatest confidence in me."[8] Despite the decent treatment received from Travis, Turner eagerly anticipated God's signal to start his task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons."[8] Turner witnessed a solar eclipse on February 11, 1831, and was convinced that this was the sign for which he was waiting. Following in the steps of the late Denmark Vesey, he started preparations for a rebellion against the white slaveholders of Southampton County by purchasing muskets. Turner "communicated the great work laid out [for me] to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam.[8]


1831 woodcut purporting to illustrate various stages of the rebellion

Turner started with a several trusted fellow slaves, but the insurgency ultimately numbered more than 70 enslaved and free blacks, some of whom were mounted on horseback.[9] On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as the final signal, and began the rebellion a week later on August 21. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they encountered.

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone, they discarded their muskets and used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. (The latter also would have been more difficult for them to collect.) Historian Stephen B. Oates states that Turner called on his group to "kill all the white people."[10] A contemporary newspaper noted, "Turner declared that 'indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'"[11] The group spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.'"[10][12]

The rebels spared almost no one whom they encountered. A small child who hid in a fireplace was among the few survivors. The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children[10] before Turner and his brigade of insurgents were defeated. A white militia with twice the manpower of the rebels and reinforced by three companies of artillery eventually defeated the insurrection.[13]


Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina surrounding Southampton.[13] The state executed 56 blacks. Militias killed at least 100 blacks, and probably many more.[14] Another estimate is that up to 200 blacks were killed.[15] The number of black victims overall far exceeded the number of white victims.[16]

Rumors quickly spread that the slave revolt was not limited to Southampton, and that it had expanded as far south as Alabama. Fears led to reports in North Carolina that "armies" of slaves were seen on highways, had burned and massacred the inhabitants of Wilmington, and were marching on the state capital.[10] Such fear and alarm led to whites' attacking blacks across the South with flimsy cause–the editor of the Richmond Whig, writing "with pain," described the scene as "the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity."[17] Two weeks after the rebellion had been suppressed, the violence against the blacks continued. General Eppes ordered troops and white citizens to stop the killing:

He [the General] will not specify all the instances that he is bound to believe have occurred, but pass in silence what has happened, with the expression of his deepest sorrow, that any necessity should be supposed to have existed, to justify a single act of atrocity. But he feels himself bound to declare, and hereby announces to the troops and citizens, that no excuse will be allowed for any similar acts of violence, after the promulgation of this order.[18]

In a letter to the New York Evening Post, Reverend G. W. Powell wrote that "many negroes are killed every day. The exact number will never be known."[19]

A company of militia from Hertford County, North Carolina reportedly killed 40 blacks in one day and took $23 and a gold watch from the dead.[20] Captain Solon Borland, who led a contingent from Murfreesboro, North Carolina, condemned the acts "because it was tantamount to theft from the white owners of the slaves."[20] Blacks suspected of participating in the rebellion were beheaded by the militia. "Their severed heads were mounted on poles at crossroads as a grisly form of intimidation."[20]


The rebellion was quashed within 48 hours. In the aftermath of the revolt, 48 black men and women were tried on charges of conspiracy, insurrection, and treason. "In total, the state executed 56 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 were killed by white militias and mobs.[15]

Turner eluded capture over two months. On October 30, a White farmer, Benjamin Phipps, discovered him in a hole covered with fence rails, and Turner was then arrested. A trial was quickly arranged. On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was tried for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", convicted, and sentenced to death.[21] He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner's corpse was flayed, beheaded and quartered.[22]

After Turner's capture, a local lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray wrote and published The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. The book was the result both of Gray's research while Turner was in hiding and of his conversations with Turner before the trial. This document remains the primary window into Turner's mind. Because of the author's obvious conflict of interest, historians disagree on whether to assess it as insight into Gray rather than Turner. In 1967, U.S. writer William Styron used Gray's work to create the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Legal response

In the aftermath of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion, dozens of suspected rebels were tried in courts called specifically for the purposes of hearing the cases against the slaves. Most of the trials took place in Southampton, but some were held in neighboring Sussex County, as well as a few in other counties. Most slaves were found guilty, many were then executed. Some of those found guilty were transported outside the state but not executed. Thirteen of the slaves tried in Southampton were found not guilty.[23]

The following spring in Richmond, the Virginia General Assembly debated the future of slavery in the state. While some urged gradual emancipation, the proslavery side won. The legislature passed new legislation making it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write. The General Assembly also passed a law restricting all blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister.[24] Other slave-holding states across the South enacted similar laws restricting activities of slaves and free blacks.[25]

Some free blacks chose to move their families north to obtain educations for their children. Some individual white people, like teachers Thomas J. Jackson (later, better known as "Stonewall Jackson") and Mary Smith Peake, chose to violate the laws and teach slaves to read. Overall, the laws enacted in the aftermath of the Turner Rebellion enforced widespread illiteracy among slaves. It persisted; 35 years later, most newly freed slaves and many free blacks in the South were illiterate at the end of the American Civil War.

Post-Civil War

Freedmen and Northerners considered the issue of education and helping former slaves gain literacy as one of the most critical in the postwar South. Consequently, many northern religious organizations, former Union Army officers and soldiers, and wealthy philanthropists were inspired to create and fund educational efforts specifically for the betterment of African Americans in the South. With the Freedmen's Bureau, the American Missionary Association (AMA) led the effort to establish basic schools for elementary learning, and created normal schools to train teachers. Examples of such schools were those historically black colleges that grew to become Hampton University and Tuskegee University. The AMA founded a total of eleven colleges in Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Mississippi.

There were great gains in education, with the majority of southern blacks achieving literacy by 1900, and 30,000 teachers having been trained and put to work in the South.[26] The needs continued to be great, and the black community continued to reach for education after the turn of the 20th century. Agricultural depression, crop failures and segregation meant there was little money for states to spend, and they consistently underfunded black education and services.

Concerned about consistent underfunding of rural black schools in the South, the entrepreneur and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald partnered with Dr. Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee University to develop a program of matching funds to stimulate community cooperation in building and maintaining new schools. In the 1920s and 1930s, more than 5,000 schools were built with assistance from the Rosenwald Fund. Other wealthy philanthropists such as Henry H. Rogers, Andrew Carnegie, and George Eastman also contributed to historically black colleges and other education initiatives in these decades. Each of the men had risen from modest roots to become wealthy businessmen.

See also: Samuel C. Armstrong, William J. Palmer, and Rosenwald Fund


Historian Stephen B. Oates notes that Nat Turner had ordered his followers to "kill all the white people," including women and children. The rebels killed approximately 60 white men, women, and children. Most were hacked to death with axes, stabbed, or bludgeoned. The most numerous casualties were children. In one instance, Turner and his insurgents stopped at the house of Levi Waller where they killed him, his wife, and children. Ten of the children were decapitated and their headless bodies piled in the front yard.[10]

Nat Turner's Rebellion resulted in a fierce white response motivated by fear and desire for revenge. Planters and white militias throughout the South conducted vigilante justice, killing slaves and other persons of African descent, many of whom had no connection with the rebellion.[16]"

"See also


  1. Jump up ^ Frederic D. Schwarz "1831: Nat Turner's Rebellion," American Heritage, August/September 2006.

  2. Jump up ^ Drewry, William Sydney (1900). The Southampton Insurrection. Washington, D. C.: The Neale Company. p. 108.

  3. Jump up ^ Description of Turner included in a $500 reward notice in the Washington National Intelligencer on September 24, 1831.

  4. Jump up ^ Aptheker (1993), p. 295.

  5. ^ Jump up to: a b Gray (1831), p. 9.

  6. Jump up ^ Gray (1831), p. 10.

  7. Jump up ^ Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Southampton, Virginia: Lucas & Deaver. pp. 7–9, 11.

  8. ^ Jump up to: a b c d Gray (1831), p. 11.

  9. Jump up ^ Aptheker, Herbert (1993). American Negro Slave Revolts (6th ed.). New York: International Publishers. p. 298. ISBN 0-7178-0605-7.

  10. ^ Jump up to: a b c d e Oates, Stephen. "Children of Darkness". American Heritage Magazine. Retrieved March 29, 2008.

  11. Jump up ^ Richmond Enquirer, November 8, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 299. Aptheker notes that the Enquirer was "hostile to the cause Turner espoused." p. 298.

  12. Jump up ^ Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005. pp. 57–58

  13. ^ Jump up to: a b Aptheker (1993), p300.

  14. Jump up ^ Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301, citing the Huntsville, Alabama, Southern Advocate, October 15, 1831.

  15. ^ Jump up to: a b "Nat Turner's Rebellion", Africans in America,, accessed Mar 5, 2009

  16. ^ Jump up to: a b Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, pp. 300–302.

  17. Jump up ^ Richmond Whig, September 3, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301.

  18. Jump up ^ Richmond Enquirer, September 6, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301.

  19. Jump up ^ New York Evening Post, September 5, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301.

  20. ^ Jump up to: a b c Dr. Thomas C., Parramore (1998). Trial Separation: Murfreesboro, North Carolina and the Civil War. Murfreesboro, North Carolina: Murfreesboro Historical Association, Inc. p. 10. LCCN TX-5-007-748.

  21. Jump up ^ Southampton County Court Minute Book 1830-1835 pp.121-123.

  22. Jump up ^ Gibson, Christine (November 11, 2005). "Nat Turner, Lightning Rod". American Heritage Magazine. Retrieved 2009-04-06 (archived).

  23. Jump up ^ Alfred L. Brophy, "The Nat Turner Trials", North Carolina Law Review (June 2013), volume 91: 1817-80.

  24. Jump up ^ Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion (1992), p. 78

  25. Jump up ^ Lewis, Rudolph. "Up From Slavery: A Documentary History of Negro Education". Rudolph Lewis. Retrieved September 5, 2007.

  26. Jump up ^ James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, pp.244–245


  • Herbert Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York, NY: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).

  • Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1990 (1975). ISBN 0-06-091670-2.

  • Kim Warren, "Literacy and Liberation," Reviews in American History Volume 33, Number 4, December 2005, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press

  • Virginia Writers' Program, Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion, Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library, reprint, 1992. ISBN 0-88490-173-4.

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