Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
Between August 21st and August 23rd 1831, a slave by the name of Nat Turner led a largescale slave rebellion against white residents in the vicinity of Southampton County, Virginia. The rebellion, also known as “Nat Turner’s Rebellion” resulted in the death of 55 to 65 people before it was finally suppressed by local white militias in the area. What prompted this uprising of slaves against whites? Was the rebellion successful in its overall goals? This article explores not only the goals of Nat Turner’s slave revolt, but also the social and political factors that prompted Turner and his followers to attack in the summer of 1831.
Background of Nat Turner
Nat Turner was a slave who resided in Southampton, Virginia for much of his life. Accounts from the 1830s described Turner as both highly intelligent and deeply religious. Turner dedicated a great deal of his free time to reading the Bible, fasting, and praying. Turner was the property of plantation owner, Samuel Turner. At the age of twenty one, Turner reportedly escaped from his master’s plantation, but returned on his own free-will nearly two months later, after suffering from extreme hunger.
During his life, Turner reported having numerous visions that he claimed were “messages” from God. Turner spoke of these visions to his fellow slaves on a daily basis; often discussing them during religious services that he held with other slaves. In 1828, Turner became convinced by these visions that “he was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the almighty” (Wikipedia.org). By the early 1830s, Turner was convinced that his purpose in life was to lead the fight against slavery; an institution he recognized as both immoral and wicked. On 12 February 1831, Turner witnessed a solar eclipse that he interpreted as further evidence of his “calling” from God. Following the eclipse, Turner began to make preparations for the August insurrection; purchasing weapons, and communicating his goals with fellow conspirators.
Nat Turner's Rebellion
Although the original plans for the rebellion were slated to begin on 4 July 1831, Turner fell ill during the summer; prompting him to push back his plans for the insurrection until August. On 13 August 1831, an atmospheric disturbance occurred that made the sun appear different colors. Turner viewed the disturbance as a final sign from God to begin his uprising. Only a week after the event, Turner and a group of nearly seventy slaves and freed blacks began travelling house-to-house on the night of 21 August; killing any white person they encountered.
After failing to acquire a substantial number of guns, the rebels were forced to rely on knives, hatchets, and axes as a means to silence their white adversaries both quickly and silently. By the end of the insurrection (23 August 1831), the rebels managed to slaughter nearly sixty white individuals (including women and children). In a state of panic, local militias were rapidly dispatched to Southampton, and quickly routed the rebels after a few brief skirmishes. Turner, meanwhile, managed to elude capture; choosing to hide in the local forests and swamps that dotted the Southampton landscape.
White Response to the Insurrection
Shortly after the Southampton Insurrection was put down, the local militia gained additional manpower from neighboring counties as well as the federal government. Regional militias along with troops from the USS Natchez and USS Warren joined forces with the Southampton authorities; helping to round up suspected rebels. Within days, summary trials were carried out against 56 black people; all of which were executed. Militias killed an additional hundred slaves in response to the insurrection (most of whom never took part in the rebellion).
A key component to these largescale executions was the fear from whites that the revolt was part of a larger, more broader slave conspiracy to rise up across the entirety of the South. Although these claims later proved false, whites across the South carried out largescale reprisals against blacks for the slightest forms of misconduct. Turner’s rebellion, thus, resulted in widespread persecution of slaves and freed blacks across the entirety of the South for nearly two weeks, before finally tapering off.
After eluding capture for nearly two months in Southampton County, Turner was finally caught on 30 October 1831 by a local farmer named Benjamin Phipps. Phipps discovered Turner on his farm, hiding in a hole covered with fence posts. Turner was quickly arrested and tried for the crime of rebellion and insurrection on 5 November 1831. After a rapid trial, Turner was convicted on all counts, and was sentenced to death. Before he was executed, Turner was asked if he regretted his decision to rebel. Turner responded, succinctly: “Was Christ not crucified?” (Wikipedia.org). Turner was then hanged on 11 November in Jerusalem, Virginia; his body later drawn and quartered as a reminder to all slaves that rebellious actions would be punished severely.
Modern-Day Southampton, Virginia
The Impact of Nat Turner's Rebellion
In response to Nat Turner’s rebellion, many Southern states enacted laws that forbade the teaching of blacks and slaves to read and write. Southerners believed literacy provided blacks with a means to plan and subvert established rules in their respective slave societies; Nat Turner providing an excellent case in point to many lawmakers and politicians. Slaves were also prohibited from holding religious services without the presence of white ministers. For many Southerners, religion posed a tremendous threat to their established order; Turner, again, providing an excellent example for this supposition.
The most devastating effect of Turner’s rebellion, however, lies with its impact on emancipation efforts across the South. Abolitionist efforts to free blacks were curtailed tremendously by Turner’s insurrection, as Southern fears gave way to more aggressive laws against slaves; deepening the divide between slaveholders and abolitionists even further in the days, weeks, and months following Turner’s rebellion. Although Southerners once tolerated abolitionists to a degree, Turner’s rebellion effectively ended this era of toleration, as slaveholders held prominent abolitionists responsible for the massacre that took place.
One positive point about Turner’s insurrection, however, lies in the galvanizing quality that his rebellion had on abolitionist efforts in the North. Northerners viewed the event as a clear example to the devastating effects of slavery. Persecution and mistreatment, they argued, were the true causes of Turner’s uprising and could have been avoided, they believed, had slavery been banned in years prior.
Because of the polarizing quality of Turner’s rebellion on Northern and Southern opinions regarding slavery, many historians view the insurrection as a major conduit to the American Civil War. Although the war did not occur until several decades later, the event was fundamental in the development of tensions and anger between the North and South.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Greenberg, Kenneth S. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory 1st Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Parker, Nate. The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. New York, NY: Atria Books, 2016.
Slawson, Larry. "The Impact of Nat Turner's Rebellion." HubPages.com.
Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Nat Turner's Holy War to Destroy Slavery. 2017.
Wikipedia contributors, "Nat Turner," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nat_Turner&oldid=872800980 (accessed December 15, 2018).
Wikipedia contributors, "Nat Turner's slave rebellion," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nat_Turner%27s_slave_rebellion&oldid=873020531(accessed December 15, 2018).
© 2018 Larry Slawson
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on December 22, 2018:
@Pamela Yes indeed. The repercussions for the rebellion were really bad for the slaves across the region. There were many innocent blacks killed as a result.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 22, 2018:
I sure don't remember learning of this story in a history class. The effects of the rebellion were awful for the slaves. This is a sad part of our history.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 17, 2018:
I would be very interested to read that. We visited a museum about him in Hull, UK, a few years ago. Sadly slavery in the form of human trafficking still happens.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on December 17, 2018:
@Liz I agree, wholeheartedly. Its funny that you mention him, I'm actually planning to do an article on William Wilberforce in the near future.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 16, 2018:
In the UK William Wilberforce is creditted with playing a major part in stopping the slave trade here. It goes down as an embarassing part of our history, but it is important to hear stories like the one highlighted by your article so that we never forget how bad slavery was.