One August night, under the cover of darkness, a small band of enslaved men quietly struck a blow against the system that claimed ownership of their bodies. As they moved from house to house, silently killing the families who lorded over them, they instigated in one of the bloodiest slave uprisings in American history.
Join me this week as I dive into the history of Nat Turner's rebellion. Who was Nat Turner? What was his rebellion? And what were its impacts?
Garrison, William Lloyd. “The Insurrection.” The Liberator. September 3, 1831. (LINK)
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Nat Turner’s Insurrection.” August 1861. (LINK)
Whig. September 26, 1831. The Nat Turner Project. Meredith College. (LINK)
The Trial of Nat Turner. November 5, 1831. The Nat Turner Project. Meredith College. (LINK)
“Nat Turner’s Rebellion.” Africans of America. PBS. (LINK)
Roth, Sarah. “Why Nat Turner and the Southampton Rebels Killed Children.” History News Network. The George Washington University. October 15, 2016. (LINK)
Mullen, Lincoln. “These Maps Reveal How Slavery Expanded Across the United States.” May 15, 2014. The Smithsonian Magazine. (LINK)
“Nat Turner.” History.com Editors. January 26, 2021. History. (LINK)
Oates, Stephen B.. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. United States: HarperCollins, 2009.
Linder, Douglas. “Nat Turner Slave Rebellion: A Chronology.” Famous Trials. UMKC School of Law. (LINK)
I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened-the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams-and I heard a voice saying, "Such is your luck, such you are called to see; and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it." Nat Turner, 1831.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps, welcome back.
In the middle of the night in August, 1831 a small group of enslaved men staged one of the bloodiest and most influential uprisings in American history. Their leader? A quiet, studious, religious mystic known as Nat Turner.
Turner’s rebellion is one of the most cited stories in antebellum american history. It is used to demonstrate the savage impacts of the institution of slavery - for both the enslaved and the self-titled master - a metaphor to illustrate the lengths to which one will go in order to pursue freedom and conversely, to maintain control of a way of life.
But who exactly was Nat Turner? What was his rebellion? And how did his failed coup impact the south, and by extension, the country?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800 in Southampton, Virginia. His mother, Nancy, was enslaved and legend has it that when Nat was born, Nancy tried to kill him in order to save him from a life of servitude. Nat was different from an early age; clearly smart and inquizitive, Turner learned how to read as a young child, holding the Bible close. Like I imagine most parents, Nat’s family felt the young boy was destined for greatness.
In his confessions published in 1831, Turner began his tale by sharing a moment as a young child when he shared a story that, according to his mother, was an event which had occurred before Turner was born. This, in his telling of events, is what convinced Nat’s mother he was destined to become a prophet.
Whether this is a true story or pure fiction, Turner continued to be studious and increase his knowledge, including conducting a few experiments. His education came with the knowledge - and approval - of his claimed master Benjamin Turner. Nat came of age at a time where most in his small Virginia community believed their enslaved population was docile. Happy to be serving in a position of unpaid labor for their entire lives with no guarantee of stability. Sure, they had heard about prior uprisings and revolts, but it was different in Virginia. Their property would never revolt because they were treated kindly and given relative freedom of movement. They were protected and were grateful to be of service. Or so they thought.
Despite his intelligence and belief in his being special, Nat was put to work picking cotton at the age of 12. Surprised to learn he would be joining the field hands considering he had been told his whole life - by family and white people on the plantation - that he would be of no use to anyone as a slave - Turner struggled to adjust to the life of a field hand. Regardless, Nat performed his duties which included hauling water, feeding cows and chopping wood. Described as introspective and brooding, Turner was known for his abstinence from alcohol and spent his minimal free time in prayer.
In 1821, Nat received a flogging - or beating - likely for the first time when the plantation brought on a new overseer. Shortly thereafter, Turner ran away - only to return thirty days later. It was during his time away that Nat apparently had a vision. The Spirit, as he referred to it, had come to him and told him to return to his quote unquote earthly master. Around this time, Nat had yet another vision; this one of a battle between whites and blacks and a portion of which I read at the opening of this episode.
And despite his attempted escape, Nat was still allowed to move around with relative ease within the community. He was known as a powerful orator and preacher, referred to as a great enthusiast and so his claimed owners, Thomas and Sally Moore, allowed Turner to participate in religious activities each Sunday, permitting him to travel to other farms and plantations. Seen as trustworthy, well behaved and honest, the surrounding white community was also very lenient with Turner. In an uncommon turn of events, Nat actually baptized a white man in a local pond. Given racial attitudes of the time, Turner was prohbited from carrying out his ceremony in a church, but it did not prevent people from showing up to witness a slave helping cleanse the soul and body of a white man. While serving the word of God and giving sermons, Nat also fell in love. Shortly after returning from his aborted runaway attempt, Turner married a fellow enslaved woman, Cherry, and they had either two or three children.
But his visions persisted. He simply had to wait for the right signal - the final push from God - to tell him when to strike. Aware of the active slave communication network, and according to his telling, upon instructions from God, Nat did not initially share his plans with anyone. Many a planned revolt had been aborted prematurely due to fellow enslaved men and women sharing plots they may have heard. It was only after the long awaited sign - a solar eclipse - did Turner finally decide to open up to a small circle of individuals. Turner trusted only four men: Hark, Nelson, Henry and Sam, all of whom were serving the same oppressive institution as himself with what he hoped would be the revolt to finally tear down slavery.
The initial plot called for the uprising to take place on the day the nation celebrated independence - July 4th. But Turner supposedly became ill and therefore the quote unquote work of death had to be postponed. A few weeks later Turner witnessed a second atmospheric event and knew the time had come again to put his plan to action. Timing remained critical; as he was later quoted, “the march of destruction should be the first news of insurrection.” Thus, the plan in place called for a twilight attack. Turner knew Sunday would be the best time for the coup as most of the white community spent their Sundays going to church and then visiting with friends and family. By the time they returned, it was guessed, they’d be exhausted and fall hard to sleep. Turner’s small team also knew the local militia group was out at a camp meeting, leaving the town less guarded than usual and perhaps giving his men the upper hand. As such, in the early morning hours of August 21st, Turner and his band of men made their way towards the Travis home where they quickly killed Travis, his wife and child and several others.
Turner instructed his small army to make no exception for women and children in the early stages of their coup to avoid detection. They could spare no one until they were fully stocked with weaponry and had a chance to increase the size of their force. And so several women and young children were killed at the hands of the bondsmen fighting for a chance at freedom. Securing weapons and increasing their militia, Turner did what he could to try to turn the enslaved men into an ordered army. He taught them the limited military maneuvers he knew and put his most trustworthy, and menacing, men at the front of the line.
Though they managed to secure guns, the rag tag army continued to rely on silent weapons to exact their vengeance; axes, clubs and swords could effectively slaughter their enemy without raising alarm. They successfully moved from house to house, growing the size of their force and slaughtering the masters of the farms. In all of the violence, Turner himself killed only one person - a woman whom he hit with his sword and beat to death.
As the sun rose on Monday morning, word of the violence was spreading throughout town. So committed to the belief their enslaved men and women were happy, white residents initially thought the country must have been under attack by the British. However they quickly learned of their mistake and organized a group of men to respond and put the rebellion down.
And peeps, it was very, very bloody. Once they’d organized a response force and set out, the pseudo military company discovered a pile of children - all decapitated. This has been one of the most criticized parts of Turner’s rebellion. Many struggle with the decision to end the life of a child, especially in such a gruesome way. Critics point to the fact that as children, they had not participated in the oppressive institution… Yet. Some historians argue there were likely several factors influencing Turner’s decision to spare no one, at least initially. Obviously, leaving no witnesses as I mentioned earlier would provide a strategic advantage. However, there was also the fact that while these children may not have participated in the degradation of their claimed human property, it was only a matter of time. In fact, at the time of the uprising Turner himself was legally owned by a small child named Putnam Moore.
Ultimately, the decision to include children and women in the revolt is likely as nuanced as any other decision made by generals on the fields of battle. In her analysis of the controversial tactic, historian Sarah Roth argues quote: “They may have found the task before them unpleasant, or it may have felt like long-delayed vindication. Either way, killing all the whites they encountered was the only way they believed they might have a chance of fulfilling the cherished goal of freedom for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives,” end quote.
One of the various white militia groups eventually caught up to Turner and his men, which numbered as high as sixty, outside the city limits. While gunfire was exchanged, both sides survived without casualty but Turner’s forces began to lose their nerve and the fighting force slowly started to shrink. After one more brief skirmish on August 23rd, the Turner led revolt was all but over as several of his men were captured and Turner himself went into hiding.
The shock of the attack enraged the white citizenry and they took out their anger on any black person they could find. There were several stories of white men beating black men until they confessed to being part of the revolt, regardless of whether the confession was true. Massive arrests were carried out and over forty individuals were tried; most of them were found guilty and of those, only a few managed to escape with their lives. While some were issued an order of transport - forcing them outside of state lines - many were issued a death sentence.
Upon learning Turner was the leader, a $500 bounty was offered for his capture. Many assumed he must have fled the state and were surprised to learn, just six weeks later, he had been hiding among them. Consumed with exacting revenge against the man who dared to challenge the social order, Nat Turner was publicly beaten before being jailed. He showed no regret and simply smiled at his tormentors.
His trial date was set for November 5th and was guaranteed to draw a large crowd. There was concern Turner may not make it to his trial as angry mobs descended on the area. However, the trial was held without incident and I think it will shock no one to learn of the verdict of guilty, quote: “Therefore it is considered by the Court that he be taken hence to the Jail from whence he was taken therein to remain until Friday the 11th day of November instant on which day between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and four o’clock in the afternoon he is to be taken by the Sheriff to the usual place of execution and then and there be hanged by the neck until he be dead. And the Court value the said slave to the sum of three hundred and seventy five dollars,” end quote.
Shortly before noon on November 11, 1831 the rebel that was Nat Turner was put to death, hanged from a tree acting as the gallows. But though he paid for his crimes, his impact and legacy remained. But given the assumption of black inferiority, white southerners could not bring themselves to believe Turner was inspired on his own. Almost immediately, politicians pointed the finger towards the north, including Virginia Governor John Floyd who wrote quote: “I am fully persuaded the spirit of insubordination which has, and still manifests itself in Virginia, had its origins among, and emanated from, the Yankee population,” end quote.
The abolitionist movement, and William Lloyd Garrison in particular, were blamed for the plight of the southern states. Without their interference, they argued, the enslaved population would be content and there would be no risk of violence. In the immediate aftermath of the revolt, the state of Virginia discussed the possibility of manumitting their human property. Not because of the moral argument, but in order to avoid future violence. Their discussions didn’t move very far, but the idea that Virginia, one of the largest slave holding states in the union, even entertained a conversation about the idea is quite a shock. Fellow southern states were equally as confused, and worried, about what the debates in Virginia could mean for the rest of the south.
Instead of abolishing the institution, white southerners decided to further crack down on their enslaved population. No longer would they have relative freedom of movement; no more were they allowed to gather for religious services. Virginia legislators passed a series of laws curtailing both enslaved and free blacks rights to enjoy the most mundane of activities. Virginia also responded by strengthening their state militia. The Turner revolt also impacted other southern states; there was always an underlying fear that bonds men and women would one day overtake their masters. So when Turner did just that, it gave southern states the justification they needed to further curtail any activity they saw as detrimental to slavery, including some who passed laws prohibiting anyone from criticizing the institution.
When all was said and done, Turner’s rebellion successfully invaded 15 homes and killed 60 white people. Estimates put the death of black men at almost two hundred, making it the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. It further fueled the abolitionist movement, giving them a tangible event to point to as an example of the horrors entrenched in the institution of slavery. As the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator editorialized shortly after the rebellion, quote: “What we have so long predicted,—at the peril of being stigmatized as an alarmist and declaimer,—has commenced its fulfilment. 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. The first flash of lightning, which is to smite and consume, has been felt. The first wailings of bereavement, which is to clothe the earth in sackcloth, have broken up our ears,” end quote.
It would be another thirty years before black americans could claim freedom and even longer to claim any semblance of true participation in the political process. But the story of Turner’s revolt continued to inspire people, as black families shared the tale of the rebellion via oral histories. There are some in the community who say Turner’s uprising was the first war against slavery, with the Civil War being the second.
Regardless of how you feel about the legacy and impact of Turner and his rebellion, the fact is he was fully prepared to drive his people to freedom or die trying. As he said in his confessions while awaiting the gallows, quote: “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me,” end quote.
Before I sign off for today I wanted to share I was recently a guest on Presidencies of the United states where Jerry and I discussed the life and impact of former cabinet member and supreme court justice John Marshall. As usual, Jerry provided a thorough review and analysis of Marshall and I had so much fun learning more about the notorious jurist. If you have always wanted to know about John Marshall and his legacy, please look for Presidencies of the United States wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks peeps, I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.