October 30, 1831. A local militiaman finds a notorious fugitive hiding in a hole in the ground. The fugitive is brought to trial six days later, found guilty, and hanged; his body is drawn and quartered and then beheaded, and the corpse is buried in an unmarked grave in Southampton County, Virginia. His name is Nat Turner, and he has led the most famous slave rebellion in American history. We’re talking about American slavery today.
American slavery was much worse than most people generally know today. The existence of slavery in America until 1865 was one of the great crimes that darkens the past of this nation, often referred to as our “original sin”, and I’ve heard from multiple people that it should be left in the past. People who bring up slavery or talk about slavery as part of the American experience have often been called divisive, race-baiters, or accused of focusing on the negative. It can be associated with “wokeness” or even leftism in some circles. The New York Times’ 1619 Project, while I have my share of problems with it, has come under particularly harsh criticism for its series of articles that place slavery at the center of the American story.
One does not have to adhere to any political affiliation to recognize the brutality, inhumanity, cruelty, and benign evil of the American slave system, and people trying to underplay it often don’t understand that it was SO MUCH WORSE than even pop culture would have you believe. When human beings are property, you can do basically anything with them that you want. You can split up families by selling wife, husband and children to different people. You can beat them, and often murder them. You can rape them, and this was SO common – even child rape – that it can be frankly shocking to look at some of the primary sources. You can brainwash them, gaslight them, abuse them into thinking that you are their savior and their guardian, even as you sell their children and have their husband flogged.
This was all common and recorded, even if it did not occur in every case. Being a kind master was all well and good, I suppose, but once you were gone all those families would be split up to pay your debts and divide up your estate. Even being “nice” within the system allowed the system to continue.
There is hardly any modern experience that compares to chattel slavery, except for perhaps a violent abusive relationship. The abusive spouse may be fond of their partner, even love them in a sense – but they will not hesitate to use violence, gaslight, humiliate, demean, or perpetrate other abuses. They will divide their family, use their children as weapons, and if they have enough control, they will even make them think that they choose or like their way of life. When the abused spouse escapes the relationship, the abuser will often feel betrayed, livid that they could leave THEM. Control became the mechanism for superiority and self-worth. America’s system of white supremacy in the antebellum era was built on the subjugation of Black slaves.
And just like the abused spouse, a tiny act of rebellion can mean a blessed moment of liberation. The enslaved Black Americans were far smarter and more aware than their masters ever dreamed (obviously) and found endless ways to escape their servitude. The night belonged to the slaves, as they slipped back and forth to visit loved ones or relatives on different plantations, held religious meetings, and hunted for game to supplement their food supply. Sometimes they would even organize escapes, especially if an imminent sale was about to break up a slave family. (The overseers knew to be more watchful when auction day was coming up.) Like the abused spouse, the small rebellions were great acts of courage, shows of will in the face of the monstrous machine of American slavery. Leaving, of course, could be seen as the ultimate act of rebellion – but unlike the abused spouse, the slaves did not have the law on their side. It was an infinitely more dangerous proposition for them to leave.
And like the abused spouse – sometimes they snapped. Today’s story is how one enslaved Black man committed the greatest act of rebellion the American slave system ever suffered until the Civil War.
Nat Turner was the kind of man that in another time, another place, would have been a religious revolutionary – think along the lines of Moses, or Mohammed, or Joseph Smith. Nat was born in 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia, which today lies along US 58, midway between Emporia and Suffolk. I have passed through it in my car, blazing down the highway from one place to another, innumerable times. In the early 1800s, the county’s economy relied on cash crops, with tobacco plantations making up the vast majority of the property. This affected the demographics: it was one of the few counties in Virginia, according to the 1830 Census, that had more black residents than white. Almost all of these were enslaved, though a handful were free.
Nat was born as property on the plantation of Benjamin Turner. The slaves did not have their own family names – that, like much else, was denied them – and many assumed the surname of their masters, hence Turner. From his very earliest days, Nat was bright and curious, learning to read and write at an unusually young age and constantly sneaking looks at books whenever he got the chance. He experimented in his spare time growing up with what passed for homemade science experiments in the slave cabins, trying to make paper or gunpowder.
But his big obsession was religion. Nat was a zealous Christian, nearly memorized the Bible, and was often seeing praying, fasting or meditating on a Bible passage. A charismatic and passionate speaker, he was preaching to his fellow slaves and free blacks from an early age. Even some poor whites came to his sermons.
Nat was also afflicted by visions. It should not be assumed these were signs of some mental condition; the immensely devout of many faiths often have experiences that could be considered supernatural. Nat soon grew to believe that he was guided by the Holy Spirit, and became convinced that he was a prophet like Isaiah or John the Baptist. The early 19th Century in general was a period of religious revival and millenarianism across the United States, known today as the Second Great Awakening, and the rise of charismatic prophecy took special hold among the Black population of the south. Nat was not the only such figure of his time; just as famous was Sojourner Truth, up north in New York.
When he was 21 years old, Nat ran away from the plantation. Again, this was one of the most extreme forms of rebellion; rarely did slaves attempt violence against their masters or the overseers, since any such act of open aggression would be sure to bring a devastating penalty. But in the wilderness of Southampton County, much like Moses or Christ or Muhammad, Nat Turner had a vision. Thirty days of fasting resulted in what Nat took to be a divine revelation. The Holy Spirit appeared to Nat and chastised him for pursuing the things of this world – earthly freedom – and not the Kingdom of Heaven. He was ordered to return to the surface of his earthly Master.
Nat returned to the plantation and continued to build his following, silently convinced that he was being preserved in his place for something greater, “ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” Later that year (1825), he had a second vision: “And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me--For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew--and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that 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.”
t was this vision that truly set Nat on his path. He came to believe that he was being set up as the Lord’s Prophet for a great war of liberation against the whites, as the agent of the Holy Spirit against the antichrist of slavery. Nat Turner was on a divine mission, and quietly began to build his network of slaves across the plantations of Southampton County. He had been commanded to “slay my enemies with their own weapons.” When the time came, the main weapons of his rebels would be the tools of their enslavement: the hoe, the scythe, the axe, the hatchet.
Nat planned his rebellion for years, waiting for a divine signal to prepare the way. On February 12, 1831, a solar eclipse seemed to be the sign that Nat had waited for. He designated a definitive date for his rebellion – July 4, Independence Day, a day that always reminded the American slaves just who the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were intended to cover. Unfortunately for Nat, he was sick during that period, and had to postpone the uprising. Another celestial sign – possibly the covering of the moon by the eruption of Mount St. Helens, far off in the little-settled Washington Territory – occurred on August 13, and Nat took this as God’s signal. He would begin his rebellion a week later, on August 21.
Nat and his followers agreed that they would try and start a chain reaction by moving from plantation to plantation, killing every white person they encountered and freeing every slave they could. On August 21, he and a few of his trusted subordinates slipped into the house of Nat’s current owner Joseph Travis. There, they killed Travis, his wife, and their three children, took their firearms, and began to assemble the rebels. From there they continued their march, picking up recruits – though few joined who were not part of Nat’s congregation, or who didn’t already have some grudge against the local whites.
The rebels travelled from plantation to plantation, killing most of the rich whites and freeing their plantation slaves. They travelled generally northeast from the Travis plantation, aiming towards Jerusalem (now Courtland), the Southampton County seat. Nat himself only killed one person, a white woman, but the members of the rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex. Men, women, children, the elderly and infants all died at their hands. Plantation houses burned and terrified white people fled the rural areas of Southampton County. The rebelling slaves had very few firearms, mostly using melee weapons of makeshift design. Nat prevented his followers from killing local poor whites, In all, 51 white people died at the hands of Nat Turner’s insurrection.
Though Nat Turner eventually assembled about 70 followers for his rebellion – still by a mile the largest slave rebellion in American history – this was vastly outweighed by the white reaction. Within 24 hours, the local militia were turning out all across the Tidewater of Virginia and North Carolina. Three companies of artillery were among the militia; there was no such thing as overkill when dealing with a slave insurrection. Even sailors from Norfolk were sent to hunt down Nat Turner and his insurrectionaries.
For all the attention it got and the panic it caused, the rebellion only lasted from the early morning hours of August 21 to the middle of August 23. On that date, the rebellion was brought to a screeching halt when Nat’s followers were confronted by well-armed militia and cannon at the Belmont Plantation, which still stands today northeast of Courtland. Armed with farm implements and only a few muskets and outnumbered two to one, Nat’s people never stood a chance. The rebellion disintegrated after a few blasts of canister and a few volleys of musket fire, and most of the rebels fled into the swamps – Nat among them. Nat Turner’s insurrection was over.
For all that, the rebellion lasted less than three days, only involved about 70 enslaved and free Black Americans, and never left Southampton County. But what was most telling was the white reaction.
For all that, the Nat Turner rebellion would send mortifying shock waves across the South. White Southerners were terrified of a slave revolt, so deep in their bones that they never reacted to even the HINT of rebellion with anything less than wild violence. Nat’s Rebellion was no different. People went – no better word for it – apeshit. Rumors and panic spread across the South, all the way down to Alabama; people reported seeing armies of slaves on the roads, like some sort of ravenous horde.
The mass panic generated by Nat’s uprising resulted in hundreds of slaves and free Black people being murdered across Virginia and North Carolina out of mass hysteria and on sheer whim. The immediate suspicion was that Nat’s uprising was part of some enormous, orchestrated movement that would kill every white person in their beds. This was one of the secret insidious justifications for white brutality towards their slaves: do unto them before they can do unto you.
Multiple newspaper reports can be found detailing the hysterical wave of racial murder that swept the South in the weeks following Nat’s rebellion. One militia general had to put out a General Order to stop the waves of panic killing. In Virginia and North Carolina counties around Southampton, at least 200 Black people were murdered who had nothing to do with the rebellion, while 55 of the captured rebels were hanged. A company of militia in North Carolina went on a murdering spree, killing 40 Black people in a single day – which came in for criticism from the locals, since it was theft from the owners of those slaves. (!!!) At least one slave who was literally just walking by was captured and beheaded, and his killers mounted his head on a pole near a crossroads for all the local slaves to see.
Fun note: in 1989, Virginia highways were all given proper names as a means of quickening 911 response times. The crossroads where that poor slave’s head was displayed as a warning is to THIS day the crossing of “Blackhead Signpost Road” and “Hanging Tree Road.” No, seriously. I’m not messing around. Go look it up. Call me crazy (or “revisionist” perhaps), but maybe local roads shouldn’t be called that in the Year of Our Lord 2020.
It took the local militia two months to find Nat Turner himself. Nat had gone into hiding with the local Nottoway people, an Indian tribe that still lives on reservation in Southampton County today. It was near this tribe’s lands that farmer Benjamin Phipps found Nat in a hideaway concealed by a fallen tree and fencerails. Nat emerged and rose to his full height as Phipps leveled his gun at him – but when Phipps demanded his sword, Nat handed it over and went peacefully. He knew this could only end one way, and the whole state was looking for a man of his description.
Nat was taken to Jerusalem, aka modern Courtland, and imprisoned as he awaited trial. While in prison, he was interviewed by a local lawyer named Thomas Gray. Gray’s account is the only real record we have of most of Turner’s early life and motivation, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt – while a great deal of the narrative is undoubtedly true, since there are story details that no white man would have put in there by choice, there’s a lot of editorializing in the narration. Nat Turner’s confession is easy to find online, and it’s fascinating. He comes off as a genuinely committed man without regret for any of his actions – which, if you think God is giving you your commands, he may well have believed deep down to his core. Nat Turner was a man on a divine mission to liberate his people, and there was no price too high to pay for that.
Nat Turner went to trial on November 5, and pled “Not Guilty”, since he stated that he did not feel guilty. He had no evidence to produce in his favor, but this trial was only ever going to go one way. When the death sentence was passed, the justice said "Nat Turner! Stand up. Have you anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced against you?"
Nat only responded, “I have not. I have made a full confession to Mr. Gray, and I have nothing more to say.” When asked sometime later if he felt guilty, or he regretted his actions, he only said “Was Christ not crucified?”
Nat Turner was hanged in the town square of Jerusalem on November 11, 1831. His corpse was drawn and quartered, much as William Wallace’s had been, and beheaded as an example. His mutilated body was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Southampton County. There is a skull that has been possibly identified as belonging to Nat Turner, and it is currently undergoing DNA testing at the Smithsonian to see if it can be returned to Nat’s living relative, Shanna Batten Aguirre, a senior counterterrorism advisor for the State Department.
Nat Turner’s rebellion initiated a massive wave of legislation across the slaveholding states of the South. Some of the very worst slave codes were passed in the wake of Nat’s uprising, including (in Virginia) laws making it illegal to teach slaves or free Blacks to read or write, and mandating that all Black religious services be held in the presence of a white minister. Many of these laws were mimicked elsewhere. This was all a reaction to Nat’s undeniable intelligence and religious charisma, which shocked the slave aristocracy deep to their core. What tiny advances had been made in Black education in the South were dismantled with the full force of white law and white fear.
From this point on, enforced illiteracy and police-state surveillance became the rule for the slaveholders, even as they began to change their messaging. For decades, slavery had been described as a “necessary evil,” but increasingly radical pro-slavery advocates began to describe it as a positive good. The Nat Turner Rebellion convinced many white southerners that such events would become the norm if more slaves were freed or treated well. The system of slavery did not get better in the thirty years leading up to the Civil War; it actually got much, much worse.
Though Nat Turner’s name became a byword for terror, murder and barbarism in white America, Black Americans looked at him as a liberator. John Brown took him as a model. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, blamed for inciting Nat Turner somehow (even though Nat likely never read their pamphlets or journals, which weren’t exactly in circulation in the antebellum South), were threatened with death or violence. Nat Turner’s Rebellion drove yet another wedge into the growing divide between North and South, though it would still be another three decades before that breach became irreparable.
As a young man in the Virginia school system, my textbook dealt with the story of Nat Turner and his rebellion in a few paragraphs, and mostly dwelt on his brutality to the white people that came across his path. It is true that Nat murdered white women and children, in addition to the men, many of whom were innocent of any overt crime against Black Americans. But there was no mention of the wave of racial violence that murdered at least four times that number of innocent black people as a result; unlike the arrest and execution of Nat and his rebels, no one ever paid for these murders. They were simply an “understandable” reaction to the “barbarity” of Nat’s religious revolution. This also has to stand in contrast with an enormous machine of abuse, dehumanization, rape and murder that had been ticking away in the South for two hundred years and would continue for thirty more.
Against that bloody and dark swath across our national honor, the deaths of 55 white Americans is a mere drop. Though Nat Turner’s murders cannot ultimately be justified or considered moral, they can be *understood* in light of the great evil that overshadowed them. Context does matter.
And we haven't scrubbed that stain off yet, not by a long shot.