“On the appearance of the sign . . . I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
In 1831, the Virginia slave Nat Turner led the largest and deadliest slave insurrection in US history. Believing himself called by God to violently lash out against white people in his region, Turner raised a group of some seventy-five fellow black men and led them on a murderous rampage through the countryside of Southampton County, Virginia. Although the insurrection lasted only two days, the death toll was substantial: Turner and his band killed some sixty white men, women, and children. Many more black Virginians died in the aftermath of the group’s capture, including Turner himself, who was hanged in November of that year. Before his execution, Turner recounted his confession to a lawyer, Thomas Gray, who set down the condemned rebel’s words for posterity. The revolt contributed to increased white fears of black violence, led to new restrictions on black rights, and fed proslavery sentiment.
Nat Turner’s slave insurrection was arguably the most dramatic to take place in the United States, but it was hardly the first sign of slave discontent. Slave rebellions had taken place in the colonial era, perhaps most famously when a group of slaves in South Carolina successfully banded together in hopes of escaping to freedom in Spanish Florida during the short-lived 1739 Stono Rebellion. During the 1790s, a slave rebellion in the Caribbean became a full-scale war for independence that resulted in the creation of a free Haiti. Inspired by those events, small-scale slave insurrections broke out around the United States. In Richmond, Virginia, just seventy miles from where Turner would lead his own revolt, the blacksmith Gabriel—sometimes called Gabriel Prosser—sought to organize a veritable slave army in 1800. This plan was betrayed, but still resistance continued. During the 1820s, a free black man named Denmark Vesey was convicted of planning a major revolt in Charleston, South Carolina.
Alongside these broader rebellions stood countless instances of individual resistance. Enslaved African Americans used subtle methods to show their hatred of the institution that bound them. Laborers sometimes simply worked more slowly, or pretended to be so clumsy that they broke valuable tools and equipment. They claimed to be sick when they were healthy. Property and goods were mysteriously damaged or burned, or disappeared into slaves’ possession. These everyday instances of rebellion were hard to control, or even identify, due to their subtlety. Slaves sometimes attempted escape, and sometimes succeeded. To counter this, and under pressure from slave states, the US Congress passed fugitive slave laws providing for the capture and return to their owners of escaped slaves who crossed state and territorial boundaries.
Yet, what white slaveholders in the South feared much more than day-to-day pilfering or vandalism was the prospect of an organized revolt. Despite the rarity of these insurrections, worries that black slaves were on the verge of rising up to murder their white owners, take white women, and rampage through the countryside were very real throughout slaveholding regions. Harsh slave codes sought to minimize the possibility of such events by limiting the rights of enslaved African Americans to gather in large crowds and establishing stringent punishments for conspirators. The specter of the large-scale rebellion of an oppressed population haunted all white Southerners throughout the period of slavery.
Born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia, on October 2, 1800, Nat Turner was raised by his mother, Nancy; his father reportedly escaped from slavery. From his childhood, Turner showed both a quick intelligence and a deep interest in religion, listening intently to the teachings of local white preachers. He also learned to read, an unusual accomplishment for a Southern slave. When he was still a teenager, Turner himself began preaching to other enslaved African Americans, and even won over a white convert. His intense commitment to religious sentiment grew throughout his lifetime to become his primary passion.
During his life, Turner served several masters: Benjamin Turner, from whom he took his last name, and, later, his son Samuel Turner; a small farmer named Thomas Moore and his young son, Putnam Moore; and, finally, Joseph Travis. These sales separated Turner from his mother, his wife, and their children when he was a young man. He was nevertheless an apparently faithful slave who ran away at one point but willingly returned to his master’s estate after about a month to resume work as a farmhand. Although Turner would likely have been a notable figure within the Virginia slave community for his intelligence and religious commitment, it was his leadership in the slave revolt of 1831 that gained him widespread fame—or infamy. He was executed for his crimes on November 11, 1831.
That Nat Turner’s confession exists at all is thanks to the work of Thomas Ruffin Gray, a white Virginia attorney who represented some of the rebels in court. Shortly before Turner was executed, Gray came to his jail cell unofficially and asked Turner to share a full confession of the nature and extent of the rebellion for publication. Turner agreed. This plan served useful ends for both parties: Gray received ownership of a sensational story likely to earn a tidy sum in sales that also could help stem rumors of more attacks, and Turner helped prevent the deaths of innocent black Southerners while assuring his story would travel through the ages from his own perspective. Over the course of three days, Gray recorded Turner’s story in his own words, making what seems to have been relatively few editorial changes to the narrative. Soon after, Gray published the account, adding his own assessment of Turner as a remarkably intelligent but equally chilling fanatic.
Recounted after Nat Turner’s capture and just days before his death, Turner’s Confessions is the primary historical record of the motivations, plans, and actual events of the rebellion that Turner led in the summer of 1831, although it is difficult to say how accurate Gray’s transcription of their conversation is. Clear to even the most casual reader are two major thematic elements of Turner’s tale: First, his fanatical religious devotion permeates his narrative; the rebel firmly believed that his actions were undertaken as God’s work and, in part, fulfilled Turner’s own destiny as one chosen from childhood for great action. Second, Turner’s utter lack of remorse for the murders and savagery committed by the band he led is readily apparent. In Turner’s mind, his efforts required no apology, for he completed them simply as the hand of God.
Turner began his narrative by recounting the events of his life prior to his decision to launch an insurrection. That he considered himself marked for some special purpose from childhood is immediately apparent. He explains that he was born into slavery on the estate of Benjamin Turner, and that there, events took place that “laid the groundwork of that enthusiasm which has terminated so fatally to many . . . and for which I am about to atone the gallows”—in other words, the revolt that he had led the preceding summer. As a young boy, Turner told some playmates about events that his mother informed him had taken place before his birth. The young boy went on to prove his knowledge of these events by relaying additional details to both his mother and a growing group of stunned adults. His apparently otherworldly knowledge caused the group, in discussion amongst themselves, to determine that he was likely to be a great prophet with visionary skills granted directly from God; the exact nature of the events that Turner described were not included in his narrative, making it impossible to determine whether they were, perhaps, something the bright and perceptive young boy could have gleaned by listening to adult conversation. Regardless of the source of his knowledge, the remarks on his seeming gifts left such an impression on Turner that he remembered them throughout his life. His mother and grandmother, the two women who largely raised him, encouraged the boy in this belief, stating that “certain marks on [his] head and breast” had already led them to believe that he was somehow marked for greatness.
The excerpt next picks up with Turner’s recollections of his leadership among other young black people in the region. Although he was not interested in thievery, he explained, his “superior judgment” and planning skills led others to turn to him when they wished to undertake some minor escapade. Turner attributed this elevated sense of judgment to his rather unique status as a prophet, tied to God through direct inspiration and communication. Turner asserted that he had held to his belief in his divinely granted superiority since childhood, foregoing human vices in favor of religious devotion to an extent that drew notice from both the white and black members of his community. To support this characterization, he deliberately constructed a set of mannerisms that set him apart as aloof and mystical, qualities he associated with his connection to the divine.
As evidence of this connection, Turner told about a visionary experience that he had had as a young man. Particularly attracted to a biblical passage urging devotees to “seek ye the kingdom of heaven, and all things shall be added unto you,” Turner dedicated a great deal of time to the consideration of this passage’s meaning and application. Working in the fields (despite his apparent intelligence, his owner declined to train Turner for an especially skilled job), he had a religious experience in which “the Spirit” spoke to him, repeating this same biblical passage on which he had been meditating. Immediately, Turner associated the voice with the one that had spoken to the prophets of the Bible, a natural conclusion for a man who had considered himself anointed in that role since his childhood. The arrival of this voice intensified Turner’s religious devotion, and he spent more time than ever praying. When he again heard the voice two years later, it “fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.”
This conviction strengthened over time. Turner, who had been told in his youth that he was too bright to be “of any use to any one as a slave,” determined as an adult that his life’s anointed purpose must relate to that enslaved status. This was only reinforced as Turner gained greater and greater status within his community, where he shared the ideas that he believed he had developed from divine inspiration. Turner proclaimed that an event would take place that would fulfill “the great promise that had been made to me.” He then, however, seemed to abandon his community: Turner successfully escaped from his plantation, remaining at large in the woods for nearly a month. Then he again had a vision in which the Spirit appeared to him and ordered him to return to his “earthly master,” for Turner was focused too much on worldly and not eternal happiness. Logic suggested, therefore, that Turner’s appointed great purpose must lie in his life as a slave. He willingly resumed his place on the plantation, drawing grumbles from his peers that no person as intelligent as Turner should toil in slavery.
Soon, Turner had another vision—a solar eclipse, which he took as white and black spirits fighting a conflict that resulted in great turmoil and bloodshed. At the same time, he heard what was presumably taken as another instance of the Spirit’s voice telling him that in this symbolism lay his destiny. The experience affected him deeply, sending him even further into the realm of religious meditation and devotion as he considered the interaction of the natural world with the human spirit. Through this combination, Turner believed, he could attain “true holiness . . . and . . . the true knowledge of faith.” Visions and signs began appearing to him on what seems to have been a regular basis. Turner believed that the Holy Spirit showed him the heavens in the night sky, illuminated not by distant stars but by a divine spiritual power and showing human figures arrayed in different positions. In the fields, Turner saw what he took for drops of blood on the crops, and in the woods, he saw mystical symbols along with the same shapes that he had previously seen in the sky.
Together, Turner took these signs to mean that the Second Coming of Christ, as described in the biblical book of Revelation, was about to take place. According to this idea, Jesus Christ will one day return to Earth in human form, and all of the dead will be resurrected. Shortly thereafter, a final judgment to separate the virtuous from the sinful will take place, sending those who had lived according to God’s plan to Heaven and the evil to Hell for all eternity. The blood on the crops and recurring human figures in the trees showed that Christ’s substance in the heavens was traveling to Earth. His message was a persuasive one. A white overseer even came under the sway of Turner’s word, undergoing what Turner described as a physical spiritual redemption and cleansing himself of wickedness. Those slaves who followed Turner as a prophet accompanied him to a nearby body of water where they baptized themselves in the tradition of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.
In 1828, another sign prepared Turner for what he considered to be his great task. He communicated with the Spirit, who confirmed to him that he, Nat Turner, must lead the fight against evil in the world. The signs that Turner had already seen convinced him that this great evil was white domination of the black race, and thus that the time was coming when “the first should be last and the last should be first”—or, that oppressed black peoples should rise up and claim their rightful role in God’s kingdom. At this point, Gray interrupted to ask whether Turner now believed that this idea was in error. Turner demurred, asking, “Was not Christ crucified?”
In February of 1831, the sign that Turner had been awaiting appeared to him in the sky—a second solar eclipse. This, he thought, was the divine direction that he had been awaiting to fulfill his great purpose: to “slay my enemies with their own weapons.” At last, he determined, he was permitted to share his anointed purpose with four other slaves on the plantation whom he believed he could trust and whom he therefore recruited to his cause. With these coconspirators, he began planning an insurrection slated to take place on July 4, even then associated with national independence. The group failed to settle on a plan of action, but Turner had another vision that convinced him to act. They set a date of action for Saturday, August 20, 1831, but had no plan for their rebellion. Unlike earlier rebellions, such as those of Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey, both characterized by careful organization but little result, Turner’s rebellion would be one of no design but great effect. The conspirators decided to gather their forces in a forest near their plantation, meeting there on the chosen afternoon for a meal before embarking on their intended rebellion. Turner joined the gathering late, wishing to maintain his status as somewhat apart from the other members of his community. Determined to gain their liberty at all costs, the conspirators began their insurrection that night.
The brutality and bloodshed that followed was intense. Although Turner had noted his current master, Joseph Travis, was a good one, the first murders—according to a segment of the account omitted from the above excerpt—were of Travis, his wife, and their three children, including a baby. From this site they collected guns and ammunition. Most of the rebels were armed with cudgels, knives, axes, and other weapons of force, so the murders were gruesome ones. Turner himself claimed that he was directly responsible for few of the killings, instead bringing up the rear of the group as it progressed from house to house. The leaders were mounted and rode as quickly as possible to their chosen targets’ homes, quickly and violently killing all the white people they found within—men, women, and children alike. Turner’s mater-of-fact description of the carnage showed his complete certainty that his work was righteous: “I sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed; viewed the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims.” Estimates of the total number of victims varies from source to source, but seems to have numbered somewhere between fifty and sixty.
By morning, the band of seven had grown several times over, including both free and enslaved black men. At their height, Turner’s rebels numbered about sixty. Among the white victims were both those who owned slaves and those who did not, suggesting that the primary goal was not to punish slaveholders but to revolt against the very society that allowed for such an institution to exist. Engulfed by their success, the growing band began to make its way toward the town of Jerusalem. But news of the massacres had spread quickly through the white community. A vigilante band assembled to pursue and neutralize the marauders, and within about thirty-six hours of the launch of the insurrection it had been stopped. Turner’s band scattered, and he himself set out to acquire more weapons to resist capture. They planned to regroup after a short time, but none of Turner’s men returned; he concluded—rightly—that they had been taken, and realizing that this could quickly lead to his own capture, he went into hiding.
Turner then explained how he managed to elude capture for several weeks even as his coconspirators faced imprisonment and trial. He stole food from the property of his former master, hiding himself in what was perhaps the least likely spot: under a pile of discarded wooden fence rails in his dead master’s fields, just yards from where he himself had toiled in bondage. There, he remained hidden at nearly all times for the next several weeks, venturing out only to get water from a nearby source in the middle of the night. After as long as a month and a half, Turner made braver advances to points farther from his hiding place, seeking, without much success, information about events in the area. Two months into hiding, Turner met with some bad luck that cost him his life. Some food that he kept in his refuge attracted a neighborhood dog, and two days later the same dog came back to the spot—this time accompanied by two black men. Turner revealed his identity to the men in the hopes that they would protect his secret. However, bloody retaliation against both enslaved and free blacks had gone on during the weeks when Turner was a fugitive, and the men, perhaps fearing for their own lives, ran away as soon as they learned the identity of the man hiding under the pile of fence posts.
Turner abandoned his hiding place. His secret was out; within hours, Southampton’s white populace knew that Turner was still in their midst, and search parties set out to capture him, hoping both to garner a handsome reward and bring the hated rebel to justice. Two weeks later, a gaunt but undefeated Turner was discovered in fields a short distance from the farm of his former master’s brother-in-law. The entire time he was at large, Turner had not gone far from home. Why had an intelligent, armed man—who well knew his likely fate should he be captured—remained so close the site of his rebellion? Turner had successfully escaped from slavery some years before, after all, and was clearly cunning enough to avoid capture for long enough that he could have sought refuge in a place where he would not have been recognized. Yet he remained. Acting under what he thought was a divine mandate, Turner may have believed that God would deliver him from his pursuers; this was the rationale suggested by Gray in his comments in the Confessions. Alternatively, Turner may have realized that capture and execution would make him a martyr, a highly respected religious status, and one not uncommon for prophets, as Turner considered himself to be. However, Gray did not ask, and Turner did not volunteer, his reasoning.
Whatever Turner may have thought about his capture, it did not inspire any feelings of remorse in him. At his trial, he pled not guilty, stating simply that he did not feel as though he were guilty. As he told Gray, “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.”
Turner’s rebellion, like all of its North American predecessors, ended in failure and ultimately was more costly in terms of lives and rights for enslaved and free African Americans than it was for white Southerners. Most of the participants in Turner’s revolt, including its leader, were executed for their involvement. White panic over the prospect of a large-scale uprising led to the torture and murder of many slaves throughout the region, most of whom had no connection to the revolt. According to one source, some 120 African Americans died in just one day at the hands of their enraged and terrified white neighbors. Wild rumors circulated that huge groups of slaves were planning or had actually undertaken direct assaults on southern cities.
Former slave Harriet Jacobs was an eyewitness to the hysteria. Describing it in her memoirs, she recalled the terrible punishments inflicted on blameless black slaves. Innocent individuals had evidence suggesting their involvement in an insurrection planted on them by one group of white vigilantes who then directed another group to find and “punish” them for the crime. Black men, women, and children were severely whipped and beaten. The homes of black people were vandalized and burgled. “The consternation was universal,” Jacobs noted. “No two people that had the slightest tinge of color in their faces dared to be seen talking together” (98–99).
Even after Turner’s capture helped cool the short-term mass hysteria, the rebellion had a negative impact on the already limited social and political rights of enslaved and free blacks in the South. Some Southerners blamed the growing northern abolition movement for inciting the rebellion, raising proslavery feeling among even previously moderate Southerners and encouraging increased sectional antagonism. Internal suggestions that emancipation could free Virginia of the fear of future insurrection, even by such notable individuals as the state governor, were rejected in the court of popular opinion. Throughout the South, harsher slave codes were enacted to suppress any possible rebellion before it began, a common white political reaction to black revolt. Black religious communities were broken up, and slaves forbidden to visit slaves on other plantations. Laws restricting the instruction of black slaves in reading and writing increased. The numbers of state militia members swelled.
While white Southerners demonized Turner for his actions, many southern African Americans came to regard him as something of a folk hero—a slave who managed to successfully buck the system, if only for a short time, and unleash some of the horrors inflicted on enslaved blacks back upon the community that made slavery possible. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison hailed the publication of Turner’s Confessions as a tool to encourage other enslaved African Americans to fight back against the institution. Later scholars, some inspired by the publication of William Styron’s 1967 fictionalized account of Turner’s revolt, have also taken diverse views on Turner’s actions and legacy. What seems unquestionable, however, was the force of Turner’s religious sentiment and the power of his narrative to sway the actions of numerous others.
Aptheker, Herbert. Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion. 1966. Mineola: Dover, 2006. Print. Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston: n.p., 1861. Print. Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper, 1975. Print. French, Scot. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton, 2004. Print. Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print. Johnson, Charles, et al. Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt, 1998. Print. Johnson, F. Roy. The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro: Johnson, 1966. Print.