Turner Launches Slave Insurrection Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia was quickly suppressed, it was the first American slave uprising to achieve even brief success and consequently sent a shockwave through the South that resulted in new repressive legislation restricting the rights and movements of slaves.

Summary of Event

So far as is known, Turner spent his entire life as a slave in his native Southampton County, where he had been born on the plantation of Benjamin Turner, from whom he got his surname. His mother appears to have been a native African, who taught him at an early age to believe that he possessed supernatural powers. He was both a mystic and oriented toward religion. In addition to possessing those traits, he could read, and historians have surmised that he learned this skill from the Turner family. Turner became a Christian through the instruction of his grandmother Bridget. He read the Bible and became a Baptist Baptists;and slavery[Slavery] preacher. Because of his mysticism, his ability to read, and his activities as a minister, he gained considerable influence over his fellow slaves. Turner, Nat Slave rebellions;Nat Turner[Turner] Virginia;slave rebellions [kw]Turner Launches Slave Insurrection (Aug. 21, 1831) [kw]Launches Slave Insurrection, Turner (Aug. 21, 1831) [kw]Slave Insurrection, Turner Launches (Aug. 21, 1831) [kw]Insurrection, Turner Launches Slave (Aug. 21, 1831) Turner, Nat Slave rebellions;Nat Turner[Turner] Virginia;slave rebellions [g]United States;Aug. 21, 1831: Turner Launches Slave Insurrection[1700] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug. 21, 1831: Turner Launches Slave Insurrection[1700] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 21, 1831: Turner Launches Slave Insurrection[1700] Turner, Cherry

Benjamin Turner’s son Samuel Turner inherited ownership of Nat during a time of economic depression in Virginia. He hired a new overseer, who drove the slaves to work harder. In response, Nat ran away. After eluding capture for thirty days, Nat turned himself in to his owner. His return went unpunished, but in the days that followed, Nat saw that his own freedom could not be realized without his people’s freedom.

During the early 1820’s, Nat married another slave, named Cherry Turner, Cherry , with whom he had three children. Cherry would later conceal coded maps and lists that Turner used in his revolt, which experts have never been able to decode. When Samuel Turner died in 1822, Nat’s family was broken up and sold to different families. Nat went to a neighboring farmer, Thomas Moore, and was sold again, to Joseph Travis, in 1831.

Nat Turner thought of himself as an instrument of God. Between 1825 and 1830, he gained respect as a traveling neighborhood preacher. He became deeply religious, fasting and praying in solitude. In his own mind he had been ordained—like the prophets of old—to perform a special mission. He professed that God communicated with him through voices and signs in the heavens. On May 12, 1828, he heard a “great noise” and saw “white spirits” and “black spirits” battling.

In February, 1831, an unusual blueness in the atmosphere caused by a solar eclipse Eclipses convinced Nat that God was announcing that the time had come for slaves to attack their white masters. Turner communicated this message to his band of followers. The rebellion began on August 21, when Turner and seven other slaves murdered everyone in the Travis family. Twenty-four hours after the rebellion began, the rebel band numbered seventy-five slaves. Over the next two days, the rebels killed another fifty-one white people. Despite the growing scale of the rebellion, no evidence exists to indicate that Turner’s movement was a part of any larger scheme.

Contemporary depiction of Turner’s rebellion.

(Library of Congress)

Turner next directed his attack toward the county seat, Jerusalem, and the weapons in its armory, but he never made it. The white community responded promptly, and with its overpowering force of armed slave owners and militia, it routed the poorly armed slaves on the second day of the rebellion. Although Turner eluded capture for six weeks, he and all the rebels were eventually killed or captured and later executed. Hundreds of other slaves who did not participate in the rebellion were also slain by terrified members of the white community. Turner’s court-appointed attorney, Thomas Gray, recorded Turner’s “confessions” on November 1, and on November 11, 1831, Turner was hanged. Gray later remarked on Turner’s intelligence and knowledge of military tactics.


Although Turner’s revolt took place in a relatively isolated section of Virginia, the uprising caused the entire South to tremble. Many white southerners called for more stringent laws to regulate slaves’ behavior, such as making it a crime to teach a slave to read or write. Turner’s revolt coincided with the blossoming of the abolition movement in the North, for the rebellion occurred during the same year that William Lloyd Garrison began his unremitting assault on slavery. Although no one has been able to demonstrate that abolitionist Abolitionism;and Nat Turner insurrection[Turner insurrection] activity influenced Turner, white southerners were horrified at the seeming coincidence. They described abolitionists as persons who wanted not only to end slavery but also to encourage a massacre of southern whites. The white South stood as one against any outside interference with its system.

While white people throughout the South looked anew at slavery, in no place did they look more closely than in Virginia. The state’s 1831-1832 legislative session saw the most thorough public discussion of slavery in southern history before 1861. Only four months after Turner’s revolt, the state legislature appointed a committee to recommend to the state a course of action in dealing with slavery. Virginians opposed to slavery Slavery;arguments in support of made their case. They argued that slavery was a prime cause of Virginia’s economic backwardness; that it injured white manners and morals; and that, as witnessed by Turner’s revolt, it was basically dangerous. Although they also said that abolition would benefit the slaves, they primarily maintained that white Virginians would reap the greatest rewards, as former slaves, after a gradual and possibly compensated emancipation, would be removed from the state. These abolitionists, most of whom were from western Virginia (which separated and became West Virginia West Virginia;creation of during the Civil War), an area of few slaves, could not agree on a specific plan to accomplish their purpose.

Virginia’s defenders of slavery countered by boasting of Virginia’s economic well-being and the good treatment and contentment of their slaves. Referring to the well-established belief in the sanctity of private property, they denied that the legislature had any right to meddle with slave property.

The Virginia legislature decided not to tamper with slavery. It rebuffed those who wanted to put Virginia on the road to emancipation. After the slavery debates, white southerners no longer seriously considered any alternative to slavery. In the aftermath of Turner’s revolt and Virginia’s debate, the South erected a massive defense of its peculiar institution. That defense permeated southern politics, religion, literature, and science. Nat Turner’s revolt—the only successful slave uprising in the South—heralded and confirmed the total southern commitment to black slavery. However, Turner left a profound legacy: Slaves would fight for their freedom. Turner’s rebellion later helped inspire twentieth century black activists, including Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1988. An easy-to-read account of Nat Turner’s life and motivations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. A detailed account of slave culture and community life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">French, Scot. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Analysis of Turner’s legacy that examines how he has been depicted in popular culture. Describes how Turner’s image has changed from the immediate aftermath of his rebellion to more recent debates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. 1831. Reprint. Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969. Contains Turner’s own account of his revolt, as given to an official of the court that tried him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Includes the text of Turner’s confessions to Thomas R. Gray and other historical documents from the time period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Collection of essays about Turner, including an exploration of his relationship with the black community in Southampton County, Virginia, and the role of women in his insurrection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Styron, William. Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1967. A controversial novel that aimed to show an understanding of Turner’s revolt and the institution of slavery but was sharply attacked by African American intellectuals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tragle, Henry Irving. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971. Reprints primary source material: newspaper accounts, trial records, and other documents written at the time of the revolt.

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