Nat Turner

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Nat Turner
Nat Turner.jpg
An artist's interpretation of Turner.
Born Nat (Turner)
(1800-10-02)October 2, 1800
Southampton County, Virginia, U.S.
Died November 11, 1831(1831-11-11) (aged 31)
Jerusalem, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death Execution by hanging
Nationality American
Ethnicity African American
Known for Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion
Spouse(s) Cherry[1]
North American slave revolts
Général Toussaint Louverture.jpg

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an African-American slave who led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia on August 21, 1831, that resulted in the deaths of at least fifty white people and at least 200 black people.[2]

Turner led a group of slaves carrying farm implements in a rebellion against slavery. As they went from plantation to plantation they gathered horses, guns, freed other slaves along the way, and recruited other blacks that wanted to join their revolt. During the rebellion, Virginia legislators targeted free blacks with a colonization bill, which allocated new funding to remove them, and a police bill that denied free blacks trials by jury and made any free blacks convicted of a crime subject to sale and relocation.[2] Whites organized militias and called out regular troops to suppress the rising. In addition, white militias and mobs attacked blacks in the area, killing an estimated 200,[3] many of whom were not involved in the revolt.[4]

In the aftermath, the state quickly arrested and executed 57 blacks accused of being part of Turner's slave rebellion. Turner hid successfully for two months. When found, he was quickly tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged. Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws to control slaves and free blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free blacks, restricted rights of assembly for free blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms (in some states), voting, and required white ministers to be present at all black worship services.

Early years[edit]

Born into slavery on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, his name was recorded as "Nat" by Benjamin Turner, the man who enslaved him and when Benjamin Turner died in 1810 Nat became the property of Benjamin's brother Samuel Turner.[2] By the Civil War era, sources referred to him as Nathaniel, and gave him the surname of the person who enslaved him in the white slaveholder custom of the time. Historians also adopted that convention. Turner knew little about the background of his father who was believed to have escaped from slavery when Turner was a young boy.

Turner spent his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, a plantation area where slaves were the majority of the population.[5] He was identified as having "natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few."[6] He learned to read and write at a young age. Deeply religious, Nat was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible.[7]

Turner's religious convictions manifested as frequent visions which he interpreted as messages from God. Turner's belief in the visions was such that when Turner was 22 years old he ran away from his owner but returned a month later after receiving a spiritual revelation. Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves who dubbed him "The Prophet". Turner garnered white followers such as Ethelred T. Brantley, who Turner was credited with having convinced to "cease from his wickedness".[8]

After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather bright complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockkneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.[9]

Turner was proclaimed as a prophet by his fellow black slaves on the plantation. In early 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty."[10][11] While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner

heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.[12]

“In connecting this vision to the motivation for his rebellion, Turner makes it clear that he sees himself as participating in the confrontation between God's Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom that characterized his social-historical context."[13] He was convinced that God had given him the task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons."[12] Turner said, "I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam.[12]

Beginning in February 1831, Turner interpreted certain atmospheric conditions as a sign to begin preparations for a rebellion against the slave owners. On February 11, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia and Turner envisioned this as a black man's hand reaching over the sun. He initially planned the rebellion to begin on July 4, Independence Day. Turner postponed it because of illness and to use the delay for additional planning and deliberation with his co-conspirators. On August 13 there was another solar eclipse in which the sun appeared bluish-green, possibly the result of lingering atmospheric debris from an eruption of Mount St. Helens. Turner interpreted this as the final signal, and about a week later, on August 21, he began the uprising.


Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. “All his initial recruits were other slaves from his neighborhood”.[14] The neighborhood had to find ways to communicate their intentions without giving up their plot. Songs may have tipped the neighborhood members on movements. "It is believed that one of the ways Turner summoned fellow conspirators to the woods was through the use of particular songs."[15] The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing the white people they found. The rebels ultimately included more than 70 enslaved and free blacks.[16]

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms.[17] The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, until it was determined that the rebellion had achieved sufficient numbers. Nat Turner only confessed to killing one of the rebellion's victims, Margret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.[17]

Before a white militia was able to respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children.[18] They spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negros.'"[19][20] Turner also thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding, a concept similar to 20th-century philosopher Frantz Fanon's idea of "violence as purgatory".[21] Turner later said that he wanted to spread "terror and alarm" among whites.[22]

Capture and execution[edit]

Nat Turner captured by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture by hiding in the woods until October 30, when he was discovered by a farmer named Benjamin Phipps, where he was hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. While awaiting his trial, Turner confessed his knowledge of the rebellion to attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray.[23] On November 5, 1831, he was tried for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", convicted and sentenced to death.[24] Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His body was flayed, beheaded and quartered.[25] Turner received no formal burial; his headless remains were either buried unmarked or kept for scientific use. His skull is said to have passed through many hands, last being reported in the collection of a planned civil rights museum for Gary, Indiana, despite calls for its burial.[26]

In the aftermath of the insurrection there were 45 slaves, including Turner, and five free blacks tried for insurrection and related crimes in Southampton. Of the 45 slaves tried, 15 were acquitted. Of the 30 convicted, 18 were hanged, while 12 were sold out of state. Of the five free blacks tried for participation in the insurrection, one was hanged, while the others were acquitted.[27]

Soon after Turner's execution, Thomas Ruffin Gray took it upon himself to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner, derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is considered the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner.


In total, the state executed 56 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. But in the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the revolt, white militias and mobs killed an estimated 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.[28]

The fear caused by Nat Turner's insurrection and the concerns raised in the emancipation debates that followed resulted in politicians and writers responding by defining slavery as a "positive good".[29] Such authors included Thomas Roderick Dew, a College of William & Mary professor who published a pamphlet in 1832 opposing emancipation on economic and other grounds.[30]



Nat Turner remains an "enigmatic and controversial figure", according to former University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor Stephen B. Oates.[citation needed] He fought the just anti-slavery cause, but his murders of women and children in the 21st century are often classified as war crimes or terrorism.[according to whom?][citation needed] African Americans in the antebellum period and up to today have generally regarded Turner as a hero of resistance, who made slave-owners pay for the hardships they had caused so many Africans and African Americans to suffer.[19] Though many people did not try to interpret Nat Turner's rebellion at the time, one article later states that Turner was "a parcel of blood-thirsty wolves rushing down from the Alps" and called Turner "a fanatic preacher," a preacher who "pretends to be a Baptist preacher," and rebelled "without any cause or provocation." A second article also stated that Turner "was stimulated exclusively by fanatical revenge, and perhaps misled by some hallucination of his imagined spirit of prophecy."[31] James H. Harris, who has written extensively about the history of the Black church, says that the revolt "marked the turning point in the black struggle for liberation." He believed that "only a cataclysmic act could convince the architects of a violent social order that violence begets violence."[21]

In the period soon after the revolt, whites did not try to interpret Turner's motives and ideas.[22] Antebellum slave-holding whites were shocked by the murders and had their fears of rebellions heightened; Turner's name was "a symbol of terrorism and violent retribution".[19]

In 1843, Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave, and active abolitionist, called Nat Turner "patriotic", stating that "future generations will remember him among the noble and brave" in his speech at the National Negro Convention Of 1843.[32] In 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a northern writer, praised Turner in a seminal article published in Atlantic Monthly. He described Turner as a man "who knew no book but the Bible, and that by heart who devoted himself soul and body to the cause of his race".[33] After the Civil War, historians who opposed slavery tended to sympathize with Turner for his resistance. In the 21st century, writing after the September 11 attacks in the United States, William L. Andrews drew analogies between Turner and modern "religio-political terrorists." He suggested that the "spiritual logic" explicated in Confessions of Nat Turner warrants study as "a harbinger of the spiritualizing violence of today's jihads and crusades".[22]

In literature and film[edit]

  • The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, a slave narrative by an escaped slave, refers to the rebellion.
  • Harriet Ann Jacobs, also an escaped slave, refers to Turner in her 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a novel by William Styron, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.[36] It prompted much controversy, with some criticizing a white author writing about such an important black figure. Several critics described it as racist and "a deliberate attempt to steal the meaning of a man's life."[37] There were cultural discussions about how different peoples interpret the past and whether any one group has sole ownership of any portion.
  • In response to Styron's novel, ten African-American writers published a collection of essays, The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner (1968).[38]
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion is featured in Episode 5 of the 1977 TV miniseries Roots. It is historically inaccurate, as the episode is set in 1841[39] and the revolt took place in 1831.
  • In 2007 cartoonist and comic book author Kyle Baker wrote a two-part comic book about Turner and his uprising, which was called Nat Turner.[40]
  • In early 2009, comic book artist and animator Brad Neely created a Web animation entitled "American Moments of Maybe", a satirical advertisement for Nat Turner's Punchout! a video game in which a player took on the role of Nat Turner.[41]
  • The Birth of a Nation, the 2016 film written, directed, and starring Nate Parker as Turner, is about Turner's 1831 rebellion.[42] This film, which also stars Gabrielle Union, was sold at the Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $17.5 million in January 2016.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.
  2. ^ a b c Gray White, Deborah (2013). Freedom on my mind: A history of African Americans. New York Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 225. 
  3. ^ Oates, Stephen B. (1990) [1975]. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. p. 126. ISBN 0-06-091670-2. 
  4. ^ American History: A Survey — Brinkley
  5. ^ Drewry, William Sydney (1900). The Southampton Insurrection. Washington, D. C.: The Neale Company. p. 108. 
  6. ^ Bisson, Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader (2005), p. 76.
  7. ^ Aptheker (1993), p. 296.
  8. ^ Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver. pp. 7–9, 11. 
  9. ^ Description of Turner included in $500 reward notice in the National Intelligencer (Washington, DC) on September 24, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 294.
  10. ^ Gray (1831), p. 9.
  11. ^ Rothman, Adam. Slavery. Accessed 2 June 2011.
  12. ^ a b c Gray (1831), p. 11.
  13. ^ Dreis, Joseph (November 2014). "Nat Turner’s Rebellion as a Process of Conversion: Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Christian Conversion Process" (Vol. 12 No. 3): 231. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Kaye, Anthony (2007). "Neighborhoods and Nat Turner". Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Winter 2007): 705–720. doi:10.1353/jer.2007.0076. 
  15. ^ Nielson, Erik (2011). "'Go in de wilderness': Evading the 'Eyes of Others' in the Slave Songs". The Western Journal of Black Studies 35 (2): 106–117. 
  16. ^ Ayers, de la Tejada, Schulzinger and White (2007). American Anthem US History. New York, New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. p. 286. 
  17. ^ a b Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, Maryland: Lucas & Deaver. 
  18. ^ Oates, Stephen B. (1990 [1975]) The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, New York: HarperPerennial ISBN 0-06-091670-2.
  19. ^ a b c Oates, Stephen (September 1973). "Children of Darkness". American Heritage Magazine 24 (3). Archived from the original on February 21, 2009. 
  20. ^ Bisson, Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader (2005), pp. 57–58.
  21. ^ a b James H. Harris (1995). Preaching liberation. Fortress Press. p. 46. 
  22. ^ a b c William L. Andrews; ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (2008). "7". Theorizing Scriptures: new critical orientations to a cultural phenomenon. Rutgers University Press. pp. 83–85. 
  23. ^ Gray, Thomas (1993). "The Confessions of Nat Turner". American Journal of Legal History 03: 332–361. 
  24. ^ Southampton County Court Minute Book 1830-1835, pp. 121-123.
  25. ^ Gibson, Christine (November 11, 2005). "Nat Turner, Lightning Rod". American Heritage Magazine. Archived from the original on April 6, 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-06. 
  26. ^ French, 279-281.
  27. ^ Walter L. Gordon, III, The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials: A Mystic Chord Resonates Today (Booksurge, 2009) at 75, 92.
  28. ^ "Africans in America/Part 3/Nat Turner's Rebellion". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  29. ^ "Virginia Memory: Nat Turner Rebellion". Virginia Memory. Retrieved December 10, 2014. 
  30. ^ "Alfred L. Brophy, Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas R. Dew" (PDF). Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  31. ^ Dreis, Joseph (November 2014). "Nat Turner's Rebellion as a Process of Conversion: Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Christian Conversion Process" (Vol. 12 No. 3): 232. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  32. ^ Henry Highland Garnet, A Memorial Discourse (Philadelphia: J. M. Wilson, 1865), 44-51.
  33. ^ Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Nat Turner's Insurrection: An account of America's bloodiest slave revolt, and its repercussions". The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  34. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  35. ^ "The Trust for Public Land Celebrates Groundbreaking at Nat Turner Park". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  36. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes | Fiction". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  37. ^ Ebony. 
  38. ^ "Dr. Molefi Kete Asante – Articles". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  39. ^ "Roots – disc 3-1, part 1". YouTube. Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  40. ^ "Kyle Baker's Nat Turner #1". Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  41. ^ "Brad Neely – American Moments of Maybe – Video, listening & stats at". 2008-11-21. Retrieved 2010-08-21. 
  42. ^ Pedersen, Erik. "‘The Birth Of A Nation’ Adds To Cast; Ryan Gosling In Talks For ‘The Haunted Mansion’". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Herbert Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).
  • Herbert Aptheker. Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion. New York: Humanities Press, 1966.
  • Alfred L. Brophy. "The Nat Turner Trials". North Carolina Law Review (June 2013), volume 91: 1817-80.
  • Scot French. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
  • William Lloyd Garrison, "The Insurrection", The Liberator (September 3, 1831). A contemporary abolitionist's reaction to news of the rebellion.
  • Walter L. Gordon III. The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials: A Mystic Chord Resonates Today (Booksurge, 2009).
  • Thomas R. Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore: Lucas & Deaver, 1831. Available online.
  • William Stryon, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Random House Inc, 1993, ISBN 0-679-73663-8
  • Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990 (1975).
  • Brodhead, Richard H. "Millennium, Prophecy and the Energies of Social Transformation: The Case of Nat Turner," in A. Amanat and M. Bernhardsson (eds), Imagining the End: Visions of Apocalypse from the Ancient Middle East to Modern America (London, I. B. Tauris, 2002), 212-233.
  • Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006.

External links[edit]