Nat Turner's slave rebellion

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Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion
Part of the prelude to the American Civil War
Nat Turner woodcut.jpg
1831 woodcut purporting to illustrate various stages of the rebellion.
DateAugust 21–23, 1831
LocationSouthampton County, Virginia

Rebellion suppressed

Rebel slaves

 United States

  • Local white militias
Commanders and leaders
Nat Turner
Casualties and losses
56 executed, approx. 120 killed by militia and mobs[1][2] 55–65 killed
North American slave revolts
Général Toussaint Louverture.jpg
Toussaint Louverture

Nat Turner's Rebellion (also known as the Southampton Insurrection) was a slave rebellion that took place in Southampton County, Virginia, during August 1831.[3] Led by Nat Turner, rebel slaves killed from 55 to 65 people, at least 51 being white.[4] The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for more than two months afterwards. The rebellion was effectively suppressed at Belmont Plantation on the morning of August 23, 1831.[5]

There was widespread fear in the aftermath of the rebellion, and white militias organized in retaliation against the slaves. The state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of the rebellion. In the frenzy, many non-participant slaves were punished. Approximately 120 slaves and free African Americans were murdered by militias and mobs in the area.[1][2] Across the South, state legislatures passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free black people,[6] restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free black people, and requiring white ministers to be present at all worship services.

Nat Turner's background[edit]

Nat Turner was an African-American slave who had lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites.[7] After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches [168–173 cm] high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds [68–73 kg], rather "bright" [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, 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.[8]

Turner was highly intelligent and learned how to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible.[9] He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. For instance, when Turner was 21 years old he ran away from his owner, Samuel Turner, but returned a month later after becoming delirious from hunger and receiving a vision that told him to "return to the service of my earthly master".[10] In 1824, while working in the fields under his new owner, Thomas Moore, Turner had his second vision, in which "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".[11] Turner often conducted Baptist services, and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him "the Prophet".

Turner also had an influence over white people. In the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to "cease from his wickedness".[12] By the spring of 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty".[10] 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".[13]

In 1830, Joseph Travis purchased Turner and became his master. Turner later recalled that Travis was "a kind master" who had "placed the greatest confidence in" him.[13] Turner eagerly anticipated God's signal to start his task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons".[13] Turner witnessed a solar eclipse on February 12, 1831, and was convinced that this was the sign for which he was waiting. Following in the steps of the late Denmark Vesey of South Carolina, he started preparations for a "rising" or rebellion against the white slaveholders of Southampton County by purchasing muskets. Turner "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.[13]


Turner had originally planned for the rebellion to begin on July 4, 1831, but had fallen ill, pushing the date back until August 22.[14] He started with several trusted fellow slaves, and ultimately gathered more than 70 enslaved and free blacks, some of whom were mounted on horseback.[15] On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the sun appear bluish-green. Taking this as the final signal, he began the rebellion a week later on August 21. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they encountered.

As muskets and firearms were too difficult to collect and would gather unwanted attention, the rebels used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. Historian Stephen B. Oates states that Turner called on his group to "kill all the white people".[16] A contemporary newspaper noted, "Turner declared that 'indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'"[17] The group spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.'"[16][18]

The rebels spared almost no one whom they encountered, with the exception of a small child who hid in a fireplace among the few survivors. The insurgents killed approximately sixty white men, women, and children[16] before they were defeated. Eventually, the white state militia — infantry with twice the manpower of the rebels, reinforced by three companies of artillery — were able to defeat the insurrection.[19]

The Rebecca Vaughan House is the last remaining intact building in Southampton County at which owners and their families were killed in the Nat Turner Insurrection.[20]


Belmont, where the rebellion was quashed

Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina surrounding Southampton.[19] The state executed 56 black people and militias killed at least 100 blacks.[21] An estimated 120 black people were killed, most of whom were not involved with the rebellion.[1][2]

Rumors quickly spread among whites that the slave revolt was not limited to Southampton, and that it had spread as far south as Alabama. Fears led to reports in North Carolina that "armies" of slaves were seen on highways, had burned and massacred the white inhabitants of Wilmington, a black-majority city; and were marching on the state capital.[16] Such fear and alarm led to whites' attacking blacks across the South with flimsy cause–the editor of the Richmond Whig, writing "with pain", described the scene as "the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity."[22] Two weeks after the rebellion had been suppressed, the white violence against the black people continued. General Eppes ordered troops and white citizens to stop the killing:

He [the General] will not specify all the instances that he is bound to believe have occurred, but pass in silence what has happened, with the expression of his deepest sorrow, that any necessity should be supposed to have existed, to justify a single act of atrocity. But he feels himself bound to declare, and hereby announces to the troops and citizens, that no excuse will be allowed for any similar acts of violence, after the promulgation of this order.[23]

In a letter to the New York Evening Post, Reverend G. W. Powell wrote that "many negroes are killed every day. The exact number will never be known."[24]

A company of militia from Hertford County, North Carolina, reportedly killed 40 blacks in one day and took $23 and a gold watch from the dead.[25] Captain Solon Borland, who led a contingent from Murfreesboro, North Carolina, condemned the acts "because it was tantamount to theft from the white owners of the slaves".[25] Blacks suspected of participating in the rebellion were beheaded by the militia. "Their severed heads were mounted on poles at crossroads as a grisly form of intimidation."[25] A section of Virginia State Route 658 remains labeled as "Blackhead Signpost Road" in reference to these events.[26]


The rebellion was quashed within two days. In the aftermath of the revolt, officials tried forty-eight black men and women on charges of conspiracy, insurrection, and treason. In total, the state executed 56 people, banished many more, and acquitted 15. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for the slaves who were convicted and executed. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 120 black people were killed by the militia and white mobs.[1][2]

Turner eluded capture for two months but remained in Southampton County. On October 30, a white farmer named Benjamin Phipps discovered him in a hole covered with fence rails. A trial was quickly arranged; On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was tried for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", convicted, and sentenced to death.[27][28] When asked if he regretted what he had done, Turner responded, "Was Christ not crucified?"[14] He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner's corpse was flayed, beheaded, and quartered.[29]

After Turner's capture, a local lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, wrote and published The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. The book was the result both of Gray's research while Turner was in hiding and of his conversations with Turner before the trial. This document remains the primary window into Turner's mind. Because of the author's obvious conflict of interest as the attorney for other accused participants, historians disagree on how to assess it as insight into Turner. In 1967, William Styron drew from Gray's work in writing his novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.[citation needed]

Legal response[edit]

In the aftermath of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion, dozens of suspected rebels were tried in courts called specifically for the purposes of hearing the cases against the slaves. Most of the trials took place in Southampton, but some were held in neighboring Sussex County, as well as a few in other counties. Most slaves were found guilty, many were then executed. Some of those found guilty were transported outside the state but not executed. Fifteen of the slaves tried in Southampton were acquitted.[30] Moreover, some owners of slaves who were killed without trial during the rebellion or its immediate aftermath sought compensation from the legislature; all their petitions were rejected.[31]

The following spring in Richmond, the Virginia General Assembly debated the future of slavery in the state. While some urged gradual emancipation, the pro-slavery side prevailed. The General Assembly passed legislation making it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write, and restricting all blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister.[32] Other slave-holding states across the South enacted similar laws restricting activities of slaves and free blacks.[33]

Some free blacks chose to move their families north to obtain educations for their children. Some white people, such as teachers Thomas J. Jackson (later to be famous in the American Civil War as Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson) and Mary Smith Peake, violated the laws and taught slaves to read. Overall, the laws enacted in the aftermath of the Turner Rebellion enforced widespread illiteracy among slaves. As a result, most newly freed slaves and many free blacks in the South were illiterate at the end of the American Civil War.[citation needed]

Freedmen and Northerners considered the issue of education and helping former slaves gain literacy as one of the most critical in the postwar South. Consequently, many northern religious organizations, former Union Army officers and soldiers, and wealthy philanthropists were inspired to create and fund educational efforts specifically for the betterment of African Americans in the South. Although Reconstruction legislatures passed authorization to establish public education for the first time in the South, a system of legal racial segregation was later imposed under Jim Crow laws, and black schools were historically underfunded by southern states.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Breen 2015, p98, 231
  2. ^ a b c d Breen 2015, Chapter 9 and Allmendinger 2014, Appendix F are recent studies which review various estimates for the number of slaves and free blacks killed without trial, giving a range of from 23 killed to over 200 killed and Breen notes on page 231 that "high estimates have been widely accepted in both academic and popular sources".
  3. ^ Frederic D. Schwarz "1831: Nat Turner's Rebellion," American Heritage, August/September 2006.
  4. ^ "Nat Turner - Black History -". Retrieved February 26, 2018. 
  5. ^ Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission Staff (July 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Belmont" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 
  6. ^ Gray-White, Deborah; Bay, Mia; Martin Jr, Waldo E. (2013). Freedom on my mind: A History of African of American. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. p. 225. 
  7. ^ Drewry, William Sydney (1900). The Southampton Insurrection. Washington, D. C.: The Neale Company. p. 108. 
  8. ^ Description of Turner included in a $500 reward notice in the Washington National Intelligencer on September 24, 1831.
  9. ^ Aptheker (1993), p. 295.
  10. ^ a b Gray (1831), p. 9.
  11. ^ Gray (1831), p. 10.
  12. ^ Gray, Thomas Ruffin (1831). The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Southampton, Virginia: Lucas & Deaver. pp. 7–9, 11. 
  13. ^ a b c d Gray (1831), p. 11.
  14. ^ a b Foner, Eric (2014). An American History: Give Me Liberty. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 336. ISBN 9780393920338. 
  15. ^ Aptheker, Herbert (1983). American Negro Slave Revolts (6th ed.). New York: International Publishers. p. 298. ISBN 0-7178-0605-7. 
  16. ^ a b c d Oates, Stephen (October 1973). "Children of Darkness". American Heritage. 24 (6). Retrieved July 17, 2016. 
  17. ^ Richmond Enquirer, November 8, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 299. Aptheker notes that the Enquirer was "hostile to the cause Turner espoused." p. 298.
  18. ^ Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005. pp. 57–58
  19. ^ a b Aptheker (1993), p. 300.
  20. ^ Lynda T. Updike and Katherine K. Futrell (June 2005). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Rebecca Vaughan House" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 
  21. ^ Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301, citing the Huntsville, Alabama, Southern Advocate, October 15, 1831.
  22. ^ Richmond Whig, September 3, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301.
  23. ^ Richmond Enquirer, September 6, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301.
  24. ^ New York Evening Post, September 5, 1831, quoted in Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, p. 301.
  25. ^ a b c Dr. Thomas C., Parramore (1998). Trial Separation: Murfreesboro, North Carolina and the Civil War. Murfreesboro, North Carolina: Murfreesboro Historical Association, Inc. p. 10. LCCN 00503566. 
  26. ^ Marable, Manning (2006), Living Black History
  27. ^ [1] Southampton Co., VA, Court Minute Book 1830-1835, p. 121-23
  28. ^ [2] "Proceedings on the Southampton Insurrection, Aug-Nov 1831"
  29. ^ Gibson, Christine (November 11, 2005). "Nat Turner, Lightning Rod". American Heritage Magazine. Archived from the original on April 6, 2009. Retrieved April 6, 2009. 
  30. ^ Alfred L. Brophy, "The Nat Turner Trials", North Carolina Law Review (June 2013), volume 91: 1817–80.
  31. ^ Brophy (2013), pp. 1831–1835
  32. ^ Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion (1992), p. 78
  33. ^ Lewis, Rudolph. "Up From Slavery: A Documentary History of Negro Education". ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes. Retrieved September 5, 2007. 


  • Herbert Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York, NY: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).
  • Kim Warren, "Literacy and Liberation," Reviews in American History Volume 33, Number 4, December 2005, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Virginia Writers' Program, Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion, Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library, reprint, 1992. ISBN 0-88490-173-4.

Further reading[edit]