On August 23, 1831, Governor John Floyd received a note from the Southampton County postmaster stating "that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down." At least fifty-five white people, many of them women and children, died before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers converged on the region and put down the insurrection. Angry white vigilantes killed dozens of slaves and drove hundreds of free persons of color into exile in the reign of terror that followed.
Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon confirmed that the rebels were not runaways but slaves from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 participants gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders, one of which was an enslaved preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner; it was his "imagined spirit of prophecy" and his extraordinary powers of persuasion, local authorities reported, that had turned obedient slaves into bloodthirsty killers. Turner's ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.
While Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. An abolitionist writer named Samuel Warner suggested that Turner had hidden himself in the Dismal Swamp with an army of runaways at his disposal. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and delivery to jail. On October 30, 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his "Confessions," and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed. Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act, that he had shared his plans with only a few trusted followers, and that he knew nothing of any wider conspiracy extending beyond the Southampton County area. Certified as authentic by six local magistrates and said to be authorized by Turner himself, the "Confessions" became the definitive but controversial source for nearly all subsequent accounts of the event.
Turner's revolt prompted a prolonged debate in the Virginia General Assembly. While many statesmen adhered to the Jeffersonian idea that the ending of slavery was desirable, no coherent plan for eventual abolition emerged. In fact, Virginia's sponsorship of colonization to Africa, a popular solution to the problem, in reality became simply a way to remove free blacks, who were thought to be a bad influence on slaves. Instead of advocating freedom for slaves, some prominent Virginians developed a positive argument for slavery's good based on their readings of the Bible and classical history. As a result of Turner's actions, Virginia's legislators enacted more laws to limit the activities of African Americans, both free and enslaved. The freedom of slaves to communicate and congregate was directly attacked. No one could assemble a group of African Americans to teach reading or writing, nor could anyone be paid to teach a slave. Preaching by slaves and free blacks was forbidden.
1. Where did Nat Turner's Rebellion take place?
2. How many people were killed?
3. What motivated Turner and his followers? What were their goals?
1. In discussing his motivation to start a revolt, Nat Turner stated that God had given him a sign to act. What was Turner's religious background? Why was religion among African Americans a part of the white response to the rebellion?
2. What was the connection between illiteracy and slavery? Why did southerners take steps to keep African Americans from learning to read and write? What role did literacy among African Americans play in the rebellion?
French, Scot. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Santoro, Anthony. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116 (2008): 114–149.
Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.