Nat Turner’s Revolt resulted in the deaths of 60 whites and 200 blacks, causing greater vigilance, the strengthening of slave codes, and a new perception of slavery.
Church bells began ringing all over Southampton County on the morning of Sunday, August 22, 1831 as news rapidly spread that a major insurrection was taking place. Although there had been other slave rebellions in the past, like the Gabriel Prosser revolt in 1800 and the Vesey rebellion in 1822, Nat Turner’s revolt would dramatically change white perceptions of slavery. Sixty whites had perished by orders of Turner, a highly intelligent and charismatic leader. But as with other slave rebellions, it was swiftly put down, in part because many slaves refused to join Turner’s army and even betrayed the revolt to white masters out of fear of reprisal.
Southampton County, Virginia
The first slaves to arrive in America in 1619 landed in Virginia and it was the expanding Tidewater plantation economy that grew the slave population in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Nat’s mother had been brought from Africa and eventually sold in Southampton County. She had named him Nathaniel, meaning “the gift of God.”
In the agricultural South, white social status was determined by the number of slaves a planter owned. Most of the wealthier planters – the old Virginia aristocracy, maintained large estates along the Atlantic coast. Although a handful of planters in rural Southampton County owned more than fifty slaves, most owned only a few and were not wealthy enough to employ overseers.
Nat Turner at the Travis Plantation
Despite widespread knowledge among blacks and whites of his intelligence, Turner was forced to work in the fields. Unlike most slaves, Turner had learned to read and had been encouraged by a former master to study the Bible. This inspiration led him to believe that God was calling him to a special task that involved freeing the slaves from bondage, even as Moses had led the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Turner’s spirituality condoned violence as a means to an end, unlike the views of other slaves that found solace in Christianity.
Contrary to the conclusions of Southern chroniclers, Turner was not a lunatic or a deceiver. According to Religion Professor Stephen Haynes, Turner was “portrayed as a trickster and manipulator, an ignorant, superstitious, and cunning man” by Southern historians. Turner’s visions – signs and omens, were no different from those claimed by white prophets of the same time period like Joseph Smith.
The Insurrection Begins
The revolt began after midnight as Turner and his small group of trusted lieutenants entered the home of his master, Joseph Travis. The entire family was killed, hacked to death and decapitated. From there, Turner’s group attacked other farms, killing any whites they encountered. Although some slaves joined his cause as he moved from one farm to another, many refused, fearing eventual retribution. Turner spared poor whites who, he reasoned, were no better off than the slaves.
Some whites escaped, alerting other farms in the county. Word came to Jerusalem, the county seat, and the militia was mustered out. Riders brought news of a major revolt to Richmond, Petersburg, and even Murfreesboro, North Carolina, prompting outrageous rumors and the prospect of slave uprisings in that state. In Richmond, Governor John Floyd dispatched troops to Southampton.
End of the Rebellion and the Aftermath
The revolt was quickly brought under control. Nat Turner, who had hidden in the swamps and forest, was captured and brought to Jerusalem for trial. After a public recounting of the events and a formal trial, he was hung on November 11th. Twenty of his group were also convicted and hung. Although 60 whites had been killed, the retribution cost 200 black lives in the aftermath.
The Turner revolt changed the perceptions of whites regarding slaves. Slave codes were strengthened and vigilance increased. Historian Stephen Oates comments that, “In one desperate blow, Nat Turner had smashed the prevailing stereotype of master-slave relationships in the Old South…” Slavery had gone from “necessary evil” and “economic necessity” to a volcanic institution that could erupt any place, any time, particularly in areas where blacks outnumbered whites.
- Eric Foner, editor Nat Turner: Great Lives Observed (Prentice-Hall, 1971)
- Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2002)
- Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877 (Hill and Wang, 1993)
- Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (Harper & Row, 1975)