Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an African-American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831 that resulted in 55 white deaths. Whites responded with at least 200 black deaths. He gathered supporters in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged. In the aftermath, the state executed 56 blacks accused of being part of Turner’s slave rebellion. Two hundred blacks were also killed after being beaten by white militias and mobs reacting with violence. Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.
At birth on October 2, 1800, Turner’s owner recorded only his given name, Nat. References to “Nathaniel” would appear in Civil War era sources, but not in contemporary documents. In accordance with common practice, the whites referred to him by the last name of his owner, Benjamin Turner. This practice was continued by historians. Turner knew little about the background of his father, who was believed to have escaped from slavery when Turner was a young boy. Turner remained close to his paternal grandmother, Old Bridget, who was also owned by Benjamin Turner. Turner’s maternal grandmother was one of the Coromantee also known as the Akan people from present-day Ghana, a group known for slave revolts. She was captured in Africa at thirteen years of age and shipped to America.
Turner spent his life in Southampton County, Virginia, a predominantly black area. 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.
Turner had “natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few.” 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. He frequently experienced visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 22 years old, he ran away from his owner, but returned a month later after having such a vision. Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet”. Turner also had influence over white people, and in the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Turner said that he was able to convince Brantley to “cease from his wickedness”.
By early 1828, Turner was convinced that he “was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” 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.” Turner was convinced that God had given him the task of “slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons.” 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.
Beginning in February 1831, Turner came to believe that certain atmospheric conditions were to be interpreted as a sign that he should begin preparing for a rebellion against the slave owners.
On February 11, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia. Turner saw this as a black man’s hand reaching over the sun, and he took this vision as his sign. The rebellion was initially planned for July 4, Independence Day, but was postponed for more deliberation between him and his followers, and due to illness. On August 13, there was another solar eclipse, in which the sun appeared bluish-green (possibly from debris deposited in the atmosphere by an eruption of Mount Saint Helens). Turner took this occasion as the final signal, and about a week later, on August 21, he began the rebellion.
Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. “All his initial recruits were other slaves from his neighborhood”. 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.” 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.
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. 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.
Before a white militia was able to respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children. They spared a few homes “because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants ‘thought no better of themselves than they did of negros.'” 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”. Turner later said that he wanted to spread “terror and alarm” among whites.
Capture and execution
The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture until October 30, when he was discovered hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. On November 5, 1831, he was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection”, convicted and sentenced to death. Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His body was flayed, beheaded and quartered. 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.
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.
Soon after Turner’s execution, a local lawyer, 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 the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner.
In total, the state executed 56 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. In the aftermath, close to 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered.
Before the Nat Turner Revolt, there was a small but ineffectual antislavery movement in Virginia, largely on account of economic trends that made slavery less profitable in the Old South in the 1820s and fears among whites of the rising number of blacks, especially in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. The push for abolition in 1831 represented the interests of “herrenvolk” democracy and white male suffrage. Enraged poor whites condemned the slave-owning aristocracy for endangering their families and retaining an unfair advantage in elections as a result of the 3/5th clause. Most of the movement’s members, including acting governor John Floyd, supported resettlement of blacks to Africa for these reasons. The enlightenment thinking of Virginia’s forefathers played little part in the Emancipation’s Debates of 1831-2. Considerations of white racial and moral purity also influenced many of these antislavery Virginians. These concerns illustrated that Virginia position towards slavery was no longer “apologetic”. The fear caused by Nat Turner’s insurrection and the concerns raised in the emancipation debates that followed laid foundation for politicians and writers who regarded slavery as a “positive good”. Such authors included Thomas Roderick Dew, a William and Mary professor who published a pamphlet in 1832 opposing emancipation on economic and other grounds.
Nevertheless, fears of repetitions of the Nat Turner Revolt polarized moderates and slave owners across the South. Municipalities across the region instituted repressive policies against blacks. Rights were taken away from those who were free. The freedoms of all black people in Virginia were tightly curtailed. Socially, the uprising discouraged whites’ questioning the slave system from the perspective that such discussion might encourage similar slave revolts. Manumissions had decreased by 1810. The shift away from tobacco had made owning slaves in the Upper South an excess to the planters’ needs, so they started to hire out slaves. With the ending of the slave trade, the invention of the cotton gin, and opening up of new territories in the Deep South, suddenly there was a growing market for the trading of slaves. Over the next decades, more than a million slaves would be transported to the Deep South in a forced migration as a result of the domestic slave trade.
In terms of public response and loss of white lives, slaveholders in the Upper South and coastal states were deeply shocked by the Nat Turner Rebellion. While the 1811 German Coast Uprising in Louisiana involved a greater number of slaves, it resulted in only two white fatalities. Events in Louisiana did not receive as much attention in those years in the Upper South and Low country. Because of his singular status, Turner is regarded as a hero by many African Americans and pan-Africanists worldwide.
Nat Turner became the focus of historical scholarship in the 1940s, when historian Herbert Aptheker was publishing the first serious scholarly work on instances of slave resistance in the antebellum South. Aptheker wrote that the rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. He traversed libraries and archives throughout the South, managing to uncover roughly 250 similar instances, though none of them reached the scale of Nat Turner’s Revolt.
Looking back, Nat Turner remains an “enigmatic and controversial figure”, according to former University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor Stephen B. Oates, given that Turner fought for the just anti-slavery cause but he proceeded in acts of violence against women and children that would today be considered as war crimes or terrorism. Among many, perhaps most, African-Americans in the antebellum period up to today, Turner’s legacy takes on a heroic status as someone willing to make slave-owners pay for the hardships that they enacted upon the millions of children, women and men they enslaved. Black church historical writer James H. Harris has argued that the revolt “marked the turning point in the black struggle for liberation” since, in his view, “only a cataclysmic act could convince the architects of a violent social order that violence begets violence.”
Shortly after the revolt, Turner’s motives and ideas were generally seen as opaque and too unclear to either support or condemn by most American whites. Ante-bellum slave-holding whites clearly experienced a major psychological shock and lived in greater fear of future rebellions, with Turner’s name working as “a symbol of terrorism and violent retribution”. Turner eventually received praise in a seminal Atlantic Monthly article in 1861 by Thomas Higginson, who called him 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”. However, writing after the September 11 attacks, William L. Andrews drew analogies between Turner and modern “religio-political terrorists”, and 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”. Most historical commentary tended to sympathize with Turner after the U.S. civil war ended.