On Nov. 11, 1831, the architect of the largest slave rebellion in American history was executed by hanging in Jerusalem, Va.
Nat Turner had been born in 1800 in Virginia's Southampton County at a plantation belonging to his white master, Benjamin Turner. He was taught to read, allowed to partake in religious services with his master's family, and his own wisdom and understanding of scripture at a young age led many of his fellow slaves to believe that he was some kind of prophet. A natural leader among his fellow slaves, at one point Turner even successfully ran away from his plantation and lived in the forests of Virginia for a month. Hunger made him voluntarily return to the plantation, however.
Not long after his return, Turner claimed to have a vision. The charismatic slave had long contemplated some kind of insurrection, but this latest revelation stirred his soul. Turner later described his vision:
“White spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened — the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams — and I heard a voice saying, 'Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.’ ”
Interpreting this to mean the hour of insurrection was at hand, Turner recruited four other slaves to lead the rebellion. Though the slaves initially decided to begin their revolt on July 4, Turner experienced an unexpected illness and their plans were postponed until Aug. 21. Turner and his fellow conspirators' first target was Turner's current master, Joseph Travis. Turner would later say that Travis “was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment of me.”
Lacking firearms, the rebels murdered their white targets by bludgeoning and hacking them with clubs and swords.
In his book “The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South,” historian John W. Blassingame writes: “Parading silently through the night and led in military maneuvers by Nat, the rebels left a trail of ransacked plantations ... By mid-morning of August 21st the little band had grown to forty men, some of them mounted.”
A militia consisting of 18 men with arms soon assembled to stop the slave rebellion. When Turner's force encountered the militia, the slaves broke and ran. Turner fled into the countryside and remained hidden until the end of October. On Nov. 5, he was tried and found guilty of murder, insurrection and conspiracy. His rebellion had lasted only two days, and approximately 60 white citizens had been murdered.
Before his execution, Turner spoke with white lawyer Thomas R. Gray, who gave the following sketch of the condemned man: “For natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, is surpassed by few men I have ever seen. He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably. The calm deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attitudes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”
In her article “Nat Turner, Lightning Rod,” historian Christine Gibson writes: “Nat Turner, dressed in rags, was led to a gnarled oak tree northeast of Jerusalem. By most accounts he was calm. The Norfolk Herald reported that 'He betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless of the awful fate that awaited him, and even hurried the executioner in the performance of his duty.' A crowd had gathered, and the sheriff asked Turner if he had anything to say. He replied only, 'I’m ready.'"
Turner's execution was only the beginning of a major crackdown against suspected Virginia slaves, and many innocent African-Americans were murdered in retribution. Historian Fergus M. Bordewich notes in his book, “Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement,” that perhaps as many as 200 African-Americans were murdered at this time.
Bordewich writes: "Turner's insurrection effectively put an end to what lingering support for emancipation remained in the South, and led directly to ever more stringent restrictions on blacks, as well as on whites who dared to publicly challenge the institution of slavery.”
Nat Turner's crimes were grisly, unnecessary, and ultimately only made things worse for his fellow African-Americans. In murdering many innocents, his methods were abhorrent and immoral, yet his was undeniably a fight for freedom. Uneducated and afraid, and burning with a desire for liberty, Turner and his fellow conspirators struck back the only way they knew how.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]