Black Resistance: A Look At The 1831 Slave Rebellion, As Told By Nat Turner

While there were more than two dozen known slave revolts in the U.S., the Virginia rebellion of 1831, led by Nat Turner’s may be one of the more popular. The story of Turner and the Southampton County slave insurrection, will come to life in the film The Birth of A Nation opening this Friday (Oct. 7).

It was Turner who shared his own story in a purported confession and detailed recount of the uprising published by Thomas Ruffin Gray in 1831. The first-person account was revived in the 1967 Pulitzer-Prize winning and heavily-criticized novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.

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Gray — a white lawyer who was the same age as Turner — represented slaves tried in court after the rebellion. His writings were comprised of both personal research and jailhouse conversations with Turner as he awaited trial. The work includes Turner speaking on the rebellion, and his eventual capture:

“You have asked me to give a history of the motive which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it — to do so I must go back to the days of my infant, and even before I was born.”

Born in Southampton County, Va. in 1800, Turner was a deeply religious man seen by some as a “Prophet” in his time. He credited visions with guiding his decision to rebel against slave owners in the bloody uprising that spanned over two days in August 1831.

As revealed in Gray’s writings, Turner’s family and others around him, believed early on that he was “intended for some great purpose.”

“My grandmother, who was very religious,” Turner explained to Gray. “And to whom I was much attached — my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house, and whom I often saw at prayers, noticing the singularity of my manners, I suppose, and my uncommon intelligence for a child, remarked, I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.”

Turner learned to read and write as a child, but is said to have had no memory of learning the alphabet. He recalled reading one day (much to the “astonishment” of his family) after he was given a book to stop him from crying.

As he got older, Turner “studiously avoided mixing in society” and devoted energy to fasting and prayer. At age 22, he escaped from a Virginia planation, only to return a month later, after a “Spirit” appeared to him in a vision. He details other premonitions throughout his short life, including a vision on May 12, 1828, that inspired him to go forward with the slave rebellion:

“I 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.”

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Early in 1831, Turner interpreted a solar eclipse first in February, and another on Aug. 13, as a signal to begin preparations for the uprising. On Aug. 21, Turner led a collective of both slaves and free black men and women, traveling from one plantation to another, freeing slaves, and killing white slave owners, women and children.

However,  the lives of “poor” whites were spared because Turner believed they, “Thought no better of themselves than they did the negroes.”

While Turner himself, admitted to the killing only one person, 18-year-old Margaret Whitehead, as many as 65 whites were killed over the two-day period.

After the uprising, Turner hid out in the woods for six weeks, until he was found by a white farmer named Benjamin Phipps.  Having only a sword in his possession, Turner surrendered.

“He cocked his gun and aimed it at me,” Turner is noted as saying. “I requested him not to shoot and I would give up, upon which he demanded my sword.”

Prior to his trial Turner told Gray, “I am here loaded with chains and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.”

**The Commonwealth vs. Nat Turner

Turner was charged with “making insurrection and plotting to take away the lives of diverse free white persons.” He pleaded “not guilty” at his arraignment, as he did not feel guilty for the rebellion.

On Nov. 5, 1831 Turner was tried and convicted without presenting any evidence of his innocence (his lawyer is noted as James Strange Flinch). After finding him guilty, Esq Chairman, Jeremiah Cobb, admonished Turner for the killing of “men, helpless women, and infants.”

At the trial he stated to Turner, “The time between this and your execution, will necessarily be very short.”

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The execution was scheduled for the following Friday, “Between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M.” Cobb added that Turner was to be “hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

Turner was hanged in Cortland, Va. (formerly named Jerusalem) on November 11, 1831. His body was then beheaded, skinned and quartered. His remains were never properly buried, and his skull would pass into many hands over the span of nearly two centuries. According to a 2003 Baltimore Sun articleTurner’s skull was last donated for a Civil Rights Museum planned in Indiana.

Including Turner, more than 50 men and woman — 45 slaves, and five free blacks — were tried before the Court of Southampton. Among them, 30 were convicted, 18 of which were executed by hanging. Others were convicted and sold, and 15 were acquitted. A total of 56 black people suspected of being involved in the uprising, were executed by the state of Virginia.

In addition, over 200 blacks were killed by whites in retaliatory slayings, though many of the victims had no involvement in the Virginia rebellion.

Tags: slavery