Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831
The most famous African American revolt was Nat Turner's rebellion of 1831. Set again in Virginia, Turner and five other enslaved cohorts began with the murder of Turner's master's family. As they traveled through the countryside, their numbers grew to nearly sixty, and they left behind them at least fifty murdered whites. After several days, Turner's band was hunted down and destroyed. Turner was captured and later hung, though not before he described divine inspiration as his motive for rebellion.
Turner's rebellion demonstrated to the North the level of anger held by the enslaved, as well as the lengths freedom seekers were prepared to go for liberty. Southerners, meanwhile, saw their own vulnerability in the most shocking way possible. Southerners, then, asserted more control over the enslaved by further restricting African American gatherings and travel. A feeling of paranoia and fear descended over Southern slaveholders as never before.
Nat Turner’s revolt was not the “bloodiest” in American history. The uprisings in South Carolina, 1739–1740, in Louisiana, 1794–1796, and in Louisiana in 1811 caused greater loss of life than did Turner’s. Slave conspiracies — such as those led by Gabriel in 1800 and by Vesey in 1822 — involved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rebels. These were bloody enough taking into account the lives of the rebels. The decade 1850–1860 witnessed slave outbreaks more widespread than Turner’s, though even the latter did shake Virginia to its foundations.
The leader of this insurrection and massacre was a slave by the name of Nat Turner, about thirty-one years of age, born the slave of Mr. Benjamin Turner, of Southampton County. From a child, Nat appears to have been the victim of superstition and fanaticism. He stimulated his comrades to join him in the massacre, by declaring to them that he had been commissioned by Jesus Christ, and that he was acting under inspired direction in what he was going to accomplish.
Nat Turner was born October 2, 1800, the slave of Benjamin Turner. His father, a native of Africa, escaped from slavery and finally emigrated to Liberia, where, it is said, his grave is quite as well known as that of Franklin's, Jefferson's or Adams's is to the patriotic American. He grew up in the period when the excitement over the discovery of Gabriel Prosser's plot was at its height. Nat's mind was very restless and active, inquisitive and observant. He learned to read and write with so apparent difficulty. This ability gave him opportunity to confirm impressions as to knowledge of subjects in which he had received no instruction. When not working for his master, he was engaged in prayer or in making sundry experiments.
He was not a preacher, as was generally believed, though a man of deep religious and spiritual nature, and seemed inspired for the performance of some extraordinary work. He was austere in life and manner, not given to society, but devoted his spare moments to introspection and consecration. He thought often of what he had heard said of him as to the great work he was to perform. He eventually became seized with this idea as a frenzy. To use his own language he saw many visions. "I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle," said he, "and the sun 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 bear it.'"' This happened in 1825.
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