Nat Turner, born into slavery on October 2, 1800, on a Southampton County plantation, became a preacher who claimed he had been chosen by God to lead slaves from bondage. On August 21, 1831, he led a violent insurrection. He hid for six weeks but was eventually caught and later hanged. The incident ended the emancipation movement in that region and led to even harsher laws against slaves.
Born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner made history as the leader of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in America. He was born on the Virginia plantation of Benjamin Turner, who allowed him to be instructed in reading, writing, and religion. His mother was named Nancy, but nothing is known about his father.
As a small child, Turner was thought to have some special talent because he could describe things that happened before he was even born. Some even remarked that he "surely would be a prophet," according to his later confession. His mother and grandmother told Turner that he "was intended for some great purpose." Turner was deeply religious and spent much of his time reading the Bible, praying and fasting.
Over the years, Turner worked on a number of different plantations. He ran away from Samuel Turner, his former owner's brother, in 1821. After thirty days hiding in the woods, Turner came back to Turner's plantation after he received what he believed to be a sign from God. After Samuel Turner's death, Nat Turner became the slave of Thomas Moore and then the property of his widow. When she married John Travis, Nat Turner went to work on Travis's lands.
Slave Rebellion Leader
Believing in signs and hearing divine voices, Turner had a vision in 1825 of a bloody conflict between black and white spirits. Three years later, he had what he believed to be another message from God. In his later confession, Turner explained "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. " Turner would receive another sign to tell him when to fight, but this latest message meant "I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."
Turner took a solar eclipse that occurred in February 1831 as a signal that the time to rise up had come. He recruited several other slaves to join him in his cause. On August 21, 1831, Turner and his supporters began their revolt against white slave owners with the killing the Travis family. Turner gathered more supporters—growing to a group of up to 40 or 50 slaves—as he and his men continued their violent spree through the county. They were able to secure arms and horses from those they killed. Most sources say that about 55 white men, women and children died during Turner's rebellion.
Initially Turner had planned to reach the county seat of Jerusalem and take over the armory there, but he and his men were foiled in this plan. They faced off against a group of armed white men at a plantation near Jerusalem, and the conflict soon dissolved into chaos. Turner himself fled into the woods.
Death and Legacy
While Turner hid away, white mobs took their revenge on the blacks of Southampton County. Estimates range from approximately 100 to 200 African Americans were slaughtered after the rebellion. Turner was eventually captured on October 30, 1831. He was represented by lawyer Thomas R. Gray, who wrote down Turner's confession. Turner pled not guilty during his trial, believing that his rebellion was the work of God. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and this sentence was carried out on November 11, 1831. Many of his co-conspirators met the same fate as Turner.
The incident put fear in the heart of southerners, ending the organized emancipation movement in that region. Southern states enacted even harsher laws against slaves instead. Turner's actions also added fuel to the abolitionist movement in the north. Noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison even published an editorial in his newspaper The Liberator in support of Turner to some degree.
Turner's image has changed and evolved over the years. He has emerged as a hero, a religious fanatic and a villain. Turner became an important icon to the 1960s black power movement as an example of an African American standing up against white oppression. He was also the subject of William Styron's 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Confessions of Nat Turner. But others have objected to Turner's indiscriminate slaughtering of men, women and children to try to achieve this end.
As historian Scot French told The New York Times, "To accept Nat Turner and place him within the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence as a means of social change. He has a kind of radical consciousness that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. The story lives because it's relevant today to questions of how to organize for change."
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