Nat Turner's Revolt
The History Cat Classroom
Nat Turner's Rebellion
Southern slave owners went to great lengths to convince people that slavery was not only not evil but was actually good! They used “scientific” arguments heaped in a whole lot of racism that said that Europeans were superior to Africans. They supported their views with verses are taken from the Bible like Ephesians 6:5 that read “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”
Of course, white preachers left out the stories of Moses and the escape of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Africans, most whites believed, was a happy child-like race that was incapable of participating in government or being able to understand complex subjects like mathematics and science.
The planters argued that without slavery, black people would descend into chaos. And nothing scared the slave owner more than the thought that their “property” would straight up murder them in their sleep. This is why slave states kept such strict laws preventing slaves from meeting in groups. Big groups meant a chance for slaves to rebel. But in the summer of 1831, it only took 6 men to spread terror throughout the slave-holding south.
Nat Turner was a field slave on a Virginia plantation owned by Joseph Travis whom he described as being a kind master. Turner was a deeply religious man who believed in signs from God. In 1830, he began seeing signs all around him in the form of strange weather, solar eclipses, and atmospheric disturbances that made the sun appear bluish-green.
Turner took these signs to be a divine signal to rise up against slavery and spark a rebellion across Virginia. At 2 a.m. on August 13, 1831, Turner and 6 fellow slaves murdered the Travis family in their beds. They then moved on to nearby plantations gathering a small army of about 70 slaves. For the next week, Turner and his army went from house to house across Southhampton County killing a total of 55 whites and freeing slaves. To keep their actions secret they used knives, hatchets, and machetes.
Within hours, militias had been formed supported by three artillery units and the USS Natchez and USS Warren. The rebels were hunted down, captured, and beheaded; their severed heads were placed on pikes along the main highway of Southampton County as a grisly warning to any future slaves who thought of rebelling. Turner himself managed to escape capture by hiding in the nearby swamps.
The rebellion lasted only 48 hours but the terror spread far and wide. Rumors began to circulate in communities in North Carolina and as far south as Alabama that armies of slaves had been spotted on the local highway and was massacring white people.
Of course, none of these rumors were true but that didn't stop militias in those states from attacking "suspicious" blacks. Over 200 innocent black men and women were murdered by mobs in the weeks after Turner's rebellion. One Virginia newspaper spoke out against the violence: "the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity."
What became of Nat Turner himself? He managed to evade capture for months by hiding not more than a few miles from the Travis farm. Eventually, Turner was discovered hiding in a woodpile. He was arrested, tried and on November 11th, 1830. He was hanged and skinned. The Nat Turner rebellion was over.
Why it Matters
The thing that most whites feared the most was coming true. Of course, Nat Turner wasn’t the first slave to revolt – and he wouldn’t be the last – but his revolt was the most deadly. Turner and his men were rounded up by the militia and mobs of angry whites and they were executed. Nat Turner’s rebellion freaked out planters who were already paranoid. 600 slaves and free blacks were attacked by hysterical white mobs. Many free blacks had to flee the state. Meetings of slaves and free blacks were prohibited and even church services of slaves had to be given by a white preacher. To many whites who were quick to believe racial prejudices, Nat Turner confirmed that blacks could not live peacefully with whites. Of course, slave owners did not blame themselves for creating a system that held people against their will.
Inspired by the French Revolution, slaves in the French colony of Saint Dominique (Haiti) rose up and from 1791-1804 revolted against their white masters. Thousands on both sides died.
American slave owners became increasingly
terrified their turn was coming.