Nat Turners Rebellion

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Nat Turner's Rebellion

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800November 11, 1831) led the most significant slave revolt in U.S. history. Undertaken in 1831 in Virginia, Turner's Rebellion claimed more lives than any similar uprising. It had repercussions throughout the South, redrawing the lines of the American debate over slavery in ways that led toward all-out civil war within a generation. Indeed, some suggest that it represented the first major battle of the long war to end slavery.

In 1831 Virginia's Southampton County, bordering on North Carolina, contained roughly 6,500 whites and 9,500 blacks. Almost all of the latter, whether young or old, lived in perpetual bondage, including Nat Turner, a slave of Joseph Travis. Turner had been born in Southampton on October 2, 1800, only five days before the execution of black revolutionary Gabriel Prosser in Richmond, and as a boy he must have heard stories of Prosser's intended insurrection. Tradition suggests his mother was born and raised in Africa. She told her son at an early age that, on the basis of his quick intelligence and the distinctive lumps on his head, he seemed "intended for some great purpose."

Turner learned to read as a small boy, and he built a strong and composite faith from listening to the African beliefs retained within his family and the Christian values of his first master, Benjamin Turner. Confident from childhood that he had a special role to play, Nat Turner found outward confirmations for his messianic thoughts and eventually determined that his personal calling coincided with the most pressing public issue of the daythe termination of racial enslavement.

Most of what is known about the man is drawn from his Confessions, a remarkable autobiographical statement taken down by a young lawyer named Thomas Ruffin Gray during the rebel's final days in jail. While one can question the validity of Turner's recollections and the motivations of the disillusioned and desperate Gray (who rapidly published his lurid transcript at a profit), the confession has an underlying ring of truth and represents one of the most extraordinary firsthand texts in American history.

According to this account, Turner experienced a powerful vision in 1825 in which he "saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkenedthe thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams." Three years later another vision told him to prepare to slay his "enemies with their own weapons." But it was not until February 1831 that a solar eclipse

Nat Turner

"And my father and mother strengthened mesaying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast."

the confessions of nat turner, the leader of the late insurrection in southampton, virginia. baltimore: t.r. gray, 1831.

signaled to Turner that he must begin. He laid plans with others to act on the holiday of July 4, but when he fell ill, the date was allowed to pass. Then, on August 13 he awoke to find the sun a dim reflection of itself, changing from one hazy color to another. Taking this as another sign, he brought together a handful of collaborators on Sunday, August 21, and told them of his plan for a terrorist attack.

His intention, Turner explained, was to move through the countryside from household to household, killing whites regardless of age or sex. He hoped that this brutal show of force would be so swift as to prevent any warning and so compelling as to convince others to join in the cause. Having rallied supporters and gathered up more horses and weapons, they could march on Jerusalem, the county seat, and take the arsenal, which would give them a substantial beachhead of resistance. From there the rebellion could spread, aided by a network of enslaved black Christians and perhaps by divine intervention as well. Turner made clear, according to the Richmond Enquirer, that "indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they obtained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men too who ceased to resist."

Shortly after midnight Turner and five others launched their violent offensive, attacking the home of Turner's master and killing the Travis household, then proceeding on to other farmsteads to wreak similar vengeance. As their ranks grew, the band became more disorderly and the element of surprise was lost, but the first militiamen who offered resistance on Monday afternoon beat a hasty retreat. By Monday night as many as sixty or seventy African Americans had joined the cause, and on Tuesday morning Turner's army set out for Jerusalem. Behind them at least fifty-seven whites of all ages had been killed in a stretch of twenty miles.

When some rebels stopped at James Parker's farm, within three miles of Jerusalem, to win recruits and refresh themselves, the pause proved fatal, for the local militia had regrouped. They managed to attack and disperse the insurgents, who were off guard and poorly armed. Although Turner attempted to rally his followers, he never regained the initiative, and on Tuesday white reinforcements launched a harsh and indiscriminate counteroffensive that took well over a hundred lives. One cavalry company slaughtered forty blacks in two days, mounting more than a dozen severed heads atop poles as public warnings. Turner, his force destroyed, eluded authorities for six weeks, during which time another black preacher known as David attempted to ignite an uprising in North Carolina, fueling white fears of widespread rebellion. After an enormous manhunt, authorities captured Turner in a swamp on October 30 and hanged him publicly twelve days later.

Turner's unprecedented insurgency had a complex impact. It forced Virginia's legislature to consider openly, if briefly, the prospect of gradual emancipation. It also attracted proslavery whites to the colonization movement, since many saw African resettlement as a way to remove dangerous bondsmen and reduce the free black community. For black and white abolitionists in the North, Turner's Rebellion reinforced the idea, later espoused by John Brown, that enslaved southerners were willing and able to engage in armed revolt if only weapons and outside support could be arranged. Among churchgoing slaveholders the uprising prompted tighter restrictions on black preaching and greater caution regarding slave access to the gospel. Among African Americans Turner became and has remained both a martyr and a folk hero never to be forgotten. As recently as 1969 one black Southampton resident could recall what his mother had learned in her childhood: that Nat Turner "was a man of war, and for legal rights, and for freedom."

See also Amistad Mutiny; Christiana Revolt of 1851; Demerara Revolt; Gabriel Prosser Conspiracy; Stono Rebellion; Tailor's Revolt


Aptheker, Herbert. Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion. New York: Humanities Press, 1966.

Morris, Charles Edward. "Panic and Reprisal: Reaction in North Carolina to the Nat Turner Insurrection, 1831." North Carolina Historical Review 62 (1985): 2952.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper, 1975.

Tragle, Henry Irving. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of 'The Confessions of Nat Turner.' Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

Wood, Peter H. "Nat Turner: The Unknown Slave as Visionary Leader." In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

peter h. wood (1996)

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Nat Turner's Rebellion

The slave rebellion that erupted in Southampton County, Virginia, on the night of August 20, 1831, is arguably the most significant slave insurrection to have occurred in U.S. history, with many historians arguing that it was a watershed moment for the Old South that precipitated the collapse of the region's antislavery movement and launched its twenty-year-long road toward secession and civil war. Nat Turner (1800–1831), the leader of this uprising, was born in October 1800 and from an early age believed himself to be "ordained for some great purpose" (1881, p. 6). The root of this conviction lay in a series of visions that Turner had experienced since his childhood, first manifesting as an ability to accurately recall events that had occurred before he was born. Coupled with a prodigious ability to learn to read and write, these visions transformed Turner into a deeply religious child, whose youth was spent fasting, praying, and meditating on philosophical questions. Sometime during this period Turner also began to regularly commune with an ephemeral presence that he referred to as the spirit, behavior that marked Turner, in his own eyes as well as of those around him, as being different from the other slaves living on the plantation, someone, in fact, whose "wisdom came from God" (ibid., p. 8). When Turner ran away from a new overseer in the early 1820s, it was this same spirit, which had "spoke[n] to the prophets in former days," that ordered him to return to the plantation after he had spent thirty days hiding (ibid.). By now Turner was convinced that he was destined for some higher purpose, a destiny that was finally revealed to him in 1825 when he had a vision of "white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle" against the backdrop of a "darkened" sun and that was reiterated in 1828 when the spirit instructed him to wait for a sign "in the heavens" that would indicate the time had come for him to "slay [his] enemies with their own weapons" (ibid., pp. 9-10).

Turner was to wait three years until a solar eclipse in February 1831 became the sign that he should begin his preparations. Immediately, he revealed his intentions to four other local slaves—Henry Porter, Hark Travis, Nelson Edwards, and Sam Francis—and together they determined to start what they referred to as "the work of death" on July 4; Turner, however, fell ill and the anointed date passed without any consensus having been reached on how to proceed. Then, on August 13, an atmospheric disturbance caused the sun to take on a bluish-green tint, reinvigorating Turner's resolve to act. Although they still did not have a definite plan, the conspirators met in the nearby woods on August 21 and spent the afternoon and evening feasting and drinking. Turner and his fellow rebels—still numbering only seven—determined to act that night, resolved that "until we had armed and equipped ourselves … neither age nor sex was to be spared," and that the first victims would be Turner's own master, Joseph Travis, and his family (ibid., p. 12).

Late that night and under the cover of darkness, the now likely inebriated slaves made their way to the Travis house, which they quietly broke into, and took possession of the household's guns. It had been determined that Turner should be the first to kill one of the sleeping inhabitants, but his blow was insufficient to kill his master and another of the conspirators was forced to finish the task. Other members of the family were soon dispatched in as ruthless a fashion—the rebels even returning to murder a sleeping infant whom they had initially overlooked so as not to leave anyone alive. The rebels moved quickly through the Southampton County countryside, rampaging from plantation to plantation, and murdering at least fifty-seven whites. As the hours passed, so the ranks of Turner's force swelled, until it numbered some sixty slaves and free black men and, flushed with success, they turned toward the nearby town of Jerusalem. At this point, however, the tide began to turn against the insurrectionists, who up to this point had been relying largely on the element of surprise to ensure the continued success of their attacks. As soon as word of the massacres reached Jerusalem, the local authorities dispatched several well-armed patrols to investigate; one of these patrols soon encountered the slave army and, after a short confrontation that saw several of the rebellious slaves captured or killed, succeeded in forcing Turner's men to retreat in disarray. The morning of August 23 saw Turner's force reduced to no more than twenty men, who attempted to take refuge at an apparently deserted plantation owned by Simon Blunt. Appearances were deceptive, however, and Blunt—together with his family, plantation slaves, and other whites—was in fact waiting to ambush Turner and greeted the rebels with a volley of gunfire, forcing them to again retreat. After the slaves encountered yet another white patrol, Turner became separated from the rest of his men, leaving him with little choice but to go into hiding.

While Turner continued to evade capture, the white population of Southampton County eked out a bloody revenge on their slaves. During a weeklong rampage, white militias murdered over 100 African Americans, making no distinction between slave and freeman or rebel and innocent bystander. Countless others received brutal lashings, beatings, and other forms of physical punishment in order to discourage any future thoughts of rebellion. More than sixty slaves were arrested in the wake of the attempted uprising, with around twenty of them being executed and a further dozen expelled from Virginia. Turner himself was finally caught on October 30, having spent much of the previous two months hiding in the fields surrounding the same plantation that had witnessed the start of the rebellion. Transported to Jerusalem for trial, Turner was executed on November 11, 1831.

Nat Turner's rebellion precipitated some dramatic changes in Virginia's relationship with the institution of slavery, although the argument over its future was fiercely debated. Some Virginians, including members of the state's political elite who were no doubt motivated at least in part by Virginia's relative lack of reliance on slave labor in its economy, favored a gradual emancipation process that would be coupled with an aggressive colonization program. These efforts ultimately failed, however, and it was the state's proslavery movement that gained new momentum, with many Virginians pointing to the failed uprising as being a precursor of things to come if their slaves continued to be given their freedom. New legislation was quickly passed to tighten the already strict restrictions on the personal liberties of African Americans, both enslaved and free. Particularly targeted was their ability to practice religion, with limits placed on their ability to gather in large groups and new prohibitions on slave literacy. Other southern legislatures soon followed Virginia's example so as to prevent future uprisings in their own states. By any rational measure, Nat Turner's was a failed rebellion. Its leaders were rounded up and executed and those whose bonds they sought to free suffered greatly as a result of their actions. Yet the meaning of this failed uprising has become obscured in controversy, with different generations interpreting his actions and motivations to suit their own agendas. Despite, or indeed perhaps because of, its ultimate failure, Nat Turner's rebellion has become an important touchstone in understanding how both historians and the public have interpreted the institution of slavery and race relations at different points in time.


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts [1943]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Turner, Nat. The Confession, Trial, and Execution of Nat Turner. Petersburg, VA: J.B. Ege, 1881.

                                        Simon J. Appleford

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Nat Turner was an American slave who led the only sustained slave revolt in U.S. history (August 1831). Turner was born on a large plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, on October 2, 1800. Through his mother, who had been born free in Africa, he acquired a passionate hatred of slavery. One of his master's sons taught him to read, and he became fanatically devoted to religious self-instruction. His loathing of slavery blended with his religious training to produce a heady and violent brew. Turner came to see himself as divinely ordained to lead his fellow slaves out of bondage, and he launched his uprising after an eclipse of the sun convinced him that the time to strike had arrived.

On the night of August 21, 1831, Turner and seven other slaves attacked the local white population, and over the next two days 51 whites were killed during a vengeful march to reach the Dismal Swamp, where Turner's group intended to hide, regroup their forces, and attract supporters. En route the insurgents intended to capture the arsenal located in the county seat of Jerusalem.

The rebellion had little chance for success: only 75 African Americans (who were divided by dissent) joined Turner's cause. Virginia responded swiftly, and 3,000 militiamen combined with strong assistance from the local white population led to a swift end to the insurgency. Turner's supporters were soon killed or captured, as was Turner himself after a dramatic man-hunt lasting six weeks. Shortly thereafter Turner was tried and hanged at the county seat of Jerusalem, which became a symbolic location for northern abolitionists.

The revolt had a profound impact on Southern attitudes towards the "peculiar institution" of slavery. For many southerners it exploded the myth that the slave population was either content or at least congenitally unable to rebel against their inferior status. For other southerners the revolt confirmed in their mind the discontent of slaves and the ever-present menace of rebellion that could topple the southern socio-economic system. Not surprisingly, the revolt led to a harsh tightening of controls over the slave population, particularly in the form of legislation that prohibited the education and other activities of slaves. The rebellion also strengthened Southern pro-slavery sentiments.

Nat Turner's rebellion hardened sectional animosities, making secession and the American Civil War (18611865) more likely. Galvanized by the Turner uprising, Southern congressmen sought to enact or strengthen existing national legislation supporting slavery, particularly the Fugitive Slave Act of 1796. In 1836 the House of Representatives enacted a gag rule preventing the debate of anti-slavery petitions. It was later repealed after a long and acrimonious debate between northern and southern representatives. Southern congressmen also repeatedly demanded that free states restrict the activities of abolitionist societies. For their part abolitionist societies in the North stepped up their activities, and northern politicians felt increasingly vulnerable to abolitionist demands that they adopt strong anti-slavery stands.

Topic overview

The revolt had a profound impact on Southern attitudes towards the "peculiar institution" of slavery. For many southerners it exploded the myth that the slave population was either content or at least congenitally unable to rebel against their inferior status. For other southerners the revolt confirmed in their mind the discontent of slaves and the ever-present menace of rebellion that could topple the southern socio-economic system.

See also: Civil War (Economic Causes of), Fugitive Slave Act, Slavery


Duff, John B. and Peter M. Mitchell. The Nat Turner Rebellion; The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Freehling, A.G. Drift toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 18311832. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. 1966. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1993.

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NAT TURNER'S REBELLION was the most significant slave revolt in United States history. Under the leadership of Nat Turner, a thirty-one-year-old religious mystic, a group of enslaved people in Southampton County, Virginia, conspired to strike a blow to the system. On 21 August 1831 Turner and six followers attacked and killed Turner's owner and the owner's family, gathered arms and ammunition, and set out to gain support from other slaves. Turner's force grew to about seventy-five,

and they killed approximately sixty whites. On 23 August, while en route to the county seat at Jerusalem, the rebels encountered a large force of white volunteers and trained militia and were defeated. Turner escaped and attempted unsuccessfully to gather other supporters. He was captured on 30 October, sentenced to death by hanging on 5 November after a brief trial, and executed on 11 November. Several of his followers had been hanged earlier.

The incident sparked a reign of terror resulting in the murder of a number of innocent blacks, the passage of more stringent slave laws, and the more vigorous enforcement of existing statutes. The immediate effect of the rebellion on the attitudes of blacks toward slavery and toward themselves is difficult to document, but there is evidence that Turner's example of resistance lived on in the collective memory of the black community.


Herbert Aptheker, Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion. Prometheus Books: New York, 1966.

Foner, Eric. Nat Turner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Tragle, Henry Irving. The Southampton Slave Revolt of1831: A Compilation of Source Material. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

Henry N.Drewry/a. r.

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Education, African American ; Insurrections, Domestic ; Slave Insurrections ; South, the: The Antebellum South ; andvol. 9:The Nat Turner Insurrection .

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