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Nat Turner's Rebellion

"To Rebel and Make Insurrection"

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On 23 August 1831Governor John Floyd received a hastily written note from Southampton County postmaster James Trezevant stating "that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down."  Fifty-seven whites, many of them women and children, died before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers could converge on the region and crush the insurrection.  Angry white vigilantes killed dozens of slaves and drove hundreds of free persons of color into exile in the reign of terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon confirmed that the insurgents were not runaways but, rather, slaves from local plantations.  Reports of as many as 450 black insurgents gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining.  The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders: a free man of color named Billy Artis, a celebrated slave known as "Gen. Nelson," and a slave preacher by the name of Nat Turner.  Attention focused on Turner; it was his "imagined spirit of prophecy" and his extraordinary powers of persuasion, local authorities reported, that had turned obedient slaves into bloodthirsty killers.  Turner's ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.

While Nat Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished.  An abolitionist writer named Samuel Warner suggested that Turner had hidden himself in the Dismal Swamp with an army of runaways at his disposal. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and safe return to the Southampton County jail.  On 30 October 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave not far from the place where Turner lived. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his "Confessions," and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed.  In tracing the "history of the motives" that led him to undertake the insurrection, Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act, that he had shared his plans with only a few trusted followers, and that he knew nothing of any wider conspiracy extending beyond the Southampton County area.  Certified as authentic by six local magistrates and said to be authorized by Turner himself, the "Confessions" became the definitive source for nearly all subsequent accounts of the event.

Nat Turner's revolt prompted a prolonged debate in the Virginia General Assembly of 1831- 1832.  While many statesmen adhered to the Jeffersonian idea that the ending of slavery was desirable, no coherent plan for eventual abolition emerged.  In fact, Virginia's sponsorship of colonization to Africa, a popular solution to the problem, in reality became simply a way to remove free blacks, who were thought to be a bad influence on slaves. Instead of advocating freedom for slaves, some prominent Virginians developed a positive argument for slavery's good based on their readings of the Bible and classical history.  As a result of Turner's actions, Virginia's legislators enacted more laws to limit the activities of African Americans, both free and enslaved.  The freedom of slaves to communicate and congregate was directly attacked.  No one could assemble a group of African Americans to teach reading or writing, nor could anyone be paid to teach a slave.  Preaching by slaves and free blacks was forbidden.