Nat Turner - A Heroic and Respected Black
Nat Turner was born October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. He was born on the farm of Benjamin Turner. According to legend, his mother tried to kill him as soon as he was born to spare him a life of slavery, but she was tied to her bed until she calmed down.
It has been said that Nat's mother was an African queen from the kingdoms of the upper Nile, and that she was forced to march for one thousand miles to the Atlantic. We do know it is true that she was taken from Africa while in her teens and was renamed Nancy. Not much is known about his father, except that he was a second-generation slave.
His mother and grandmother taught him about his African heritage. While he was young, a traditional African search of his bodily bumps and marks proved that he would be a prophet.
Nat learned to read and write when he was a child. It was illegal in Virginia to teach a slave to read, out of fear that they would read abolitionist writings and begin revolts, but somehow he learned. He himself said that the alphabet "came to him" in a vision, finding the letters burned into leaves on the ground. Maybe some old slaves taught him. Most likely, his master's family taught him. Nevertheless, when Benjamin found out about his reading, he encouraged it-as long as it was only the Bible.
His grandmother, Bridget, had become a Christian and passed on the religion to Nat, which gave him all the more reason to read the Bible. He liked to read the Old Testament because he didn't like what the New Testament was about (forgiveness, but the whites didn't show that). Once he became a Christian, religion and freedom were in his mind.
He was in the fields one day when he apparently heard a voice telling him to seek the Kingdom of Heaven, which he interpreted as the end of slavery. He believed his whole life that it was his destiny to lead all of his fellow slaves to freedom, and for most of his life, he planned his revolt.
Upon Benjamin Turner's death, Benjamin's son, Samuel, inherited Nat. Virginia fell into a depression around that time, and Samuel hired an overseer to push the slaves harder. Nat ran away. For two weeks, he was hunted by dogs and people, but was not found. He showed up at the plantation a month later, claiming that the Spirit told him that he was selfish. Samuel was shocked, and gave him a lighter workload. It also caused Nat to see that his destiny was one of freedom of his people, not just himself.
He married soon after, in 1821, to a slave named Cherry. Just after their second child was born, in 1822, Samuel Turner died, with no inheritance. All of the Turner property, lamps, tables, chairs, tools, livestock and slaves, were priced and sold. Nat was given a top price of $400. Cherry was valued at $40. The slaves were sold like chickens and hogs. Cherry and his children were sold to Giles Reese, while Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. Incredibly, the two were neighbors. They were also fortunate not to be sold to turpentine or hemp farms, where slaves were practically worked to death.
Nat took advantage of his religion. From 1825 to 1830, he would preach in black churches in Southampton and Greenville Counties on Sundays. The slave owners liked the idea of a black preaching to the slaves; because they felt that they would learn better from one of their own.
Nat did it not only for religion. When he traveled, he got to know every slave at every plantation in the area, not to mention every road, lake, swamp thicket and shed within thirty miles. He learned who could be trust-worthy, who could betray, who sided with their owners, because the massive slave revolts of Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser had failed by just one betrayal.
His most amazing religious feat was when he convinced a white man, E. T. Brantley, to quit as a slave owner and convert to Methodism. Brantley even asked Nat to baptize him. It was out of the reach of anyone else's mind to even think of a black baptizing a white! They set the date at a river and news of the event spread throughout the area. On the big day, a large crowd threatened and jeered the two, yet the baptism was carried out.
He was the most popular black preacher for miles around. The slaves knew what he meant by sin, judgment and salvation: freedom. So did a few whites. A few warned the Moores that he was stirring a rebellion and requested that they keep Nat at home, but they felt that he was harmless. He didn't drink, steal or gamble, was polite and worked like a mule during the week, so they let him continue preaching.
On May 12, 1828, Nat said that there was a "great noise" in the heavens and that "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, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be the last and the last should be the first."
He saw more signs, and took them to mean that he should rise and slay his enemies with their own weapons. He shared these visions only with his most trusted friends, Hark Travis, Nelson Williams, Sam Francis, Henry Porter, Billy Artis and Barry Newsome, who would all go on to help in his revolt. Only once did he mention something about a revolt to his owners, and he was whipped for it. Soon after, Thomas Moore died and became the property of Joseph Travis, who had married the widowed Sally Moore.
Turner waited for a sign to begin. It came in February 1831, when a full eclipse of the sun occurred. Many superstitious people believed that the end of the world was at hand. Nat, however, took this to be the sign that he was waiting for. He told his 20 most trustworthy friends to prepare their weapons, inform their friends and wait, for the time of the attack was coming.
Hark Travis was Nat's second-in-command. Nelson Williams was rumored to have special powers. Henry Porter and Sam Francis were more ordinary slaves, although they were reliable and agreeable. Billy Artis and Barry Newsome were both free black men who would prove to be reliable warriors.
They began to meet regularly and make their plans in secret. They made a list of about 20 other blacks. They also used the information that Nat had collected over the years, such as efficient routes, the number of slaves, firearms, horses and mules on each plantation and which whites to kill and which ones to spare, in planning their insurrection.
They set the date for July 4, 1831, because it was a holiday, which meant a lighter workload and free time, while the whites were at ease and usually drunk. The significance of the date was important to the conspirators because it would be the date of their independence, too. All plans were set and everyone got edgier as the date got sooner. Unfortunately, Nat became sick as the date came and the rebellion was temporarily postponed. Nat later said that all of the anticipation "affected my mind."
He waited for one final sign, which came on Saturday, August 13. There was a strange darkness in which one could look directly at the sun. It shimmered and changed colors, from blue to white to green. This was visible all along the East Coast, and people became fearful. Suddenly, a black sunspot passed slowly across the surface of the sun. He called his group together this would be the time.
Soon the word reached the waiting slaves in Southampton County. The following Sunday morning, whites passing by a black church noticed that the slaves were more "disorderly" than normal while listening to a "hell and damnation" sermon. The preacher was Nat Turner. The next day, on the 15th, a slave girl overheard a discussion relating to Nat. On the 18th, a Thursday, a slave named Isham told another, "General Nat is going to rise and murder all the whites." After the incident, reports showed that many slaves in the area in Virginia and North Carolina knew that something was going to happen.
On Saturday, the 20th, Nat left the fields for the last time. He told Hark Travis to prepare a dinner for his "chosen four," Hark, Nelson Williams, Henry Porter and Sam Francis, at nearby Cabin Pond. The group met around three o'clock on the 21st. They sat around a fire, roasting a pig and sharing apple brandy. They made their final plans to strike that night. They would begin at the Turner household, where Nat was owned. They would use terror and speed as the initial advantage. In a final speech, Nat said, "We do not go forth for the sake of blood and carnage, but it is necessary that...all the whites we meet should die...Remember that ours is not a war for robbery...it is a struggle for freedom." He added, "We shall spare neither age nor sex." They doused their fire, picked up their hatchets and knives and set out on their historic journey.
At two o'clock, the band of five arrived at the yard of the Travis house, along with four others. Hark got a ladder and placed against the side of the house. Nat climbed it alone and unlocked the front door in a matter of seconds. The rebels crept into the house.
Nat dealt the first blow to the two masters. They were mobbed before they could even fully wake up. Then the rest of the whites in the household were killed, even a tiny infant. They took some rifles, muskets and gunpowder from the house. This was the first stop of a ten-mile journey to Jerusalem, the seat of Southampton County, which Nat planned to conquer.
Next was the farm of Salathial Travis, brother of Sally Turner. The owners were finished off in a minute. Nat picked up a light sword at this household, which became the symbol of his command.
They continued, killing a woman and her son. At the next house, however, the owner barricaded himself indoors. Nat decided to continue attacking, because a battle would startle the neighbors. Instead, they moved on, picking up support from slaves at every stop.
The first shots came near dawn, when nobody was in bed. Ironically, they took place at the old Turner household. The army had become fifteen members of armed men, nine of them on horses. They split up to different farms and soon met.
At every household, more slaves joined the team, along with firearms, ammunition, food, clothing, money, horses and mules. There was no petty looting, and no torture or rape, just killing. Only a few whites were spared, most of whom ones who owned no slaves. The only real mistake Turner made was allowing his men to drink the apple brandy found at each homestead. Slowly, the men became drunk, and in the end, it played a big part.
Soon they reached the Porter household. The house was empty. The word was out and the rebels had lost the element of surprise, as they knew they would at some time.
There were five miles to Jerusalem and an army of forty slaves fighting for freedom. Many were armed with rifles or muskets. Win or lose, Nat thought, we have shown America that we could fight for freedom!
Soon after, some of the men began to get drunk; Nat ordered them to stop drinking the brandy. One man, a slave named Aaron, challenged his authority, warning that if they didn't stop now, they would have no chance against the militias of Virginia and the United States. Nat realized that they would be outnumbered, but he knew that there was no turning back. "Aaron," he replied, "would you not rather die free than live in slavery?"
Until the whites banded together, the raids went smoothly. He put the fastest, fiercest-looking troops at the front to terrorize the whites. At every household the pattern was the same-a charge, a shooting, screaming and then silence.
More recruits joined at every farm. By noon, Nat had rebel army 60 men strong. Church bells in Jerusalem were tolling the warning of a slave rebellion. White refugees poured into the town to take cover. Rumors spread like wildfire: The British had landed and were on their way; an army of 500 slaves was riding to town. Judge James Trezevant of the Southampton County Court wrote a message to the governor: "Terrible insurrection; several families obliterated. Send arms and men at once; a large force may be needed. A fast rider took the note to Richmond. Riders scattered through the area, alerting all militants. The bridge over Nottoway River was barricaded.
By noon, the army was three miles from Jerusalem. The buzzards circled for seven miles behind them. At the Waller plantation, where there was a school, ten children were killed. Unfortunately, the rebels who had been drunk and left behind were tortured and killed.
Two bands of militia were in the area. William C. Parker, a lawyer, led one of 30 or 40. Another group of 20 was led by Captain Arthur Middleton of the Southampton Militia. Middleton's group found a few drunken rebels and cut the tendons in their heels, leaving them unable to walk or stand. The whites were now retaliating.
A bit after noon, Nat saw the smoke from the town and heard the bells ringing. He organized his men and then started at full speed toward Jerusalem. He knew that he was outnumbered in the town, but he was determined that he could take it. He knew that there was ammunition, food and arms.
It was at the Parker farm that the rebels would fight the militia in what was to be known as the Battle of Parker's Field. Some men went to the slave cabins to recruit more slaves-and show off their guns and horses. Nat was furious when he saw his men showing off.
Then, the militia of 20, with its modern military rifles, gained on eight men standing guard near the house. Nat had his other men attack the advancing whites. The surprised militia backed off and Nat thought he had won the battle. By pure chance, the other militia happened to be traveling on the road and reinforced the fleeing whites.
It was too much. Five of Nat's best men fell. Nat and Hark led what rebels they could into the thick forest along the Nottoway River. A few stragglers joined them, bringing the force back to twenty. Many were still fleeing.
Nat still wanted to take Jerusalem. He knew that the main road was guarded, but in his years of preparation, he had made backup plans to cross at the Cypress Bridge, three miles south of town. He led his men down a little-known back road, but he found the bridge covered by militiamen.
It was late afternoon, and Nat came up with another plan. He led the men quickly south, and then turned to the north across the main road again to elude all pursuers. He headed to the Ridley plantation, which was one of the largest in the county with 145 slaves, to make up for the losses of rebels.
By the time they reached the plantation, it was dusk, and the militia had barricaded the house and was guarding the slaves. Out of sight of the militia, Nat and Hark led the troops into the nearby woods, set up camp and made a lookout shift. Some slaves had managed to sneak away from the Ridley place and the squad was up to 40. They slept well that night.
At midnight, a warning call was given by a lookout. Everybody scrambled for his or her weapons. Nat suspected that it was a false alarm, but he sent scouts out to check up. The militia was safely inside.
When the scouts returned, they were mistaken for attackers and fired upon. Half of the troops deserted in the following confusion. Nat convinced the weary remaining soldiers to go to the nearby blunt plantation, where there were 60 slaves.
In the dark, the place looked deserted. The men carefully searched around. They shouted. No reply. Then Hark fired his gun into the air, and the hidden militia let loose a thunderous volley of gunfire. Men fell fast and morale went down faster. Worst of all, some of Blunt's slaves were fighting against them!
They retreated once again into the woods. At 10 in the morning, they reached the Harris farm, which they had attacked only 24 hours before. It, too, was crawling with fresh whites. They fired upon the rebels and three fell, including Will.
In response, the rebels aimed, fired, and ran away into the woods, with the militia pursuing. Most were captured, except Nat and four others, who eventually met up. They hid while patrols almost stepped on their heads. When night fell, Nat had two of the men, Curtis and Stephen, ride south and round up as many men as possible. They were not seen again.
At daybreak, he instructed the remaining two to bring anyone they could back to Cabin Pond, where Nat had planned the insurrection with his "chosen four." They weren't seen again.
Although Nat didn't know, half of his men had been killed and half captured. Billy Artis committed suicide as a militia spotted him. Stephen and Curtis were captured less than a mile into their journey. They were taken to Cross Keys and locked in a hut with other suspected rebels.
By Tuesday, the entire state of Virginia was armed. Rumors said that the rebellion was widespread all over the South. Over 2,000 militiamen were dispatched through the whole fiasco. In nearby Murfreesboro, North Carolina, one man died of a heart attack after hearing of the uprising.
By Tuesday afternoon, 3,000-armed men were on the march toward Southampton County, from the U.S. Army to local lynch mobs. In North Carolina, 40 innocent blacks were decapitated. In the next four days, 120 blacks were killed.
49 rebels had been captured by August 31. 15 to 20 were hanged, and many more sold back to slavery in even more brutal conditions. Still, nobody was satisfied, because Nat Turner was nowhere to be found.
There was a $1,100 reward for Nat's head. By late September, posters were all over the South. On October 30, he was finally caught by a poor white named Benjamin Phipps.
In the county jail, Nat freely expressed his life story to Thomas Clay, a local lawyer. The story was read in court and later published as Confessions of Nat Turner.
When asked his plea, he cried not guilty, even though he had confessed all. Why? "I feel no guilt at all for what I've done."
He was hanged on November 11, 1831, with his head held high, just as Denmark Vesey's men.
The insurrection of Nat Turner was inspiration for all slaves, even if just 60 whites were killed to the 140 blacks. I am impressed by his courage.
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