Nat Turner’s Insurrection
An account of America’s bloodiest slave revolt, and its repercussions.
By THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON
DURING the year 1831, up to the twenty-third of August, the Virginia newspapers were absorbed in the momentous problems which then occupied the minds of intelligent American citizens: — What General Jackson should do with the scolds, and what with the disreputables, — Should South Carolina be allowed to nullify? and would the wives of Cabinet Ministers call on Mrs. Eaton? It is an unfailing opiate, to turn over the drowsy files of the “Richmond Enquirer,” until the moment when those dry and dusty pages are suddenly kindled into flame by the torch of Nat Turner. Then the terror flares on increasing, until the remotest Southern States are found shuddering at nightly rumors of insurrection, — until far off European colonies, Antigua, Martinique, Caraccas, Tortola, recognize by some secret sympathy the same epidemic alarms, — until the very boldest words of freedom are reported as uttered in the Virginia House of Delegates with unclosed doors, — until an obscure young man named Garrison is indicted at Common Law in North Carolina, and has a price set upon his head by the Legislature of Georgia. The insurrection revived in one agonizing reminiscence all the distresses of Gabriel’s Revolt, thirty years before; and its memory endures still fresh, now that thirty added years have brought the more formidable presence of General Butler. It is by no means impossible that the very children or even confederates of Nat Turner may be included at this moment among the contraband articles of Fort Monroe.
Near the southeastern border of Virginia, in Southampton County, there is a neighborhood known as “The Cross Keys.” It lies fifteen miles from Jerusalem, the county-town or “court-house,” seventy miles from Norfolk, and about as far from Richmond. It is some ten or fifteen miles from Murfreesboro’ in North Carolina, and about twenty-five from the Great Dismal Swamp. Up to Sunday, the twenty-first of August, 1831, there was nothing to distinguish it from any other rural, lethargic, slipshod Virginia neighborhood, with the due allotment of mansion-houses and log-huts, tobacco fields and “old-fields,” horses, dogs, negroes, “poor white folks,” so called, and other white folks, poor without being called so. One of these last was Joseph Travis, who had recently married the widow of one Putnam Moore, and had unfortunately wedded to himself her negroes also.
In the woods on the plantation of Joseph Travis, upon the Sunday just named, six slaves met at noon for what is called in the Northern States a picnic and in the Southern a barbecue. The bill of fare was to be simple: one brought a pig, and another some brandy, giving to the meeting an aspect so cheaply convivial that no one would have imagined it to be the final consummation of a conspiracy which had been for six months in preparation. In this plot four of the men had been already initiated, — Henry, Hark or Hercules, Nelson, and Sam. Two others were novices, Will and Jack by name. The party had remained together from twelve to three o’clock, when a seventh man joined them, — a short, stout, powerfully built person, of dark mulatto complexion and strongly-marked African features, but with a face full of expression and resolution. This was Nat Turner.
He was at this time nearly thirty-one years old, having been born on the second of October, 1800. He had belonged originally to Benjamin Turner, — whence his last name, slaves having usually no patronymic, — had then been transferred to Putnam Moore, and then to his present owner. He had, by his own account, felt himself singled out from childhood for some great work; and he had some peculiar marks on his person, which, joined to his great mental precocity, were enough to occasion, among his youthful companions, a superstitious faith in his gifts and destiny. He had great mechanical ingenuity also, experimentalized very early in making paper, gunpowder, pottery, and in other arts which in later life he was found thoroughly to understand. His moral faculties were very strong, so that white witnesses admitted that he had never been known to swear an oath, to drink a drop of spirits, or to commit a theft. And in general, so marked were his early peculiarities, that people said “he had too much sense to be raised, and if he was, he would never be of any use as a slave.” This impression of personal destiny grew with his growth; — he fasted, prayed, preached, read the Bible, heard voices when he walked behind his plough, and communicated his revelations to the awe-struck slaves. They told him in return, that, “if they had his sense, they would not serve any master in the world.”
A woodcut depiction of the Southhampton rebellion (Wikimedia Commons)
The biographies of slaves can hardly be individualized; they belong to the class. We know bare facts; it is only the general experience of human beings in like condition which can clothe them with life. The outlines are certain, the details are inferential. Thus, for instance, we know that Nat Turner’s young wife was a slave; we know that she belonged to a different master from himself; we know little more than this, but this is much. For this is equivalent to saying that by day or by night that husband had no more power to protect her than the man who lies bound upon a plundered vessel’s deck has power to protect his wife on board the pirate-schooner disappearing in the horizon; she may be reverenced, she may be outraged; it is in the powerlessness that the agony lies. There is, indeed, one thing more which we do know of this young woman: the Virginia newspapers state that she was tortured under the lash, after her husband’s execution, to make her produce his papers: this is all.
What his private experiences and special privileges or wrongs may have been, it is therefore now impossible to say. Travis was declared to be “more humane and fatherly to his slaves than any man in the county”; but it is astonishing how often this phenomenon occurs in the contemporary annals of slave insurrections. The chairman of the county court also stated, in pronouncing sentence, that Nat Turner had spoken of his master as “only too indulgent”; but this, for some reason, does not appear in his printed Confession, which only says, “He was a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me.” It is very possible that it may have been so, but the printed accounts of Nat Turner’s person look suspicious: he is described in Governor Floyd’s proclamation as having a sear on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck and a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, produced by a blow; and although these were explained away in Virginia newspapers as being produced by fights with his companions, yet such affrays are entirely foreign to the admitted habits of the man. It must, therefore remain an open question, whether the scars and the knot were produced black hands or by white.
Whatever Nat Turner’s experiences of slavery might have been, it is certain that his plans were not suddenly adopted, but that he had brooded over them for years. To this day there are traditions among the Virginia slaves of the keen devices of “Prophet Nat.” If he was caught with lime and lamp-black in hand, conning over a half-finished county-map on the barn-door, he was always “planning what to do, if he were blind,” or “studying how to get to Mr. Francis’s house.” When he had called a meeting of slaves, and some poor whites came eavesdropping, the poor whites at once became the subjects for discussion, he incidentally mentioned that the masters had been heard threatening to drive them away; one slave had been ordered to shoot Mr. Jones’s pigs, another to tear down Mr. Johnson’s fences. The poor whites, Johnson and Jones, ran home see to their homesteads, and were better friends than ever to Prophet Nat.
He never was a Baptist preacher, though such vocation has often been attributed to him. The impression arose from his having immersed himself, during one of his periods of special enthusiasm, together with a poor white man named Brantley. “About this time,” he says in his Confession, “I told these things to a white man, on whom it had a wonderful effect, and he ceased from his wickedness, and was attacked immediately with a cutaneous eruption, and the blood oozed from the pores of his skin, and after praying and fasting nine days he was healed. And the Spirit appeared to me again, and said, as the Saviour had been baptized, so should we be also; and when the white people would not let us be baptized by the Church, we went down into the water together, in the sight of many who reviled us, and were baptized by the Spirit. After this I rejoiced greatly and gave thanks to God.”
The religious hallucinations narrated in his Confession seem to have been as genuine as the average of such things, and are very well expressed. It reads quite like Jacob Behmen. He saw white spirits and black spirits contending in the skies, the sun was darkened, the thunder rolled. “And the Holy Ghost was with me, and said, ‘Behold me as I stand in the heavens!’ And I looked and saw the forms of men in different attitudes. And there were lights in the sky, to which the children of darkness gave other names than what they really were ; for they were the lights of the Saviour’s hands, stretched forth from east to west, even as they were extended on the cross on Calvary, for the redemption of sinners.” He saw drops of blood on the corn: this was Christ’s blood, shed for man. He saw on the leaves in the woods letters and numbers and figures of men, — the same symbols which he had seen in the skies. On May 12, 1828, the Holy Spirit appeared to him and proclaimed that the yoke of Jesus must fall on him, and he must fight against the Serpent when the sign appeared. Then came an eclipse of the sun in February, 1831: this was the sign; then he must arise and prepare himself, and slay his enemies with their own weapons; then also the seal was removed from his lips, and then he confided his plans to four associates.
When he came, therefore, to the barbecue on the appointed Sunday, and found, not these four only, but two others, his first question to the intruders was, How they came thither. To this Will answered manfully, that his life was worth no more than the others, and “his liberty was as dear to him.” This admitted him to confidence, and as Jack was known to be entirely under Hark’s influence, the strangers were no bar to their discussion. Eleven hours they remained there, in anxious consultation: one can imagine those terrible dusky faces, beneath the funereal woods, and amid the flickering of pine-knot torches, preparing that stern revenge whose shuddering echoes should ring through the land so long. Two things were at last decided: to begin their work that night, and to begin it with a massacre so swift and irresistible as to create in a few days more terror than many battles, and so spare the need of future bloodshed. “It was agreed that we should commence at home, on that night, and, until we had armed and equipped ourselves and gained sufficient force, neither age nor sex was to be spared: which was invariably adhered to.”
John Brown invaded Virginia with nineteen men and with the avowed resolution to take no life but in self-defence. Nat Turner attacked Virginia from within, with six men, and with the determination to spare no life until his power was established. John Brown intended to pass rapidly through Virginia, and then retreat to the mountains. Nat Turner intended to “conquer Southampton County as the white men did in the Revolution, and then retreat, if necessary, to the Dismal Swamp.” Each plan was deliberately matured; each was in its way, practicable; but each was defeated by a single false step, as will soon appear.
We must pass over the details of horror, as they occurred during the next twenty-four hours. Swift and stealthy as Indians, the black men passed from house to house, — not pausing, not hesitating, as their terrible work went on. In one thing they were humaner than Indians or than white men fighting against Indians, — there was no gratuitous outrage beyond the death-blow itself, no insult, no mutilation; but in every house they entered, that blow fell on man, woman, and child, — nothing that had a white skin was spared. From every house they took arms and ammunition, and from a few, money; on every plantation they found recruits: those dusky slaves, so obsequious to their master the day before, so prompt to sing and dance before his Northern visitors, were all swift to transform themselves into fiends of retribution now; show them sword or musket and they grasped it, though it were an heirloom from Washington himself. The troop increased from house to house, — first to fifteen, then to forty, then to sixty. Some were armed with muskets, some with axes, some with scythes; some came on their masters’ horses. As the numbers increased, they could be divided, and the awful work was carried on more rapidly still. The plan then was for an advanced guard of horsemen to approach each house at a gallop, and surround it till the others came up. Meanwhile what agonies of terror must have taken place within, shared alike by innocent and by guilty! what memories of wrongs inflicted on those dusky creatures, by some, — what innocent participation, by others, in the penance! The outbreak lasted for but forty-eight hours; but during that period fifty-five whites were slain, without the loss of a single slave.
One fear was needless, which to many a husband and father must have intensified the last struggle. These negroes had been systematically brutalized from childhood; they had been allowed no legalized or permanent marriage; they had beheld around them an habitual licentiousness, such as can scarcely exist except in a Slave State; some of them had seen their wives and sisters habitually polluted by the husbands and the brothers of these fair white women who were now absolutely in their power. Yet I have looked through the Virginia newspapers of that time in vain for one charge of an indecent outrage on a woman against these triumphant and terrible slaves. Wherever they went, there went death, and that was all. Compare this with ordinary wars; compare it with the annals of the French Revolution. No one, perhaps, has yet painted the wrongs of the French populace so terribly as Dickens in his “Tale of Two Cities”; yet what man, conversant with slave biographies, can read that narrative without feeling it weak beside the provocations to which fugitive slaves testify? It is something for human nature that these desperate insurgents revenged such wrongs by death alone. Even that fearful penalty was to be inflicted only till the object was won. It was admitted in the “Richmond Enquirer” of the time that “indiscriminate massacre was not their intention, after they obtained foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men also who ceased to resist.”
It is reported by some of the contemporary newspapers, that a portion of this abstinence was the result of deliberate consultation among the insurrectionists; that some of them were resolved on taking the white women for wives, but were overruled by Nat Turner. If so, he is the only American slave-leader of whom we know certainly that he rose above the ordinary level of slave vengeance, and Mrs. Stowe’s picture of Dred’s purposes is then precisely typical of his. “Whom the Lord saith unto us, ‘Smite,’ them will we smite. We will not torment them with the scourge and fire, nor defile their women as they have done with ours. But we will slay them utterly, and consume them from off the face of the earth.”
When the number of adherents had increased to fifty or sixty, Nat Turner judged it time to strike at the county-seat, Jerusalem. Thither a few white fugitives had already fled, and couriers might thence be dispatched for aid to Richmond and Petersburg, unless promptly intercepted. Besides, he could there find arms, ammunition, and money; though they had already obtained, it is dubiously reported, from eight hundred to one thousand dollars. On the way it was necessary to pass the plantation of Mr. Parker, three miles from Jerusalem. Some of the men wished to stop here and enlist some of their friends. Nat Turner objected, as the delay might prove dangerous; he yielded at last, and it proved fatal.
He remained at the gate with six or eight men; thirty or forty went to the house, half a mile distant. They remained too long, and he went alone to hasten them. During his absence a party of eighteen white men came up suddenly, dispersing the small guard left at the gate; and when the main body of slaves emerged from the house, they encountered, for the first time, their armed masters. The blacks halted, the whites advanced cautiously within a hundred yards and fired a volley; on its being returned, they broke into disorder, and hurriedly retreated, leaving some wounded on the ground. The retreating whites were pursued, and were saved only by falling in with another band of fresh men from Jerusalem, with whose aid they turned upon the slaves, who in their turn fell into confusion. Turner, Hark, and about twenty men on horseback retreated in some order; the rest were scattered. The leader still planned to reach Jerusalem by a private way, thus evading pursuit; but at last decided to stop for the night, in the hope of enlisting additional recruits.
During the night the number increased again to forty, and they encamped on Major Ridley’s plantation. An alarm took place during the darkness, — whether real or imaginary does not appear, — and the men became scattered again. Proceeding to make fresh enlistments with the daylight, they were resisted at Dr. Blunt’s house, where his slaves, under his orders, fired upon them, and this, with a later attack from a party of white men near Captain Harris’s, so broke up the whole force that they never reunited. The few who remained together agreed to separate for a few hours to see if anything could be done to revive the insurrection, and meet again that evening at their original rendezvous. But they never reached it.
Sadly came Nat Turner at nightfall into those gloomy woods where forty-eight hours before be had revealed the details of his terrible plot to his companions. At the outset all his plans had succeeded; everything was as he predicted: the slaves had come readily at his call, the masters had proved perfectly defenceless. Had be not been persuaded to pause at Parker’s plantation, he would have been master before now of the arms and ammunition at Jerusalem; and with these to aid, and the Dismal Swamp for a refuge, he might have sustained himself indefinitely against his pursuers.
Now the blood was shed, the risk was incurred, his friends were killed or captured, and all for what? Lasting memories of terror, to be sure, for his oppressors; but on the other hand, hopeless failure for the insurrection, and certain death for him. What a watch be must have kept that night! To that excited imagination, which had always seen spirits in the sky and blood-drops on the corn and hieroglyphic marks on the dry leaves, how full the lonely forest must have been of signs and solemn warnings! Alone with the fox’s bark, the rabbit’s rustle, and the screech-owl’s scream, the self-appointed prophet brooded over his despair. Once creeping to the edge of the wood, he saw men stealthily approach on horseback. He fancied them some of his companions; but before he dared to whisper their ominous names, “Hark” or “Dred,” — for the latter was the name, since famous, of one of his more recent recruits, — he saw them to be white men, and shrank back stealthily beneath his covert.
There he waited two weary days and two melancholy nights, — long enough to satisfy himself that no one would rejoin him, and that the insurrection had hopelessly failed. The determined, desperate spirits who had shared his plans were scattered forever, and longer delay would be destruction for him also. He found a spot which he judged safe, dug a hole under a pile of fence-rails in a field, and lay there for six weeks, only leaving it for a few moments at midnight to obtain water from a neighboring spring. Food he had previously provided, without discovery, from a house near by.
Meanwhile an unbounded variety of rumors went flying through the State. The express which first reached the Governor announced that the militia were retreating before the slaves. An express to Petersburg further fixed the number of militia at three hundred, and of blacks at eight hundred, and invented a convenient shower of rain to explain the dampened ardor of the whites. Later reports described the slaves as making three desperate attempts to cross the bridge over the Nottoway between Cross Keys and Jerusalem, and stated that the leader had been shot in the attempt. Other accounts put the number of negroes at three hundred, all well mounted and armed, with two or three white men as leaders. Their intention was supposed to be to reach the Dismal Swamp, and they must be hemmed in from that side.
Indeed, the most formidable weapon in the hands of slave-insurgents is always this blind panic they create, and the wild exaggerations which follow. The worst being possible, every one takes the worst for granted. Undoubtedly a dozen armed men could have stifled this insurrection, even after it had commenced operations; but it is the fatal weakness of a slaveholding community, that it can never furnish men promptly for such a purpose. “My first intention was,” says one of the most intelligent newspaper narrators of the affair, “to have attacked them with thirty or forty men; but those who had families here were strongly opposed to it.”
As usual, each man was pinioned to his own hearth-stone. As usual, aid had to be summoned from a distance, and, as usual, the United States troops were the chief reliance. Colonel House, commanding at Fort Monroe, sent at once three companies of artillery under Lieutenant Colonel Worth, and embarked them on board the steamer Hampton for Suffolk. These were joined by detachments from the United States ships Warren and Natchez, the whole amounting to nearly eight hundred men. Two volunteer companies went from Richmond, four from Petersburg, one from Norfolk, one from Portsmouth, and several from North Carolina. The militia of Norfolk, Nansemond, and Princess Anne Counties, and the United States troops at Old Point Comfort, were ordered to scour the Dismal Swamp, where it was believed that two or three thousand fugitives were preparing to join the insurgents. It was even proposed to send two companies from New York and one from New London to the same point.
When these various forces reached Southampton County, they found all labor paralyzed and whole plantations abandoned. A letter from Jerusalem, dated August 24th, says, “The oldest inhabitant of our county has never experienced such a distressing time as we have had since Sunday night last….. Every house, room, and corner in the place is full of women and children, driven from home, who had to take the woods until they could get to this place.” “For many miles around their track,” says another, “the county is deserted by women and children.” Still another writes, “Jerusalem is full of women, most of them from the other side of the river, — about two hundred at Vix’s.” Then follow descriptions of the sufferings of these persons, many of whom had lain night after night in the woods. But the immediate danger was at an end, the short-lived insurrection was finished, and now the work of vengeance was to begin. In the frank phrase of a North Carolina correspondent, — “The massacre of the whites was over, and the white people had commenced the destruction of the negroes, which was continued after our Men got there, from time to time, as they could fall in with them, all day yesterday.” A postscript adds, that “passengers by the Fayetteville stage say, that, by the latest accounts, one hundred and twenty negroes had been killed,” — this being little more than one day’s work.
These murders were defended as Nat Turner defended his: a fearful blow must be struck. In shuddering at the horrors of the insurrection, we have forgotten the far greater horrors of its suppression.
The newspapers of the day contain many indignant protests against the cruelties which took place. “It is with pain,” says a correspondent of the “National Intelligencer,” September 7, 1831, “that we speak of another feature of the Southampton Rebellion; for we have been most unwilling to have our sympathies for the sufferers diminished or affected by their misconduct. We allude to the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity….. We met with an individual of intelligence who told us that he himself had killed between ten and fifteen….. We [the Richmond troop] witnessed with surprise the sanguinary temper of the population, who evinced a strong disposition to inflict immediate death on every prisoner.”
There is a remarkable official document from General Eppes, the officer in command, to be found in the “Richmond Enquirer” for September 6, 1831. It is an indignant denunciation of precisely these outrages; and though he refuses to give details, he supplies their place by epithets: “revolting,” — “inhuman and not to be justified,” — “acts of barbarity and cruelty,” — “acts of atrocity,” — “this course of proceeding dignifies the rebel and the assassin with the sanctity of martyrdom.” And he ends by threatening martial law upon all future transgressors. Such general orders are not issued except in rather extreme cases. And in the parallel columns of the newspaper the innocent editor prints equally indignant descriptions of Russian atrocities in Lithuania, where the Poles were engaged in active insurrection, amid profuse sympathy from Virginia.
The truth is, it was a Reign of Terror. Volunteer patrols rode in all directions, visiting plantations. “It was with the greatest difficulty,” said General Brodnax before the House of Delegates, “and at the hazard of personal popularity and esteem, that the coolest and most judicious among us could exert an influence sufficient to restrain an indiscriminate slaughter of the blacks who were suspected.” A letter from the Rev. G.W. Powell declares, “There are thousands of troops searching in every direction, and many negroes are killed every day: the exact number will never be ascertained.” Petition after petition was subsequently presented to the legislature, asking compensation for slaves thus assassinated without trial.
Men were tortured to death, burned, maimed, and subjected to nameless atrocities. The overseers were called on to point out any slaves whom they distrusted, and if any tried to escape, they were shot down. Nay, worse than this. “A party of horsemen started from Richmond with the intention of killing every colored person they saw in Southampton County. They stopped opposite the cabin of a free colored man, who was hoeing in his little field. They called out, ‘Is this Southampton County?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Sir, you have just crossed the line, by yonder tree.’ They shot him dead and rode on.” This is from the narrative of the editor of the “Richmond Whig,” who was then on duty in the militia, and protested manfully against these outrages. “Some of these scenes,” he adds, “are hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the insurgents.”
These were the masters’ stories. If even these conceded so much, it would be interesting to hear what the slaves had to report. I am indebted to my honored friend, Lydia Maria Child, for some vivid recollections of this terrible period, as noted down from the lips of an old colored woman, once well known in New York, Charity Bowery. “At the time of the old Prophet Nat,” she said, “the colored folks was afraid to pray loud; for the whites threatened to punish ’em dreadfully, if the least noise was heard. The patrols was low drunken whites, and in Nat’s time, if they heard any of the colored folks praying or singing a hymn, they would fall upon ’em and abuse ’em, and sometimes kill ’em, afore master or missis could get to ’em. The brightest and best was killed in Nat’s time. The whites always suspect such ones. They killed a great many at a place called Duplon. They killed Antonio, a slave of Mr. J. Stanley, whom they shot; then they pointed their guns at him, and told him to confess about the insurrection. He told ’em be didn’t know anything about any insurrection. They shot several balls through him, quartered him, and put his head on a pole at the fork of the road leading to the court.” (This is no exaggeration, if the Virginia newspapers may be taken as evidence.) “It was there but a short time. He had no trial. They never do. In Nat’s time, the patrols would tie up the free colored people, flog ’em, and try to make ’em lie against one another, and often killed them before anybody could interfere. Mr. James Cole, High Sheriff, said, if any of the patrols came on his plantation, he would lose his life in defence of his people. One day he heard a patroller boasting how many niggers he had killed. Mr. Cole said, ‘If you don’t pack up, as quick as God Almighty will let you, and get out of this town, and never be seen in it again, I’ll put you where dogs won’t bark at you.’ He went off, and wasn’t seen in them parts again.”
These outrages were not limited to the colored population; but other instances occurred which strikingly remind one of more recent times. An Englishman, named Robinson, was engaged in selling books at Petersburg. An alarm being given, one night, that five hundred blacks were marching towards the town, he stood guard, with others, on the bridge. After the panic had a little subsided, he happened to remark, that “the blacks, as men, were entitled to their freedom, and ought to be emancipated.” This led to great excitement, and he was warned to leave town. He took passage in the stage, but the stage was intercepted. He then fled to a friend’s house; the house was broken open, and he was dragged forth. The civil authorities, being applied to, refused to interfere. The mob, stripped him, gave him a great number of lashes, and sent him on foot, naked, under a hot sun, to Richmond, whence he with difficulty found a passage to New York.
Of the capture or escape of most of that small band who met with Nat Turner in the woods upon the Travis plantation little can now be known. All appear among the list of convicted, except Henry and Will. General Moore, who occasionally figures as second in command, in the newspaper narratives of that day, was probably the Hark or Hercules before mentioned; as no other of the confederates had belonged to Mrs. Travis, or would have been likely to bear her previous name of Moore. As usual, the newspapers state that most, if not all the slaves, were “the property of kind and indulgent masters.” Whether in any case they were also the sons of those masters is a point ignored; but from the fact that three out of the seven were at first reported as being white men several different witnesses, — the whole number being correctly given, and the statement therefore probably authentic, — one must suppose that there was an admixture of patrician blood in some of these conspirators.
The subordinate insurgents sought safety as they could. A free colored named Will Artist, shot himself in the woods, where his hat was found on stake and his pistol lying by him; another was found drowned; others were traced to the Dismal Swamp; others returned to their homes, and tried to conceal their share in the insurrection, assuring their masters that they had been forced, against their will, to join, — the usual defence in such cases. The number shot down at random must, by all accounts, have amounted to many hundreds, but it is past all human registration now. The number who had a formal trial, such as it was, is officially stated at fifty-five; of these, seventeen were convicted and hanged, twelve convicted and transported, twenty acquitted, and four free colored men sent on for further trial and finally acquitted. “Not one of those known to be concerned escaped.” Of those executed, one only was a woman: “Lucy, slave of John T. Barrow”: that is all her epitaph, shorter even than that of Wordsworth’s more famous Lucy; — but whether this one was old or young, pure or wicked, lovely or repulsive, octroon or negro, a Cassy, an Emily, or a Topsy, no information appears; she was a woman, she was a slave, and she died.
There is one touching story, in connection with these terrible retaliations, which rests on good authority, that of the Rev. M. B. Cox, a Liberian missionary, then in Virginia. In the hunt which followed the massacre, a slaveholder went into the woods, accompanied by a faithful slave, who had been the means of saving his life during the insurrection. When they had reached a retired place in the forest, the man handed his gun to his master, informing him that he could not live a slave any longer, and requesting him either to free him or shoot him on the spot. The master took the gun, in some trepidation, levelled it at the faithful negro, and shot him through the heart. It is probable that this slaveholder was a Dr. Blunt, — his being the only plantation where the slaves were reported as thus defending their masters. “If this be true,” said the “Richmond Enquirer,” when it first narrated this instance of loyalty, “great will be the desert of these noble-minded Africans.” This “noble-minded African,” at least, estimated his own desert at a high standard: he demanded freedom, — and obtained it.
Meanwhile the panic of the whites continued; for, though all others might be disposed of, Nat Turner was still at large. We have positive evidence of the extent of the alarm, although great efforts were afterwards made to represent it as a trifling affair. A distinguished citizen of Virginia wrote three months later to the Hon. W. B. Seabrook of South Carolina, — “From all that has come to my knowledge during and since that affair, I am convinced most fully that every black preacher in the country east of the Blue Ridge was in the secret.” “There is much reason to believe,” says the Governor’s message on December 6th, “that the spirit of insurrection was not confined to Southampton. Many convictions have taken place elsewhere, and some few in distant counties.” The withdrawal of the United States troops, after some ten days’ service, was a signal for fresh excitement, and an address, numerously signed, was presented to the United States Government, imploring their continued stay. More than three weeks after the first alarm, the Governor sent a supply of arms into Prince William, Fauquier, and Orange Counties. “From examinations which have taken place in other counties,” says one of the best newspaper historians of the affair, (in the “Richmond Enquirer” of September 6th,) “I fear that the scheme embraced a wider sphere than I at first supposed.” Nat Turner himself, intentionally or otherwise, increased the confusion by denying all knowledge of the North Carolina outbreak, and declaring that he had communicated his plans to his four confederates within six months; while, on the other hand, a slave-girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, belonging to Solomon Parker, testified that she had heard the subject discussed for eighteen months, and that at a meeting held during the previous May some eight or ten had joined the plot.
It is astonishing to discover, by laborious comparison of newspaper files, how vast was the immediate range of these insurrectionary alarms. Every Southern State seems to have borne its harvest of terror. On the Eastern shore of Maryland great alarm was at once manifested, especially in the neighborhood of Easton and Snowhill; and the houses of colored men were searched for arms even in Baltimore. In Delaware, there were similar rumors through Sussex and Dover Counties; there were arrests and executions; and in Somerset County great public meetings were held, to demand additional safeguards. On election-day, in Seaford, Del., some young men, going out to hunt rabbits, discharged their guns in sport; the men being absent, all the women in the vicinity took to flight; the alarm spread like the “Ipswich Fright”; soon Seaford was thronged with armed men; and when the boys returned from hunting, they found cannon drawn out to receive them.
In North Carolina, Raleigh and Fayetteville were put under military defence, and women and children concealed themselves in the swamps for many days. The rebel organization was supposed to include two thousand. Forty-six slaves were imprisoned in Union County, twenty-five in Sampson County, and twenty–three at least in Duplin County, some of whom were executed. The panic also extended into Wayne, New Hanover, and Lenoir Counties. Four men were shot without trial in Wilmington, — Nimrod, Abraham, Prince, and “Dan the Dray-man,” the latter a man of seventy, — and their heads placed on poles at the four corners of the town. Nearly two months afterwards the trials were still continuing; and at a still later day, the Governor in his proclamation recommended the formation of companies of volunteers in every county.
In South Carolina, General Hayne issued a proclamation “to prove the groundlessness of the existing alarms,” — thus implying that serious alarms existed. In Macon, Georgia, the whole population were roused from their beds at midnight by a report of a large force of armed negroes five miles off. In an hour, every woman and child was deposited in the largest building of the town, and a military force hastily collected in front. The editor of the Macon “Messenger” excused the poor condition of his paper, a few days afterwards, by the absorption of his workmen in patrol duties, and describes “dismay and terror” as the condition of the people, of “all ages and sexes.” In Jones, Twiggs, and Monroe Counties, the same alarms were reported; and in one place “several slaves were tied to a tree, while a militia captain hacked at them with his sword.”
In Alabama, at Columbus and Fort Mitchell, a rumor was spread of a joint conspiracy of Indians and negroes. At Claiborne the panic was still greater; the slaves were said to be thoroughly organized through that part of the State, and multitudes were imprisoned; the whole alarm being apparently founded on one stray copy of the “Liberator.”
In Tennessee, the Shelbyville “Freeman” announced that an insurrectionary plot had just been discovered, barely in time for its defeat, through the treachery of a female slave. In Louisville, Kentucky, a similar organization was discovered or imagined, and arrests were made in consequence. “The papers, from motives of policy, do not notice the disturbance,” wrote one correspondent to the Portland “Courier.” “Pity us!” he added.
But the greatest bubble burst in Louisiana. Captain Alexander, an English tourist, arriving in New Orleans at the beginning of September, found the whole city in tumult. Handbills had been issued, appealing to the slaves to rise against their masters, saying that all men were born equal, declaring that Hannibal was a black man, and that they also might have great leaders among them. Twelve hundred stand of weapons were said to have been found in a black man’s house; five hundred citizens were under arms, and four companies of regulars were ordered to the city, whose barracks Alexander himself visited.
If such were the alarm in New Orleans, the story, of course, lost nothing by transmission to other Slave States. A rumor reached Frankfort, Kentucky, that the slaves already had possession of the coast, both above and below New Orleans. But the most remarkable circumstance is, that all this seems to have been a mere revival of an old terror, once before excited and exploded. The following paragraph had appeared in the Jacksonville (Georgia) “Observer,” during the spring previous:
“FEARFUL DISCOVERY. We were favored, by yesterday’s mail, with a letter from New Orleans, of May 1st, in which we find that an important discovery had been made a few days previous in that city. The following is an extract: — ‘Four days ago, as some planters were digging under ground, they found a square room containing eleven thousand stand of arms and fifteen thousand cartridges, each of the cartridges containing a bullet.’ It is said the negroes intended to rise as soon as the sickly season began, and obtain possession of the city by massacring the white population. The same letter states that the mayor had prohibited the opening of Sunday-schools for the instruction of blacks, under a penalty of five hundred dollars for the first offence, and for the second, death.”
Such were the terrors that came back from nine other Slave States, as the echo of the voice of Nat Turner; and when it is also known that the subject was at once taken up by the legislatures of other States, where there was no public panic, as in Missouri and Tennessee, — and when, finally, it is added that reports of insurrection had been arriving all that year from Rio Janeiro, Martinique, St. Jago, Antigua, Caraccas, and Tortola, it is easy to see with what prolonged distress the accumulated terror must have weighed down upon Virginia, during the two months that Nat Turner lay hid.
True, there were a thousand men in arms in Southampton County, to inspire security. But the blow had been struck by only seven men before; and unless there were an armed guard in every house, who could tell but any house might at any moment be the scene of new horrors? They might kill or imprison unresisting negroes by day, but could they resist their avengers by night? “The half cannot be told,” wrote a lady from another part of Virginia, at this time, “of the distresses of the people. In Southampton County, the scene of the insurrection, the distress beggars description. A gentleman who has been there says that even here, where there has been great alarm, we have no idea of the situation of those in that county…. I do not hesitate to believe that many negroes around us would join in a massacre as horrible as that which has taken place, if an opportunity should offer.”
Meanwhile the cause of all this terror was made the object of desperate search. On September 17th the Governor offered a reward of five hundred dollars for his capture, and there were other rewards swelling the amount to eleven hundred dollars, — but in vain. No one could track or trap him. On September 30th a minute account of his capture appeared in the newspapers, but it was wholly false. On October 7th there was another, and on October 18th another; yet all without foundation. Worn out by confinement in his little cave, Nat Turner grew more adventurous, and began to move about stealthily by night, afraid to speak to any human being, but hoping to obtain some information that might aid his escape. Returning regularly to his retreat before daybreak, he might possibly have continued this mode of life until pursuit had ceased, had not a dog succeeded where men had failed. The creature accidentally smelt out the provisions hid in the cave, and finally led thither his masters, two negroes, one of whom was named Nelson. On discovering the terrible fugitive, they fled precipitately, when he hastened to retreat in an opposite direction. This was on October 15th, and from this moment the neighborhood was all alive with excitement, and five or six hundred men undertook the pursuit.
It shows a more than Indian adroitness in Nat Turner to have escaped capture any longer. The cave, the arms, the provisions were found; and lying among them the notched stick of this miserable Robinson Crusoe, marked with five weary weeks and six days. But the man was gone. For ten days more he concealed himself among the wheat-stacks on Mr. Francis’s plantation, and during this time was reduced almost to despair. Once he decided to surrender himself, and walked by night within two miles of Jerusalem before his purpose failed him. Three times he tried to get out of that neighborhood, but in vain: travelling by day was, of course, out of the question, and by night he found it impossible to elude the patrol. Again and again, therefore, he returned to his hiding-place, and during his whole two months’ liberty never went five miles from the Cross Keys. On the 25th of October, he was at last discovered by Mr. Francis, as he was emerging from a stack. A load of buckshot was instantly discharged at him, twelve of which passed through his hat as he fell to the ground. He escaped even then, but his pursuers were rapidly concentrating upon him, and it is perfectly astonishing that he could have eluded them for five days more.
On Sunday, October 30th, a man named Benjamin Phipps, going out for the first time on patrol duty, was passing at noon a clearing in the woods where a number of pine-trees had long since been felled. There was a motion among their boughs; he stopped to watch it; and through a gap in the branches he saw, emerging from a hole in the earth beneath, the face of Nat Turner. Aiming his gun instantly, Phipps called on him to surrender. The fugitive, exhausted with watching and privation, entangled in the branches, armed only with a sword, had nothing to do but to yield; sagaciously reflecting, also, as he afterwards explained, that the woods were full of armed men, and that he had better trust fortune for some later chance of escape, instead of desperately attempting it then. He was correct in the first impression, since there were fifty armed scouts within a circuit of two miles. His insurrection ended where it began; for this spot was only a mile and a half from the house of Joseph Travis.
Torn, emaciated, ragged, “a mere scarecrow,” still wearing the hat perforated with buckshot, with his arms bound to his sides, he was driven before the levelled gun to the nearest house, that of a Mr. Edwards. He was confined there that night; but the news had spread so rapidly that within an hour after his arrival a hundred persons had collected, and the excitement became so intense “that it was with difficulty he could be conveyed alive to Jerusalem.” The enthusiasm spread instantly through Virginia; Mr. Trezvant, the Jerusalem postmaster, sent notices of it far and near; and Governor Floyd himself wrote a letter to the “Richmond Enquirer” to give official announcement of the momentous capture.
When Nat Turner was asked by Mr. T. R. Gray, the counsel assigned him, whether, although defeated, he still believed in his own Providential mission he answered, as simply as one who came thirty years after him, “Was not Christ crucified?” In the same spirit, when arraigned before the court, “he answered, ‘Not guilty,’ saying to his counsel that he did not feel so.” But apparently no argument was made in his favor by his counsel, nor were any witnesses called, — he being convicted on the testimony of Levi Waller, and upon his own confession, which was put in by Mr. Gray, and aknowledged by the prisoner before the six justices composing the court, as being “full, free, and voluntary.” He was therefore placed in the paradoxical position of conviction by his own confession, under a plea of “Not guilty.” The arrest took place on the thirtieth of October, 1831, the confession on the first of November, the trial and conviction on the fifth, and the execution on the following Friday, the eleventh of November, precisely at noon. He met his death with perfect composure, declined addressing the multitude assembled, and told the sheriff in a firm voice that he was ready. Another account says that he “betrayed no emotion, and even hurried the executioner in the performance of his duty.” “Not a limb nor a muscle was observed to move. His body, after his death, was given over to the surgeons for dissection.”
This last statement merits remark. There would be no evidence that this formidable man was not favored during his imprisonment with that full measure of luxury which slave-jails afford to slaves, but for a rumor which arose after the execution, that he was compelled to sell his body in advance, for purposes of dissection, in exchange for food. But it does not appear probable, from the known habits of Southern anatomists, that any such bargain could have been needed. For in the circular of the South Carolina Medical School for that very year I find this remarkable suggestion: — “Some advantages of a peculiar character are connected with this institution. No place in the United States affords so great opportunities for the acquisition of medical knowledge, subjects being obtained among the colored population in sufficient number for every purpose, and proper dissections carried on without offending any individual.” What a convenience, to possess for scientific purposes a class of population sufficiently human to be dissected, but not human enough to be supposed to take offence at it! And as the same arrangement may be supposed to have existed in Virginia, Nat Turner would hardly have gone, through the formality of selling his body for food to those who claimed its control at any rate.
The Confession of the captive was published under authority of Mr. Gray, in a pamphlet, at Baltimore. Fifty thousand copies of it are said to have been printed, and it was “embellished with an accurate likeness of the brigand, taken by Mr. John Crawley, portrait-painter, and lithographed by Endicott and Swett, at Baltimore.” The newly published “Liberator” said of it, at the time, that it would “only serve to rouse up other leaders, and hasten other insurrections,” and advised grand juries to indict Mr. Gray. I have never seen a copy of the original pamphlet, it is not to be found in any of our public libraries, and I have heard of but one as still existing, although the Confession itself has been repeatedly reprinted. Another small pamphlet, containing the main features of the outbreak, was published at New York during the same year, and this is in my possession. But the greater part of the facts which I have given were gleaned from the contemporary newspapers.
Who now shall go back thirty years and read the heart of this extraordinary man, who, by the admission of his captors, “never was known to swear an oath or drink a drop of spirits,” — who, on the same authority, “for natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension was surpassed by few men,” “with a mind capable of attaining anything,” — who knew no book but his Bible, and that by heart, — who devoted himself soul and body to the cause of his race, without a trace of personal hope or fear, — who laid his plans so shrewdly that they came at last with less warning than any earthquake on the doomed community around, — and who, when that time arrived, took the life of man, woman, and child, without a throb of compunction, a word of exultation, or an act of superfluous outrage? Mrs. Stowe’s “Dred” seems dim and melodramatic beside the actual Nat Turner. De Quincey’s “Avenger” is his only parallel in imaginative literature: similar wrongs, similar retribution. Mr. Gray, his self-appointed confessor, rises into a sort of bewildered enthusiasm, with the prisoner before him. “I shall not attempt to describe the effect of his narrative, as told and commented on by himself, in the condemned-hole of the prison. The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him, clothed with rags and covered with chains, yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man, — I looked on him, and the blood curdled in my veins.”
But the more remarkable the personal character of Nat Turner, the greater the amazement felt that he should not have appreciated the extreme felicity of his position as a slave. In all insurrections, the standing wonder seems to be that the slaves most trusted and best used should be most deeply involved. So in this case, as usual, they resorted to the most astonishing theories of the origin of the affair. One attributed it to Free-Masonry, and another to free whiskey, — liberty appearing dangerous, even in these forms. The poor whites charged it upon the free colored people, and urged their expulsion, forgetting that in North Carolina the plot was betrayed by one of this class, and that in Virginia there were but two engaged, both of whom had slave-wives. The slaveholding clergymen traced it to want of knowledge of the Bible, forgetting that Nat Turner knew scarcely anything else. On the other hand, “a distinguished citizen of Virginia” combined in one sweeping denunciation “Northern incendiaries, tracts, Sunday-schools, religion, reading, and writing.”
But whether the theories of its origin were wise or foolish, the insurrection made its mark, and the famous band of Virginia emancipationists, who all that winter made the House of Delegates ring with unavailing eloquence — till the rise of slave-exportation to new cotton regions stopped their voices — were but the unconscious mouth-pieces of Nat Turner. In January, 1832, in reply to a member who had called the outbreak a “petty affair,” the eloquent James McDowell has described the impression it left behind : —
“Now, Sir, I ask you, I ask gentlemen, in conscience to say, was that a ‘petty affair’ which startled the feelings of your whole population, — which threw a portion of it into alarm, a portion of it into panic, — which wrung out from an affrighted people the thrilling cry, day after day, conveyed to your executive, ‘We are in peril of our lives; send us army for defence’? Was that a ‘petty affair’ which drove families from their homes, — which assembled women and children in crowds, without shelter, at places of common refuge, in every condition of weakness and infirmity, under every suffering which want and terror could inflict, yet willing to endure all, willing to meet death from famine, death from climate, death from hardships, preferring anything rather than the horrors of meeting it from a domestic assassin? Was that a ‘petty affair’ which erected a peaceful and confiding portion of the State into a military camp, — which outlawed from pity the unfortunate beings whose brothers had offended, — which barred every door, penetrated every bosom with fear or suspicion, — which so banished every sense of security from every man’s dwelling, that, let but a hoof or horn break upon the silence of the night, and an aching throb would be driven to the heart, the husband would look to his weapon, and the mother would shudder and weep upon her cradle? Was it the fear of Nat Turner, and his deluded, drunken handful of followers, which produced such effects? Was it this that induced distant counties, where the very name of Southampton was strange, to arm and equip for a struggle? No, Sir, it was the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself, — the suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, — that the same bloody deed might be acted over at any time and any place, — that the materials for it were spread through the land, and were always ready for a like explosion. Nothing but the force of this withering apprehension, — nothing but the paralyzing and deadening weight with which it falls upon and prostrates the heart of every man who has helpless dependants to protect, — nothing but this could have thrown a brave people into consternation, or could have made any portion of this powerful Commonwealth, for a single instant, to have quailed and trembled.”
While these things were going on, the enthusiasm for the Polish Revolution was rising to its height. The nation was ringing with a peal of joy, on hearing that at Frankfort the Poles had killed fourteen thousand Russians. “The Southern Religious Telegraph” was publishing an impassioned address to Kosciusko; standards were being consecrated for Poland in the larger cities; heroes, like Skrzynecki, Czartoryski, Rozyski, Kaminski, were choking the trump of Fame with their complicated patronymics. These are all forgotten now; and this poor negro, who did not even possess a name, beyond one abrupt monosyllable, — for even the name of Turner was the master’s property, — still lives a memory of terror and a symbol of retribution triumphant. ”