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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nat Turner Rebellion

And about this time [1825] I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, "Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it." ~ Confessions of Nat Turner, as transcribed by Thomas R Gray

The slave rebellion led by Nat Turner on August 21, 1831 was the deadliest in American history with 55 whites and estimates of up to 200 blacks killed in Southampton County, Virginia.

Turner was born October 2, 1800, one week before Gabriel Prosser was hanged for leading a revolt in Richmond, 70 miles to the west. He taught himself to read and write at an early age and was deeply religious, often fasting and praying. He frequently led Baptist services and was known as "the Prophet." A series of visions over the years led to his belief that he was called to lead an uprising against the slaveowners, with this occurring in 1828:
"I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and 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 last and the last should be first... And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign... I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."

The "sign in the heavens" was an eclipse on February 12, 1831 and he began preparation for a revolt planned for July 4, enlisting the help of fellow slaves named Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam. Because of an illness it was postponed until August, a week after dust or other conditions caused the sun to appear bluish-green. They struck in the early morning hours, killing white families in the area, beginning in Turner's household. The group grew as large as 70 men, many on horseback. The Richmond Enquirer  reported that "Turner declared that 'indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'"

As word of  the uprising spread, the local militia was called out, along with three artillery companies and men from the naval base in Richmond. The rebellion was suppressed within 48 hours. About 50 men and women were tried and executed for taking part, and many others were killed by the militia and white mobs. Some were beheaded, with their heads impaled on posts as an intimidation to others. Rumors spread as far as Alabama, leading to further violence throughout the south.

Turner was not captured until October 30, and was hanged on November 11. His attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray, later published The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on conversations with Turner and his own research. As in the aftermath of other insurrections, the treatment of slaves became much more repressive. It became illegal to teach "slaves, free blacks or mulattoes" to read, and they were not allowed to have church services without a licensed white minister present.

The Turner Rebellion has been written about extensively, first by Herbert Aptheker in the 1943 American Negro Slave Revolts and in 1975 by Stephen B Oates in The Fires of Jubilee. It was the subject of Thomas Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which drew criticism from many African American scholars although it was defended by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Released earlier this month is The Resurrection of Nat Turner by Sharon Ewell Foster, an African American Christian novelist.

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