Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of the largest and bloodiest slave rebellions to ever take place in the U.S., and it played a significant role in the development of antebellum slave society. Historical images depict Nat Turner’s rebellion of armed black men roaming the countryside slaying white men, women, and children. They haunted white southerners and this showed how vulnerable slave owners were when they were unprepared to face the wrath of slaves who got fed up with the torturous daily life on the plantation. With that said, following the rebellion whites throughout the South were determined to prevent any further slave uprisings. To make it possible they tightened the harsh slave codes to keep African Americans from having a freedom mindset and in their perspective a constant subservient position. To understand how this rebellion occurred we must start from the beginning starting with the man who initiated him and his fellow slaves fight for freedom.
Nat Turner was born in 1800 into slavery in Southampton Virginia, about twenty miles from the North Carolina border. As with other slaves he lived among, Turner’s experience was the typical daily hell in Southern plantations. He could not legally marry, travel without his master’s permission, own property, or earn money. Turner would work long hard hours on the fields for meager rations of food and clothing, and if he refused to accept he would have to endure whippings or other punishment. As with other slaves, Turner was sold several times to different masters. Every time that happened he was forced to leave his family and friends and start a new day in hell in a different plantation. The brutal system of slavery that was demanding and torturous was something Nat Turner sought to overthrow. Furthermore, he sought to not only gain his freedom but to dismantle the entire system of slavery and liberate African Americans from white tyranny.
In his twenties, Turner became a spiritual leader among his fellow slaves including his mother and grandmother. They believed that he had been chosen by God to do great things. Then, in the 1820’s he had serious visions. He had a Moses in the burning bush moment where he believed God was commanding him to prepare himself for a great battle against evil. During the religious revivals of the 2nd Great Awakening, many Americans back then no matter their background were said to have experienced visions or believed that God spoke directly to them and in Nat Turner’s case his belief that God had destined him for a special purpose which reflected the religious fervor of his time. You see the purpose for which Turner believed in was that God had chosen him to do something extraordinary. In February 1831, a solar eclipse was said to be a sign Turner was waiting for, and from there he began his preparations for an insurrection. Fast forward to August 13th of the same year, and even though this sounds implausible, it is said that Turner saw the sun appear a blue – green coloring in the sky, and Turner and his friends took it as the final sign.
On August 22nd, 1831, Nat Turner and six fellow slaves began their attack. They planned to move systemically from plantation to plantation in Southampton and began to kill all white people connected to slavery including men, women, and children. Moreover, they started on their plantation and murdered Turner’s owners and his family. During the next 23 hours, Turner and his fellow insurgents moved throughout the country to eleven different plantations, killing 55 people and inspiring 50 – 60 enslaved to join their ranks. They would then move onto the town of Jerusalem to destroy the town and kill all the inhabitants. However, before they could reach their destination they were stopped by a heavily armed white militia. Subsequently, the Governor had called about three thousand militiamen to put down the rebellion. Seeing that they were outnumbered and over matched, Turner’s insurgents disbanded and retreated into the woods and swamps.
Turner and his fellow insurgents’ anger and destruction were quickly diffused due to a white militia hunting them down and capturing them. Not only were they captured, but the white militia killed the men who had participated except for Nat Turner. Turner hid for two months in the woods of Southampton County. When he was finally captured, he was tried, convicted, and then hung and skinned. Wow, talk about brutality. In addition, fifty – four other men were executed by the state. Having said that, to terrorize the local African American population some of the militia decapitated fifteen of the captured insurgents had their heads put on stakes. Afterward, fear spread through the white population and this led to white mobs turning on blacks who played no role in the uprising. An estimated two to three hundred African Americans, most of whom were not connected to the rebellion were murdered by white mobs, possibly to keep them in line to not start another uprising. The Governor of Virginia tried to put an end to this vigilante justice, insisting that those who had participated in the rebellion should be tried and executed by the state and also reinforce the supremacy of the law for both blacks and whites. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery but instead voted to tighten the laws restoring blacks’ freedom in hopes of preventing any further insurrections.
In nearby North Carolina, several slaves were falsely accused of being involved in Turner’s rebellion and executed. Rumors began to spread that slaves in North Carolina were plotting their uprising and white mobs murdered many enslaved men, while other slaves were arrested, tried, and executed. North Carolina, like Virginia, passed new legislation further restricting the rights of both enslaved people and free blacks. The legislation also made it illegal for slaves to preach to be “insolent” to white people, to carry a gun, to hunt in the woods, to coexist with a free black or white person, and to own any type of livestock. These new codes also forbade white people from teaching an enslaved person to read.
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