Don't Miss
Home / Tom Morrow / Historically Speaking: The Rebel Slave with a Cause
Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Rebel Slave with a Cause

By Tom Morrow

Nat Turner, born circa October 1800, was an African-American slave who led a rebellion of fellow slaves and free blacks in Southhampton County, Va., on Aug. 21, 1831, that resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people. In retaliation, white militias and mobs killed more than 200 black people while putting down the rebellion.

Led by Turner, the slave rebels went from plantation to plantation, gathering horses and guns, freeing other slaves along the way, and recruiting other blacks who wanted to join their revolt.

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, and members killed white men, women and children. Nat Turner confessed to killing only one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.

Whites organized militias and called out regular troops to suppress the uprising. In addition, white militias and mobs attacked blacks in the area, killing an estimated 200, many of whom were not involved in the revolt.

In the aftermath, the state quickly arrested and executed 57 slaves accused of being part of Turner’s rebellion. For two months Turner hid successfully. When found, he was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged.

Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws to control slaves and free blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free blacks, restricted rights of assembly for free blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms (in some states), and to vote. In North Carolina the law required white ministers to be present at all black worship services.

Before a white militia could organize and respond, the rebels had killed 60 men, women, and children. They spared inhabitants of a few poor white homes.

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture by hiding in the woods until Oct. 30, when he was discovered. Turner was hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. While awaiting trial, Turner confessed his knowledge of the rebellion. On Nov. 5, 1831, Turner was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection,” convicted, and sentenced to death. Turner was hanged on Nov. 11 in Jerusalem, Va.

His body was flayed and beheaded as an example to frighten other would-be rebels. Turner received no formal burial; his headless remains were possibly buried in an unmarked grave.

Of the 45 slaves tried, 15 were acquitted. Of the 30 convicted, 18 were hanged, while 12 were sold out of state. Of the five free blacks tried for participation in the insurrection, one was hanged, while the others were acquitted.

In total, the state executed 55 black people suspected of having been involved in the uprising. But in the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the revolt, white militias and mobs killed an estimated 200 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.

In the period soon after the revolt, whites did not try to interpret Turner’s motives and ideas. Antebellum slave-holding whites were shocked by the murders and had their fears of rebellions heightened; Turner’s name became “a symbol of terrorism and violent retribution.”

In an 1843 speech at the National Negro Convention, Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave and active abolitionist, described Nat Turner as “patriotic,” stating that “future generations will remember him among the noble and brave.”