Title: "Nat Turner's Insurrection"
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Print Source: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Nat Turner's Insurrection," Atlantic Monthly 8 (1861).
Background information: Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a prominent figure in abolitionist politics in Massachusetts during the 1850s. Dismissed from his Unitarian pulpit
in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1849 because of his anti-slavery politics
and sermons, he spoke and agitated on behalf of the abolitionist cause
during the next decade. He was a leader amongst the abolitionists
who attempted to liberate captured fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston
in 1854, later became a confidante and supporter of John Brown, and eventually
served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first black
regiment of the Union Army.
During the 1850s and 1860s, Higginson published a number of articles
in the Atlantic Monthly on slave revolts and resistance in the Caribbean
and American South. The essay below on Nat Turner’s rebellion appeared
in 1861. The following year, Emily Dickinson responded to Higginson’s
“Letter to a Young Contributor,” again from the Atlantic Monthly,
beginning what would become a 23-year correspondence with Higginson that
had a significant impact on her development as a poet.
DURING the year 1831, up to the 23d of August,
the Virginia newspapers seem to have been absorbed in the momentous problems
which then occupied the minds of intelligent American citizens: What Gen.
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 flared on increasing, until the remotest Southern States were
found shuddering at nightly rumors of insurrection; until far-off European
colonies—Antigua, Martinique, Caraccas, Tortola—recognized by some secret
sympathy the same epidemic alarms; until the very boldest words of freedom
were reported as uttered in the Virginia House of Delegates with unclosed
doors; until an obscure young man named Garrison was indicted at common
law in North Carolina, and had a price set upon his head by the Legislature
Near the south-eastern 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 Murfreesborough
in North Carolina, and about twenty-five from the Great Dismal Swamp. Up
to Sunday, the 21st 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 buts, 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 oil 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 oil
the 2d of October, 1800. He had belonged originally to Benjamin Turner,—from
whom he took 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
mental precocity, were enough to occasion, among his youthful companions,
a superstitious faith in his gifts and destiny. He had some 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 appeared 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."
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, her 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 well treated, 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 Gov. Floyd's proclamation as having a scar 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 having been 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 by 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 lampblack 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 be 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 to 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 be 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 riot 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.
The account 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 be 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
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 under slavery; 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. 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 despatched 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 Capt. Harris's,
so broke up the whole force that they never re-united. The few who remained
together agreed to separate for a few hours to see if any thing could be
done to revive the insurrection, and meet again that evening at their original
rendezvous. But they never reached it.
Gloomily came Nat Turner at nightfall into those gloomy woods where
forty-eight hours before he had revealed the details of his terrible plot
to his companions. At the outset all his plans had succeeded; every thing
was as he predicted: the slaves had come readily at his call; the masters
had proved perfectly defenceless. Had he 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 he 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 forest must have been of signs and 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 woods, 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 be waited two days and two nights,—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 rural
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. Col. House, commanding at Fort Monroe, sent at
once three companies of artillery under Lieut.-Col. 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 Aug. 24, 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 this 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 Sept. 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 be 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 Gen. Eppes, the officer
in command, to be found in the Richmond Enquirer for Sept. 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 Gen. 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
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 bear 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 he didn't know any thing 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, be 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. Gen. 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
The subordinate insurgents sought safety as they could. A free colored
man, named Will Artist, shot himself in the woods, where his hat was found
on a 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
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
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 Dec. 6, "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
of Sept. 6), "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 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 Drayman," 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, Gen. Hayne issued a proclamation "to prove the groundlessness
of the existing alarms,"—thus implying that serious alarms existed. In
Macon, Ga., 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
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
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 Boston 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, Ky., 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. Capt. 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
If such was the alarm in New Orleans, the story, of course, lost nothing
by transmission to other slave States. A rumor reached Frankfort, Ky.,
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, Ga., Observer,
during the spring previous:
DISCOVERY.--We were favored,
by yesterday's mail, with a letter from New Orleans, of May 1, 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, Caraccaa, 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
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
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 Sept. 17 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 Sept.
30 a minute account of his capture appeared in the newspapers, but it was
wholly false. On Oct. 7 there was another, and on Oct. 18 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 formidable
fugitive, they fled precipitately, when he hastened to retreat in an opposite
direction. This was on Oct. 15; 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, Oct. 30, 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; M. Trezvant, the Jerusalem
postmaster, sent notices of it far and near; and Gov. 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, be 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
acknowledged 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 30th of October, 1831, the confession on the
1st of November, the trial and conviction on the 5th, and the execution
on the following Friday, the 11th 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."
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 & Swett, at Baltimore." The newly established 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 easily
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 any thing;" 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, and De Quincey's "Avenger " is his only parallel
in imaginative literature. Mr. Gray, his counsel, 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, men 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 any
thing 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 mouthpieces of Nat Turner. In January, 1832, in reply
to a member who had called the outbreak a "petty affair," the eloquent
James McDowell thus 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 an 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 any thing 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 in 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,—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
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 Kosciuszko; standards were being consecrated for Poland in the larger
cities; heroes like Skrzynecki, Czartoryski, Rozyski, Raminski, 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 wild retribution.