1831: Nat Turner

12 comments November 11th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1831, the slave Nat — remembered to history as Nat Turner after the surname of his original owner — was hanged, flayed and dismembered for leading the most notorious slave rebellion in antebellum America.

A deeply religious man known to other slaves as “The Prophet”, Nat followed what he took to be divine directive to launch a bloody uprising on the night of August 21-22 in Southampton County, Virginia. Using (at first) axes, knives and clubs to avoid attracting attention to gunfire, Nat’s band slaughtered whites from house to house, freeing slaves as they went. At least 55 whites were killed, and a like number of slaves by white militias that mobilized to put down the revolt … and then hundreds more slaves as far away as North Carolina suspected of some tangential involvement or simmering disloyalty.

The uprising was suppressed within two days, but it rooted so deeply in the conscience of the South that it persists to this day.

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”
-Slaveowner after the rebellion

Nat Turner embodied slaveowners’ terror of the subject population living about them, outnumbering them, resentfully supporting Southern gentility at the end of a whip — the conundrum Jefferson had described barely a decade before as “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Arguably, the revolt hardened southern whites against moderating slavery; some legislatures tightened restrictions against teaching slaves to read, thinking that literate slaves like Nat were more liable to uprisings.

Conversely, he was a powerful martyr of resistance in the slave quarters, a symbol of scores of other lesser-known uprisings and of the countless more that lurked in dreams and fantasies, awaiting some spark of outrage, some sudden opportunity, some wild carelessness of death.

He was a figure of literature even before his death — The Confessions of Nat Turner, dictated to a white interrogator, left Nat’s own riveting testimony from the shadow of the gallows; the Virginia-born white novelist William Styron used the same title for a controversial 1967 historical novel which earned a Pulitzer but drew a critical rebuttal from many black writers. (Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.) More recently, Nat has received graphic novel treatment.

Historians of every stripe, meanwhile, have struggled over the meaning of the man’s deeds and — especially — his paradoxical legacy as symbol.

Update: The occasion received a tribute in Alabama about the time this post went up.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Famous,Flayed,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,Infamous,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Slaves,USA,Virginia

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