1831: Nat Turner

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..

14 thoughts on “1831: Nat Turner

  1. I had always heard that it was Chivington who used the quote “Nits become lice” in referring to killing native American children.

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  6. A typical scene of the rebellion was related to Turner’s attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray, while Turner awaited his execution:

    “I took my station in the rear, and as it was my object to carry terror and devastation wherever we went, I placed fifteen or twenty of the best armed and most relied on, in front, who generally approached the houses as fast as their horses could run; this was for two purposes, to prevent escape and strike terror to the inhabitants – on this account I never got to the houses, after leaving Mrs. Whitehead’s, until the murders were committed, except in one case.

    “I sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed, viewed the mangled bodied as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims.

    “Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. William’- having killed him and two little boys that were there; while engaged in this, Mrs. Williams fled and got some distance from the house, but she was pursued, overtaken, and compelled to get up behind one of the company, who brought her back, and after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead.” (“Confessions of Nat Turner”)

    Just so people today don’t get the impression that it was all one-sided …

    • What is your point? It was one-sided. These whites were holding these people hostage and committing all sorts of atrocities like rape, beatings, and murders against them b/c they considered them property and not humans. They got what they deserved: DEATH.

  7. I will not discuss the roots and causes of the rebellion, but you fail to mention the number of children killed in the insurrection, or how they died. Most were horribly slaughtered with axes or knives because Turner decreed, “Nits grow into lice.” Several families of 10 or more were killed together, which he describes quite graphically. By the way, Turner himself reportedly killed just one person – a young girl he throttled with a fence post.
    Of course, the white retribution was swift and terrible, as well, with shootings, hangings and even beheadings as a warning to other would-be revolt leaders.

    • Racist, of course “you won’t discuss the roots and causes of the rebellion” b/c then you’d have acknowledge that these whites who were killed were literally ENSLAVING BABIES and CHILDREN FOR LIFE who deserved to be freed. Their lives were just as important as the white children, so get over yourself.

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  11. This makes me think of our own history in South Africa what with our own previous segregation or “apartheid” policies, which came to an end in 1994, after uprisings and bombings of note.

    The question will always remain: “Would they (the slavery) have done their killing bit if they were free and treated as equals?”

  12. Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.

    Yeah, what a petty character that Stingo guy is (worst even if he’s indeed a more or less veritable reflection of his concocter). Honestly, Styron didn’t do justice to Nat putting him in the mind of an under-talented graphorrhea sufferer, right next to the memories of petty sexual escapades and unsatisfied desires to shag hot Polish ass. What I am saying here is that the stories of Nat and of Sophie are of different and significantly larger caliber then our little Stingo could convey.

    Although, all of the above has obviously nothing to do with executions. Just had to speak up:)


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