*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Six weeks after leading the bloodiest slave rebellion in United States history, Nat Turner was convicted of “making insurrection” and sentenced to death on November 5, 1831. In the wake of the uprising, some in the young nation championed the antislavery cause with renewed vigor while others looked for ways to ensure blacks could be further controlled.
Turner grew up in Southampton County, on the farm of Benjamin Turner in southeastern Virginia. Regarded by many as having an exceptionally sharp mind, he learned to read as a young boy and developed a deep faith during long hours with his Bible. Referred to as “The Prophet” by fellow slaves, Turner acted as minister to his brethren working the fields and later reported frequent messages from God.
By the late 1820s, he felt he understood what his purpose was. Confiding in four close friends, Turner began laying out a plan for a slave rebellion in February 1831. Believing the Almighty confirmed his intentions, he set July 4th as the fateful day. Forced to postpone after coming down with an illness, a second solar eclipse in only nine months — on August 13th — gave Turner confidence the time had come for his uprising to “slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
Eight days later, Turner and his friends Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam began moving from one farm to the next killing plantation owners and their families in order to free their fellow slaves. Before long, 60 white men, women and children were dead — often victims of brutal attacks with knives, axes and blunt instruments. (Turner would later admit to killing a woman by hitting her in the head with a fence post.)
A militia gathered to end the rebellion, but the 70 blacks involved were essentially done wreaking havoc within a day or so. Turner had disappeared into the woods once the horror came to an end, with a journalist later writing “indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.”
The goal had been achieved, with rumors of similar revolts in Alabama and North Carolina — but the white response pitted fire against fire. Angry citizens of eastern counties were joined by artillery companies from the US military, quickly moving into the countryside and killing blacks for upwards of two weeks for no reason other than the color of their skin.
After a two-month manhunt, Turner was discovered in a field and brought to justice. Like 55 of his co-conspirators, he faced trial and was convicted on November 5, 1831. Six days later, he was hanged, with his body flayed, beheaded and quartered to serve as an example to those blacks that may wish to rise up against their white masters.
The Nat Turner Revolt opened some eyes to the brutality of slavery, particularly in areas where the practice had waned, such as New England. In southern states, reaction fell into two camps: concerns over the increasing number of blacks with respect to whites — especially because the practice of slavery had become less profitable — and a desire to subject them to increasingly harsh penalties in order to prevent insurrection in the future.
Among the many new laws enacted against people of color in response to the rebellion, the most damaging may have been the requirement blacks be illiterate. When the Civil War ended 35 years later, most of the black population in the South could not read or write.
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