In the late 1820s, his religious visions—which up to this point appeared to be apolitical or even counterrevolutionary—became more overtly political. On May 12, 1828, the spirit appeared to Turner and told him that "the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first." It also told him that there would be a sign, a prediction that Turner believed was fulfilled on February 12, 1831, when Southampton experienced a total solar eclipse. While The Confessions describes Turner's motivations in primarily religious terms, the historian David F. Allmendinger Jr. noted that the religious signs might not have been the only thing that led Turner to undertake the conspiracy. At this time, Turner lived on the farm of his master, Joseph Travis; his son lived on a neighboring farm belonging to Piety Reese. In February 1831, just days before Turner approached his future conspirators, Reese's son John W. signed a note that put Turner's son up as collateral for a debt that he, Reese, had struggled to pay.
As the five conspirators tried to turn Turner's inspiration into a plan, they thought about the revolt strategically. Nothing was more important to the conspirators than to make sure that their plan went undetected. Turner and his men understood that "the negroes had frequently attempted similar things," but because they "confided their purpose to several," the news of the conspiracy "always leaked out." Based upon this insight, the rebels decided to keep the revolt small, deciding not even to stockpile weapons. Instead, the conspirators accepted Turner's strategy to "slay my enemies with their own weapons." While this made the rebels less dangerous at the beginning of the revolt, it also decreased the chance that the conspiracy would be detected before the revolt began.
Eventually, perhaps spurred on by a new sign from God—a solar event on August 13, 1831, where across the east coast the sun appeared silver and then green—the conspirators settled on a plan that they hoped would lead slaves and free blacks to rally to their banner: they would undertake a sudden strike and kill whites, including women and children, indiscriminately. Hearing about the rebels' power and success, other slaves and free blacks would join. When one potential recruit objected that there were too few rebels to begin a slave revolt, one of the original conspirators assured him that as the rebels "went on and killed the whites[,] the blacks would join them." This was just the first stage of the revolt. According to The Confessions, once they rebels had formed and equipped a "sufficient force," the indiscriminate killings of whites would end, and the revolt would continue albeit using more conventional methods of war.
The plan was clearly a long shot, as the rebels understood, but given the odds against them, the five conspirators were willing to stake their lives on it. On Saturday evening, August 20, Turner, Henry, and Hark made plans for a feast the following day for the men who had joined the revolt. When they gathered the next day, the original five conspirators had added two. After a feast and a trip to Joseph Travis's cider press, the conspirators were ready to begin the revolt.
The revolt began on Sunday night, August 21, 1831, at Joseph Travis's farm. During the night, the rebels caught the whites completely by surprise, and sleeping whites were in no position to escape the small rebel force. At the same time, while the rebels were in their own neighborhood, they could recruit slaves that they knew to their cause. For example, at Travis's home, the rebels recruited Austin, who despite living on the same small farm as Turner had not been included in the feast that the conspirators held during the day. At the same time, however, other slaves, even slaves with strong personal connections to the original conspirators, were hesitant to join the revolt. Hark's brother-in-law Jack agreed to join only reluctantly. Others, including the free black Emory Evans, who lived on Salathial Francis's farm, refused to join at all. Over the course of the night, the rebels attacked three households, killing eight whites, including a sleeping infant at Travis's.
As dawn approached on the morning of August 22, the rebels—then numbering about a dozen—changed their method of attack. During the night, they moved stealthily and attacked in silence; during the day, they moved quickly and boldly. At Elizabeth Turner's, Austen shot Hartwell Peebles, the first time that any rebel killed someone with a gun. During the morning, the rebels also separated into two squads: one on horseback, one traveling by foot. This allowed the one on horseback to launch more and faster strikes. These attacks were successful in terms of killing whites. At Catherine Whitehead's plantation, for example, rebels killed all but one of the white residents—including Margaret Whitehead, the only person Nat Turner killed—but the rebels continued to struggle to win supporters among slaves. Among Whitehead's twenty-seven slaves, the rebels found, at most, a single recruit, and several of Catherine Whitehead's slaves foiled the rebels' efforts to kill Harriet Whitehead. At Newit Harris's even larger plantation, the rebels failed to gain a single recruit. By late morning, it was clear that the rebels would not inspire a mass movement, as they had hoped. Nevertheless, at about forty slaves, the rebel army was a dangerous force.
By midmorning the challenge of recruiting was compounded by a new problem for the rebels: news about the revolt had spread, making it harder for the rebels to find whites. Most whites who heard of the revolt immediately fled to the woods, eluding the rebel army. Others tried to create defensible positions. At Levi Waller's farm, the site of a local school, word arrived of the insurrection, and Waller made the decision to gather the children together to defend them. This led to the most devastating raid of the revolt, as the rebels arrived after the children had congregated but before Waller could set up any defense. Waller's wife and ten children died during that assault. By midday, when the rebels left Rebecca Vaughn's house, they had encountered no more defenseless whites. Arthur Vaughn was the last person killed by the rebel forces.
By the afternoon of August 22, 1831, the dynamic of the revolt had shifted in an important way. Turner and his men remained on the offensive, heading to Jerusalem where they hoped to "procure arms and ammunition," but they were being pursued by several groups of whites who had organized to suppress the revolt. At James Parker's farm, a group of whites led by Alexander P. Peete, who had been pursuing the rebels along the road toward Jerusalem, dispersed a small group of rebels who had remained by the gate while the other rebels went to Parker's slave quarters to recruit. This white force then engaged the main rebel force at Parker's farm. Peete and his men were driven from the field. The rebels pursued the fleeing men, but the pursuit led the rebels into an ambush set by other whites who had heard the sounds of fighting. Turner's men were dispersed, and the rebels were turned back from their approach toward Jerusalem.
Following the defeat at Parker's farm, the rebels spent the afternoon trying to regroup. By evening, when they made their camp at Thomas Ridley's plantation, Turner had about forty men in arms. But the rebels were on edge. When rebel sentries went out before dawn to investigate potential attack, they found nothing, but their return set off a commotion in the rebels' camp. Awake and ill at ease, the rebels who had not fled made their way to Samuel Blunt's plantation. They believed that the whites had abandoned the plantation, but Blunt and five other whites set up a defense and the rebels scattered. In the commotion following the encounter at Blunt's, Nat Turner lost contact with the other rebels, who broke up into ever-smaller groups, pursued by more and more whites. Although some rebels remained at large for days—and Turner himself would not be captured for more than two months—the revolt was effectively over by midday on August 23, a day and a half after it first began.
The pattern of retribution and killing in the days after the revolt posed a serious threat to black community and to the county's largest slaveholders. After the revolt, anyone could freely kill a slave and escape punishment if the killer claimed that he thought that the slave was a suspected rebel. To stop such indiscriminate killings, on August 28, 1831, General Richard Eppes, the leader of the state militia force in Southampton, issued an order calling for whites "to abstain in the future from any acts of violence to any personal property whatever"—in other words, enslaved men and women—"for any cause whatever." Those who disobeyed this order would be subject to "the rigors of the articles of war." The effort to stop extralegal killings was largely successful and meant that thereafter, most slaves who were suspected of supporting the rebels appeared in court.
October 2, 1800 - Nat Turner is born into slavery in Southampton County.
February 1831 - John W. Reese signs a note that puts Nat Turner's son up as collateral for a debt that Reese had struggled to pay.
February 12, 1831 - Virginia witnesses a solar eclipse and Nat Turner interprets it as a sign from God to share with four other men his idea to revolt.
July 4, 1831 - Nat Turner postpones the revolt he and four other enslaved men had planned for that day.
August 13, 1831 - A solar event occurs in Virginia in which the sun appears to have a greenish hue; Nat Turner interprets the event as a sign from God to launch his revolt.
August 21–22, 1831 - Nat Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet, leads the deadliest slave revolt in Virginia's history, which in just twelve hours leaves fifty-five white people dead in Southampton County.
August 28, 1831 - To stop the indiscriminate killings of suspected enslaved rebels, General Richard Eppes, the leader of the state militia force in Southampton, proclaims martial law.
August 31, 1831 - In the wake of Nat Turner's Revolt, the trials of suspected slave rebels begin.
September 4, 1831–May 11, 1832 - Eighteen enslaved men and women and one free black man convicted of participating in Nat Turner's Revolt are hanged in Southampton County.
October 30, 1831 - Nat Turner is captured near where the revolt he led began.
October 31, 1831 - James Trezvant and James W. Parker examine Nat Turner and commit him to the Southampton County jail.
November 1, 1831 - The lawyer Thomas R. Gray meets with Nat Turner, accused of leading a slave revolt, in the Southampton County jail.
November 5, 1831 - Nat Turner is convicted and sentenced to death for leading a revolt of enslaved people.
November 10, 1831 - Thomas R. Gray secures a copyright for his pamphlet The Confessions of Nat Turner, as fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray. Gray's account purports to tell the story of Nat Turner's slave uprising in the words of Turner himself.
November 11, 1831 - Nat Turner is hanged.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Breen, P. H. Nat Turner's Revolt (1831). (2019, June 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Revolt_Nat_Turner_s_1831.
- MLA Citation:
Breen, Patrick H. "Nat Turner's Revolt (1831)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 18 Jun. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 20, 2018 | Last modified: June 18, 2019