Turner was an educated minister as well as a slave.
Turner reportedly told Thomas Ruffin Gray in a jailhouse interview published in “The Confessions of Nat Turner” that when he was three or four years old, he could provide details of events that occurred before his birth. His astonished mother and others took the comments as signs that he was a prophet and “intended for some great purpose.” The young slave showed “uncommon intelligence” and was taught to read and write. His deeply religious grandmother nurtured his spiritual development. “To a mind like mine, restless, inquisitive and observant of every thing that was passing, it is easy to suppose that religion was the subject to which it would be directed,” said Turner, who regularly read the Bible and preached to his fellow slaves.
He once ran away from his master—and returned a month later.
When Turner was 21, he followed in his father’s footsteps and escaped from his owner. To the astonishment of his fellow slaves, however, the future rebel leader came back to the plantation after spending 30 days in the woods because, as Turner reportedly told Gray, “the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master.”
Turner claimed to have been divinely chosen to lead the rebellion.
The divine message to return to his master wasn’t the last that Turner would claim to have received from God. He reportedly confessed to Gray that he received divine visions to avenge slavery and lead his fellow slaves from bondage. The most vivid of these visions came on May 12, 1828, when Turner “heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.”
An eruption of Mount St. Helens may have triggered the launch of the rebellion.
When the daytime sky went dark on February 12, 1831, during a solar eclipse, Turner believed it a sign from God to begin the planning for his uprising. After meeting secretly for months with fellow plotters, the daylight sky once again took on an odd appearance on August 13, 1831. As Patrick H. Breen details in his new book “The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt,” newspapers from Georgia to New York printed accounts of the the sun “shorn of its beams” and shedding “a grayish-blue light on the earth.” Through the hazy light, a sunspot was also visible to the naked eye. While Turner took the sun’s strange appearance as a sign to proceed with the insurrection, its true cause was an atmospheric disturbance that could have been tied to an event nearly 3,000 miles away—that year’s eruption of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington.
The slaves may have killed as many as 60 men, women and children.
The rebellion began when Turner’s small band of hatchet-wielding slaves killed his master, Joseph Travis, along with his wife, nine-year-old son and a hired hand as they slept in their beds. Realizing they had left one family member alive in the house, two slaves returned to the Travis home and killed “a little infant sleeping in a cradle” before dumping its body in the fireplace. As they swept through the countryside, Turner’s men freed slaves as they continued the killings. Upwards of 75 of them joined the uprising over the ensuing two days and killed dozens of whites.
After eluding the militia for two months, Turner was captured by a farmer.
Hundreds of federal troops and thousands of militiamen quelled the uprising after 48 hours and captured most of its participants—except for Turner himself. In spite of an intense manhunt, the ringleader remained hidden in the woods just miles away from the Travis farm, where the rebellion began, for two months. On October 30, 1831, Benjamin Phipps was walking across a nearby farm and noticed “some brushwood collected in a manner to excite suspicion,” according to a Richmond newspaper, below an overturned pine tree. When Phipps raised his gun, a weak, emaciated Turner emerged from the foxhole and surrendered.
More than 50 slaves were executed in the rebellion’s aftermath.
Dozens of slaves stood trial for their participation in the rebellion. While some were acquitted, more than 50 were convicted and sentenced to death by a collection of 20 judges—all slaveholders. In addition, revenge-minded white mobs lynched blacks who played no part in the uprising. While some historians have estimated that the mobs killed between 100 and 200 slaves, Breen estimates the death toll closer to 40. He points out that slaveholders wished “to protect their enslaved property” and a week after the revolt the Virginia militia issued an order prohibiting the killing of slaves in an attempt to reign in the vigilantes.
The divinely inspired Turner ironically met his end in a town named Jerusalem.
After his arrest, Turner was taken to the seat of Southampton County, a small town called Jerusalem (present-day Courtland, Virginia). Six days after his capture, he stood trial and was convicted of “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.” Sentenced to death, Turner was hanged from a tree on November 11, 1831.
Turner may have been skinned after his execution.
Turner’s body did not receive a formal burial, but details about what did happen to the body are not known. As Tony Horwitz reported in the New Yorker, according to several reports, the rebel leader’s corpse was given to doctors for dissection and his body parts distributed among white families. As recounted by John W. Cromwell in a 1920 article in the Journal of Negro History, “Turner was skinned to supply such souvenirs as purses, his flesh made into grease, and his bones divided as trophies to be handed down as heirlooms.”
In the wake of the rebellion, states passed laws making it illegal to teach African-Americans how to read or write.
“Nat Turner’s revolt contributed to the radicalization of American politics that helped set the United States on its course toward the Civil War,” writes Breen. In Virginia, the rebellion marked the end of a nascent abolitionist movement. Months after the insurrection, the Virginia legislature narrowly rejected a measure for gradual emancipation that would have followed the lead of the North. Instead, pointing to Turner’s intelligence and education as a major cause of the revolt, measures were passed in Virginia and other states in the South that made it unlawful to teach slaves and free African-Americans how to read or write.
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