The Lesson - Was Nat Turner’s Revolt a Success?
1. Read the following passage(s) taken from your textbook and explain why Nat Turner rebelled and if his revolt was a success.
The most violent slave revolt in the United States occurred in 1831 and is known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Nat Turner, a slave from Southampton County, Virginia, believed that God told him to end slavery. On an August night in 1831, Turner led a group of slaves in a plan to kill all the slaveholders and their families in the county. First, they attacked the family that held Turner as a slave. Soon they had killed about 60 white people in the community.
More than 100 innocent slaves who were not part of Turner’s group were killed in an attempt to stop the rebellion. Turner himself led authorities on a chase around the county for six weeks. He hid in caves and in the woods before he was caught and brought to trial. Before his trial, Turner made a confession. He expressed his belief the revolt was justified and worth his death: “I am willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.” He was executed on November 11, 1831. After the rebellion, many states strengthened their slave codes. The new codes places stricter control on the slave population. Despite the resistance of enslaved people, slavery continued to spread.
- From United States History: Independence to 1914, p. 390-391 (Holt).
Nat Turner Narrative
Nat Turner was born on Benjamin Turner's plantation in Southampton County five days before the execution of the African American revolutionary Gabriel Prosser in Richmond, Virginia. Turner's father, whose name is unknown, but who was also a Benjamin Turner slave, successfully escaped and is believed to have spent his life in the Great Dismal Swamp, which lies in southern Virginia and in North Carolina, with other escaped African Americans, as maroons.
Turner's mother, a slave named Nancy who was kidnapped from Africa in 1793, believed that he was destined for great things in his life, and she instilled this sense in him. That he acquired literacy in his boyhood added weight to his mother's convictions. Turner also accepted Christianity in his youth, became a preacher, and identified religion with freedom. He claimed to receive religious visions throughout his life.
Turner sought his own freedom, running away in 1821 after he had become the property of Benjamin Turner's son, Samuel. When Samuel Turner hired a harsh overseer, Nat Turner escaped, remaining free for approximately a month. During that time he experienced a vision indicating that he would lead a slave rebellion, and he returned to the plantation to await his signal to begin.
Between 1825 and 1830, Turner became a popular preacher to African American congregations throughout Southampton County. His sermons focused on conflict and liberation, and gained him many followers, some of whom believed he was a prophet. Traveling from church to church allowed Turner to gather the knowledge he needed to organize his revolt, such as road locations and hiding places.
In February 1831, Turner, who was now at the home of Joseph Travis, believed that an eclipse of the sun signaled that the time had come for him to launch his rebellion. He recruited four other slaves, and they developed several plans before accepting one and deciding to begin on the symbolic date of July 4. However, Turner fell ill and the revolt was delayed. On August 13, Turner interpreted a bluish-green sky as a positive signal. The group agreed to strike after midnight on August 22. The uprising began at the Travis home, where the rebels killed everyone in the household. Turner initially intended to move from house to house killing whites regardless of age and sex. He hoped that the show of force would intimidate neighboring whites and encourage other slaves to join the rebellion. After they had obtained a foothold, they agreed that the wholesale slaughter would cease.
Turner's destination was Jerusalem, Virginia, the Southampton County seat and home of an arsenal that would allow the insurgents to arm themselves adequately. As the band moved from house to house, more slaves joined the rebellion until it eventually totaled 60 or 70. With this growth, the rebels were weakened because they became less organized and they lost the element of surprise that had worked so effectively. The militia that met the insurrectionists on Monday afternoon retreated soon after, but it intended to reorganize and return.
When the slave army stopped at James Parker's farm for fresh recruits and supplies, the militia, which had regrouped, struck again. Turner's army was dispersed and, though Turner attempted to rally his troops, white reinforcements arrived and began a brutal counterattack in which they killed over 100 blacks. Turner survived and fled, eluding his captors until October 30. He was quickly tried, sentenced to death, and hanged in Jerusalem, Virginia, on November 11, 1831. While awaiting execution, he told his story to his court-appointed attorney, Thomas Gray. The result was an extraordinary account of his life and of the rebellion, which Gray published as Nat Turner's Confessions.
Turner's rebellion lasted almost three days, killed 57 people, and resulted in the executions of over 100 African American rebels. Some call this rebellion the "First War," the Civil War being the second. Turner's rebellion was significant in that it was more violent than any other slave uprising and reshaped the debate over slavery in ways that led to the Civil War a generation later. The uprising intensified both the antislavery movement, and the corresponding proslavery forces. It reinforced the notion held by some abolitionists that slaves would be willing to fight if outside forces organized and armed them. Proslavery forces began to endorse reducing the number of free blacks through colonization. Turner's rebellion also disproved the myth of the contented slave, and proved that African Americans would die to end slavery.
- from Encarta Africana Contributed By: Robert Fay
2. Below are a number of sources that provide more information about Nat Turner’s Rebellion. What information does the author provide about the rebellion? Which argument does this information support? Does is support the argument the rebellion was a success or does is support the argument the rebellion was not a success?