On August 22, 1831, the greatest slave rebellion in United States history occurred, led by a “mystic religious visionary named Nat Turner.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 323.
Turner was a slave of Joseph and Sally Travis in Southampton County, Virginia. Id. At that time, Southampton County’s population was 16,074, with “41 percent white, 48 percent enslaved, and 11 percent free colored.” Id. citing Census of 1830, United States Historical Census Data Browser. In the early morning hours of August 22, 1831, Turner crawled through the window of the Travis’ home, unbarred the door for his six armed companions, and killed the entire family, including a baby in a cradle. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 323.
After killing the Travis family, Turner and his cohorts went farm-to-farm, “killing all the whites they found on their march toward Jerusalem, as the Southampton county seat was portentously named.” Id. at 324 citing Herbert Aptheker, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (New York, 1966); Stephen Oates, The Fires of Jubilee (New York, 1975). Turner himself, however, only killed one person himself, a woman who was going to flee and alert others to their rebellion. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 324. Slaves joined the rebellion as it progressed, with as many as 60 slaves participating in total. Id.
Nat Turner advised his rebels: “Remember that ours is not a war for robbery, nor to satisfy our passions; it is a struggle for freedom.” Vincent Harding, There Is a River (New York, 1981), 95. Nonetheless, some of his men “looted and got drunk on captured brandy,” and there were decapitations of victims. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 324 citing Vincent Harding, There Is a River (New York, 1981), 95.
Ultimately, vigilantes, the Virginia state militia, and federal troops put down the uprising. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 325. After the uprising was quelled, “[o]ver twenty additional blacks were executed elsewhere in Virginia and North Carolina.” Id. citing Mary Kemp Davis, Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment (Baton Rouge, 1999), 55-61.
Turner eluded capture until October 30, 1831, where he was tried and hanged on November 11, 1831 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 325. Facing imminent death, and with Thomas Gray asking if Turner felt he had made a mistake, Turner posed the question: “Was not Christ crucified?” Id. quoting Confessions of Nat Turner . . . fully and voluntarily made to Thos. C. Gray (1831; Petersburg, Va., 1881), 6, 10, 11.
Many conservatives in the South, and particularly Virginia, noted that some free blacks had joined Turner’s rebellion and argued that the state “would be better off with fewer slaves and a more industrial-commercial economy.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 326. On January 25, 1832, the Virginia House voted that “further action for the removal of slaves should await a more definite development of public opinion.” SeeDaniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 326; Alison Freehling, Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-32 (Baton Rouge, 1982).
In the wake of Turner’s rebellion, Americans in the South had seen their worst fears realized and were shaken to the core. For the years and decades leading up to the rebellion, there was a fear that America would have the same fate as Haiti, with a widespread slave rebellion creating turmoil and discord. This nearly happened just years prior in Vesey’s Almost Rebellion.
Regrettably for the South, slavery was becoming an increasingly prominent issue for Americans, as it best highlighted the difference between the North and the South. Turner’s rebellion essentially forced southern Americans to dig their heels in, tightening security and reinforcing their grip on slaves. Consequently, the chances for universal abolition of slavery in America were diminishing as the 1800s were progressing.