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By Steve Goldman
NCSA Member #9
Early in the morning of August 22, 1831, a band of eight Black slaves, led by a lay preacher named Nat Turner, entered the Travis house in Southampton County, Virginia and killed five members of the Travis family. This was the beginning of a slave uprising that was to become known as Nat Turner's rebellion. Over a thirty-six hour period, this band of slaves grew to sixty or seventy in number and slew fifty-eight White persons in and around Jerusalem, Virginia (seventy miles east of Richmond) before the local community could act to stop them. This rebellion raised southern fears of a general slave uprising and had a profound influence on the attitude of Southerners towards slavery.
Since the 1790's when slaves rebelled in Santo Domingo and slaughtered 60,000 people, Southerners realized that their own slaves might rise up against them. A number of slave revolt conspiracies were uncovered in the South between 1820 and 1831 but none frightened Southerners as much as Nat Turner's rebellion.
Nat Turner was born a slave in Virginia in 1800 and grew to become a slave preacher. Gradually he built a religious following justifying revolution against his white masters. He believed that God had chosen him to lead the blacks to freedom. After seeing a halo around the sun on August 13, 1831, Turner believed this to be a sign from God to begin the revolt. Beginning on August 22 and lasting for two days, Turner and seventy recruits went on a rampage. They killed Turner's master and fifty-eight more men, women and children. Many blacks did not join Turner because they feared the futility of his effort. The revolt was crushed within two days and Nat Turner managed to escape.
The first report of the Turner revolt was sent in the form of a letter from the Postmaster of Jerusalem to the Governor of Virginia. This letter as sent by way of Petersburg and was first published in the Richmond Constitutional Whig of August 23, 1831. The text read: "Disagreeable rumors have reached this city of an insurrection of the slaves of Southampton County, with loss of life, in order to correct exaggerations, and at the same time to induce all salutary caution, we state to following particulars. An express from the Honorable James Trezevant states that an insurrection had broken out, that several families had been murdered, and that those Negroes were embodied, requiring a considerable military force to subdue them."
"The names and precise number of the families is not mentioned. A letter from the Postmaster corroborates the intelligence. Prompt and efficient measures are being taken by the Governor, to call up a sufficient force to put down the insurrection, and place lower Virginia on its guard."
"Serious danger, of course, there is none. The deluded wretches have rushed on assured destruction."
"The Fayette Artillery and the Light Dragoons leave here this evening for Southampton -- the artillery to go in a Steamboat and the troop by land."
This group of 40 (or so) Blacks, led by Nat Turner, terrorized the white population of Southampton County, Virginia and killed 60 whites before the Virginia Militia and local residents killed or captured the insurgents. Even though the rebellion was over on August 23, the leader of the Blacks, Nat Turner, escaped capture by the militia.
On August 24, militia units from the surrounding counties descended on Jerusalem, Virginia and a massacre of Blacks in Southampton began. Much of this torture and killing of Blacks was done by vigilante groups, bent on revenge. Hundreds of blacks were killed, most of whom were totally innocent of any involvement or knowledge of Nat Turner's rebellion.
By August 31, 1831 almost all of the insurgents had been captured with the exception of Turner himself. Despite a large-scale manhunt and a continuing stream of newspaper accounts of his escape or capture, he was able to hide in the woods of Southampton, not far from where the rebellion had begun.
On October 31, Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer, spotted and captured Nat Turner at gunpoint. On November 5, Turner was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to hang and on November 11 the sentence was carried out.
The first newspaper report of Nat Turner's capture was printed in the American Beacon of Norfolk, Virginia on November 2, 1831. This report came in the form of a letter from the postmaster of Jerusalem, Virginia (T. Trezevant) to the editor of the Norfolk Beacon and read as follows:
Post Office, Jerusalem, Va.,
31st Oct. 1831
"Messrs. Shields and Ashburn, Editors of the Beacon, Norfolk, Va.
Gentlemen -- Last night the 30th inst. about 9 o'clock, news reached our little village that Gen. Nat was taken alive: today at a quarter after one o'clock, he reached this place, (well guarded) and was delivered into the hands of James W. Parker and James Trezevant, gentlemen, Justices, and after 1 1/2 or 2 hours close examination was committed to Prison. -- During all the examination, he evinced great intelligence and such shrewdness of intellect, answering every questions clearly and distinctly, and without confusion or prevarication. He acknowledges himself a coward and says he was actuated to do what he did, from the influence of fanaticism, he says the attempt originated entirely with himself, and was not known by any other Negroes, but those to whom he revealed it a few days before, and then only 5 or 6 in number! -- he acknowledges now that the revelation was misinterpreted by him, and says it was revealed to him not to follow the inclination of his spirit -- he is now convinced that he has done wrong, and advises all other Negroes not to follow his example. He was taken about 12 o'clock on Sunday, in a Cave that he had just finished and gotten into; and while in the very act of fixing the bushes and bows to cover him, a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Phipps, walked up near the spot, and was only led to examine it by accidentally seeing the brush shake; after removing the covering he discovered Nat., and immediately pointed to kill him with his gun, but he exclaimed "don't shoot and I will give up," he then threw his sword from the Cave, that being his only weapon, and came out and went with Mr. Phipps, until they reached some other gentlemen, when after staying at the Keys all night they proceeded here today."
Respectfully, T. Trezevant, P.M.