Nat Turner

Nat Turner (Nathaniel Turner, October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an American slave who started the largest slave rebellion in the antebellum southern United States, in Southampton County, Virginia. His methodical slaughter of white civilians during the uprising makes his legacy controversial. At birth he was not given a surname, but was recorded solely by his given name, Nat. In accordance with a common practice, he was often called by the surname of his owner, Samuel Turner.

Early life

Nat lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites. After the rebellion, a reward notice described Nat as:
5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather bright complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.

Nat was singularly intelligent, and learned how to read and write at a young age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently received visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Nat was 21 years old he ran away from his owner, but returned a month later after receiving such a vision. Turner often conducted Baptist services, and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him as "The Prophet". Turner also had an influence over white people, and in the case of Ethelred T. Brantley, Nat said that he was able to convince Brantley to "cease from his wickedness". By early 1828, Nat was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty. While working in his owner's fields on May 12, 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." Nat was convinced that God had given him the task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons." Nat "communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam.

Beginning in February 1831, Turner came to believe that certain atmospheric conditions were to be interpreted as a sign that he should begin preparing for a rebellion against the slave owners.

On February 12, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia. Nat saw this as a Black man's hand reaching over the sun. Nat took this to mean that he should begin preparing for a rebellion. The rebellion was initially planned for July 4, Independence Day, but was postponed due to deliberation between him and his followers, and illness. On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance, another solar eclipse, in which the sun appeared bluish-green. Nat took this as the final signal, and a week later, on August 21, the rebellion began.


Nat started with a few trusted fellow slaves. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they found. The rebels ultimately included more than 50 enslaved and free blacks.

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. Nat called on his group to "kill all whites." The rebellion did not discriminate by age or gender, although Nat later indicated that he intended to spare women, children, and men who surrendered as it went on. Before Nat and his brigade of rebels met resistance at the hands of a white militia, 57 white men, women and children had been killed. However, a few homes were spared "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.'

Capture and execution

Nat Turner's rebellion was suppressed within 48 hours, but Nat eluded capture until October 30 when he was discovered hiding in a hole covered with fence rails and then taken to court. On November 5, 1831, Nat was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia, now known as Courtland, Virginia. His body was then flayed, beheaded and quartered.

After his execution, his lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, who had access to the jail in which Nat had been held, took it upon himself to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner, derived partly from research done while Nat was in hiding and partly from conversations with Nat before his trial. This document is the primary historical document regarding Nat.


In total, the state executed 55 Blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. In the bloody aftermath, close to 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured and murdered by angry white mobs.

Prior to the Nat Turner Revolt, there was a small and ineffectual antislavery movement in the state of Virginia, largely on account of economic trends that made slavery less profitable in the Old South in the 1820s and fears among whites of the rising number of blacks, especially in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. Most of the movement's members, including acting governor John Floyd, supported resettlement for these reasons. Considerations of white racial and moral purity also influenced many of these antislavery Virginians.

However, fears of repetitions of the Nat Turner Revolt served to polarize moderates and slave owners across the South. Municipalities across the region instituted repressive policies against enslaved and free blacks. The freedoms of all black people in Virginia were tightly curtailed, and an official policy was established that forbade questioning the slave system on the grounds that any discussion might encourage similar slave revolts. There is evidence of trends in support of such policies and for slavery itself in Virginia before the revolt. This was probably due in part to the recovering Southern agricultural economy and the spread of slavery across the continent which made the excess Tidewater slaves a highly marketable commodity. Nat's actions probably accelerated existing trends.

In terms of public response and loss of white lives, no other slave uprising inflicted as severe a blow to the community of slave owners in the United States. Because of this, Nat is regarded as a hero by some African Americans and pan-Africanists worldwide.

Nat finally became the focus of popular historical scholarship in the 1940s, when historian Herbert Aptheker was publishing the first serious scholarly work on instances of slave resistance in the antebellum South. Aptheker stressed how the rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. He traversed libraries and archives throughout the South, managing to uncover roughly 250 similar instances, though none of them reached the scale of the Nat Turner Revolt.

The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel by William Styron, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968. This book had wide critical and popular acclaim, but several black critics considered it racist and "a deliberate attempt to steal the meaning of a man's life" in the words of Lerone Bennett, Jr..

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, a film by Charles Burnett, was released in 2003.

In 2007 cartoonist and comic book author Kyle Baker wrote a two part comic book about Turner and his uprising which was called Nat Turner.

See also



Further reading

  • Herbert Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).
  • Herbert Aptheker. Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion. New York: Humanities Press, 1966.
  • Scot French. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
  • William Lloyd Garrison, " The Insurrection", The Liberator, (September 3, 1831). A contemporary abolitionist's reaction to news of the rebellion.
  • Thomas R. Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore: Lucas & Deaver, 1831. Available online.
  • Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990 (1975). ISBN 0-06-091670-2.
  • Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006.
  • Ely, Mike. "The Slave Rebellion of General Nat Turner". [ History. Available online.] December 2007.

External links

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