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American Heritage People
Posted Friday November 11, 2005 07:00 AM EST

Nat Turner, Lightning Rod

Turner’s death: a view from a pamphlet published at the time.

After Nat Turner, the slave-rebellion leader, was hanged, 174 years ago today, he was dissected. His skin was made into a purse, his flesh turned to grease, his bones divvied up as souvenirs. His head was permanently separated from his body and made the rounds as a curio, reportedly spending much of the twentieth century at the College of Wooster, in Ohio. But his identity was shredded as well, and just as the parts of his body may never be put back together again, so too is his legacy fatally fragmented, fractured by unreliable sources and the country’s unease with its slaveholding past. And while archaeologists argue over whether an unidentified skull is Turner’s and whether his partial skeleton lies buried under such-and-such a Virginia parking lot, historians and activists debate which of the many personalities and motives assigned him in the last century and a half are truly his.

First, the single undisputed fact: Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, on August 22, 1831. Beyond that, the entire history of Nat Turner and even of his rebellion is conjecture. The specifics of his life, his motivations, how many men he led, how many the insurrectionists killed, and how many Turner killed himself, all are left to estimates and the interpretation of a few biased but pored-over sources. Turner left behind no diary, no family Bible, no firsthand account of any kind. All his words and actions come to us filtered through other, usually white, intermediaries. Contemporary newspaper accounts vilified him and inflated the numbers of his followers and victims; later historical studies suffered from racial stereotyping or the failing memories of witnesses.

Even the most complete account of his life, The Confessions of Nat Turner, is another man’s interpretation. Thomas R. Gray, a recently disinherited slaveholder and lawyer whose own outcast position may have favorably disposed him to Turner, interviewed Turner in his jail cell and published the results, but whether he quoted his subject faithfully or embellished his words—as many historians suspect—can never be conclusively decided. But from Gray comes almost all we know of the man’s life before the revolt.

Nat Turner was born in the Virginia Tidewater county of Southampton in 1800, by most accounts a precocious child who grew up to be an intensely religious man. It’s not certain when he first conceived of a revolt, but he did run away from his master around 1821 and return voluntarily after 30 days. In The Confessions he is quoted as saying, ”On the 12th of May, 1828, I 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.”

He waited for a sign that the time was right. A solar eclipse in February 1831 persuaded him to prepare for a revolt on July 4. When the day came, though, he was sick, so he awaited another sign, and it arrived in the form of a strange atmospheric effect on August 13. On the afternoon of Sunday, August 21, he gathered six associates at Cabin Pond, near his owner’s farm. The group planned for hours, and at around 2 a.m. they launched their rebellion by killing Turner’s master, his master’s wife and child, and two apprentices in their beds, with ax blows.

The group then marched from house to house in the dark, shooting, clubbing, or hatcheting every white person they found and appropriating weapons and soldiers as they went. Turner explained to Gray that “indiscriminate massacre … was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men too who ceased to resist.” By just before sunrise, word of the rebellion was preceding them, and they began to meet armed resistance. Most of them now on horseback, they divided and spread down branching farm lanes to attack more homes. But daylight worked against them, as whites awoke and were able to escape and warn others of the advancing army.

By afternoon Turner had decided to take over the county seat, Jerusalem, but as some of his men broke off to recruit more slaves at a large plantation, the others left at the gate were confronted by a mounted white patrol armed with fowling guns. No one appears to have been killed in the ensuing charge, but whether or not Turner realized it, his war was already lost. His men, with so little ammunition that they were forced to load their few working guns with gravel, soon met another band of whites on the road to Jerusalem, and that group killed four rebels. Turner abandoned his goal and retreated.

He spent the night in a wood with about 40 insurrectionists. For many, it was their first and last night of freedom. False alarms scattered half of them by daybreak. White farmers repulsed a morning raid and killed or captured several rebels. By this point, armed forces and federal troops from Richmond, Norfolk, Petersburg, and other Virginia towns were pouring into the county. A final skirmish with a white patrol at another farm dispersed Turner’s forces for good and ended the rebellion.

But the killing had just begun. During the approximately 40 hours of the revolt, between 60 and 80 blacks had killed between 55 and 65 whites. In the 10 days that followed, whites killed as many as several hundred blacks, some slaves, some free, many of whom had had nothing to do with the rebellion. During this time Turner hid out near his owner’s farm, until he was captured on October 30 and jailed in Jerusalem, the town he had hoped to overthrow two months before. By then military officials had ordered the white militias to desist, and the 50 suspects who had survived the revolt and subsequent weeks were assigned lawyers and tried in court. A jury acquitted or dismissed charges against 32, exiled 14 from Virginia, and condemned 18 to death.

Turner admitted to killing only one person, a teenage girl, and pleaded not guilty (according to court records, he told his lawyer he “did not feel” guilty). One witness remembered the judge delivering the following sentence: “The judgment of the Court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

The official court records are more subdued, noting that on November 11, “between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and four o’clock in the afternoon [Turner] is to be taken by the Sheriff to the usual place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until dead. And the Court values said slave to the sum of three hundred and seventy five dollars.”

And so, 174 years ago this morning, Nat Turner, dressed in rags, was led to a gnarled oak tree northeast of Jerusalem. By most accounts he was calm. The Norfolk Herald reported that “He betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless of the awful fate that awaited him, and even hurried the executioner in the performance of his duty.” A crowd had gathered, and the sheriff asked Turner if he had anything to say. He replied only, “I’m ready.” After the rope was thrown over a branch and he jerked into the air, “not a limb nor a muscle was observed to move,” the Petersburg Intelligencer reported.

Thus Nat Turner died, only to be reincarnated as a lightning rod. Over the next century and more he would be appropriated by slaveholders and abolitionists, New Dealers and supremacists, and segregationists, passive resisters, and Black Panthers, as either guiding hero or incarnation of an inferior race. Each put forth a different Nat Turner. Just as personal perspective clouded all the historical sources on him, personal perspective colored how that evidence would be interpreted. Nervous slaveholders allayed their fears by assuming he was a religious fanatic unconnected to larger conspiracy or, conversely, the puppet of Northern abolitionists. Postbellum whites remembered him as crazed and motivated by plunder or personal vengeance. To twentieth-century blacks, those characterizations downplayed the horrors of slavery, wrote off black anger as insanity, and disconnected him from the through-line of black history—the long battle for freedom.

Tensions came to a head in 1967, when the novelist William Styron published his “meditation on history,” The Confessions of Nat Turner. The white Virginian, with more than a little audacity, wrote in the first person from Turner’s perspective, inventing numerous fictional details. His book infuriated many in the civil rights community, who deplored as racist clichés his assertions that Turner was attracted to the white teenager he killed and was too panicked and weak-willed to kill anyone else. Supporters of black militance accused him of constructing a Turner with no resemblance to the real man, but in their quest for an unwavering revolutionary hero, they had done the same. Styron indeed ignored or mistook many elements of the historical record, but in elevating his protagonist to a paragon of the revolutionary spirit, Styron’s opponents robbed the rebel of fallible humanity and, by refusing to believe he could hesitate, may have done him a disservice by making his quest seem easier than it was.

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, a different debate raged in the Virginia House of Delegates. Governor John Floyd, a slaveholder, believed that statewide abolition was the only way to prevent future rebellions, and he wrote in his diary, “I will not rest until slavery is abolished in Virginia.” The legislature seriously considered many proposals for the gradual end of the institution, including one that would have freed blacks at age 21 for transportation to Africa. But all were defeated, and in the end the legislature responded to the rebellion by tightening control over enslaved and free blacks, barring all of them from preaching or assembling without white chaperones.

Some lawmakers were satisfied that their safety was now guaranteed, but Thomas J. Randolph, grandson of Thomas Jefferson, was not so sure. He had advanced his own plan of gradual emancipation, but he now predicted from the floor of the House of Delegates, “There is one circumstance to which we are to look as inevitable in the fullness of time; a dissolution of this Union. God grant it may not happen in our time, or that of our children; but sir, it must come, sooner or later; and when it does come, border war follows it, as certain as the night follows the day.”

Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.

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