Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader

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Nathanial "Nat" Turner led a briefly successful 19th Century slave revolt, galvanizing both Southern action against him and other slaves and Northern agitation for abolition.

Turner was born into slavery in 1800 on the plantation of Benjamin Turner. His mother is known to have been named Nancy; very little is known of his father. 

From the time he was 10 until he was 22, Nat was claimed by Benjamin's son Samuel. When he died, his widow assumed control of Nat and other slaves; after another couple of marriages, Nat ended up enslaved by Joseph Travis. The Turner plantation, a relatively small one by comparison to the gigantic tobacco-producing plantations elsewhere, was in Southampton County, Virginia, where enslaved African-Americans outnumbered whites. Nat Turner himself was married, to a woman named Cherry, who lived on a plantation near his, and they had a son named Reddick.

Turner knew how to read and write, and he became well-versed in the Christian Bible. He showed that he had talent as a preacher and believed that he was doing the work of God. Turner escaped when he was 21 but, after spending a month in the nearby woods, returned to bondage, in part to continue to instruct his fellow slaves in the ways of the Christian religion. Many people referred to him as "the Prophet."

He witnessed a solar eclipse in 1831 and interpreted that as a sign from God to lead a slave revolt. He would have known of other slave uprisings, namely Gabriel Prosser's unsuccessful attempt in the year of Turner's birth and Denmark Vesey's equally unsuccessful attempt in 1822. 

The original target date for Turner's was July 4, 1831, to coincide with the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence, which Turner and other slaves found hypocritical, particularly the words "all men are created equal." For various reasons, the revolt did not happen on that day but instead began on the evening of August 21. 

Turner led a group of several dozen men armed with hatchets and knives to the house of Joseph Travis, Turner's owner, and started a string of violent acts across sevral plantations that would eventually kill more than 50 men, women, and children. The rebellion was not organized, and those rebelling had little access to weapons. An initial part of Turner's plan was to seize an armory in Jerusalem, the county seat, but that didn't happen, nor did the rebellion gain a large-scale infusion of freedom-seeking slaves.

Word of the violence spread, and numerous patrols numbering in the thousands set out to round up the perpetrators. All but Turner were soon caught and charged with rebellion. A collection of 20 judges, all slaveholders, put the captured slaves on trial and convicted more than 50 of them, sentencing them to death or to transfer to another state; several were acquitted. At the same time, mobs of angry whites retaliated against African-Americans in the area, not all of them slaves, and the death toll of this violence is thought to be more than 100.

Turner himself hid out in the woods until he was discovered, on October 30, and taken to Jerusalem for trial. His attorney, Thomas Gray, wrote up his reflections of conversations that he had with Turner while they were awaiting the latter's trial. The result was The Confessions of Nat Turner

Turner was convicted of inciting violence and murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on November 11. In the end, he met the same fate as Prosser and Vesey.

Nat Turner did not free himself from slavery, nor did he free anyone else. He killed dozens of people and encouraged violence against other people. His actions did not result in wholesale revolt in other enslaved populations. That did not stop slave owners from demanding and getting more laws protecting the owning and punishing of slaves.

Turner did become a symbol of African-American resistance against the yoke of slavery, and his acts became a strong counter-argument to a belief advanced by many in the South that slaves were happy with their lot in life.

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