Nat Turner was an African-American slave preacher in Virginia who led the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history.
In the 185 years that followed the rebellion, Turner’s place in history has been reinterpreted, revised, maximized, and minimized. His legacy is still debated, and even more so today, with Turner’s Bible now on display in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and the release of the feature film The Birth of a Nation, chronicling Turner’s life and revolt.
The Slave Revolt and the Historical Record
On August 21, 1831, Turner led a small army that used axes, hatchets, knives, and muskets to kill 55 white Virginians. By August 23, the revolt was suppressed and his followers were apprehended. Turner escaped and hid in the woods for two months until he was captured and taken to the jailhouse in the county seat of Jerusalem, today the town of Courtland, Virginia.
Much of our knowledge of Turner comes from Courtland. Between his trial and execution, he was interviewed by lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray. The interviews were compiled in a pamphlet entitled "The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia." This serves as the main historical record of who Nat Turner the man may have been. But it’s an imperfect record.
Some historians think Gray took personal liberties with how he presented Turner, and they believe the authenticity of the pamphlet may be compromised. Many other popular ideas about Turner were shaped by a work of outright fiction: William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was released in 1967. The volume remains controversial as its Caucasian author takes on the voice of the black slave preacher turned revolutionary and steeps it with a fevered sexual obsession for white women.
Since then, Turner has remained little more than a footnote in some history books, a fact that may very well enable his legacy to evolve as the United States continues to grapple with the legacy of slavery.
The Beginnings and an Early Prophecy
Nat Turner was born into slavery on October 2, 1800, on the Benjamin Turner family plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. He was born with several marks on his chest that family members regarded as the marks of a prophet. Having learned to read at an early age, he was considered an intellectual at the time, as it was highly frowned upon to teach slaves to read.
Throughout his life, Turner would look to the Bible to better understand the reason behind the enslavement of his people. His wisdom and natural orating skills led him to become a respected preacher among the surrounding slave community. Early on, he interpreted that the Bible said that slaves should remain subservient to their earthly masters, but a series of prophetic visions changed his views.
Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner airs Friday 10/9c on the National Geographic Channel.
“I had a vision … I saw white and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened … the thunder rolled in the heavens and flowed in the streams,” Gray quotes Turner as saying in "The Confessions of Nat Turner." “I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven.”
These visions convinced Turner that it was his destiny to unite black men and women, both enslaved and free, to overthrow their masters. For years he waited for a sign from God to begin the fight for freedom. On February 12, 1831, Turner saw a solar eclipse. Upon seeing this "sign," Turner discussed his plans with four other slaves, and they set the date for July 4. Turner fell sick, however, and that date passed. Around August 13, he witnessed a second atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish green from volcanic dust in the air.
On August 21, Turner met with a group of fellow conspirators in the swampy woodlands around Cabin Pond. The group ate a meal and took a vow to kill all slave owners they encountered, including women and children. They decided the first victims would be Turner’s current master, Joseph Travis, and his family, and that Turner should deliver the first blow.
The group traveled from farm to farm, slaughtering whites and freeing blacks. Many of the enslaved chose not to join the revolt, and some even fought to protect their masters. At most stops the rebel force grew, at one point reaching around 40 recruits. Over the next two days they killed at least 55 whites. Turner's presumed goal was to reach Jerusalem, where he believed there was an armory that his forces could use to further their rebellion.
The group never made it to Jerusalem and within two days were scattered and captured by the local militia. Turner eluded capture for two months by hiding out in the woods. Records show that out of the 53 suspected to be involved, more than 50 were brought to trial, 18 were executed, 12 were transported and sold South, and 21 were discharged to return to their masters. Of the four free blacks brought to trial, one was executed and the other three found not guilty.
It is written that Turner was discovered hiding out on October 30 by farmer Benjamin Phipps. He surrendered to Phipps and was taken to be tried. On November 5, 1831, he was sentenced to death for "conspiring to rebel and make insurrection." On November 11 he was hanged.
Desperate to regain control in the wake of the rebellion, white militias unleashed a wave of violence and intimidation against both enslaved and free blacks throughout the region. Many innocent people who had nothing to do with the insurrection were killed as a result of this campaign. In one case a severed head was put on display at a Southampton County crossroad. To this day, the street located outside Courtland, Virginia, bears the name Blackhead Signpost Road. In Virginia, strict laws were passed to further limit the right of blacks to gather.
A Changing Legacy and a Memorial
It is rumored that after Nat Turner was hanged, he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Allegedly his skull and brain were sent off for study, his fat was rendered to wagon-wheel grease, and pieces of his tanned skin were given out as souvenirs. This would have been done in an attempt to crush Turner’s legacy and prevent him from being exalted as a martyr.
But Turner’s story is now undergoing a resurgence. The new film presents Turner as a patriot. And his descendants and the descendants of survivors of the revolt are back in the news debating the legacy.
Today in Courtland, monuments stand in honor of the Confederate military, and its battle flag can still be seen waving across the South. There’s a plaque noting the rebellion happened, but those who see Nat Turner as a hero believe that just as the Confederate memorials stand to benefit descendants of southern soldiers, it is only fair that descendants of the enslaved should have a place to pay homage to figures like Nat Turner, who gave his life to fight for their freedom.