The Negro in Virginia, W.P.A. Writers Program, 1940
While his fellow slaves danced, young Nat Turner brooded in silence on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. His mother, transported to Virginia from native Africa in early childhood, had tried to kill the newborn babe rather than have it grow up a slave, and his father, also African-born, finally escaped to Liberia after countless attempts. Nat was superior in intelligence and appearance. He often amused himself by casting different things in moulds made of earth; he is said also to have experimented in making paper and gunpowder.
After running away and staying for 30 days in the swamps, Nat astonished other slaves by reporting that “he had lived without food, and that he had seen white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and blood flowing in the streams.” Turning to his Bible, Nat read about the great man Jesus, to whom also visions had appeared and spirits had talked. He brooded for 10 years, during which period he married, led an industrious life, preached, and neither swore nor drank intoxicants. Finally on May 12, 1828, according to Nat’s confession, the Holy Spirit appeared before him and proclaimed that “the” yoke of Jesus must fall on him, and he must fight against the serpent when the time appeared.”
One August morning in 1831, “the sun’s disk seemed on rising, to have changed from its usual brilliant golden color to a pale, greenish tinge… and in the afternoon the naked eye could see on its surface a ‘black spot.’ “
The time had come. Nat turned to his well-worn Bible, perhaps to the passage that read
From that time began Jesus to show unto his disciples, that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests, and scribes, and be killed.
There was a Jerusalem in Virginia, the county seat of Southampton County 15 miles from Cross Keys. Henry Porter, Mark Travis, Nelson Williams, and Samuel Francis were his disciples, to whom were added two new conspirators, Jack Reese and Will Francis. Nat fixed the night of Sunday August 21, 1831 as the date, and – in order not to arouse suspicion – planned a barbecue feast after church services. While the Negroes feasted, Nat outlined his plan. The sign had come; they must march on Jerusalem that very night. His six disciples grasped their crude weapons and followed Nat. The first stop was the home of Nat’s master, Joseph Travis. Nat ascended a ladder to the upper story of the house, crept down, and admitted his followers. His men insisted that he strike the first blow; he stole to his master’s bedside and struck the aroused man with his hatchet. Travis jumped from bed and called his wife. These were his last words. Mark split his skull with an axe, and another slave dispatched the man’s wife. In his confession Nat said that, seeing the little baby “sweetly smile as he reached down to take it in his arms,” he put it back in the cradle. As he left the house, however, he reflected that “nits make lice.” He sent two men back to “take it by its heels and dash its brains out against the bricks of the fireplace.”
While the others drank their fill at the cider press, Nat gathered up the muskets and shot and issued them to his band. Then he lined the men up in ranks and paraded them up and down the barnyard, making them rehearse over and over in the few military maneuvers that he knew. From the Travis place they cut a swath of quick death through the countryside, gathering recruits at each house. With practice came efficiency – grab the guns and powder, kill the whites, take the horse, and on to the next house. Now they divided; those on foot proceeded to the nearest house, while the mounted force galloped to place farther off, to unite against some prearranged station – always a mile or two nearer Jerusalem.
With daylight the news spread, and panic-stricken whites fled their homes. Hysterical crowds gather in Jerusalem, many to pause there only for a moment’s breath. The more intrepid barricaded the old Rochelle homestead and sent couriers posthaste to beg the governor to send troops.
The disciples grew to 60 men, armed with every conceivable weapon. Two miles from Jerusalem, a group entered the Parker estate to enlist the slaves, while Nat remained at the gate with seven men. The reconnoitering party, finding that the owners had fled and that the slaves were afraid to join them, loitered to sample the Parker brandy. Nat finally had to go for them. The delay was disastrous. On the county road they met their first resistance – a band of 18 whites. The whites retreated, and Nat’s men pursued them for 200 yards but halted when they saw white reinforcements approaching. Instead of pressing his advantage, Nat turned back, although it was afterwards said by members of this white troop that Nat could easily have routed their small force and marched straight into Jerusalem. It was now late afternoon and not another white could be found. Through his men returned to their owners, prepared to sear that they had not participated in the uprising, his six disciples stood guard while he lay in the swamp to rest for the night. The next day was no better; gunfire met them whenever they approached a dwelling. One shot hit Mark, Nat’s trusted lieutenant – their first casualty. At daybreak the depleted band swooped down on Dr. Simon Blunt’s house, where watchers had waited during the night. The loyal slaves had been armed and drilled, and now Nat was met by gunfire from those he sought to free.
Nat called his remaining followers together and bade them shift for themselves. He went into hiding beneath a pile of fence rails near the Travis house, venturing out only at night for fresh water. Within a week 3,000 persons were searching for him.
For six weeks he eluded capture. In the meantime there were many rumors: Nat had been drowned; abolitionists had helped him to escape to Norfolk; he was concealed on a boat bound for Norfolk. Crowds rode to Southampton for the “Negro-hunting.” One group of horsemen asked directions of a Negro who was hoeing his garden.
“This is Southampton Country,” the Negro, a free man, is said to have replied. “My property is right on the county line.”
“So you live in Southampton County, do you?” Before an answer could come, the spokesman shot the Negro dead.
According to the editor of the Richmond Whig, who was on duty with the militia, “Men were tortured to death, burned, maimed, and subjected to nameless atrocities. The overseers were called upon to point out any slaves whom they distrusted, and if any tired to escape they were shot down.” A committee of Southampton citizens in a letter to President Jackson declared that “so inhuman had been the carnage … that were the Justices to declare a slave innocent, we fear a mob would be the consequence.” The heads of some Negros were impaled on fences to give “warning to all who should undertake a similar plot.” At Cross Keys, among a group of prisoners, Mr. Francis discovered Easter, one of his slaves. She had saved his wife’s life, and in gratitude he embraced her and ordered that she be freed. But on seeing there Charlotte, who was supposed to have tried to hold his wife for the riders, he “dragged her out, tied her to an oak tree and fired the first bullet into her.” The tree, it is said, “died from the number of shots which pierced it.”
For Nat there was no escape. One morning, just after a patrol group had passed without discovering him, he charged from a fodder stack full in the face of one Benjamin Phipps. Exhausted, emaciated, with only a rusty sword for protection, Nat suffered himself to be tied and led at gun’s point to the nearest house. When horsemen rode into Jerusalem shouting “Nat is caught,” many rushed from the swamps, thinking the cry to be “Nat is coming.”
On Monday, October 31, nine weeks to a day after “bloody Monday,” Nat arrived at Jerusalem, not in triumph, but still not in despair. And at what a price! Thirteen men, 18 women, and 24 children – 55 whites in all, though estimates vary, and blacks unnumbered – the innocent with the guilty, had met violent death. Estimates of Negros killed in reprisal ran as high as 200. One man boasted that he alone had accounted for 15.
Nat was saved for two weeks, with the hope that he would expose other associates. Composed and speaking “intelligently, clearly, and without the least confusion,” he answered all questions but declared that he alone had planned the insurrection. With head erect and level gaze, Nar heard Judge Jeremiah Cobb pronounce the sentence of death. And on November 11, Armistice day now – commemorative of a million others who died for freedom – Nat swung from an old tree in Jerusalem.
Nat Turner’s spirit remained to haunt Virginia slaveowners. House were locked, and groups of blacks seen talking together were promptly thrown in jail and, in many cases banished to the cotton country – the worst fate, other than death, that could befall a Virginia slave. Within the year numerous uprisings, or suspected uprisings, were reported throughout Virginia and the Carolinas, while more Negroes were legally executed than in any previous period.
At the next meeting of the General Assembly, Governor Floyd urged the revision of all laws intended to “preserve in due subordination the slave population of our State.” The legislature of 1832 enacted Virginia’s “black laws,” restrictions that were enforced until the end of the Civil War.
Writer's Program, The Negro in Virginia: Compiled by Workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Virginia (New York: Hastings House, 1940), 178-181.