Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Recollections of a Long Life, 1891
Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880) was a Baptist minister who was ordained in 1824 and served for many years as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Richmond. He lived in the Northern Neck area of Virginia during the time the revolt took place.
RECOLLECTIONS OF A
Jeremiah Bell Jeter.
The Religious Herald Co.
[p. 173] During my residence in Northern Neck several important and stirring events occurred. The first, in the order of time, was the Southampton Insurrection. About the last of August, 1831, the people of the Neck were greatly excited by the most appalling rumors. It was stated that an enemy, of unknown strength, coming from nobody knew where, had appeared in the neighborhood of the Dismal Swamp, with some undiscovered purpose, and were slaughtering the people and desolating the country. The story, though involved in mystery and believed to be exaggerated, created the most intense anxiety and the most feverish apprehensions. Where the invasion would end no one could tell. Men brushed up their old muskets and fowling-pieces, supplied themselves with ball and powder, and patrolled the country, while women passed anxious days and sleepless nights. I was myself suffering from malarial fever, and had visions of mischief and bloodshed which might well have appalled a stouter heart than mine. The slow mails brought confused and contradictory accounts of the affair, and the agony of suspense was continued for days or even weeks.
At length, however, the smoky rumor was blown away, and the following facts were brought to light: Nat Turner, a slave in the county of Southampton, Virginia, was a born fanatic. He grew up with the expectation of his parents and his sable friends that he would accomplish some great but undefined purpose. He was a negro of unusual shrewdness, and gained a controlling influence over his acquaintances. He was not a member of any church nor a professor of religion, but he had, or supposed he had, visions and revelations from Heaven. He was of mature age, and the time approached when his achievements were to commence. An eclipse of the sun, and its green [p. 174] appearance some months after (which I well remember), he construed as signs that he must enter on his mission. Five or six negro men were made acquainted with his plans, or rather with his vague fancies, for he seems to have had no definite aim or plan. They became subservient to his wishes, and after a feast in the forest, in which strong drink was freely used, they entered on their murderous work. The master of Turner, who, he admitted, had always treated him kindly, was the first victim of their phrensy [sic]. They broke into his house, and, having murdered him with an axe, soon slew the remainder of the family. Their bloody work having been commenced, they became reckless, and went from house to house of the unsuspecting inhabitants and slew, with relentless fury, men, women, and children. In their course they gathered guns, pistols, and other weapons of destruction, mounted horses where they could find them, and enlisted volunteers until the mutineers numbered seventy. Before the morning light fifty-five persons, chiefly helpless women and children, had fallen victims to their senseless rage.
The news of the massacre spread like lightning through all the surrounding region. Men were aroused and armed themselves for the defense of their lives and those of their families and neighbors. At the very first resistance the murderous gang broke and fled like a frightened flock of sheep. They rode up rapidly to the house of an old gentleman who, having been warned of their approach, had armed his family and slaves for their reception. When they had approached within twenty steps of the house, apprehending no resistance to their fiendish purpose, five guns were fired at them; one mutineer was killed, several were wounded, and the rest turned and fled in consternation. This was the end of the insurrection. It is amazing that men engaged in so desperate and reckless an enterprise, and who had shed blood with such heartless cruelty, should have been such wretched cowards. Deeds of blood are sometimes half redeemed from infamy by the heroism or generosity of those who perpetrate them, but in the Southampton insurrection there was not among the insurgents a single trait [p. 175] of bravery or the slightest gleam of humanity. Their career, from the beginning to the end, was marked by brutality, cowardice, and stupidity. The probability is that strong drink had more influence over them than the love of race or of freedom.
The reader may well imagine, or rather is utterly unable to imagine, the excitement and dismay spread throughout the country by this inexplicable outbreak. Troops were hastened to the scene of conflict from Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond and many other places. Their aid, however, was not needed. The insurrection was quelled at the first resistance. The murderers were shot, arrested, imprisoned, tried, and hanged. More than a dozen of them suffered the extreme penalty of the law. Nat Turner, the prime author of the mischief, concealed himself for some weeks in a cave, but was finally arrested, calmly tried, and duly punished.
The effects of the insurrection were wide-spread and abiding. The negroes who had been trusted by their masters were inspected, watched, kept under strict restraints, and their privileges greatly abridged. The whole country was in a state of feverish apprehension, and the most painful as well as the most amusing alarms were constantly occurring. The blowing of a horn or the sight of a few unknown persons in company was quiet sufficient to cause a neighborhood panic and call in undisciplined militia to arms. One pretty certain case of temporary insanity and consequent manslaughter came within my knowledge. When the Legislature met it adopted most stringent laws in regard to the negroes. They were forbidden to assemble except with white persons, their preachers were prohibited from preaching, and the most rigid police was established throughout the country. I then thought, and still think that the laws were more severe than was demanded by the exigency of the times, but they certainly found a plausible defense in the excited state of the public mind and in the defenseless condition of the women and children in the rural districts. As the excitement died away the bloody scenes of Southampton were partially forgotten, and the slaves proved themselves to be quiet and tractable, many of the laws were [p. 175] modified, and the condition of the slaves became very much as it had been before the tragic insurrection occurred.