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John W. Cromwell, “The Aftermath of Nat Turner’s Insurrection,” 1920


Born a slave in 1846 in Portsmouth, Virginia, John Wesley Cromwell was a teacher, an attorney, a legislator, a newspaper editor, and an historian during the course of his life. This article appeared in the Journal of Negro History in 1920. The Journal was the official publication of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization that Cromwell helped inspire Carter Woodson to found five years earlier.



[p. 208]

         Nat Turner was a man below the ordinary stature, though strong and active. He was of unmixed African lin-



[p. 208, footnote]

          Nat Turner was a familiar name in the household in which the author was reared, as his home was within fifty miles of the place of Turner’s exploits. In 1871, the last term of the author’s service as a teacher in the public schools of Virginia, was spent in this same county, with a people, many of whom personally knew Nat Turner and his comrades.


          Nat Turner was born October 2, 1800, the slave of Benjamin Turner. His father, a native of Africa, escaped from slavery and finally emigrated to Liberia, where, it is said, his grave is quite as well known as that of Franklin’s, Jefferson’s or Adams’s is to the patriotic American. There is now living in the city of Baltimore a man who on good authority claims to be the grandson of Nat Turner and a son of his was said to be still living in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1895.





[p. 209] eage, with the true Negro face, every feature of which was strongly marked. He was not a preacher, as was generally believed, though a man of deep religious and spiritual nature, and seemed inspired for the performance of some extraordinary work. . . .


[p. 210]

. . . Nat Turner himself assumed the title of General Cargill with a stipend of ten dollars a day. Henry Porter, the paymaster, was to receive five dollars a day, and each private one dollar. . . .


[p. 212] . . . A reign of terror followed in Virginia. Labor was paralyzed, plantations abandoned, women and children were driven from home and crowded into nooks and corners. The sufferings of many of these refugees who spent night after night in the woods were intense. Retaliation began. In a little more than one day 120 Negroes were killed. The newspapers of the times contained from day to day indignant protests against the cruelties perpetrated. One individual boasted that he himself had killed between ten and fifteen Negroes. Volunteer whites rode in all directions visiting plantations. Negroes were tortured to death, burned, maimed and subjected to nameless atrocities. Slaves who were distrusted were pointed out and if they endeavored to escape, they were ruthlessly shot down. [Footnote: Based on statements made to the author by contemporaries of Nat Turner.]


                  . . . A slaveholder went to the woods accompanied by a faithful slave, who had been the means of saving his master’s life during the insurrection. When they reached a retired place in the [p. 213] forest, the man handed his gun to his master, informing him that he could not live a slave any longer, and requested either to free him or shoot him on the spot. The master took the gun, in some trepidation, levelled it at the faithful Negro and shot him through the heart. [Footnote: The statement of Rev. M. B. Cox, a Liberian Missionary, then in Virginia.] . . .


[p. 214] . . . Rumors of similar outbreaks prevailed all over the State of Virginia and throughout the South. There were rumors to the effect that Nat Turner was everywhere at the same time. People returned home before twilight, barricaded themselves in their homes, kept watch during the night, or abandoned their homes for centers where armed force was adequate to their protection. There were many such false reports as the one that two maid servants in Dinwiddie County had murdered an old lady and two children. Negroes throughout the State were suspected, arrested and prosecuted on the least pre- [215] text and in some cases murdered without any cause. Almost any Negro having some of the much advertised characteristics of Nat Turner was in danger of being run down and torn to pieces for Nat Turner himself. . . .


[p. 218] . . . An immense throng gathered on the day of execution though few were permitted to see the ceremony. He exhibited the utmost composure and calm resignation. Although assured if he felt it proper he might address the immense crowd, he declined to avail himself of the privilege, but told the sheriff in a firm voice that he was ready. Not a limb nor a muscle was observed to move. His body was given over to the surgeons for dissection. He was skinned to supply such souvenirs as purses, his flesh made into grease, and his bones divided as trophies to be handed down as heirlooms. It is said that there still lives a Virginian who has a piece of his skin which was tanned, that another Virginian possesses one of his ears and that the skull graces the collection of a physician in the city of Norfolk. . . .


[p. 233] . . . So many ills of the Negro followed, therefore, that one is inclined to question the wisdom of the insurgent leader. Whether Nat Turner hastened or postponed the day of the abolition of slavery, however, is a question that admits of little or much discussion in accordance with opinions concerning the law of necessity and free will in national life. Considered in the light of its immediate effect upon its participants, it was a failure, an egregious failure, a wanton crime. Considered in its necessary relation to slavery and as contributory to making it a national issue by the deepening and stirring of the then weak local forces, that finally led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, the insurrection was a moral success and Nat Turner deserves to be ranked with the greatest reformers of his day.


                  This insurrection may be considered an effort of the Negro to help himself rather than depend on other human agencies for the protection which could come through his own strong arm; for the spirit of Nat Turner never was completely quelled. He struck ruthlessly, mercilessly, it may be said, in cold blood, innocent women and children; but the system of which he was the victim had less mercy in subjecting his race to the horrors of the “middle passages” and the endless crimes against justice, humanity and vir- [p. 234] tue, then perpetrated throughout America. The brutality of his onslaught was a reflect of slavery, the object lesson which he gave brought the question home to every fireside until public conscience, once callous, became quickened and slavery was doomed.



John W. Cromwell, “The Aftermath of Nat Turner’s Insurrection,” The Journal of Negro History 5 (1920): 208-234.

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