Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford,
visitor to Southampton County in 1832
This account was published by Launcelot Minor Blackford in 1898. Blackford relied on the diary entries of his mother, Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, a resident of Fredericksburg who had visited with members of Caty Whitehead’s family on a trip through Southampton County in the summer of 1832.
Beginning in the late 1820s, Mary Blackford (1802-1896) was an active supporter of colonization. She founded the Fredericksburg and Falmouth Female Auxiliary to the American Colonization Society in 1829. Her brother later served as a missionary in Liberia alongside a number of slaves her family had manumitted.
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory:
The Story of a Virginia Lady
Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford
Who Taught Her Sons to Hate Slavery
and to Love the Union
L. Minor Blackford
Harvard University Press
[p. 25] And then, the night of August 21, Nat Turner, a demented young Negro preacher who had been taught to read by his master and who had acquired a following among the slaves in Southampton County, decided that the signs in the heavens were propitious for carrying out what he had long been plotting. He and seven of his men entered the home of his master and slaughtered the whole family. Continuing with the dawn, he and his ever-increasing band “murdered 61 whites, nearly all of whom were women and children. Savage barbarities were committed, The Negroes went wild with ferocity and bathed their arms in blood.” [Footnote: Beveridge, Lincoln, II, 17.]
After this crime it required a bold spirit to stand up for the slaves. Such a spirit was Mary Blackford: she even attempted to extenuate the enormity of the massacre. She wrote in her journal:
“In travelling in the summer of 1832, about a year after the Insurrection in Southampton, I met with some members of the Whitehead family who suffered so much at that time. This Was the son (& his wife) of the old lady of that name whose family and herself were nearly all butchered by Nat Turner and his gang of ruffians. This Gentleman and his wife did not live with his Mother, but at some distance, and so escaped. I was so much struck with some instances she gave me of the fidelity of many of the slaves to their owners at that time that I took down from her words the following incidents to show that justice had not been done them generally in the recital of the crimes committed by a comparatively small number.” [Footnote: Mary’s report of the Nat Turner insurrection is from M B B Notes.]
Mary went on to record young Mrs. Whitehead’s “recital of what occurred at her Mother in law’s house in Southampton”: [p. 26]
“A few minutes after the negroes were seen riding up the lane leading to the house (in this lane they killed her son, a young Minister), they were in the house and had commenced their work of slaughter. The Mother of the family, who had always enjoyed the affection of her negroes, was among the first killed. Her own servants had nothing to do with the insurrection; on the contrary (as will be seen), did all they could to protect the family at the risk of their own lives.
“A little negro girl clung to her Mistress and begged for her life until her own was threatened. She then fled and hid under the bed. An old negro man named Wallace vainly entreated for the life of his Mistress. After murdering the good old lady, they threatened to kill him. He told them to do it as he cared not to live now she was dead.
“The youngest of the daughters happened to be a little way from the house in some very high corn, which concealed her, and might have escaped, but losing all presence of mind (on hearing what was going on) screamed loudly in spite of the entreaties of a young negro girl who was with her; drawn by her screams, the murderers rushed upon her. Aggy, the girl with her, endeavoured [sic] to shield her young mistress at the risk of her own life, but was torn from her with such force as to tear the strong Virginia cloth dress she had on from her shoulders and thrown to the ground where she expected to be killed herself, but they contented themselves with the murder of her young mistress.
“A young negro named Tom was in the yard watering the horses preparatory to their going to work (for it was very early in the morning). As soon as he saw what the gang were after, he set off full speed to give the neighbors notice of their danger, flying from one plantation to another. At one place the Master gave him a hatchet to defend himself should the insurgents attack him. Feeling however they might get hold of it and use it against the white, he hid it. He afterwards met companies of white men assembled for the purpose of putting down the insurrection and it was thought that, had they seen him with a hatchet, they would have killed him on the spot, for at that time the innocent were often confounded with [p. 27] the guilty. The poor things would frequently fasten white rags on the end of a stick in token of their peaceable intention, but the innocent sometimes suffered. Tom ran until noon of that day when he arrived at the Guard house. He was altogether spent, it was a year before he recovered; it was thought for some time he would not survive the effort so much beyond his strength. Many lives were saved by it. Much praise and a certificate testifying to his exertions in saving the lives of so many whites at such an expense was all his reward in the world.
“Old Mrs. Whitehead and her four grown daughters, a son and a grandson were all murdered by these deluded fanatics. The only one of Mrs. Whitehead’s family (who was at home) whose life was saved was her daughter Harriet, who hid between the bed and the mattress; her Sister was killed at the foot of the bed she was concealed in. After the company of banditti had left the house some of their number who were well acquainted with the family, remembering that there was one more to destroy, sent two of their number back to find and kill her. In the meantime, her own slaves had contrived to disguise and were actually carrying her out of the house to a place of concealment when they saw these men coming on foot to the back of the house for the purpose of surprise. Some of the slaves went immediately to meet them & contrived by some means to turn their course. The young lady was then carried and concealed in a swamp near the house until the pursuit was over.
“Out of forty negroes on this plantation, only three joined in the Insurrection, and they not until they were intoxicated. It afterwards happened that one of the negroes, Hubbard, an old man who had assisted in saving Miss Harriet, was brought out as one of the murderers to be shot. His young mistress, who had been conveyed to the place for safety, heard accidentally of it and ran out and saved him by relating the circumstances of his conduct in aiding to save her life.
“In the same neighborhood with Mrs. Whitehead lived an extremely amiable lady and gentleman of the name of Porter. A negro woman ran from a distance to warn them just in time for them to escape to the woods in sight of the house. By a point of the finger [p. 28] of any of the slaves there, the family might all have been murdered, but so far were they from betraying them they contrived to direct the steps of the murderers in another direction. Strange to say, that three of those who went along to divert their course joined the murderous crew after having saved the lives of their Master and Mistress.
“Another lady of the neighborhood (Mrs. Nicholson) who was too weak to move, having just recovered from a bilious fever, was taken up in the arms of her slaves and hidden in the woods.”