Samuel Warner, Authentic and Impartial
Narrative of the Tragical Scene, 1831
In consequence of the alarming increase of the Black population at the South, fears have been long entertained, that it might one day be the unhappy lot of the whites, in that section, to witness scenes similar to those which but a few years since, nearly depopulated the once flourishing island of St. Domingo of its white inhabitants—but, these fears have never been realized even in a small degree, until the fatal morning of the 22d of August last, when it fell to the lot of the inhabitants of a thinly settled township of Southampton county (Virginia) to witness a scene horrid in the extreme!—when FIFTY FIVE innocent persons (mostly women and children) fell victim to the most inhuman barbarity.
The melancholy and bloody event was as sudden and unexpected, as unprecedented for cruelty—for many months previous an artful black, known by the name of Nat Turner, (a slave of Mr. Edward Travis) who had been taught to read and write, and who hypocritically and the better to enable him to effect his nefarious designs, assumed the character of a Preacher, and as such was sometimes permitted to visit and associate himself with many of the Plantation Negroes, for the purpose (as was by him artfully represented) of christianizing and to teach them the propriety of their remaining faithful and obedient to their masters; but, in reality, to persuade and to prepare them in the most sly and artful manner to become the instruments of their slaughter!—in this he too well succeeded, by representing to the poor deluded wretches the Blessings of Liberty, and the inhumanity and injustice of their being forced like brutes from the land of their nativity, and doomed without fault or crime to perpetual bondage, and by those who were not more entitled to their liberty than themselves!—he too represented to them the happy effects which had been attended the united efforts of their brethren in St. Domingo, and elsewhere, and encouraged them with the assurance that a similar effort on their part, could not fail to produce a similar effect, and not only restore them to liberty but would produce them wealth and ease!—and too well did he succeed by this devise, in producing disaffection and in obtaining the promises of many to acknowledge him their leader, and to act in obedience to his will, A plan was by him next devised when, where and how to commence the attack—it was to be before the break of day on the morning of the 22d, on the defenceless and thinly settled inhabitants in the neighborhood of the Cross Keys, Southampton county, twenty miles above Murfreesboro’. They had succeeded in procuring and secreting arms suitable for the bloody purpose, and with which from 20 to 30, headed by “General Nat,” (as he was now termed) proceeded under cover of night to commence an indiscriminate murder of the inhabitants—with out regard to sex or age!
They first proceeded to the house of Mrs. Whitehead, which they reached about day-light, broke open the door and murdered the whole of the white family, consisting of five persons. A gentleman living near (Mr. John Williams) hearing the screeches of the unfortunate family, hastened to ascertain the cause. On entering the house, he discovered the lady slaughtered—her son’s head severed from his body, and one of her daughters murdered in the fire place of her chamber! Almost overcome with a view of a scene so horrible and unexpected, he attempted immediately to return to his own family, but was met by one of his negro boys, who told him that his own wife and infant child had been butchered!—on receiving the shocking tidings he fled to the woods, where he secreted himself, and finally succeeded in reaching Murfreesboro’.
The Blacks next proceeded to the dwelling of Mr. Travers, whom they murdered together with his wife and three children, cutting and mangling their bodies in a manner too shocking to describe! regarding not the intreaties of the distracted dying parent, or the heart-piercing screeches of his innocent offspring! They next proceeded to the house of Mr. Thomas Barrow, where they met with the first opposition. Fortunately, Mr. Barrow had heard and become alarmed at the screeches of some of the dying victims, and had just time to secure the doors of his house and arm himself with a musket, when the merciless wretches appeared, and in such numbers that bolts and bars proved but feeble barriers—the doors were instantly forced and they entered, with their hands and arms bathed to their elbows with the blood of the unfortunate victims already slain! The family of Mr. Barrow consisted of himself and an amiable wife, and perceiving by the great number with which he had to contend single handed, that it was next to impossible that he should escape with his own life, nobly resolved that it should not be sacrificed but at the expence of some of their own, or at least endeavor to keep them at bay, until his beloved wife should have an opportunity to escape, and which he almost miraculously succeeded in doing! Mr. Barrow having fired at the banditti as they approached, without wounding either, but grazing the hat of one of them, he rushed into an adjoining room for his other gun; but the bloodhounds were at his heels; and seized him in the presence of his young wife, (the eldest sister of the beautiful Miss Vaughn.) With the utmost presence of mind, he besought his wife to make her escape—she rushed into the yard, where she was seized by one her own female slaves, when another of her females interfered, and tore the arms of her companion asunder, released her mistress, accompanied her to a neighboring wood, where she remained in concealment with her during the night.
The blood-thirsty monsters next proceeded to the house of Mr. Luther, who they killed, as they did many others to the number of FIFTY FIVE, as will appear by the bloody catalogue contained in the proceeding page—sparing neither the hoary headed or the helpless infant in the cradle!—the mournful lamentations of the few that escaped the dreadful slaughter, flying from their pursuers, heightened the horrors of the scene!
We cannot fail to mention one instance in addition to those already recorded of unprecedented cruelty, which for the most wanton barbarity, seemed to exceed (if possible) all others in the course of their murderous career—it was the fatal attack made upon the destruction of the lives of the unfortunate family of Mrs. Waller, comprised herself, a young female visitor and ten children! all, all of whom were slain! the life of the tender infant not even spared! “here (as was observed to the writer by one who witnessed it) was a spectacle of horror to behold, beyond the power of human conception! in one corner of the room lay the mangled corpse of the poor mother, and from whose deep wounds the blood had not ceased to flow! and in another the lifeless bodies of ten lovely children, who but a few hours previous were in the full enjoyment of blooming health!”
Although the merciless wretches (the blacks) did not as some of them have since confessed exceed 40 in number when they commenced the attack, yet before a sufficient force could be collected to check them in their work of death, by pressing every negro they met with, under pain of death, they numbered from 150 to 200. It was near the close of the 22d. (a day which the surviving inhabitants will have cause long to remember) before the neighboring inhabitants could assemble in sufficient numbers to oppose them—unfortunately a large number of the effective male population was absent at Camp Meeting in Gates county, some miles off, a circumstance which gave a temporary security to the brigands in the perpetration of their butcheries. Messages as soon as they could be dispatched, were sent to every quarter for aid where it could be expected it could be afforded.
As soon as the melancholy tidings reached Murfreesburough (North-Carolina) two companies of horse and foot were immediately collected, and under the command of a Colonel, were ordered to repair fourthwith to the scene of action, where they arrived on Tuesday. An express was likewise sent to Norfolk, and as soon as the news was there received the authorities met, and decided on making immediate application to Col. House, commanding at Fortress Monroe, who at 6 o’clock on the morning of the 24th, embarked on board the steamer Hampton with three companies and a piece of Artillery, to assist their fellow-citizens at Southampton in their endeavors to quell the blacks—these troops were reinforced in the roads by detachments from the United States’ ships Warren and Natchez, the whole amounting to nearly 800 men—in addition to which the day following a great quantity of Muskets, Pistols, Swords and Ammunition were collected, and an additional troop of Calvary formed of the citizens of Norfolk, and dispatched to their relief—a well mounted company of Dragoons was sent from Richmond for the same purpose. In less than forty-six hours from the time that the dreadful slaughter commenced, the militia of ten of the adjoining counties were in arms—not knowing how well organized or how extensive the conspiracy of the blacks might prove.
The armed troops on their arrival after a few skirmishes in which several of the negroes were killed, but without sustaining any loss on their part, suppressed the insurrection and put them to flight,–They were in two or three detachments, but after losing a very considerable part of their force their spirits became broken, and each sought his own safety, and such as did not escape by flight, became an easy prey—four militiamen in one instance fell in with a party of twenty odd, whom they attacked and killed and wounded some, and took others prisoners—in another instance a very considerable body of them in attempting to pass Jerusalem bridge, were repulsed by a company of militia, who with several others it was then supposed killed (Turner) their leader, but which unfortunately proved otherwise. It was remarked that many of the blacks during the horrid massacre were mounted, that after murdering one family they took their arms and horses and pushed on to the next house. Several after being attacked and put to flight by the troops, succeeded in reaching a secreting themselves in the deep recesses of Dismal Swamp, to the very borders of which they were closely pursued by a company of mounted Dragoons. Arrangements have since been made to drive them therefrom, by penetrating this their gloomy retreat to its very centre (an interesting description of which will be found in an adjoining page) where, it was reported, there were from 1000 to 2000 runaway Negroes secreted!
Though the vigilance and activity of the troops, the insurrection now having become completely suppressed, and the Blacks dispersed, the citizens assembled to perform the last office for the poor murdered victims! who, together with the Blacks that were destroyed, had lain until now just as they were slain, when preparations were made for their interment. Their mangled remains presented a spectacle of horror the like of which we hope our countrymen will never again be called upon to witness! a spectacle from which the mind must shrink with horror, when it contemplates whole families murdered without regard to age or sex, and weltering their gore! The following is a correct list of the names of the adults and number of unfortunate persons who were slain in that most diabolical tragedy!—
Joseph Travis, wife and three children,
Mrs. Elizabeth Turner, Hartwell Peebles, and Sarah Newsum,
Mrs. Piety Reese and Son William,
Henry Briant, wife and child, and wife’s mother,
Mrs. Catherine Whitehead, her son Richard, four daughters and a grandchild,
Nathaniel Francis’s Overseer and two children,
John T. Barrow and George Vaughn,
Mrs. Levi Waller and ten children,
Mr. William Williams, wife and two boys,
Mrs. Caswell Worrell and child,
Mrs. Rebecca Vaughan, Ann Eliza Vaughan, and son Arthur
Mrs. Jacob Williams and three children and Edwin Drewry,
A correspondent of the writer who saw the mangled bodies of the unfortunate victims prepared for interment, observes—“a more melancholy spectacle my eyes never before beheld!—nearly fifty coffins collected in one mass (and very great proportion of them of a size to contain the lifeless bodies of children not exceeding ten years of age, surrounded by the few weeping relatives that were so fortunate as to escape the dreadful slaughter) presented a scene that causes my hand to tremble and heart to recoil with horror in my attempt to describe it! but, I have undertaken the task and I will endeavour according to my abilities to complete it—among the slain was an amiable young lady of 17 years of age, who, it was reported, was to have been the day following united in marriage to a young gentleman of North Carolina, and who had left home on the fatal night preceding with the pleasing expectation of conveying there the succeeding day, the object of his affections! but alas! how sad was his disappointment! he was after the horrid massacre the third person who entered the house, to witness the mangled remains of her whom he was so shortly to espouse!”
As soon as the last office had been performed for the unfortunate slain, by their kindred and friends, and the fears of the inhabitants had in some measure subsided, the prisoners taken and committed to Jerusalem Jail, were arraigned for trial, and on the week following sentences were pronounced:—
Name of Slaves Owners names, Times of Execution
Daniel Richard Porter, 5th Sept. 1831
Jack Caty Whitehead, 13th do.
Andrew do. do. do.
Moses Thomas Barrow, 5th do.
Davy Elizabeth Turner, 12th do.
Curtis Thomas Ridley, do do.
Stephen do. do do.
Isaac George H. Carlton, 20th do.
Hark Joseph Travis, 9th do
Sam Nath’l Francis, do do
Davy William Waller do do
Nat Ed. Turner’s Est. do do
Jack William Reese, 12th do
Nathan Benjamin Blunt, do do
Nathan Nath’l Francis, 20th do
Tom do do do
Davy do do do
Hardy Benjamin Edwards, do do
Isham do do do
The trials of the Slaves were not finished so late as the 6th October—three free people of color were handed over for trial to the Superior Court of the county. The slaves are thinning by sales for distant market—but it is the general opinion there that the utmost security cannot be obtained with the banishment of the free people of color. The number of Blacks slain is supposed to amount to more than One Hundred. When they were engaged upon their bloody expedition, they (as had been before observed) carried destruction to every white person they found in the houses—whether the hoary head, the lovely virgin, or the sleeping infant in the cradle. They spared none. They were separated by their ringleaders into small squads which visited different houses—and this is one of the reasons of their doing so much murder in so short a time. Of the 55 whites that were killed, there was a great proportion of women and children. This arose from the circumstances of their visiting the houses of three widows where no white man lived, or of going to several houses where the master was either from home or was in the woods. It is not wonderful that the people should have been roused by such unexpected barbarities to some excesses in the moment of their exasperation, that some blacks should be slain who took no part in the insurrection.
Some of the atrocious banditti, after they had met with a repulse in an attack made on the house of a Mr. Blunt, had the impudence to return to their plantations, and to affect an ignorance on the whole transaction. One of them even returned, who had dipped his hand in the blood of his mistress! But nothing could exceed as we are informed, the patience and moderation of the Court—every opportunity was given to the prisoner to make his defence. The magistrates seemed anxious for the reputation of their country, that no hasty and impetuous passion should cause the least reproach on its administration of Justice.
The house of Dr. Blount was the last attacked by the squad above mentioned, in the defence of which, a son of the Doctor (a lad but about 17 years of age) exhibited a degree of courage and presence of mind that would have done honor to a Roman—having been advised of the Horrid massacre and of the near approach of the Blacks, he instantly deeply charged every musket which the house contained—these he put into the hands of the male members of the family, begging of them to stand up with great rapidity, shouting horribly to intimidate those whom they discovered were prepared with cocked and pointed muskets, to give them a warm reception, and from which as soon as they had got within fair gun shot, they received a well directed discharge—this threw them into disorder, and those that remained uninjured immediately turned their horses heads and galloped off with much greater speed than with what they had advanced. Thus by the intrepidity of a youth, the lives of a whole family were saved, who otherwise would undoubtedly have shared the fate of the many unfortunate victims already slain. we are happy to learn that the brave youth has since accepted of a Midshipman’s warrant, presented him for his bravery by the President of the United States.
Various are the conjectures as regards the real motives of the Blacks in sudden and unlooked for revolt—but, if the confession of one of them under condemnation can be depended upon, it was such as in which the three principal leaders at the commencement, disagreed. “General Nat,” who was the principal instigator of the revolt, and the principal in command, was for the total extermination of the whites, without regard to age or sex! that by doing so, they should soon be able (in imitation of the example set them by their brethren at St. Domingo) to establish a government of their own, and that he had been promised the aid of many of their enslaved brethren in North Carolina, Maryland, ect. The next in command was in favour of sparing the lives of the females, that if success attended them, they might become their wives!—and the third was of opinion that plunder alone should be their object, with which they might secret themselves in the dark recesses of Dismal Swamp, until opportunity should present to escape to the free States, or to some foreign country. The opinions of the two latter it appears were overruled by the superior influence of “General Nat,” and to which may be imputed no doubt the cause of the lamentable destruction of so many innocent lives! With his knowledge of letters the deluded wretch must have been ignorant indeed of the situation and extensive white population of the country, to suppose that there could be the most distant prospect of success, in what he professed to be his design; but that he had had communication with and was promised the support of some the disaffected Slaves in North Carolina, and possibly Maryland, we have too much reason to believe from the alarming symptoms which they have there since exhibited to a revolt—an account of which (as the writer has not been able to visit the States to obtain verbal information) he cannot give more correct account than what had been published in the Journals. They follow:—