Authentic & Impartial Narrative
"Insurrection in North Carolina"
Confessions of Nat Turner
Samuel Warner, Authentic and Impartial
Narrative of the Tragical Scene, 1831
INSURRECTION IN NORTH CAROLINA
Washington, Sept. 17, 1831.
By the Morning Chronicle received to-day, a report was communicated, calculated to produce much excitement. Coming so soon after the Southampton affair, and at a moment when our community was not a little troubled by rumors, I early determined to ascertain all the facts known in the city. I traveled the whole way from Fayetteville, N.C. to this city. He told me there was a report at Fayetteville, that the Negroes had risen in force, taken and burnt Wilmington, and massacred many whites. He heard nothing on his way to Raleigh, to confirm this report. But at Raleigh there was great commotion and some distraction, caused by the arrival there of an express with dispatch from the county of Duplin to the Governor, communicating the appalling information of an insurrection of the blacks in that county, and that seventeen or twenty families had been butchered by them. Of the truth of this there can be no doubt. At the same time there was going on a the Court house in Raleigh, an examination of some fifty or sixty negroes; but it had not been ascertained that any concert existed between them and the insurgents in Duplin. My informant said he heard no more of the talking and burning of Wilmington, until he arrived at Petersburg, where was circulating the report he had heard in Fayetteville. Such scenes at that of Southampton, and this reported in Duplin, may be expected occasionally, in all the Southern States. It is much to be regretted that they are instigated by fierce, ignorant fanatics, assuming to be preachers. This will tend to the exclusion of the poor African from the benefits of all religious instruction under the ministrations of persons of their own complexion. I foresee that this land must one day or other, become a field of blood. There is now encamped on the eastern suburbs of the city a small military company from Fort Washington, there being in the adjacent county, Prince George’s, a very large number of negroes, owned principally by the large planters of that fertile district.
P.S. Since the above was in type, we have received the subjoining letter from a gentleman in Raleigh, N.C. together with a slip from the office of the Fayetteville Observer.
RALEIGH, Sept. 15, 1831.
Our city has been in a complete state of fermentation since Monday night, on account of an insurrection among the negroes. On Monday night, an express arrived at 10 o’clock, with the intelligence that the town of Wilmington was burnt, half of the inhabitants murdered, and the negroes in the counties of Duplin, Bladen, Sampson and others, in a state of insubordination, having collected in large bodies near the line of Sampson and Johnson, murdering and burning all before them. The first is a false alarm; but the latter is too true. Letters were received on Tuesday evening, one of which stated that 15 families in Duplin had been murdered as early as Monday morning; and another from Gen. Whitfield, which said 17. The people of Johnson have left their houses and retreated to Smithfield, which affords a complete place of encampment.
There were 500 militia assembled there on Tuesday night, one hundred of whom were mounted. It is not known how far the insubordination may extend, but it is thought there is a general concert among the negroes to an alarming extent. The citizens of Fayetteville are also under arms. As to our city, every thing had been in a state of preparation for war. The city, in consequence, presented one continual motion, and a new company was formed of persons exempt, amounting to 90. Arms have been distributed to them, and also to the militia, on Tuesday night, 85 men were under arms all night. I had a musket on my shoulder, from 8 until nearly 6 in the morning.— Yesterday the City Guards, the exempts, the militia, were under arms nearly all day, patrolling every hole and corner of the city, and examining everything. About 50 negroes, most of them free, were examined by a committee, but nothing discovered. A number of families have left their homes and taken refuge in the city. The people of Raleigh have been, and still are, in a high state of excitement. Persons of all ages and ranks have volunteered their services. The females are greatly alarmed.
FAYETTEVILLE, Sept. 14, 3 P.M.
Two of the gentlemen who went from this place to Clinton on Monday night, have this moment returned, there being no danger, though the existence of the plot is clearly established. We have procured from one of them the following statement, drawn up by himself yesterday, at Clinton. It is worthy of reliance.—
On Sunday, the 4th inst. the first information of the contemplated rising of the Blacks, was sent from South Washington. The disclosure was made by a free mulatto man, to Mr. Usher of Washington, who sent the information to Mr. Kelly of Duplin. It appears from the mulatto’s testimony, that Dave, a slave belonging to Mr. Morissey of Sampson, applied to him to join the conspirators, stating that the negroes in Sampson, Duplin, and New Hanover, were regularly organized and prepared to rise on the 4th October. Dave was taken up and on this testimony convicted. After his conviction, he made a confession of the above to his master, and in addition gave the names of the four principal ringleaders in Sampson and Duplin and several in Wilmington; named several families that they intended to murder. Their object was to march by two routes to Wilmington, spreading destruction and murder on their way. At Wilmington they expected to have been reinforced by 2000 to supply themselves with arms and ammunition and then return.
Three of the ringleaders in Duplin have been taken and Dave and Jim executed. There are 23 Negroes in jail in Duplin county, all of them no doubt concerned in the conspiracy. Several have been whipped and released. In Sampson 25 are in jail, all concerned directly or indirectly in the plot. The excitement among the people in Sampson is very great, and increasing; they take effectual measures to arrest all suspected persons. A very intelligent negro preacher named David, was put on his trial to-day and clearly convicted by the testimony of another negro. The people were so much enraged, that they could scarcely be prevented from shooting him, on his passage from the Court House to the Jail. All the confessions made induce the belief that the conspirators were well organized, and their plans well understood in Duplin, Sampson, Wayne, New Hanover and Lenoir Counties. Nothing had transpired to arise even a suspicion that they extended into Cumberland or Bladen, except that Jim confesses that Nat, Col. Wright’s negro (who had been missing since the discovery of the plot,) had gone into the neighborhood of Fayetteville to raise a company to join the conspirators.
“ September 21.
“On Wednesday last Nat was arrested in the neighborhood of Bryan Wright’s (who is the son of his master) and is now in our jail—he denies having any such object as is imputed to him—two others were arrested on the same day—on Sunday two boys (slaves) run away from Mr. Waddie near Wilmington, and were apprehended near a meeting of blacks about twelve miles south-east from the town—after the infliction of some punishment they confessed that they had been sent a-head to get information by a small party of runaways, some of them armed—two parties of mounted volunteers from this place were dispatched in search of them, but were unable to overtake them. Such has been the excitement in the neighboring counties, through fear of a general revolt of the blacks, that women and children had fled to the swamps, from which, after a day or two, they emerged, wet, muddy, and half starved!— waggoners who were on their way to Fayetteville have discharged their loads at some house on the road and returned home!”
“ September 22.
“In my last I mentioned to you that we had been under very great excitement here, in consequence of an expected insurrection among our Blacks. It appears on investigation that the plot was much deeper laid than we anticipated. A number of desperate fellows in Sampson and Duplin had communicated with a number of blacks of this town, viz. Nimrod, Usher, old Dan, the Drayman, a fellow named Prince, and one Abraham, are deeply concerned in the plot. The leaders in Sampson, with their men, were to meet this party from Wilmington at the little Bridge at midnight, to march into town in for squads; to fire the town in four different placed and massacre the white men, women and children, the moment that they should appear at their doors!— they were to endeavour to get possession of the arsenal as soon as possible, where seven thousand stand of arms had been temporally deposited—the plot was discovered through a slave whom the secret had been incautiously communicated, and who had no disposition to engage in it. The four ringleaders were seized and separately questioned as to what they knew of a conspiracy—at first they affected ignorance, but by flogging and menaces they were made to confess; and having been tried by three justices and twelve freeholders, they were found guilty, and sentenced to be shot, which was carried into immediate execution on Gallows Hill, and their heads are now sticking on poles at the four corners of the town. Old Dan (as he was termed) upwards of 70 years of age, was the last to confess, and only did so after he found that they been fully betrayed—he conducted with surprising courage and firmness throughout, even to death!”
In addition to what has been stated relative to the alarming insurrection of the Blacks in Virginia and North Carolina, strong symptoms were manifested by the Slaves in Maryland and Delaware to revolt—and it being at about the same period, there can be no doubt but that there was a general understanding among them, and that they intended to have acted in concert in the indiscriminate slaughter of the white inhabitants of the four States!—great must have been the quantity of human blood shed, and most horrid would have been the consequences had not the conspiracy been discovered in season to frustrate in party, the evil designs of the merciless wretches!
A more alarming insurrection of the Blacks, attended with the destruction of so many innocent lives, has not, we believe, occurred in any christian country since the memorable event of 1804—when in one fatal night more than 1000 of the unfortunate white inhabitants of the island of St. Domingo (men, women and children) were butchered by the Negroes! Although the melancholly scene which has been recently witnessed in Virginia, will bear no comparison with that bloody event, yet it cannot but serve to satisfy us to what an extent the slave of the South would in all probability carry the work of human butchery, did they but once obtain the power—which, God forbid they ever may. As there may be but a few of our readers who are acquainted with the particulars that attend the horrid massacre of the inhabitants of the ill-fated island mentioned it will not we trust be considered by them as foreign from the subject of this Narrative, if we devote two or three pages to that purpose.
The first revolt of the Negroes in St. Domingo, took place on the 23d August, 1791, just before the break of day, when a general alarm spread throughout the town of the Cape, that all the negro slaves in the neighbouring parishes had revolted, and were carrying death and desolation over the plantations.
The governor, assembled the military officer; but the reports were too confused and contradictory to gain much credit till day-light brought with it many who had scarcely escaped the massacre, and fled to the town for protection. It was soon evident that the negroes acted in concert, a general massacre of the whites was the consequence, with the exception only, on a few estates, of the women, who were spared for a severer fate.
Consternation now every where prevailed, and the screams of the women and children, running from door to door, heightened the horrors of the scene! The citizens took up arms, and the general assembly vested the governor with the command of the national guards—yet so much more numerous were the slaves than the whites, and so general became the revolt, it was computed that, within two months after it first began, upwards of two thousand white persons of all conditions and ages, had been massacred!—that one hundred and eighty sugar plantations, and about nine hundred coffee, cotton, and indigo settlements had been destroyed (the buildings thereon being consumed by fire,) and one thousand two hundred christian families reduced from opulence, to such a state of misery, as to depend altogether for their cloathing and sustenance on public and private charity. Of the Blacks, it was reckoned that upwards of ten thousand had perished by the sword or by famine; and some hundreds by the hands of the executioner.
To attempt even concisely a record of the many remarkable and bloody engagements, which took place between the two contending parties (the whites and the blacks, and the European troops sent to assist the former) from the period of the first revolt, until the final general massacre in 1804, would occupy too great a portion of our Narrative—we trust that it will be sufficient to say that after a long, severe and bloody struggle, in which it is probable that the lives of not less than 60,000 human beings were sacrificed, the Blacks succeeded in their views in the almost total extermination of the whites, of the once flourishing island of St. Domingo, and in establishing a government of their own, and in placing one of their own color, and one who in the horrid massacres had mostly distinguished himself (Dassalines) as its head. This blood-thirsty monster as chief in command in August 1804, issued his bloody mandate for the final destruction of the few remaining Frenchmen, with their families who had survived the several horrid massacres. Having for some time laboured in vain to make the people at large the instruments of his sanguinary purpose, he at length determined to accomplish it by a military execution. The various towns where any French inhabitants remained, were successively visited by him, and those unhappy people, with certain exceptions, were put to the sword, under his personal orders and inspection, by the troops whom he appointed to this horrible service.
The work of blood was perpetrated most systematically, in exact obedience to the cruel mandate of the chief. Precautions were adopted to prevent any other foreigners from being involved in the fate of the French. In Cape Francois, where the tragedy took place on the night of the 20th of April; lest, from mistake or some other cause, any of the American merchants should be molested, a strong guard was sent in the evening to each of their houses, with orders not to suffer any individual to enter, not even one of the black generals, without the consent of the master; who was apprized of these orders that he might be under no apprehensions for his own safety. These orders were so punctually obeyed, that one of those privileged individuals, who had given shelter to some Frenchmen, was able to protect them to the last.
The French priests, and surgeons, and others, who during the war had manifested humanity to the negroes, were spared, to the amount of about one tenth part of the whole number. The massacre, in other respects, was indiscriminate. Neither age nor sex was regarded. The personal security enjoyed by the Americans, did not prevent them from feeling it a night of horrors. At short intervals they heard the pick-axe thundering at the door of some devoted neighbor, and soon forcing it—piercing shrieks almost immediately ensued, and these were following by an expressive silence! The next minute the military party was heard proceeding to some other house, to renew the work of death!
There was one act in this tragedy, which stamps the conduct of Dessalines with the character of most flagitious perfidy, as well as cruelty. A proclamation was published in the newspaper, stating, that the vengeance due to the crimes of the French had been sufficiently executed, and inviting all who had escaped the massacre to appear on the parade, and receive tickets of protection, after which, it was declared, they might depend on perfect security. As the massacre had been expected, many hundreds had contrived to secrete themselves; most of whom now came forth from their hiding places and appeared on the parade. But instead of receiving the promised tickets of protection, they were instantly led away to the place of execution and shot. The rivulet which runs through the town of Cape Francois was literally red with blood!
Such were the horrors that attended the insurrection of the Blacks in St. Domingo; and similar scenes of bloodshed and murder might our brethren at the South expect to witness, were the disaffected Slaves of that section of the country but once to gain the ascendency. In a “General Nat,” they might then find a wretch not less disposed to shed innocent blood, than was the perfidious Dessalines—all who ever knew him represent him not only cunning and artful, but one from whom, in such an event, little mercy could be expected! The better to effect his real designs, he has practiced great imposition by a profession of much piety, and we believe in some instances with too much success—the blasphemous wretch has been heard to declare himself to Jesus Christ alone!—he with a white man of low character with whom he was formerly very intimate, baptized each other in a mill-pond some years ago. He never belonged to any established church, but has attempted to pass himself off as an “inspired prophet!” He was once the Slave of Capt. Moore. whose widow married Mr. Travis, the first victim of these bloody cut throats!—his wife was a slave, belonging to Mr. Reese, and it was in her possession after Nat’s escape that his papers were found, comprehending something like a map, with figures inscribed on the margin. He has been as yet so fortunate as to escape the vigilance of his pursuers, and it is yet unknown to what part of the country he had bent his course—it was at one time strongly suspected that he had secreted himself among the thick brush of Dismal Swamp, but although the whole swamp has been thoroughly scoured even to its darkest and deepest recesses (since the horrid massacre of the 22d) and a great many runaway slave found therein, no discovery could be made of “Gen. Nat,” the principal object of their pursuit. As this extensive Swamp had been for a long time the receptacle of runaway Slaves at the South, and which it is not improbable the Blacks might have supposed in case of defeat, might afford them as secure a retreat as did the almost inaccessible mountains of St. Domingo to their black brethren of that island, a concise description thereof may not be displeasing to our readers.
DISMAL SWAMP (sometimes called the Great Dismal to distinguish it from another swamp called Dismal, in Currituc county) is a very large bog, extending from N. to S. near 30 miles, and from E. to W. at a medium about 10 miles; partly in Virginia, and partly in North Carolina, No less than 5 navigable rivers, besides creeks, rise from it. All these hide their heads, properly speaking, in the Dismal, there being no signs of them above ground. For this reason there must be plentiful subterraneous stores of water to feed so many rivers, or else the soil is so replete with this element, drained from the high lands that surround it, that it can abundantly afford these supplies. This is most probable, as the ground of the swamp is a mere quagmire, trembling under the feet of those that walk upon it, and every impression is instantly filled with water. The skirts of the swamp, towards the east, are overgrown with reeds, 10 or 12 feet high, interspersed every where with strong bamboo briers. Among these grow here and there a cypress or white cedar, which last is commonly mistaken for the juniper. Towards the south end is a large tract of reeds, which being constantly green, and waving in the wind, is called the green sea. In many parts, especially on the borders, grows and evergreen shrub, very plentiful, called the gall bush. It bears a berry which died a black colour like the gall of an oak. Near the middle of the Dismal the trees grow much thicker, both cypress and cedar. These being always green, and loaded with very large tops, are easily blown down, the boggy ground affording but a slender hold to the roots. Neither beast, bird insect or reptile, approach the heart of this horrible desert; perhaps deterred by the everlasting shade, occasioned by the thick shrubs and bushes, which the sun can never penetrate, to warm the earth: nor indeed do any birds care to fly over it, any more than they are said to do over the lake Avernus, for fear of the noisome exhalations that rise from this vast body of filth and nastiness. These noxious vapors infect the air round about, giving agues and other distempers to the neighboring inhabitants. On the western borders of the Dismal is a pine swamp, above a mile in breadth, great part of which is covered with water knee deep; the bottom, however, is firm, and the pines grow very tall, and are not easily blown down. With all these disadvantages, the Dismal is, in many places, pleasing to the eye, though disagreeable to other senses. This dreadful swamp was judged impassable, till the line, dividing Virginia from North Carolina, was carried through it, in N. lat. 36, 28, in the year 1728, by order of king George II. This swamp is chiefly owned by two companies. The Virginia company, of which Gen. Washington was one, own 100,000 acres; the North Carolina company owns 40,000 acres. In the midst of the swamp is a lake, about 7 miles long, called Drummond’s pond, whose waters discharge themselves to the south into Pasquotank river, which empties into Albemarle sound; on the north into Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers, which fall into James river.
It is within the deep recesses of this gloomy Swamp, “dismal” indeed, beyond the power of human conception, that the runaway Slaves of the South have been know to secret themselves for weeks, months and years, subsisting on frogs, tarripins, and even snakes! and when these have failed them, would prefer becoming the victims of starvation to returning again to bondage! In one instance of which we have been credibly informed, a mother and her two children found means therein to conceal themselves for the space of seven years! and to find means for her own and children’s subsistence, partly by her own exertions and the assistance of her husband (who was a slave to a neighboring planter) who would occasionally make her a visit. The manner in which she was so long concealed herself as well as her children from discovery, was truly singular. By the strictest discipline she prevented them ever crying aloud; she compelled them to stifle their little cries and complaints, though urged to it by punching hunger, or the severest cold. She prohibited them from speaking louder than a whisper!—this may appear strange to relate, but of the truth of it we have been well satisfied; and as a proof that no deception was used in this case, it was satisfactorily ascertained that when discovered in their retreat, and brought therefrom to mingle with human society, for more than a month, in the company of children who were noisy and clamorous, they were not know in a single instance to raise their voices higher than a soft whisper. At first is was with great difficulty that they could stand or walk erect, and when they did attempt to walk, it was with a low stoop, and a hasty step like a partridge! But their favorite position was that of squatting upon their hams—in this posture, they could remain for house without any apparent weariness, and at a given signal would move one after another with great facility, and at the same time with so much caution, that not the least noise could be heard by their footsteps!
It seems almost incredible that there could be found an individual of the human species, who, rather than to wear the goading yoke of bondage, would prefer becoming the voluntary subject of so great a share of want and misery!—but, such indeed is the love of liberty—the gift of God!—and while we shall ever feel it a duty which we owe to humanity, to lend our aid if necessary in suppressing insurrections so fatal to the lives of our countrymen, as the one of recent occurrence in the South, when Fifty Five innocent persons were in the space of a few hours most inhumanely butchered by a brand of ill-advised wretches, who heeded not the intreaties of the aged and infirm or the heart piercing screeches of the expiring infant! yet, we cannot hold those entirely blameless, who first brought them from their native plains—who robbed them of their domestic joys—who tore them from their weeping children and dearest connections, and doomed then in this “Land of Liberty” to a state of cruel bondage!
It would not be visionary to believe that among the “free born sons of America,” those ardent advocates for freedom who deserted their peaceful mansions, and endured the toils, the dangers and sufferings of the camp and the field, and who were avowed enemies to the reign of despotism—that the summit of their hopes in death were fastened upon the success of their conflicts for universal freedom. If we examine the facts which are stated in relation to the conduct of men, we shall find that no new thing has happened. Those who have been driven to extremes to conquer persecutions when they have gained their point, have in many instances become themselves persecutors; and shall it be so in this western world—shall we theorize upon liberty, talk of independence, celebrate the date which gave birth to those noble sentiments contained in the bill of rights, and realize despotic practice upon more than one million of our fellow creatures! It is they that feel oppressed who know how hateful oppression is, nor can such be reconciled to the oppressor.
To remove this stain from the American people the energies of justice, the love of virtue, and the sacred obligations of principle must be brought into operation. We have already said that all men are born equal—that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, LIBERTY and the pursuit of happiness. But do we mean by the term ALL MEN, to be understood those of a white complexion only, and that nature had denied, or the Creator withheld, from those of other shades, the rights which have been contended for? We certainly cannot be so preposterous, nor has the recent confessions which with apparent humanity were liberally made in favour of the suffering descendants of Africa, left us to doubt on this point. The colonization scheme of which we have heard at Washington, was opened to the public with feeling and pathetic acknowledgments that Africans were men and that from us they had a right to look for justice. Hence it cannot be denied, they are literally and in fact included in our bill of right, nor can we be exonerated from the charge of tyranny until by our solemn act we place them in the full possession of those rights which are claimed for ourselves, and which are consistence with the principles of our excellent government. While we believe it to have been the object and compatible with the views of the framers of our constitution, to “form a perfect union, establish justice and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” we cannot admit that they ever intended to entail upon the sons of Africa the chains of perpetual slavery!—and we rejoice that we have it in our power to say that the reputation of the New-England States (as well as that of New-York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania) is no longer tarnished with this foul stain—her humane and Philanthropic sons have wisely burst asunder the chains of bondage and set the captive free! and are now willing to unite with the poet in the exclamation
“I would not have a Slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews, brought and sold have ever earn’d.
No—dear as freedom is, and in my heart’s
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself a slave,
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.”