Richmond (Virginia) Whig,
September 26, 1831
The Whig did not identify the author of the dispatch from Jerusalem that the newspaper printed on September 26. Historians once thought the writer may have been Thomas R. Gray, the attorney who later published The Confessions of Nat Turner. More recently, scholars have discredited this idea. All that can be said with any certainty is that the author was someone engaged in court business during the time the dispatch was written. It therefore could have been a magistrate, an attorney, a sheriff, or someone else who served in an official capacity during the trials in Southampton.
We publish to-day, a detailed account of the late insurrection in Southampton, kindly furnished us by a gentleman well conversant with the scenes he describes, and fully competent from the sources of information he possesses, to arrive at a correct conclusion, as to the causes which prompted the ringleader, and the end he had in view. The writer’s speculations are therefore, deserving serious considerations, and we are very much inclined to concur with him in the opinion that it was a sudden and unprepared outbreak of fanaticism and subtle craft, wholly unconnected with any concert in neighbouring countries. We expressed our belief of the contrary, when we heard the other day of the reported atrocious murders in North Carolina, but upon more mature reflection, we are now convinced, that we founded our opinions then, too hastily, upon the exaggerated account before us, and which we did not suppose could receive so general a belief, and so apparently an authentic shape, without a foundation in truth.
We owe the writer an apology, for the liberty we have taken, in abridging his remarks. Necessity compelled us to do so, or want of room, would have entirely excluded him. We have, however, taken care to omit no facts, related to him, and of these, the reader will find many new, and throwing much light on the shocking occurrence.
Jerusalem, Sept. 17, 1831
Messrs Editors: Being firmly convinced, that the public would be gratified by a detailed account, of the late unfortunate occurrence in our county; and likewise conscious, that justice to the innocent requires that the causes, the extent, and number of persons involved in the late insurrection, should be correctly understood, I have resolved to enter upon the task.—Professional duties prevent me, from bestowing as much attention to the drawing up of this narrative as I would wish.—And I [p. 91] must therefore, submit it to the public crude and undigested; sketched amid scenes, but ill calculated, to support me in my opinions.—Another inducement, exclusive of any sanctioned by humanity, is that there are so many rumors afloat, and so many misstatements in the public prints, that a sacred duty to my country, demands a correct view of this tragedy.
It is only since the affair appears to be settled, that I have thought seriously upon the subject.—In almost every section of our county, conversation instead of being as it was a month since, light and cheerful, is now cloathed in dismal forebodings.—Some of our citizens will leave us—and all agree, that they never again can feel safe, never again be happy. But let us examine into their apprehensions and see if we can administer no comfort.
I have heard many express their fears of a general insurrection, they are ignorant who believe in the possibility of such a thing.—What the relative proportion of black to white is, in the slaveholding states I know not—having no means of obtaining correct information at this time; but suppose the preponderance to be in favour of the blacks to any extent; and you cannot create causes for alarm. Is it possible for men, debased, degraded as they are, ever to concert effective measures? Would the slaves alone in St. Domingo ever have attempted insurrection? I humbly apprehend not. It was the march of intellect among free blacks, that first gave impulse to the ride, which poured its torrents throughout the Island.—Can any person entertain serious apprehensions from this portion of our population; situated as they are—without arms, without concert, what can be effected? Why nothing—and a serious attempt, will never be made while they are thus situated.
But if any desire there was to increase this spirit among our slaves, I would advise our citizens to permit coloured preachers to go on, as they have for several years past haranguing vast crowds, when and where they pleased, the character of their sermons known only to their congregations.—Nor do I think some of our white brethren, exempt from censure, when they fill their discourses with a ranting cant about equality.—If our insurrection was known, beyond the neighborhood of its commencement—its cause must be attributed to the misguided zeal of good men, preaching up equality; and to ignorant blacks, who again retail the same doctrine, with such comments, as their heated imaginations may supply, to their respective circles of acquaintance. For my own part, I think when a minister [p. 92] goes into a pulpit, flies into a passion, beats his fist, and in fine plays the blockhead, that he gives a warrant to any negro who hears him, to do whatever he pleases provided his imagination, can make God sanction it.—If the insurrection was general, it is fortunate, that it happened at this time.—For if it had been delayed longer the minds of the blacks would have been better prepared, the plot more extensive and consequently the carnage much greater. But believing it highly improbable, that a serious attempt will ever be made while they remain in their present state of ignorance; satisfied that no general concert can ever be effected, unless by the means of education; and conscious from the advantage of the white over the blacks in moral firmness, that an attempt under any circumstances, would be futile and frivolous I feel perfectly easy.
But I would caution all missionaries, who are bettering the condition of the world, and all philanthropists, who have out interest so much at stake, not to plague themselves about our slaves but leave them exclusively to our own management. The only possible crisis, in which our slaves can ever become formidable, is in the event of civil wars.
Our insurrection. [sic] general, or not, was the work of fanaticism—General Nat was no preacher, but in his immediate neighbourhood, he was acquired the character of a prophet; like a Roman Sybil, he traced his divination in characters of blood, on leaves alone in the woods; he would arrange them in some conspicuous place, have a dream telling them to him, to whom he would interpret their meaning. Thus, by means of this nature, he acquired an immense influence, over such persons as he took into his confidence.—He, likewise, pretended to have conversations with the Holy Spirit; and was assured by it, that he was invulnerable. His escape, as he labored under that opinion, is much to be regretted. Tis true, that Nat has for some time, thought closely on this subject—for I have in my possession, some papers given up by his wife, under the lash—they are filled with hieroglyphical characters, conveying no definite meaning. The characters on the oldest paper appear to have been traced with blood; and on each paper, a crucifix and the sun, is distinctly visible; with the figures 6,000, 30,000, 80,000, etc.—There is likewise a piece of paper, of a late date, which all agree, is a list of his men; if so, they were short of twenty. I have been credibly informed that something like three years ago, Nat received a whipping from his master, for saying that the blacks ought to be free, and that they would be free one day or other. Nat in [p. 93] person, is not remarkable, his nose is flat, his stature rather small, and hair very thin, without any peculiarity of expression. As proof of his shrewdness, he had acquired a great influence over his neighbourhood acquaintance, without being noticed by whites—pretends to be acquainted with the art of making gunpowder, and likewise that of making paper. My own impression is, he has left the State—many believe him to be yet lurking in his neighbourhood. There are various rumors of his having been from home, many days at a time, preaching in Richmond, Petersburg, and Brunswick. They are however, entirely without foundation. The truth is, I have never heard of his preaching any where. He exhorted, and sung at neighbourhood meetings, but no farther.—To an imagination like Nat’s worked upon for years, by pretended visions; with a mind satisfied of the possibility, of freeing himself and race from bondage; and this by supernatural means. To one thus situated, is it wonderful, that the singular appearance of the sun in August, should have tempted him to execute his purpose; particularly when its silvery surface was defaced by a black spot, which Nat interpreted into positive proof, that he would succeed in his undertaking. Nat encouraged his company on their route, by telling them, that as the black spot has passed over the sun, so would the blacks pass over the earth. Having assigned the cause of the insurrection, it becomes necessary to examine its extent. As far back, as a knowledge of this affair, can be attributed to even six or seven upon credible testimony, is Sunday forenoon, 21st August, and this credible testimony consists in the declaration of several negroes, supported by collateral circumstances. On Sunday forenoon, the day preceding the fatal Monday, Nat, Austin, Will, Hark, Sam, Henry, and Jack, met in an old field near Mr. Joseph Travis’s, where they had melons, and something to eat. Nat was observed to take them out, one at a time, and hold long conversations with them.
Having developed his plans to each man some brandy was introduced and the affair talked of together. Even then one of the party, objected to the proposition, and denied the possibility of effecting it. Nat assured them of its practicability—saying, that their numbers would increase as they went along and stated, that his reasons for not telling of it before, was that the negroes had frequently attempted similar things, confided their purpose to several, and that it always leaked out; but his resolve was, that their march of destruction, should be the first news of insurrection.
In support of this momentary procedure, I would alledge the fact, that the affair was commenced without a single firelock, and without the least particle of ammunition. Killing the first [p. 94] family with their axes, they then obtained several guns and some shot. If the design had been thought of for the least length of time, they certainly would have made some preparation. As another proof that it was not general they did not make one dozen efficient recruits, along their whole route of slaughter—they certainly made many more, but instead of being of any service, most of them had to be guarded, by some two or three of the principals, furnished with guns; with orders to shoot the first man, who endeavored to escape. Many persons have expressed their surprise, how so few could guard so many. To me it appears, that the orders to shoot down whoever attempted to escape, explains the riddle. No one would rashly make the effort, and their situations, prevented any concert for that purpose—so that some no doubt, were forced to remain in company, much longer than they wished, for want of an opportunity to escape—many who were forced away unwillingly, excited by the free use of spirits, became reconciled. But under all circumstances, something like ten; I think not more, could appropriate to themselves exclusively, the performances of every butchery. In support of my opinion, I have examined every source for authentic information. Every individual who was taken alive, has been repeatedly questioned; many of them, when their stay in this world, was exceedingly brief—and the answers of all, confirm me in my belief. It is really amusing, to trace to their sources, many of the rumours, which circulate through our country; and which have fixed public opinion. Leaving out of view, the exaggerated arms being found at Brandon—many more at this, that, and the other place—positive evidence of a previous knowledge of insurrection, in all the adjoining counties—Nat preaching in Petersburg, Brunswick, and Richmond—not one word of which, am I able to believe, though I have sought to have it corroborated, from every respectable source. We hear likewise, of a great black preaching near Norfolk, consisting of 500 souls; and the minister, at the close of his discourse, pursuing the plan of Mr. Campbell, calls out to all who are of his way of thinking, to hold up their right hands—all held up their hands but two. Now, all persons who can believe that an insurrection is managed in this way, have more credulity than myself—yet, one of those dissenting two, has identified a black, who was at the aforesaid preaching, and I understand the court of Nansemond, has sentenced him to be hanged. Report says, Norfolk jail is full, upon similar evidence. When the courts will do in that quarter, with the oaths of 498, when weighed with two—I know not.
On the consequences of this rebellion, petty as it is, my opinions are almost exclusively my own; and therefore, it is impolite to mention them—but of the manner of treating it, together with other subjects, closely connected, I will presently speak.
I must here pay a passing tribute to our slaves, but one which they richly deserve—it is, that there was not an instance of disaffection, in any section of our country; save on the plantations which Capt. Nat visited, and to their credit, the recruits were few, and from the chief settlement among them, not a man was obtained.—Many from the course pursued be the negroes, were heard to remark, that if they had to choose a master, it would never be a black one. Had I time, I could detail many an act of true fidelity; but I believe, though the butcheries were inhuman, there was not a single instance of wanton torture.
This view of the subject, leads me to enquire, into Capt. Nat’s design. His object was freedom and indiscriminate carnage his watchword. The seizure of Jerusalem, and the massacre of its inhabitants, was with him, a chief purpose, and seemed to be his ultimatum; for farther, he gave no clue to his design—possessed of that, he would have thought his object attained.—But a frolick captures Andre, and a frolick saved Jerusalem—Nat’s object was to commence his butcheries, as soon as the inhabitants of the county were asleep, by that means allowing himself full time, to dispatch the citizens on his route; and arrive at this place before day—but several of his party getting beastly drunk, at their dinner on Sunday, delayed until very late in the night his purpose—the seizure however of this place, would have had little other effect than supplying the band with arms, and ammunition. I must here advert to a trifling incident, to show how hellish was their purpose. With a scarcity of powder, they made many of their recruits, mix it with their brandy; thinking thereby, to excite them more highly. But before their progress was arrested, the practice of drinking had been entirely suppressed.
Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), 90-95.