Richmond (Virginia) Constitutional Whig,
September 3, 1831
This report from Southampton County was written by the founder and editor of the Richmond Whig, John Hampden Pleasants. Pleasants went on to die in 1846 in a duel with rival newspaper editor Thomas Ritchie of the Richmond Enquirer.
We have been astonished since our return from Southampton (whither we went with Capt. Harrison’s Troop of Horse) in reading over the mass of exchange papers accumulated in our absence, to see the number of false, absurd, and idle rumors, circulated by the Press, touching the insurrection in that country. Editors seem to have applied themselves to the task of alarming the public mind as much as possible by persuading the slaves to entertain a high opinion of their strength and consequences. While truth is always the best policy, and best remedy, the exaggerations to which we have alluded are calculated to give the slaves false conceptions of their numbers and capacity, by exhibiting the terror and confusion of the whites, and to induce them to think that practicable, which they see is so much feared by their superiors.
We have little to say of the Southampton Tragedy beyond what is already known. The origin of the conspiracy, the prime agents, its extent and ultimate direction, is matter of conjecture.—The universal opinion in that part of the country is that Nat, a slave, a preacher, and a pretended prophet was the first [illegible], the actual leader, and the most remorseless of the executioners. According to the evidence of a negro boy whom they carried along to hold their horses, Nat commenced the scene of murder at the first house (Travis’) with his own hand. Having called upon two others to make good their valiant boasting, so often repeated, of what they would do, and these shrinking from the requisition, Nat proceeded to dispatch one of the family with his own hand. Animated by the example and exhortations of their leader, having a taste of blood and convinced that they had now gone too far to recede, his followers dismissed their doubts and became as ferocious as their leader wished them. To follow the [illegible] capture of Travis’ house early that day, to their dispersion at Parker’s cornfield early in the afternoon, when they had traversed near 20 miles, murdered 63 whites, and approached within 3 or 4 miles of the Village of Jerusalem; the immediate object of their movement—to describe the scenes at each house, the circumstances of the murders, the hair breadth escapes of the few who were lucky enough to escape—would prove as interesting as heart rendering. Many of the details have reached us but not in so authentic a shape as to justify their publication, nor have we the time or space. Let a few suffice. Of the event at Dr. Blount’s we had a narrative from the gallant old gentleman himself, and his son, a lad about 15, distinguished from his gallantry and modesty, and whom we take leave to recommend to Gen. Jackson, for warrant in the Navy or West Point. The Doctor had received information of the insurrection, and that his house would be attacked a short time before the attack was made. Crippled with the gout, and indisposed to leave, he decided to defend his home. His force was his son, overseer and three other white men. Luckily there were six guns, and plenty of powder and shot in the house. These were barely loaded, his force posted, and the insurrections given, when the negroes from 15 to 30 strong, rode up about day break. The Doctor’s orders were that each man should be particular in his aim and should fire one at a time; he himself reserved one gun, resolved if the house was forced to sell his life as dearly as he could. The remaining five fired in succession upon the assailants, at the distance of fifteen or twenty steps. The blacks, upon the fifth fire, retreated, leaving one killed (we believe) and one wounded (a fellow named Hark,) and were pursued by the Doctor’s negroes with shouts and execrations. Had the shot been larger, more execution doubtless would have been done.
Mrs. Vaughan’s was among the last houses attacked. A venerable negro woman described the scene which she had witnessed with great emphasis: it was near noon and her mistress was making some preparation in the porch for dinner, when happening to look towards the road she discerned a dust and wondered what it could mean. In a second, the negroes mounted and armed, rushed into view, and making an exclamation indicative of her horror and agony, Mrs. Vaughan ran into the house.—The negroes dismounted and ran around the house, pointing their guns at the doors and windows. Mrs. Vaughan appeared at a window, and begged for her life, inviting them to take everything she had. The prayer was answered by one of them firing at her, which was followed by another, and a fatal, shot. In the meantime, Miss Vaughan, who was upstairs, and unappraised of the terrible advent until she heard the noise of the attack, rushed down, and begging for her life, was shot as she ran a few steps from the door. A son of Mrs. Vaughan, about 15, was at the still house, when hearing a gun and conjecturing, it is supposed, that his brother had come from Jerusalem, approached the house and was shot as he got over the fence. It is difficult for the imagination to conceive a situation so truly and horribly awful, as that in which these unfortunate ladies were placed. Alone, unprotected, and unconscious of danger, to find themselves without a moment’s notice for escape or defence, in the power of a band of ruffians, from whom instant death was the least they could expect! In a most lively and picturesque manner, did the old negress describe the horrors of the scene; the blacks riding up with imprecations, the looks of her mistress, white as a sheet, her prayers for life, and the actions of the scoundrels environing the house and pointing their guns at the doors and windows, ready to fire as occasion offered. When the work was done they called for drink, and food, and becoming nice, damned the brandy as vile stuff.
The scene at Vaughan’s may suffice to give an idea of what was done at the other houses. A bloodier and more accursed tragedy was never acted, even by the agency of the tomahawk and scalping knife. Interesting details will no doubt be evolved in the progress of the trials and made known to the public. . . .
The numbers engaged in the insurrection are variously reported. They probably did not exceed 40 or 50, and were fluctuating from desertions and new recruits. About fifty are in Southampton jail, some of them on suspicion only.—We trust and believe that the intelligent magistracy of the county, will have the firmness to oppose the popular passions, should it be disposed to involve the innocent with the guilty, and to take suspicion for proof.
The presence of the troops from Norfolk and Richmond alone prevented retaliation from being carried much farther.
At the date of Capt. Harrison’s departure from Jerusalem, Gen. Nat had not been taken. On that morning, however, Dred, another insurgent chief, was brought prisoner to Jerusalem, having surrendered himself to his master, in the apprehension no doubt, of starving in the swamps or being shot by the numerous parties of local militia, who were in pursuit. Nat had not certainly been heard from since the skirmish in Parker’s cornfield, which was in fact, the termination of the insurrection; the negroes after that dispersing themselves, and making no further attempt. He is represented as a shrewd fellow, reads, writes, and preaches; and by various artificies had acquired great influence over the minds of the wretched beings whom he has led into destruction. It is supposed that he induced them to believe that there were only 80,000 whites in the country, who, being exterminated, the blacks might take possession. Various of his tricks to acquire and preserve influence had been mentioned, but they are not worth repeating. If there was any ulterior purpose, he probably alone knows it. For our own part, we still believe there was none; and if he be the intelligent man represented, we are incapable of conceiving the arguments by which he persuaded his own mind of the feasibility of his attempt, or how it could possibly end but in certain destruction. We therefore incline to the belief that he acted upon no higher principle that the impulse of revenge against the whites, as the enslavers of himself and his race; that, being a fanatic, he possibly persuaded himself that Heaven would interfere; and that he may have convinced himself, as he certainly did his deluded followers to some extent, that the appearance of the sun some weeks ago, prognosticated something favorable to their cause. We are inclined to think that the solar phenomenon exercised considerable influence in promoting the insurrection; calculated as it was to impress the imaginations of the ignorant.
A more important inquiry remains—whether the conspiracy was circumscribed to the neighborhood in which it broke out, or had its ramifications through other counties. We, at first, adopted the first opinion; but there are several circumstances which favor the latter. We understand that the confessions of all the prisoners go to show that the insurrection broke out too soon, as it is supposed, in consequence of the last day of July being a Sunday, and not, as the negroes in Southampton be- [p. 71] lieved, the Saturday before. The report is that the rising was fixed for the fourth Sunday in August, and that they supposing Sunday, the 31st of July to be the first Sunday in August, they were betrayed into considering the 3d Sunday as the 4th. This is the popular impression founded upon confessions, upon the indications of an intention of the negroes in Nansemond and other places to unite, and upon the allegation that Gen. Nat extended his preaching excursions to Petersburg and this city; allegations which we, however, disbelieve. It is more than probable, nevertheless, that the mischief was concerted and concocted under the cloak of religion. The trials which are now proceeding in Southampton, Sussex, and elsewhere, will develop all the truth. We suspect the truth will turn out to be that the conspiracy was confined to Southampton, and that the idea of its extensiveness originated in the panic which seized upon the South East of Virginia.
Such we believe to be a summary outline of the Southampton insurrection!—that insurrection reads some salutary lessons; to the whites the propriety of incessant vigilance; to the blacks, the madness of all attempts such as that in Southampton. A few lives they may indeed sacrifice, but possession of the country, even for a week, is the most chimerical of notions. We assert confidently that 20 armed whites would put to the route the whole negro population of Southampton, and we repeat our persuasion, that another insurrection will be followed by putting the whole race to the sword.
To Gov. Floyd, South East Virginia owes a large debt of gratitude, for the prompt and silent energy with which he threw arms and men into all the supposed affected districts; and to Brig. Gen. Eppes, we tender the respects of those lately under his command, for the vigilance and fortitude with which he surmounted difficulties, arising not from the strength of the enemy, but the novelty of his situation, and the alarms and agitation of the inhabitants. To the Ladies of Southampton we want words to express the warmth of gratitude inspirited in the breasts of the Richmond Troop, by their unremitting kindness and attention.—All that the troops regrets is, that some occasion had not offered, in which they could have manifested, by deeds, their zeal for public safety, and their devotion to their hospitable and amiable countrymen of Southampton.
We regret to be under the necessity of advertising to any disagreeable circumstance connected with the expedition of the Richmond Troop of Cavalry, to Southampton, but the conduct of one individual, deserves and shall receive at our hands, the exposure and the chastisement, which, in the opinion of all who [p. 72] have heard it, it most richly deserves.—On Thursday morning the 25th, we arrived at Jerusalem and took up our quarters at the tavern on Mr. Henry B. Vaughan. This individual was the brother in law of Mrs. Vaughan, whose melancholy fate and that of her family are noted above. He had no family and is wealthy. Under these circumstances good feeling would have suggested the propriety of his charging no more than would indemnify him, a base and sordid love of pelf could alone have prompted the idea of speculating upon men in our situation. We tended our own horses, with little aid from his servants; did not sleep in his house; were furnished with the commonest and stinking fare; many neither ate nor drank at his table but were entertained by the hospitality of the inhabitants; detachments were absent on several occasions: and the troop left on Wednesday, making the times less than five days. It will excite astonishment to learn that for this time, with this accommodation, and under all the circumstances of the case, the Landlord produced a bill exceeding $800! To state the fact is to inflict on him, the severest punishment—the indignation of the public.
Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), 66-72.