The Story of Nat Turner's Rebellion

Illustration depicting violence of Nat Turner's Rebellion
Violent depiction of Nat Turner's rebellion. Getty Images

Nat Turner’s Rebellion was an intensely violent episode that broke out in August 1831 when enslaved people in southeastern Virginia rose up against white residents of the area. During a two-day rampage, more than 50 whites were killed, mostly by being stabbed or hacked to death.

The leader of the uprising of enslaved people, Nat Turner, was an unusually charismatic character. Though enslaved from birth, he had learned to read. And he was reputed to possess knowledge of scientific subjects. He was also said to experience religious visions, and would preach religion to his fellow enslaved people.

While Nat Turner was able to draw followers to his cause, and organize them to commit murder, his ultimate purpose remains elusive. It was widely assumed that Turner and his followers, numbering about 60 enslaved workers from local farms, intended to flee into a swampy area and essentially live outside society. Yet they didn't seem to make any serious effort to leave the area. 

It is possible Turner believed he could invade the local county seat, seize weapons, and make a stand. But the odds of surviving a counterattack from armed citizens, local militia, and even federal troops, would have been remote.

Many of the participants in the rebellion, including Turner, were captured and hanged. The bloody uprising against the established order failed. Yet Nat Turner’s Rebellion lived on in popular memory.

The insurrection by enslaved people in Virginia in 1831 left a long and bitter legacy. The violence unleashed was so shocking that severe measures were put in place to make it more difficult for enslaved workers to learn to read and to travel beyond their homes. And the uprising led by Turner would influence attitudes about enslavement for decades.

Anti-slavery activists, including William Lloyd Garrison and others in the abolitionist movement, saw the actions of Turner and his band as a heroic effort to break the chains of enslavement. Pro-slavery Americans, startled and deeply alarmed by the sudden outbreak of violence, began to accuse the small but vocal abolitionist movement of actively motivating enslaved people to revolt.

For years, any action taken by the abolitionist movement, such as the pamphlet campaign of 1835, would be interpreted as an attempt to inspire those in bondage to follow the example of Nat Turner.

Life of Nat Turner

Nat Turner was enslaved from birth, born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, in southeastern Virginia. As a child he exhibited unusual intelligence, quickly learning to read. He later claimed he could not recall learning to read; he just set about to do it and essentially acquired reading skills spontaneously.

Growing up, Turner became obsessed with reading the Bible, and became a self-taught preacher in a community of enslaved people. He also claimed to experience religious visions.

As a young man, Turner escaped from an overseer and fled into the woods. He remained at large for a month, but then voluntarily returned. He related the experience in his confession, which was published following his execution:

"About this time I was placed under an overseer, from whom I ran away —and after remaining in the woods thirty days, I returned, to the astonishment of the negroes on the plantation, who thought I had made my escape to some other part of the country, as my father had done before.
"But the reason of my return was, that the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of Heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master — "For he who knoweth his Master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus, have I chastened you." And the negroes found fault, and murmured against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.
"And about this time I had a vision — and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened — the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams — and I heard a voice saying, 'Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.'
I now withdrew myself as much as my situation would permit, from the intercourse of my fellow servants, for the avowed purpose of serving the Spirit more fully--and it appeared to me, and reminded me of the things it had already shown me, and that it would then reveal to me the knowledge of the elements, the revolution of the planets, the operation of tides, and changes of the seasons.
"After this revelation in the year 1825, and the knowledge of the elements being made known to me, I sought more than ever to obtain true holiness before the great day of judgment should appear, and then I began to receive the true knowledge of faith."

Turner also related that he began to receive other visions. One day, working in the fields, he saw drops of blood on ears of corn. Another day he claimed to have seen images of men, written in blood, on leaves of trees. He interpreted the signs to mean a "great day of judgment was at hand."

In early 1831 a solar eclipse was interpreted by Turner as a sign that he should act. With his experience of preaching to other enslaved workers, he was able to organize a small band to follow him. 

The Rebellion In Virginia

On a Sunday afternoon, August 21, 1831, a group of four enslaved people gathered in the woods for a barbecue. As they cooked a pig, Turner joined them, and the group apparently formulated the final plan to attack nearby white landowners that night.

In the early morning hours of August 22, 1831, the group attacked the family of the man who enslaved Turner. By stealthily entering the house, Turner and his men surprised the family in their beds, killing them by slashing them to death with knives and axes.

After leaving the family's house, Turner's accomplices realized they had left a baby sleeping in a crib. They returned to the house and killed the infant.

The brutality and efficiency of the killings would be repeated throughout the day. And as more enslaved workers joined Turner and the original band, the violence quickly escalated. In various small groups, they would arm themselves with knives and axes and ride up to a house, surprising the residents, and quickly murder them. Within about 48 hours, more than 50 white residents of Southampton County were murdered.

Word of the outrages spread quickly. At least one local farmer armed his enslaved workers, and they helped fight off a band of Turner's disciples. And at least one poor white family, who were not enslavers, were spared by Turner, who told his men to ride past their house and leave them alone.

As the groups of rebels struck farmsteads they tended to collect more weapons. Within a day the improvised army had obtained firearms and gunpowder.

It has been assumed that Turner and his followers may have intended to march on the county seat of Jerusalem, Virginia, and seize weapons stored there. But a group of armed white citizens managed to find and attack a group of Turner's followers before that could happen. A number of rebellious enslaved people were killed and wounded in that attack, and the rest scattered into the countryside.

Nat Turner managed to escape and evade detection for a month. But he was eventually chased down and surrendered. He was imprisoned, put on trial, and hanged.

Impact of Nat Turner's Rebellion

The insurrection in Virginia was reported in a Virginia newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, on August 26, 1831. The initial reports said local families had been killed, and "considerable military force might be required to subdue the disturbers."

The article in the Richmond Enquirer mentioned that militia companies were riding to Southampton County, delivering supplies of arms and ammunition. The newspaper, in the same week as the rebellion had occurred, was calling out for vengeance:

"But that these wretches will rue the day on which they broke loose upon the neighboring population is most certain. A terrible retribution will fall upon their heads. Dearly will they pay for their madness and misdeeds."

In the following weeks, newspapers along the East Coast carried news of what was generally termed an "insurrection." Even in an era before the penny press and the telegraph, when news still traveled by letter on ship or horseback, accounts from Virginia were published widely.

After Turner was captured and jailed, he provided a confession in a series of interviews. A book of his confession was published, and it remains the primary account of his life and deeds during the uprising.

As fascinating as Nat Turner's confession is, it should probably be considered with some skepticism. It was published, of course, by a white man who was not sympathetic to Turner or to the cause of the enslaved. So its presentation of Turner as perhaps delusional may have been an effort to portray his cause as utterly misguided.

Legacy of Nat Turner

The abolitionist movement often invoked Nat Turner as a heroic figure who rose up to fight against oppression. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, included a portion of Turner's confession in the appendix of one of her novels.

In 1861, the abolitionist author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, wrote an account of Nat Turner's Rebellion for the Atlantic Monthly. His account placed the story in historical context just as the Civil War was beginning. Higginson was not merely an author, but had been an associate of John Brown, to the extent that he was identified as one of the Secret Six who helped finance Brown's 1859 raid on a federal armory.

John Brown's ultimate goal when he launched his raid on Harpers Ferry was to inspire a rebellion of enslaved workers and succeed where Nat Turner's Rebellion, and an earlier rebellion planned by Denmark Vesey, had failed.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Story of Nat Turner's Rebellion." ThoughtCo, Sep. 18, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, September 18). The Story of Nat Turner's Rebellion. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Story of Nat Turner's Rebellion." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).