Nat Turner's Rebellion

Nancy Cheng

The Rebellion

Nat Turner was a slave in born in Southampton County, Virginia. He was instructed in reading, writing, and religion in his childhood, and he grew to be a very spiritual man, believing that he had a divine purpose in life. In his twenties, he became a spiritual leader among his fellow slaves. He began having visions and seeing signs - including a solar eclipse and an instance where the sun appeared blue-green - and became convinced that he was chosen by God to battle the forces of evil. He then gathered a few of his fellow slaves and planned a rebellion against their slaveholders.

On August 22, 1831, Turner and his men, armed with hatchets, knives, and guns, attacked eleven plantations in Southampton county. In forty eight hours, they killed a total of fifty five white men, women, and children and inspired fifty or so more slaves to join them. The rebels intended to continue to the town of Jerusalem but were met by a heavily armed white militia. Outnumbered, the rebels scattered into the surrounding woods and swamps.

The Aftermath

Most of the rebels were eventually captured and hanged by whites. Nat Turner himself evaded capture for two months, but he was finally found two months later and was executed.

Before his execution, however, Virginia lawyer Thomas R. Gray visited and interviewed Turner in prison. From this interview, Gray wrote and published the Confessions of Nat Turner, a book that became a bestseller almost immediately and portrayed the institution of slavery from the point of view of a slave.

The rebellion ignited a wave of fear in Virginia that spread to the other Southern states, and the white retaliation was even more extreme than the rebellion itself. Fueled by fear of another slave conspiracy, white mobs attacked and murdered about two hundred other blacks, who had no association with Nat Turner's rebellion. Furthermore, following the rebellion, laws were passed by Southern states that increasingly restricted the rights of blacks, both enslaved and free. The state legislature of Virginia held a debate discussing emancipation of its slaves, but ultimately, it voted to reinforce the institution of slavery by passing laws further restricting blacks.

A Primary Source

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The primary source portrays the rebellion from a white perspective. In the top picture, the artist portrays the white civilians as helpless from their facial expressions, while the blacks are shown as ruthlessly murderers. In the second picture, he presents the whites as a strong military force pursuing justice by capturing blacks. Because the artist was inspired by the fear that pervaded the American south following the rebellion and because his art was mainly seen by fellow whites, he might have been more inclined to promote the white cause for seeking "justice" by portraying the slaves more ruthlessly.