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Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 - November 11, 1831) was a United States slave whose 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia was crushed. The rebellion, though defeated, was the most remarkable instance of black resistance to enslavement in the antebellum South and has become a reference of justification for the American Civil War.
Turner was born in Southampton County, Virginia. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting and praying. He frequently received visions which he interpreted as being messages from God. These greatly influenced his life. For example, when Turner was 21 years old he ran away from his master, but returned a month later after receiving a vision. He became known among fellow slaves as "The Prophet."
In February 1831, there was a solar eclipse. Turner took this to mean that he should begin preparing for a rebellion. The rebellion was initially planned for July 4, Independence Day, but had to be postponed when Turner fell ill.
On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. This was the final sign, and a week later, August 21, the rebellion began. Starting with a trusted few fellow slaves, the insurgency ultimately numbered more than 40 slaves and free blacks, mostly on horseback. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the whites they could find; men, women and children alike. In all 55 whites were killed in the revolt.
The rebellion was suppressed within 48 hours, but Turner eluded capture for months. On October 30 he was discovered and arrested. On November 5, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged and skinned on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His corpse was mutilated and various body parts were kept by whites as souvenirs.
In total, 55 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising were killed. In the aftermath, hundreds of blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured and murdered by hysterical white mobs.
The state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery, but in a close vote decided to retain slavery and instead support a repressive policy against slaves and free blacks. The freedoms of all black people in Virginia were tightly curtailed, and an official policy was instated that forbade questioning the slave system, on the grounds that any discussion might encourage similar slave revolts.
In the end, no slave uprising before or after inflicted such a severe blow to the ranks of slave owners. Nat Turner is regarded as a hero by large numbers of African Americans and pan-Africanists worldwide.
Nat Turner finally became the focus of historical scholarship in the 1940s, when historian Herbert Aptheker was publishing the first serious scholarly work on instances of slave resistance in the antebellum South. Aptheker stressed how the rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. He traversed libraries and archives throughout the South, managing to uncover roughly 250 similar instances, though none of which reached the scale of the Nat Turner uprising.
- Aptheker. Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion: The Environment, The Event, The Effects. New York: Humanities Press, 1966.
- Greenberg. Nat Turner: a slave rebellion in history and memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Tragle. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.
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