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“Nat’s War”: The Southampton Slave Rebellion of 1831

Discovery of Nat Turner: wood engraving illustrating Benjamin Phipps's capture of Nat Turner. p. 154 of 1894's On 23 August 1831, Governor John Floyd received a hastily written note from the Southampton County postmaster stating “that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.” Fifty-seven whites died, many of them women and children, before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers could converge on the region and crush the rebellion. Angry white vigilantes killed hundreds of slaves and drove free persons of color into exile in the terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon identified the participants as enslaved people from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 insurgents gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders: a free man of color named Billy Artis, a celebrated slave known as “Gen. Nelson,” and a slave preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner; it was his “imagined spirit of prophecy” and his extraordinary powers of persuasion that had, according to local authorities, unleashed the fury. Turner’s ability to elude capture for more than two months only enhanced his mythic stature.

While Nat Turner remained at large, rumors of a wider slave conspiracy flourished. An abolitionist writer named Samuel Warner suggested that Turner had hidden himself in the Dismal Swamp with an army of runaways at his disposal. State officials took pains to ensure that Turner lived to stand trial by offering a $500 reward for his capture and safe return to the Southampton County jail. On 30 October 1831, Turner surrendered to a local farmer who found him hiding in a cave. Local planter and lawyer Thomas R. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his “Confessions,” and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was tried, convicted, and executed. In tracing the “history of the motives” that led him to undertake the insurrection, Turner insisted that God had given him a sign to act, that he had shared his plans with only a few trusted followers, and that he knew nothing of any wider conspiracy extending beyond the Southampton County area.

Nat Turner’s revolt prompted a prolonged debate in the Virginia General Assembly of 1831-1832. As a result of Turner’s actions, Virginia’s legislators enacted more laws to limit the activities of African Americans, both free and enslaved. The freedom of slaves to communicate and congregate was directly attacked. No one could assemble a group of African Americans to teach reading or writing, nor could anyone be paid to teach a slave. Preaching by slaves and free blacks was forbidden. Other southern states enacted similarly restrictive laws.

The rebellion in Southampton County is often regarded as a turning point, and Nat Turner as one of the most controversial figures in American history. Abolitionist Northerners saw the rebellion as a sign of the inherent instability of the slave system and confirmation of the brutal violence it wreaked. Many Southerners reacted with fear, enacting stricter laws for both enslaved and free African Americans. By polarizing pro- and anti-slavery views, Nat Turner’s Rebellion propelled us towards the Civil War. As for Turner himself, the American public continues to grapple with his legacy as a freedom fighter, as a murderer, as a hero, as a leader of a religiously-inspired violent rebellion. The conflicting interpretations of Nat Turner’s legacy are scrutinized by successive generations of Americans and may never be fully resolved, but by examining primary sources we may better understand the time and place which moved him to action.

The Library of Virginia offers a newly assembled and scanned collection of documents related to the Nat Tuner Rebellion, including the court records which document trials in the Southampton County Court of Nat Turner and 54 others accused of taking part in the revolt. The records include subpoenas, warrants, and death sentences. The warrants contain the names of the defendants (first name only), the names of the slaveholders who owned the defendants, the full names of three defendants who were free, and the charges brought. Also included are Legislative Petitions and the Auditor of Public Accounts Records, in which slaveholders whose slaves were either executed or transported out of the state for involvement in the rebellion sought to be financially compensated for the loss of property,. Using our crowdsourcing website Making History: Transcribe, the public can view the original documents and type up the transcribed contents in side-by-side windows. This will help us provide full-text searchable versions of these important documents in Virginian and American history.

For more information on this and other anti-slavery uprisings in Virginia, see the Death or Liberty exhibition.

–Sonya Coleman, Digital Collections Specialist

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  1. Jasmyn C. Barringer said:
    2 November 2017 at 6:27 pm

    Dear Sonya Coleman, Digital Collections Specialist

    I am currently a Master’s student at Boston University. I am working on Turner’s Rebellion for a seminar paper that will eventually become a presentation for a conference. Is it at all possible that I could access the court proceedings of Turner’s trial?
    Thank you.

    • Vince said:
      3 November 2017 at 10:10 am

      Ms. Barringer,

      You can find transcribed copies of cases related to the Nat Turner uprising, including the commonwealth cause against Nat Turner, under the African American Narrative heading on our digital collections webpage. http://digitool1.lva.lib.va.us:8881/R/QINQ68G1FC5TBR6UQUTQYJEHANX8VM781Y2HB8HL88MADINB6A-00006?func=search

      For additional archival sources on Turner and the uprising, please see our electronic finding aids at Virginia Heritage. http://search.vaheritage.org/vivaxtf/search?smode=simple. You can search “Nat Turner” and select Library of Virginia as the repository. You should get 15 results ranging from governors’ papers to local court records.

      If you need any additional assistance with archival reference, you can call or email the Archives Reference staff at 804-692-3888 or archdesk@lva.virginia.gov.

      Best of luck with your seminar paper and presentation.

      Vince Brooks

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  1. […] of the Box: “Nat’s War”: The Southampton Slave Rebellion of 1831. The Library of Virginia has posted original documents from the trial of Nat Turner and is inviting […]