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175 years ago: Nat Turner puts the South on notice

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"Nothing struck deeper fear into the hearts of southerners, whether they held slaves or not, than the idea of a slave revolt."
-Historian Kenneth C. Davis

Two earlier slave revolts-by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey-had blazed the path and shattered the myth of African slaves as docile co-conspirators in their plight...but it was Nat Turner who brought reality into the homes of Southerners. Born in Southampton County, Virginia, the deeply religious Turner was prone to visions and dubbed "The Prophet" by his fellow slaves.

As a young man, Turner was sold to Thomas Moore. Upon Moore's death, Turner moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Moore's widow. In each setting, he was remembered for his praying, fasting, and visions.

A solar eclipse in February 1831 was interpreted by Turner to be the sign for him to take action. He and a few trusted friends commenced planning an insurrection. Originally slated for July 4 but postponed due to Turner being ill, the plan resurfaced on August 13, when an atmospheric disturbance made the sun appear bluish-green. Again construing this as a sign, Turner and his fellow slaves decided to act. On August 21-175 years ago this week-they killed the entire Travis family as they slept. Thus began a house-to-house murdering spree that swelled Turner's "army" to more than 40 slaves. By the morning of August 22, word of the rebellion had gotten out...prompting a calling up of the militia and a wave of fright through the region. Turner and his men continued marching and killing but were badly outnumbered by the white militia. Many slaves were arrested or killed, but Turner eluded capture for two months.

"The whites around Southampton...were thrown into an utter panic, many of them fleeing the state," says Davis.

By the time Turner was finally caught on October 30, 55 whites had been stabbed, shot, and clubbed to death. Turner's actions, while doomed to end with his death at the hands of the state, had impacted the South and its "peculiar institution" in a permanent manner.

As Davis explains, "To whites and slaves alike, he had acquired some mystical qualities that made him larger than life, and even after his hanging, slave owners feared his influence."

Turner and 54 others were executed but the violent rebellion brought Virginia to the verge of abolishing slavery. Predictably, the state chose instead to clamp down harder on slaves but this served only to heighten awareness of how untenable the situation had become. In the immediate future lurked John Brown, the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, The Liberator, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation.

The South had indeed been put on notice.

Mickey Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at
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