Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nat Turner

I went through dozens upon dozens of books and documents in researching my book, Forever Cry.
On occasion, I ran across a story I thought might give one food for thought. Warning: very violent.

Nat Turner

     Nat was a precocious child. He so impressed those around him by his knowledge of things that happened before he was born, that many predicted he would be a prophet. Nat was taught to read by his parents. He was greatly influenced by his grandmother, who was very religious. He was taught that he was very unique, and that he had a great destiny. “My father and mother strengthened me……..saying, in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose.” Restless, inquisitive, and observant, Nat learned to read quickly, and was admitted to religious services in his master’s household. As a child, his ability to read impressed the slaves around him, so that if they planned any roguery, it was left for young Nat to plan it out. He was their leader, greatly looked up to.

     Nat strengthened his leadership over the slaves, as he grew into manhood, “by the austerity of my life and manners, which became the subject of remark by white and black-----Having soon discovered to be great, I must appear so, and therefore studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped myself in mystery, devoting my time to fasting and prayer.” Nat became convinced, through these activities, “That I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” Several things confirmed this. Upon reaching manhood, he recalled vividly that both Whites and Blacks during childhood had often said, “that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any use to anybody as a slave.” Apparently Nat’s discontent with slavery was inspired by his father, who had managed to escape.

     When Nat was placed under a new overseer, he too ran away, and remained in the woods for thirty days. The slaves around him were dismayed at his voluntary return, saying that  “if I had his sense I would not serve any master in the world.” Shortly afterward, Nat had a vision where he saw “white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened----thunder rolled across 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.’” Meditating on this and other revelations, seeking religious perfection,  Nat had decided in 1828 that he was destined to wreak the vengeance of the Lord on the planters. Choosing four trusted lieutenants, Nat communicated his desire for rebellion to them. It was finally decided to strike on July 4, 1831. But Nat had an anxiety attack, and the date was postponed.

     On August 20th, along with two new conspirators, Will and Jack, they barbecued a pig and drank a bottle of brandy. Nat queried Will, who told him, “my life is worth no more than others, and my liberty as dear to me.” “Will you attain that liberty?” “I will, or lose my life.”

     Now confident of his men, Nat decided to strike first at the home of his master, Joseph Travis, who “was to me a kind master, and placed the utmost confidence in me. In fact, I have no cause to complain of his treatment of me.”

     Nat entered the house of his sleeping master, then opened the door for the other rebels. Armed with a dull light sword, Nat failed in his first attempt to kill his master, who was then dispatched by Will. Hoping to gather a huge black army from the surrounding plantations before the alarm could be raised, it was decided by the conspirators that until they had taken sufficient arms from the whites, “neither age nor sex was to be spared.” This was adhered to.

     Moving silently through the night, Nat led his army, leaving a trail of ransacked plantations, decapitated bodies, and battered heads across Southampton. At the Whitehead plantation, Nat caught Margaret Whitehead, and “after repeated blows with a sword, I killed her with a blow on the head with a fence rail.” By mid-morning the little band had grown to forty men, some of them mounted.  Determined to “carry terror and devastation” throughout the county, Nat led his army against plantations and prevented the escape of the whites.  Many white families had now been massacred and the rebels had increased to sixty men. Nat turned his army toward the little town of Jerusalem. By this time, however, the alarm had been spread, and the rebels were confronted by eighteen armed white men.

     Nat and his men immediately charged the small band of white men and chased them over a hill, where they were joined by a very large number of whites. Nat’s men panicked and ran. But Nat did not give up the struggle. Determined to raise additional forces, he was prevented  in doing this by the militia. Nat was sure his men would make it back to their old neighborhood, and raise more men. This did not happen. After hiding for two weeks, he was captured by a white man. Nat was lodged in jail. More than forty blacks were killed in the aftermath. Feeling no remorse for the fifty five whites killed, Nat calmly contemplated his execution. A white lawyer gave the best characterization of Nat when he wrote:

    "He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably.
……….The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend like face…..when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stain of blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed in rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to Heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him, and my blood curdled in my veins."

      Nat was executed.

     The black rebels “curdled” the blood of many Southern whites. Nat became the “bogey man” for young whites, “worrysome property” for many a master, and a hero in the quarters. Many a white master now slept behind tightly locked doors, gun under the pillow. Does his slave quarters hold another Nat Turner?                          

Much Material for this post came from – Plantation Life in the Antebellum South-- by John W. Blassingame      New york  Oxford  University Press   1972

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