Author: Patrick H. Breen

associate professor of history at Providence College and the author of The Land Shall Be Deluged with Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (2015)

Nat Turner’s Revolt (1831)

On the evening of August 21–22, 1831, an enslaved preacher and self-styled prophet named Nat Turner launched the most deadly slave revolt in the history of the United States. Over the course of a day in Southampton County, Turner and his allies killed fifty-five white men, women, and children as the rebels made their way toward Jerusalem (now Courtland). Less than twenty-four hours after the revolt began, the rebels encountered organized resistance and were defeated in an encounter at James Parker’s farm. Following this setback, Turner and other rebels scrambled to reassemble their forces. The next day, a series of defeats led to the effective end of the revolt. White people quickly and brutally reasserted their control over Southampton County, killing roughly three dozen Black people without trials. Within a few days of the revolt, white leaders in Southampton became increasingly confident that the revolt had been suppressed and worked to limit the extralegal killing of Black people. Instead, white leaders made sure that the remaining suspected rebels were tried, which also meant that the white enslavers would receive compensation from the state for condemned enslaved people. Trials began on August 31, 1831, and the majority were completed within a month. Ultimately, thirty slaves and one free Black man were condemned to death. Of these, nineteen were executed and twelve had their sentences commuted by Governor John Floyd. Turner himself eluded capture throughout September and into October, when two enslaved men spotted him close to where the revolt began. Once detected, Turner was forced to move and was unable to elude the renewed manhunt. He was captured on October 30. While in jail awaiting trial, Turner spoke freely about the revolt. Local lawyer Thomas R. Gray approached Turner with a plan to take down his confessions. The Confessions of Nat Turner was published within weeks of the Turner’s execution on November 11, 1831, and remains an important source for historians. The revolt had important ramifications outside of Southampton, as southern communities feared additional revolts. In Richmond, Thomas Jefferson Randolph—the grandson of Thomas Jefferson—tried but failed to convince the General Assembly to enact a plan that would have put the state on the path to gradual emancipation. Abolitionists remembered the revolt as an important example of both enslaved people’s hatred for the system of slavery and their bravery. The cultural legacy of the revolt is still vibrant; the revolt remains the clearest example of overt resistance in the United States to the system of slavery.