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How did the bloodiest slave uprising in American history—once thought to have involved hundreds of conspirators, black and white, free and enslaved—come to be known simply as "Nat Turner's Rebellion"? And why does the enigmatic figure of the rebellious slave resonate so powerfully across American history?
In this richly detailed study spanning the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights, Scot French places the contested history and enduring memory of Nat Turner’s Rebellion within the broader context of the black freedom struggle. French builds his narrative around close readings of historical texts, both famous and obscure, from early American prophecies of slave rebellion to William Styron's 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Turner. He devotes considerable attention to the interplay between quasi-official narratives, such as "The Confessions of Nat Turner" by Thomas R. Gray, and less authoritative sources, such as rumor and oral tradition. Whereas most historians accept "The Confessions" as gospel, French presents several compelling counternarratives that point to a wider conspiracy. A groundbreaking work of American history, analogous to Merrill D. Peterson’s Abraham Lincoln in American Memory and Nell Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, The Rebellious Slave will alter our views of both slavery and its complex, ever-changing legacy.
“Nat Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave to rise in arms against his oppressors,” French writes. “Yet he stands alone in American culture as the epitome of the rebellious slave, a black man whose words and deeds challenged the white slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve the most pressing needs of every generation since. In remembering Nat Turner, Americans must boldly confront—or deftly evade, at their peril—the intertwined legacies of slavery and racism in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.”
This will be a very noted day in Virginia,” Governor John Floyd wrote in his diary entry for the twenty-third day of August, 1831. “At daylight this morning the Mayor of the City put into my hands a notice to the public, written by James Trezvant of Southampton County, 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.” Eyewitness reports from the scene of “massacre and devastation” defied belief. Mutilated corpses—men, women, and children, blacks and whites, slaves and masters—littered the landscape. “Like the head of Medusa,” wrote one awestruck observer, “it can scarcely be looked on without converting the spectacle into marble.” First the white people fell. “Between eighty and a hundred of the whites have already been butchered—their heads severed from their bodies,” read one hastily written dispatch from a military encampment in neighboring Greensville County. “We saw several children whose brains were knocked out,” a mounted volunteer from Norfolk reported. “Whole families, father, mother, daughters, sons, sucking babes, and school children, butchered, thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by dogs and hogs, or to putrify on the spot,” observed a member of a Richmond cavalry troop. At one house, a military officer found the bodies of “an old lady and six others” strewn about the yard, “chopped to pieces with axes, the tree fences and house top covered with buzzards preying on the carcasses.” Horrified, he could not bring himself to visit other nearby houses, “altho’ there were several other families in sight, in the same situation.” Then the black people fell. “From the best information,” a North Carolina newspaper reported, “32 dead bodies [negroes] have been seen, besides a number are supposed to have died in the woods of their wounds.” The senior editor of the Richmond Whig, who traveled to Southampton County as a member of a cavalry troop, deplored “the slaughter of many blacks, without trial, and under circumstances of great barbarity.” He estimated the number killed in that manner—“generally by decapitation or shooting”—at forty, perhaps higher. The Lynchburg Virginian reported that “troops under the command of Gen. Broadnax, had slain upwards of 90 blacks, taken the leader in that section prisoner, shot him, cut off his head and limbs, and hung them in different sections, to inspire a salutary terror among the slaves.” The Raleigh Register reported that “two leaders were shot and their heads placed upon stakes in the public road.” White civil and military authorities, anxious to restore order, sought to minimize the extent of the rebellion and the threat of renewed attack. Geographically, they confined the trouble to a single “neighborhood” or “infected district” within Southampton County. Chronologically, they represented the uprising as a brief, spontaneous act, with little planning and no clear motive behind it. Militarily, they insisted that all but a few of the insurgents had been captured or killed. Early reports of four hundred armed insurgents gave way to revised estimates of no more than forty or fifty at best, many of them young boys coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to an even smaller cadre of ringleaders—“the celebrated Nelson, called by the blacks, ‘Gen. Nelson,’” “Will Artist, a free man of color,” and “General Nat Turner (a preacher and a slave),” chief among them.
As the other suspected ringleaders fell, the stature of Nat Turner rose. It was he, the Richmond newspapers reported, who had masterminded the whole affair.
A fanatic preacher by the name of Nat Turner (Gen. Nat Turner) who had been taught to read and write, and permitted to go about preaching in the country, was at the bottom of this infernal brigandage. He was artful, impudent and vindictive, without any cause or provocation that could be assigned. (Richmond Enquirer, August 30, 1831)
This Nat seems to be a bold fellow, of the deepest cunning, who for years has been endeavoring to acquire an influence over the minds of those deluded wretches. He reads and writes with ease, it is said, and has long been a preacher. Superstitious himself, his object has been to operate upon the superstitious hopes and fears of others; and the late singular phenomenon of the Sun, enabled him to fill their minds with the most anxious forebodings, regarding it as an omen from Heaven, that their cause would result prosperously. (Richmond Compiler, September 3, 1831)
Thus, within two weeks of the uprising, an image of the rebel leader ass a “fanatic preacher” with extraordinary powers of persuasion had already begun to take form. Turner’s ability to elude capture despite a maaaaassive manhunt only added to his mystique. “Who is this Nat Turner?” the editors of the Richmond Enquirer asked. “Where is he from?” Turner eluded capture for more than two months, finally surrendering to a poor white farmer who found him hiding in a makeshift cave. A local lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his purported “Confessions,” and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was executed. The Virginia General Assembly, responding to public outcry in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, debated plans for the gradual abolition of slavery and the removal of all free persons of color from the Commonwealth. In the end, state legislators decided by a slim majority to defer action on such sweeping reforms and instead passed measures aimed at tightening control over the slave population. Memories of “Old Nat’s War,” preserved in officially sanctioned histories and submerged oral traditions, stirred emotions and spurred debate for generations to come.
What follows is neither a traditional biography of Nat Turner nor a definitive account of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. This is a book about America’s search for transcendent meaning in its troubled past, with a focus on the larger-than-life figure of the rebellious slave. The stories told here, spanning two centuries, illuminate a multicultural discourse on race, slavery, and revolutionary violence rooted in common claims to America’s founding myths, symbols, and traditions.
Part I examines the evolving image of the rebellious slave in American thought from the period of the American Revolution through the cataclysmic events of 1831. The jeremiads of Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison anticipated the appearance of a black Spartacus and warned of a coming race war should Americans fail to eradicate slavery. Part II focuses on the official inquiry into Turner’s Rebellion and the making of a master narrative designed to tranquilize an agitated public and facilitate the restoration of order throughout the region. The declarations of key participant observers—a Richmond newspaper editor, a Southampton County slave girl, the governor of Virginia—reveal the deadly uncertainties that prevailed before the publication of Nat Turner’s so- called “Confessions” put rumors of a wider conspiracy to rest. Part III charts the evolving image of Turner as an American icon—alternately revered and reviled, embraced and distanced—through the eras of slavery and emancipation, civil war and reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights. Slaveholders, abolitionists, advocates of black uplift, defenders of white supremacy, New Negroes, New Dealers, civil rights pacifists, Black Power militants—all enlisted Turner, at one time or another, as hero or villain. The literary-historical controversy surrounding William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, commands extended treatment, as it remains the single most influential work on the subject, overshadowing even the original “Confessions” in public consciousness today.
The concept of social or collective memory undergirds this study. Historical in focus, it asks: How have various individuals and social groups within American society imagined themselves and their relationship to one another by reference to the event known as “Nat Turner’s Rebellion”? How has the image of Turner, as depicted in American history, literature, and folklore, responded to the changing needs of society and shifting currents in American thought?
Scholars have long recognized that history—“the memory of things said and done”—represents society’s ongoing search for a useable past. As Carl Becker wrote more than seventy years ago, “every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.” The historian Merrill D. Peterson applied this insight to his classic study The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), which charted the postmortem career of Thomas Jefferson as a popular cultural icon. “This is not a book on the history Thomas Jefferson made,” Peterson explained in the preface, “but a book on what history made of Thomas Jefferson.” More recently, historians have employed the concept of social or collective memory “to explore how a social group, be it a family, a class, or a nation, constructs a past through a process of invention and appropriation and what it means to the relationship of power within society.” Much of this scholarly literature, Alon Confino writes in The Nation As Local Metaphor (1997), has focused on conflicts within and between dominant and subordinate groups over “who wants whom to remember what, and why.” Yet memory, he notes, can also illuminate the broad planes of consensus that hold nations and other “imagined communities” together.
My long-standing interest in conflicting perceptions of the past, piqued by the controversy over Styron’s fictionalized representation of Turner, led me first to the study of another historical figure associated with race and slavery: Thomas Jefferson. In 1992 my friend and colleague Edward L. Ayers invited me to coauthor an article for a volume of essays titled Jeffersonian Legacies, a retrospective look at the slaveholding statesman on the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth. The article surveyed changing American attitudes toward Jefferson from 1943 to 1993, picking up where Merrill Peterson left off in his classic study. Ayers and I were struck by the diminishing cultural authority of professional historians in shaping perceptions of the American past. Jefferson’s rumored sexual liaisons with his slave mistress Sally Hemings, long dismissed as a groundless slander by his biographers yet preserved as fact in black oral tradition, became the focal point of public debates over Jefferson’s character and the nation’s willingness to accept a counternarrative at odds with the official portrait. Jefferson’s biographers found their claims to scholarly objectivity increasingly challenged by popular writers who embraced black oral tradition and the emerging image of Jefferson as the all-too-human father of a mixed-race country. The “tricks” that all parties to the debate played on the past shook my faith in objectivity as an oft-stated principle of historical inquiry. I came away convinced that the lines between history, a scholarly discipline based on rules of evidence, and memory, its popular but unruly cousin, were far blurrier than commonly believed.
The Jeffersonian Legacies article revealed cracks and fissures in America’s heroic self-image, which I probe more deeply in this study of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in history and memory. Turner himself plays a critical role as the reputed leader and mastermind of the rebellion, yet the focus is less on him than on those who lay claim to his story. As Turner recedes into history, various people, both famous and obscure, assume key roles as guardians of his memory. The stories they tell—recorded and preserved in public records, private letters, books and articles, visual imagery and dramatic reenactments—reveal intense struggles for social power and cultural authority in a socially stratified, culturally diverse nation.
While my work is informed by a growing body of scholarship on the subject of Turner’s Rebellion in history and memory, it draws inspiration from sources outside the academy as well. Like Rashomon, the 1950 murder- mystery by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, my study offers no single accounting of the incident in question, but rather a series of prophecies and flashbacks in which expert witnesses with varying degrees of cultural authority imagine and reimagine the scene. It offers no clear resolution to the problem of misleading or conflicting testimony, leaving readers with a nagging sense of insecurity about what can be known with any certainty about the past. I found another muse in the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which puts the spotlight on two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In like fashion, my study of Nat Turner shifts the spotlight from the center to the periphery, from the well-established protagonist to other, relatively minor characters with varying degrees of proximity to the “main event.” It analyzes the public testimony offered by these bit players for insights into the worlds in which they lived. It follows them offstage, whenever possible, and eavesdrops on their conversations with others. Finally, The Return of Martin Guerre, a French film based on a legendary case of stolen identity, provided me with a historical analogy. A small village must decide whether a man claiming to be the long-lost Martin Guerre is who he says he is. I see the “return” of Martin Guerre as something of a metaphor for the reappearance of Nat Turner, in various literary-historical guises, over the course of two centuries. With each celebrated “return,” the public must ask: Is this the real Nat Turner—or a clever imposter?
Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave to conspire against his would-be masters, yet he stands alone in American thought as the epitome of the rebellious slave, a black messiah whose words and deeds challenged the slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve the most pressing needs of every generation since. In remembering Nat Turner, we are forced to confront—or deftly evade, at our peril—the intertwined legacies of slavery and racial oppression in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.
Copyright © 2004 by Scot French. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Contents Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 1. Prophecy 7 2. Inquisitions 33 3. Apotheosis 65 4. Signposts 135 5. Commemorations 215 Epilogue: The Continuing Saga 278 Appendix: The Confessions of Nat Turner, as told to Thomas R. Gray 283 Notes 304 Bibliography 343 Index 353