Workers Vanguard No. 1106
24 February 2017
Black History and the Class Struggle
The Nat Turner Rebellion and the Fight Against Slavery
We print below, edited for publication, the first part of a presentation given by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Alan Wilde to the New York Spartacus Youth Club on January 28.
In 1831, American slaveowners learned what it means to have the fear of God put into them. In August of that year, an insurrection was launched by rebel slaves led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia. Before their suppression, the rebels killed up to 60 whites in the course of a few days—the highest number to die in a slave uprising in the U.S. It was the unmistakable justice and vengeance of revolutionary terror. And it was met with the reactionary terror of the slaveowners, who crushed the rebellion and drowned it in blood. We honor Nat Turner’s rebellion, as we honor John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry raid. These were blows struck in the cause of black freedom and heralded the Civil War that finally smashed the slave order and emancipated the slave.
Truth be told, while the rebellion and its aftermath are well documented, including through newspaper articles at the time, we know little about Nat Turner himself. As brilliant as he was, he was a black slave living in the South. As such, no one was going to document his life. What little documentation exists of Nat’s life consists mainly of the record of him being bought and sold. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson—a radical abolitionist and the commander of the first regiment of freed slaves to fight in the Civil War—wrote in an August 1861 Atlantic article, “Nat Turner’s Insurrection”: “The biographies of slaves can hardly be individualized; they belong to the class.” Speaking of Nat Turner, Higginson noted that he “did not even possess a name, beyond one abrupt monosyllable,—for even the name of Turner was the master’s property.”
Many of the books and articles that address Nat’s life before the rebellion base themselves on Thomas R. Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA (1831). Gray, a Southern lawyer and ardent defender of slavery, supposedly sat down with Nat after his capture and took down his “confession” verbatim. Many historians cast doubt on Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner for an obvious reason: Does one really believe that this slaveowning lawyer took down the words of Nat Turner precisely, without inventions or omissions? At the same time, “When the document is viewed in historical context,” as noted by Stephen B. Oates in The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (1975), “the confessions seem an authentic and reliable document.” Oates writes that the confessions are “very close” to Turner’s statements in his October 31 court interrogation, and the details correspond to the slave trial records and contemporary newspaper accounts. (A very useful website, www.natturnerproject.org, has collected and collated the available documentary record of Turner’s rebellion and its aftermath.) So, with all these caveats, I will refer to Gray’s Confessions, as well as other works, in this talk.
Nat Turner was born in October 1800—incidentally, the same year of Gabriel Prosser’s planned slave rebellion and the same year Denmark Vesey won his freedom. His father is believed to have escaped slavery when Nat was a young boy. His mother, Nancy, seems interesting. One story has it that she was brought to the U.S. through the harrowing Middle Passage directly from Africa; another that she was sold to the Turner family by a slaveowner escaping the Revolution in Saint-Domingue, what is now Haiti. Whatever the reality, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the world’s first and only successful slave revolution, loomed very large over the Americas. How much of it was known to Nat Turner personally, I do not know. But it was well known among slaves and certainly among the slave masters, who dreaded and feared its implications for America’s “peculiar institution.”
As a youth, Nat Turner learned to read and write. Oates credits this not only to his deep intelligence, but also to his Methodist owners who “not only approved of Nat’s literacy but encouraged him to study the Bible.” In Gray’s Confessions, Nat is quoted as saying that his intelligence meant that “I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.”
Slavery is by definition an unimaginably brutal and deeply degrading institution that denies people their humanity. In North America, along with the genocidal annihilation of the indigenous population, slavery provided the basis for the primitive accumulation of capital. Slavery was not an incidental outgrowth of American capitalism. It was a fundamental component of its birth and development, and its legacy continues to define American capitalism more than 150 years after the destruction of the slave system. American society is still shaped by this history through the continuing oppression of black people as a race-color caste, integrated into the working class while, in their majority forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
We do not know much about Nat Turner’s family life. It is widely believed that in the early 1820s, he became involved with a young woman at the Turner farm named Cherry, and at some point they were married. To be clear, slave marriages, which were usually marked by the couple jumping over a broomstick together, had no legality. One of the crimes inflicted upon black people in the South was the separation of families, with wives, husbands, mothers and children sold to different owners. One of the biggest fears was to be sold to one of the notoriously brutal, huge cotton plantations of the Deep South. As Oates notes, “For Virginia slaves, accustomed to a modicum of family life, Georgia seemed a living hell.”
Nat and Cherry faced that prospect in 1822 when Samuel Turner—their owner—died. While they were not sold to the Deep South, they were each sold to different owners: Nat to Thomas Moore and Cherry to Giles Reese, whose plantation was a few miles away. They could see each other from time to time, but they were separated. Higginson powerfully captured the horror of this reality in his Atlantic piece:
“This is equivalent to saying that by day or by night that husband had no more power to protect her than the man who lies bound upon a plundered vessel’s deck has power to protect his wife on board the pirate-schooner disappearing in the horizon; she may be reverenced, she may be outraged; it is in the powerlessness that the agony lies.”
Newspaper accounts of the time reported something else about Cherry: Following Nat’s execution, she was lashed and tortured to produce papers he had entrusted to her, after which both she and their daughter were sold to slave traders.
The Religion of the Slave
In his piece, Higginson notes that Nat Turner saw himself, and was seen by his fellow slaves, as a prophet. He was not, as he is usually depicted, a preacher—for example, in last year’s film by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation. There is no question that Nat was a deeply religious man, and his fervor found expression in messianic visions.
The religion of the slave was a contradictory phenomenon. It was not simply a reflection of white Christianity, but a unique, dynamic creation of black people on the terrain of American slavery. It preached endurance and patience as a way to survive the inhumanity of slavery, but also the idea that deliverance would one day come. It acted as a brake on the insurrectionary instinct of the slave, while at the same time being unable to fully extinguish the striving for freedom inherent in a people held in chains.
For slaves, gatherings for religious services were not only of religious significance; they were often political and social events. Indeed, for many generations, the church was the only allowed form of black social organization. Historically, even during periods of militant struggle, many black people remained tied to the church. It is significant that nearly every important black mass leader has been deeply religious or church-centered. But while the church has long been among the most pervasive organizers of the black masses, the religious beliefs of Nat Turner are hardly comparable to the reactionary godliness of today’s black clergy. For a long time, the role of black church leaders has been to channel the anger and frustration of the black masses back into prayer meetings and more schemes to reform racist U.S. capitalism, usually through the Democratic Party.
Nat Turner’s religion was based on a desire to drown the slave system in blood. His God was the Old Testament God of vengeance and retribution. For slaves, the story of Exodus, where Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, symbolized not only freedom but also divine punishment for the wrongdoers through the plagues. Nat Turner captures this spirit in a passage attributed to him in Thomas Gray’s Confessions: “And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me—For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners…it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.” Nat Turner’s rebellion was judgment day.
Nat’s rebellion brought to life the worst nightmares of the slave-master class, revealing the inherently barbaric nature of slavery. For many months to follow, any rumor of a slave uprising sent the white masters and their families fleeing from their homes.
The rebellion was not begun because of a particular incident or a particular horror Nat faced or witnessed as a slave. Rather, as Higginson writes, “Whatever Nat Turner’s experiences of slavery might have been, it is certain that his plans were not suddenly adopted, but that he had brooded over them for years.”
In February 1831, there was a solar eclipse, and Nat saw this as a sign. He managed to gather some muskets and set the date of insurrection for July 4, a day whose symbolism is obvious. But he was forced to postpone after he fell ill. On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance that apparently made the sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as his final sign. He brought together his handful of confidants, no more than six: Henry, Hark, Nelson, Sam, Will and Jack. They deliberated for eleven hours. Higginson described that “two things were at last decided: to begin their work that night, and to begin it with a massacre so swift and irresistible as to create in a few days more terror than many battles, and so spare the need of future bloodshed.”
The rebellion began on August 22. The plan was that the seven of them would go out from plantation to plantation, kill all the whites they could find regardless of age or sex, recruit all the slaves they could to their rebel army and gather guns, muskets and other weapons for a drawn-out fight. It was a matter of military necessity not to leave any of the slaveowners or their families alive to sound the alarm. The first house they went to was that of Joseph Travis, who had been Nat’s owner since 1830. The rebels, not wanting to reveal themselves too early, decided not to use muskets until they had gathered sufficient forces. They went to the bedroom where the master and his wife slept. Bringing down his axe, Nat struck the first blow against Travis, but it was dark and his aim was poor. Will had to complete the job and then kill the wife. After that, they moved on to the children, including a baby in its cradle that they had initially forgotten to kill.
I want to underline that this was not random, maniacal terror. It was part of an organized plan. For example, the rebels made a point of not attacking any farms owned by poor whites. As Higginson noted, “There was no gratuitous outrage beyond the death-blow itself.” This was not a war of blacks against whites, but of the enslaved against the enslavers. The slaves were property and all claims of ownership had to be destroyed. If left alive, that baby in its cradle could one day grow up and say: That slave is my property. Even the Richmond Enquirer at the time admitted that “indiscriminate massacre was not their intention, after they obtained foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men also who ceased to resist.”
This was a rebellion against the institution of slavery. In Gray’s Confessions, Nat Turner describes his owner at the time, Travis, by saying that he “was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.” This underlines that the issue was not the cruelties of a particular slave master, but the system of slavery itself.
As they moved from plantation to plantation, the rebels’ forces swelled to about 70 fighters. Within about 48 hours, some 60 whites were killed without the loss of a single slave. Nat Turner then decided it was time to strike at the Southampton County seat, Jerusalem, and to raid its armory. The plan was to then retreat into the Dismal Swamp. There, the former slaves would have a defended position from which they could further recruit and launch attacks against the slaveowners. Higginson thinks the attack on Jerusalem could have succeeded if only Turner had not made the mistake of waiting too long outside the Parker plantation, three miles from the town. Some of Turner’s men wanted to stop there to recruit more slaves for the rebel army. Nat was hesitant, worried that it would take too long and that the slaveowners’ militias would surely by now be on the move. But he relented.
A small white militia encountered the rebels outside the plantation, confirming Turner’s fears. They fired a volley and the former slaves fired back, dispersing the white militia, which would have been crushed had it not been able to hook up with another militia from Jerusalem. The rebels were forced into an orderly retreat but were able to regroup their forces. The next day, however, they were defeated by a white militia that was twice their size and reinforced by three companies of artillery. The few remaining rebels agreed to split up and try to recruit more slaves to their army. They never reunited. Most were captured; bloody reprisal fell upon them.
The fighting in the rebellion may have been local, but the impact of Nat Turner’s insurrection resounded throughout the South. The white militia that defeated Turner’s band was reinforced the next day by detachments from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored at Norfolk, and by militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina. There were rumors spreading that slave rebellions were erupting everywhere, including in the majority-black city of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The State of Virginia tried and sentenced to death 56 black people after the rebellion, reimbursing slave masters for their executed “property.” In the hysterical atmosphere that followed the uprising, white mobs and militias scoured the countryside, killing black people with impunity. At least 200 blacks were killed after the crushing of the rebellion. In one particularly gruesome massacre, a company of militia from North Carolina killed 40 black people in one day. Those accused of participating in the uprising were beheaded, and their heads mounted on poles at crossroads to terrify slaves. To this day, part of Virginia State Route 658 is labeled “Blackhead Signpost Road” as a commemoration of this racist bloodbath.
The legal response to the uprising was likewise furious. Virginia and other slave states passed laws that made it illegal to teach not only slaves but also free blacks to read and write. Other laws greatly restricted the few remaining rights that free black men and women had in the South. These included the right to assemble and to bear arms. One of the laws passed restricted all black people—slave or free—from holding religious meetings without the presence of a white minister.
As for Nat Turner himself, he evaded capture until he was found by a white farmer two months later. The farmer reported that Nat handed over his sword to him like a captured soldier surrendering his weapon. But needless to say, the slaveowners did not consider Nat a prisoner of war. On November 5, he was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.” He was duly convicted and sentenced to death. When asked by Thomas Gray if he regretted his action now that he was about to die, Turner defiantly responded, “Was not Christ crucified.” He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His corpse was flayed, beheaded and quartered.
Nat Turner stands in the courageous tradition of freedom fighters like Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey. Gabriel was a literate, enslaved blacksmith who planned a rebellion in the Richmond area in 1800. He was keenly aware of his environment, including the increasing tensions between the U.S. and France at the time; he thought a slave uprising in the U.S. could possibly get French aid. He was inspired by the French and Haitian revolutions. His intent was to lead a slave army into Richmond, but he was betrayed and captured. He, his two brothers and 23 other black men were hanged.
Denmark Vesey was born a slave in St. Thomas, a Caribbean island belonging to Denmark at the time. His slave master was a sea captain who took him to many countries, including Haiti. In late 1799, Denmark Vesey won a lottery in South Carolina and bought his freedom the following year for $600. A highly literate and sophisticated man who spoke multiple languages, he began working as a carpenter and set up his own successful business after gaining his freedom. But he was never able to win his first wife’s freedom, as her owner refused to sell her, meaning that all his children would be held in bondage.
In 1818 he was also among the founders of a congregation of what was known as the “Bethel circuit” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the U.S. The church was destroyed by state authorities in 1822 after Vesey’s execution. After the Civil War, it was rebuilt in 1865 by, among others, Vesey’s son. It was no accident that the white-supremacist murderer Dylann Roof picked that church as the site of his massacre of nine black people in June 2015.
Vesey was intent on leading a war against slavery. In 1819, he was closely following Congressional debates on the status of Missouri, which seemed to put slavery on the defensive. He began plans for a revolt with a close circle of friends, which quickly drew in growing numbers. He used his position as a lay preacher to discuss insurrection plans during religious classes. He set the original date for the rebellion for 14 July 1822, Bastille Day, which marks the launch of the French Revolution. But he was betrayed and captured. Vesey and five others were convicted and sentenced to death; he was hanged on July 2. Soon afterward, another 30 black people were also executed.
These planned uprisings terrified the slaveowning class, whose system was based on open violence; in turn, Gabriel and Denmark Vesey understood that nothing but all-out war—i.e., violence—would bring that system down. That’s the context that Nat Turner’s rebellion must be seen in. His insurrection was the coming to life of Gabriel Prosser’s and Denmark Vesey’s plans. His cry was not only for his freedom, but for war against slavery. His impact extended far beyond those all-too-brief 48 hours.
A particular target of Virginia’s and other Southern politicians following Nat Turner’s rebellion was the abolitionist movement, which was blamed for “inspiring” the uprising. A “Vigilance Association” in Columbia, South Carolina, offered a $1,500 reward for the capture of any agitator convicted of distributing abolitionist literature, while North Carolina and Georgia put a bounty of $5,000 on the head of the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. At the same time, Nat Turner’s rebellion forced increasing rifts within the abolitionist movement. Would they defend the slave rebels’ violence? Garrison, a committed pacifist, declared that he was “horror-struck” by the insurrection. On the other hand, Higginson described Nat Turner’s rebellion as “a symbol of retribution triumphant.”
Within the South, the years after the uprising saw a greater drive to defend slavery. The slaveowning states saw any criticism of slavery as an intrusion on their “way of life.” Among the most vocal in that regard was John C. Calhoun, U.S. vice president at the time and later the Senator from South Carolina. Whereas previous politicians such as Thomas Jefferson described slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun praised it as a “positive good.” He denounced the language of the Declaration of Independence—that all men were created equal—as “the most false and dangerous of all political errors.” He was an ardent supporter of nullification—the right of states to not enforce federal laws they dispute—and “states’ rights,” which were the watchwords of slavery and continue to be watchwords of racist reaction.
Above all, Nat Turner’s uprising was a precursor of the Civil War. We often make the point that John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, which was aimed at sparking a general slave rebellion, was really the first shot of the Civil War. It was. By that same token, Nat Turner’s rebellion was the “First War”—as many former slaves in Southeastern Virginia had put it—that laid the groundwork for the coming war of liberation.
[TO BE CONTINUED]