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Nat Turner’s Southampton Insurrection
(Part 3)
By Nancy E. Sheppard

NatT3 imageIn August 1831, Southampton slave, Nat Turner, led an insurrection that systemically killed 55 members of slaveholding families throughout the county. This insurrection was bread from generations worth of brutality and dehumanization at the hands of the cruel institution of chattel slavery. Nat’s insurrection came to an end on August 23, 1831, just two days after the wave of attacks began. While many of Nat’s follower were apprehended, the leader himself managed to evade capture.

Throughout the south, a wave of paranoia spread like wildfire. Militias came into Southampton County, systematically slaughtering every black person they saw, without regard if they were part of the conspiracy or not. There were reports of alleged suspects having their feet placed in fire, some with their feet nearly burned off, before being released. Another woman was strung from a tree; her body used for target practice. Many were tortured, even executed; their bodies decapitated and heads placed on pikes at a roadway now called "Blackhead Signpost Road.” It was only when the residents were reminded that slaveowners would not be financially compensated for slaves that were killed without proper prosecution and sentencing that the wave of retaliation came to an end. All told, approximately two hundred blacks (many of whom had nothing to do with the insurrection) were viciously murdered in the counter-insurrection massacre. One newspaper editor wrote how the retaliatory actions were "hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the insurgents.” Fifty persons were brought to trial for their part in the insurrection and, after every sentence and judgement was handed down, eighteen were executed.

Nat Turner was finally caught in a patch of woods near the plantation he used to live on, after nearly two months of running. While jailed at the county seat, Jerusalem (now Courtland), he met with young, eager lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray. For several days, Turner dictated his story to Gray, which would later be presented in court. Nat entered a plea of "Not guilty,” simply because he felt what he did was pass a sentence for the sins of slavery, as entrusted upon him by God. Gray presented a copy of what he entitled The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va, presenting Turner as an intelligent, brave figure instead of the bloodthirsty villain that other sources portrayed him to be. On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was sentenced to death for "conspiring to rebel and make insurrection.”

Six days later, hundreds gathered around the gallows in Jerusalem, waiting to watch the prisoner swing. Nat was marched to the gallows, betraying little to no emotion in the final moments of his life. At noon, his body dropped and his life was snuffed out. After death came, his body was struck down, decapitated, and skinned. Several took pieces of his flesh as a ghastly souvenir.

The legacy left behind by Nat Turner is a complicated one. He was never granted the same allegiance nor merit as white abolitionists, though Nat’s insurrection was caused by his own experiences, insight, and observations in slavery. Virginia passed a series of laws, further impressing dehumanization upon not only slaves, but freed blacks. The aftermath of the Turner rebellion was the last time Virginia dared argue emancipation until after the Civil War.

While Nat Turner’s actions were drastic, the full picture of what led him to that point can be clearly seen. Perhaps Nat Turner will receive the same vindication as other abolitionists – a martyr, not necessarily a murderer, who only wanted freedom for his people.