In Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner and six other men launched the deadliest slave revolt in the history of the United States. The revolt began in the middle of the night, August 21–22, 1831, and by the middle of the day on August 22 the rebels had killed nearly five dozen whites, including many women and children. Whites responded in many ways. Many panicked, and some rallied to oppose the rebels. Some of these irregular white forces stumbled upon Turner and his men at James Parker’s farm, not far from Jerusalem, Southampton’s county seat. The encounter ended quickly and indecisively, but the whites had stopped the rebel advance. Following this first battle, Turner tried to rally his men, something that became increasingly hard to do as more and more whites from nearby counties in Virginia and North Carolina came to Southampton. By the morning of August 23, the rebels were defeated at a series of engagements and the organized phase of the revolt ended. Whites quickly and brutally reasserted their control over Southampton, torturing many of the accused and killing roughly three dozen black suspects without trials. Worried about the possibility of a more extensive bloodbath, white leaders in Southampton, who knew that owners were compensated for the value of their slaves who had been condemned by the state, soon clamped down on the extralegal massacre of suspected rebels. On August 31, 1831, trials of suspect rebels began. By the time that the trials were finished the following spring, thirty slaves and one free black had been condemned to death. Of these people, nineteen were executed in Southampton, and twelve had their sentences commuted to transportation from the state of Virginia. Turner himself, one of the condemned, was hanged on November 11, 1831, although not before Thomas R. Gray, a lawyer who was defense council for other slave rebels, interviewed the jailed rebel leader. Gray published this transcript as The Confessions of Nat Turner, which presented Turner’s religious motivations. Immediately after the revolt, several southern state legislatures took up laws regulating slavery; the Virginia legislature also considered and rejected a gradual emancipation scheme. Since the revolt, Nat Turner and his legacy have been contested by many, including scholars, novelists, artists, and filmmakers.
The most reliable book-length account of the revolt itself is Breen 2015. Allmendinger 2014 provides the most deeply researched account of the revolt, with a strong focus on documentary evidence from Southampton County produced before the revolt began. Most generally accessible short scholarly accounts of the revolt are Breen 2019 and Greenberg 2017. Important older accounts of the Nat Turner Revolt include Oates 1990 and Aptheker 1974. Drewry 1900 adopts an unmistakably racist point of view but contains valuable resources unavailable anywhere else. As a part of a series on slave resistance published as the United States was headed into Civil War, Higginson 1861 provides an account of the revolt from the point of view of a New England abolitionist, while Nell 1855 and Brown 1863 are both brief early histories of the Southampton Revolt and Nat Turner written by black authors.
Allmendinger, David F., Jr. Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
The most thoroughly researched scholarly account of Southampton before and during the revolt. Although this account spends relatively little time on the revolt itself, it includes important interventions on potential familial motivations for the revolt, including the possibility that Turner decided to launch the revolt after hearing about the use of his son as collateral on a loan. An important reference for scholars working in the field, but sometimes overconfident in what can be known based upon the sources.
Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel and Others. Reprint. New York: International Publishers, 1974.
Aptheker’s chapter on Nat Turner is at the heart of a seminal revisionist work on slavery. Rejecting the older view that slaves were docile and content, Aptheker presents slaves as dissatisfied with slavery and willing to fight for a better world. First published 1943.
Breen, Patrick H. The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Slave Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
The most reliable scholarly monograph on the revolt. Heterodox in important ways, Breen challenges important ideas about slave resistance, which he shows is contested within the black community. Also presents a new reading of the whites’ responses, challenging the idea of a practically unrestrained white response against the black community.
Breen, Patrick H. “Nat Turner’s Revolt.” In Encyclopedia Virginia. Edited by Patti Miller. Charlottesville: Humanities Virginia, 2019.
A brief, historiographically informed, and up-to-date synopsis of the revolt.
Brown, William Wells. “Nat Turner.” In The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. 2d ed. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1863.
One of the earliest histories of Nat Turner written by a black man. Relies unapologetically on Gray 1831 (cited under Reference Works) and adds an imagined speech delivered by Turner on the eve of the revolt. Electronic edition available from Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH.
Drewry, William Sidney. The Southampton Insurrection. Washington: Neale, 1900.
While containing unique sources—including oral histories with survivors of the revolt—also exemplifies the racism common in Progressive Era scholarship. Available online from Google Books.
Greenberg, Kenneth S. “Introduction: The Confessions of Nat Turner—Text and Context.” In The Confessions of Nat Turner with Related Documents. Edited by Kenneth S. Greenberg, 1–33. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.
Greenberg’s preface to this anthology of documents on Nat Turner only briefly describes the revolt. Nevertheless, it is one of the best historiographically informed discussion of many important issues in scholarship on Nat Turner that have risen since the civil rights movement.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Nat Turner’s Insurrection.” Atlantic Monthly 8.46 (August 1861).
A readily available account of the Nat Turner Revolt, told from the perspective of a prominent New England abolitionist. Puts Turner’s resistance within a hemispheric context as part of a series Higginson wrote in the Atlantic Monthly on slave revolts in the Atlantic world.
Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1855.
The first history of the revolt written by a black author. Relies on Gray, newspaper articles, and personal accounts to give a very brief history of the Southampton revolt. Electronic edition available from Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH.
Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
Presents a standard heroic account of Turner. Although this work is not as reliable as the other sources, it remains the most readable book-length historical account of the revolt. First published 1975.
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