Eyewitness Reports in History Nat Turner's Rebellion Part 1

An eyewitness account of Nat Turner's Rebellion an important event in American history and the figt against slavery.

Nat Turner's Rebellion

When: 1831

How: By Southern standards of the time, Nat Turner was not a mistreated slave. His back bore no scars from the overseer's whip. His slight paunch was proof of an adequate, if not well-balanced, diet. In fact, his master allowed him to read the Bible (most slaves were forbidden even to learn to read) and often let him go off on Sundays to preach the gospel to neighboring slaves in southeastern Virginia. Nevertheless, this pious, obedient servant of God and man, who neither drank nor smoked, at age 31 led a band of 70 blacks on an ax-swinging rampage through 15 white homesteads in the bloodiest slave insurrection in U.S. history.

It all began when Preacher Nat started to hear voices telling him to prepare for a divine mission. He looked for signs in the heavens and there saw in the mass of moving clouds scenes of black and white spirits wrestling for domination. As an instrument of God, he must help the black forces gain the upper hand. But when should he begin? Again, he must wait for a sign.

In mid-August, a rare atmospheric disturbance caused the sun to glow an eerie blue-green. Convinced that God had chosen the Virginia skies to command him to action, Nat Turner met with six other slaves deep in the woods near the farm of his master, Joseph Travis, to plot revolution. Armed with axes and whatever weapons they might seize along the way, the seven rebels vowed to overrun every white homestead which lay between them and the county seat of Jerusalem (now Courtland) some 12 mi. to the east. Moreover, they were prepared to murder every white person in their path.

Thus, on Aug. 22 at 2:00 A.M., "General Nat," as the others addressed him, led his unit to the Travis farmhouse and tiptoed into the master bedroom. It was decided that Turner should draw first blood. But the room was so dark that he swung his blade wildly and only managed to awaken his owner with a glancing blow to the forehead. Travis had little time for defense, however, for Will Francis, a towering slave who would earn the nickname will the Executioner for his part in the rebellion, moved in with an ax and hacked both Mr. and Mrs. Travis to death in their bed.

For nearly two days the terrorists chopped and sliced their way eastward, ignoring the screams of the doomed, dismissing desperate pleas to spare the children. In all, 57 slain whites lay in scattered heaps between Tarrara Creek and the Nottoway River. Of these, Nat Turner killed only one-a terrified woman whom he chased down and clubbed to death with a fence post.

Meanwhile, panic gripped the white community. Rumor swept the southern Atlantic states that as many as 1,200 armed slaves were rumbling across Virginia determined to exterminate the white race. In truth, barely five dozen slaves and a few free blacks had rallied to Turner's cause.

Nat Turner was able to lead his men to within a few miles of Jerusalem before meeting armed resistance. After a brief skirmish on Aug. 23, the Turner forces fled in all directions. By this time, over 2,000 area militia, backed up by 800 federal troops, were descending on rural Southampton County to track down the disbanded rebels.

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