In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Virginia. Almost 60 whites and over 200 blacks died making it the worst slave revolt in U.S. history. Virginian authorities put down the rebellion fairly quickly. However, the aftermath led to increased violence and oppression of slaves and free persons of color.
Nat Turner was a very intelligent slave living in Southampton, Virginia. This county was home to a large number of African Americans making it a fertile recruiting ground for insurrectionists. Turner could read, write, and knew the Bible. This book inspired Turner who claimed to have visions from God. The slave believed God instructed him to lead an uprising and kill whites.
In February, a solar eclipse convinced the superstitious slave to begin his work. Over the course of six months, Turner recruited slaves and free blacks to his cause. White Virginians had no idea of the brewing revolt. On August 13, Turner noticed the sun turned green and understood the time had arrived.
On August 21, Turner and his 70 man army went to war. Since guns made noise, the army used farm tools, bladed weapons, and implements. Turner wanted to be as stealthy as possible. They killed every white person they came across. No one was spared and 55 men, women, and children died. The Virginia militia was called and quickly put down the revolt the following day.
Turner’s rebellion and the body count created mass panic. The whites retaliated in force. In the aftermath, whites may have killed 200 blacks in Virginia and North Carolina. Most were innocent victims caught in the maelstrom. Others were executed for taking part in the revolt. Their severed heads mounted on pikes decorated the roads of Southampton as a warning.
In addition to mass executions and vigilante justice, the politicians went to work to make another revolt difficult. They outlawed basic education for blacks regardless of status. It became a crime to teach a free black, slave, or even a multiracial person to read and write. They also restricted church services for blacks. They would have to have a white minister present at all services.
While innocents suffered, Turner escaped. A white farmer found Turner hiding in a hole on October 30. Two weeks later, he was tried and executed. Afterward, Turner’s executioners flayed his body.
Nat Turner’s failed revolution proved the costliest in U.S. History. It began in predominantly black Southampton County in Virginia. The revolt lasted a couple of days and involved 70 persons of color before being put down. Whites retaliated in kind and many innocent people died in the wake. Turner himself became a martyr and is both hero and villain. He stood up against an evil institution, but he missed the real target when he indiscriminately murdered men, women, and children regardless of status, political philosophy, or position on slavery.