Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21, 1831 – Nat Turner Begins his Slave Exodus

Nat Turner, born October 2, 1800, in southern Virginia, was a bright slave who had repeatedly received visions from God command his life. When he had run away from his master at the age of 23, he returned having had a vision showing him to do so. A persuasive speaker, Nat often gave services for a black Baptist congregation, earning him the nickname “The Prophet.” In 1828, he received one of his most powerful visions. He described the experience, which was written later in a book by his lawyer Thomas Gray as hearing “a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” It struck him that he was to lead a great insurrection to bring down the machine of slavery.

A solar eclipse in February of 1831 showed him that the time for his rebellion had come. While he and his fellow conspirators had planned to liberate themselves on July 4th, illness and logistics had delayed them. On August 13, atmospheric interference (which could have been debris from the recent eruption of Mount Saint Helens) made the sun appear a rich bluish-green. Nat realized that his first interpretation of overtaking of the whites was not what he was meant to do; that was why the insurrection was unable to take place on the fourth of July. Instead, he was looking for a land of blue water and greenery to match the vision. Otherwise, the sun would have been blood red.

Seeking guidance, Nat remembered the story of Moses and his exodus to the land of milk and honey. The fight against the serpents of the desert had merely slowed down the Israelites, much like the whites had kept back the black slaves. Fashioning a rough copper snake and attaching it to a rod matching that of Moses, Nat put forth his plan to lead his people out of bondage. He chose the direction of Northwest, across the mountains and Ohio valley toward the Great Lakes, perhaps even to Canada.

At midnight on August 21, he and his trusted followers arose and marched out of their quarters. They went from plantation to plantation further, freeing other slaves as they went. For protection, the slaves carried with them knives and axes, though a few had firearms. At Nat's direction, the slaves fought back only when whites tried to stop the growing army of slaves. Several white masters were left beaten, but none were killed (some later died of injuries).

For two days, the slave revolt grew until a white militia was organized and place roadblocks in the way of the singing, marching slaves who sought their freedom. Nat halted his people and attempted to preach at the whites, though only a few words could be heard over the jeering. Someone opened fire, missing Nat, but causing panic in both crowds. The armed blacks charged, overwhelming the outnumbered whites, who dispersed after a brief struggle. Swearing revenge, the whites spread the word that the blacks had attacked so that US Army troops were called up throughout Virginia.

The slaves crossed the Shenandoah Valley into western Virginia before the soldiers caught up with them. Artillery, horsemen, and eight hundred infantry (many of whom had come from as far away as Norfolk, where the USS Natchez and the USS Warren were anchored) attacked the camps of the slaves, and the exodus was stopped. Dozens of slaves were killed, hundreds returned to their masters. A few, including Nat Turner, managed to evade capture in the wilderness. Most of those escaped into Ohio, but Nat turned back, realizing that even Moses had not been able to go into the holy land. Instead, he returned to call for the release of his people who had been captured.

The call was answered by immediate arrest. Nat was convicted as a murderer in a well publicized trial that approached a kangaroo court. He was hanged, flayed, beheaded, and quartered, the archaic punishment for treason, which inflamed abolitionists throughout the United States. Several small slave revolts sparked through the South, but they were quickly put down.

More effective was the writing of Nat's lawyer, Thomas Gray. His book gave the firsthand account of Nat's exodus, including descriptions of life under slavery. It spread even across the Atlantic, where it became a bestseller among the abolitionists of Britain. The intelligence of black men was proven, and, after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Britain began putting diplomatic and economic pressure on the United States to do the same.

The South struggled to shake its black badge of slavery led by President Andrew Jackson and wealthy slave owners. However, the damage had been done to its reputation, and increasing pressure not to buy slave goods caused economic depression. Southerners called for relief from the Federal government, which was enabled through President Polk's signing of the Manumission Act of 1846, freeing the slaves and giving compensated value for each slave. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, many of these African Americans moved westward in what modern scholars call the Southern Exodus, recalling thought of Turner's Exodus.

Despite the end of slavery in the United States, racial tensions have continued even to the point of attempted secession of the New Mexico territory that caused the short American Civil War in the 1880s. Along with Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities, it would be another century before leaders were able to establish equal rights under law.

In reality, Nat Turner kept with his plan to attack and kill whites, slave owner and poor alike. Panic spread through the whites of the South, and reprisals caused the deaths of an estimated 200 blacks (56 were formally executed by the state of Virginia, plus many killed by the US Navy and militias). Nat escaped until caught in a hole covered by fence posts on October 30. He was hanged, flayed, beheaded, and quartered, but the major aftermath of his rebellion was the legislation of laws prohibiting education for blacks as well as restricting practices of assembly and religion for slaves. The next thirty years of slavery would be among the worst seen in the United States.

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