God's Avenging Scourge
Nat Turner seemed to have imbibed deeply all the best elements of evangelical southern white religion. He did not use tobacco or liquor, he seemed to live a perfectly disciplined life among men as well as women; by and large, he caused no real trouble for the keepers of the status quo.
Indeed, around 1821 the young black man had vividly demonstrated to whites the exemplary advantage of his high standing among the other Africans by returning voluntarily to Samuel Turner after having run away for about 30 days. Therefore whites could never have predicted that Nat would be possessed by a driving messianic mission to become God's avenging scourge against the slaveholders and their world.
Blood on the corn
We are not sure of all that Nat learned from his immediate family, but his father taught him at least one thing: slavery was not to be endured. While Nat was still a child, his father had joined the ranks of the fugitives. From the rest of the community of captives, Nat learned the same lesson. He knew of the injustices suffered by his community. He learned its ritual songs and prayers, and the stories of heroes. But Nat claimed that his most profound lessons came in his own lonely, personal struggles with the spirit, whom he identified as "the Spirit that spoke to the prophets."
By the time he was 25, Nat had wrestled many times in the night with the Spirit of his God, the God of his Fathers. He had been pressed especially hard by the words: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all things shall be added unto you." As he attempted to plumb the meaning and mystery of that promise, he had been driven into his own month-long experience of the wilderness, but then had returned to the Turner farm.
Steadily he became more convinced that the Kingdom he sought was not the one preached by most of the white men he had heard. Instead, he saw the promised Kingdom of righteousness as one which would somehow be realized on the very farms and fields of Virginia, a Kingdom in which the power of the slave masters would be broken. What made the vision chilling and exhilarating was his vivid awareness of being a chosen instrument for the bringing in of this Kingdom.
Still, the way forward was not yet clear, and Nat Turner went about his life and work, waiting. By this time Turner was a familiar figure in Southampton County and the surrounding areas. Of average height, muscular in build, coffee-tan in complexion, with a wide nose and large eyes, he walked with a brisk and active movement among his people, marked within himself and among them as a special man.
On Sundays and at midweek meetings, he exhorted and sang in black Baptist gatherings. At one point, word spread that Nat Turner had cured a white man of some serious disease, and then had baptized the white believer and himself in a river. Such a story only added to his renown.
None of these developments, none of this high regard, moved Turner from his central purpose and passionate search. He waited and worked and married, but knew that all these things were only a prelude.
Then in 1825 a clearer vision came: "I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, 'Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.'"
Again, one day as he worked in the fields Nat claimed to have "discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven." On the leaves of the trees, he said he found "hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men … portrayed in blood."
Through this African imagery the white and black fighters had appeared again, but this time the meaning was even clearer in his mind. It signified to Nat that "the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth … and was now returning to earth." Therefore, he said, "It was plain to me that the Savior was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand."
In the spring of 1828, the fullest description of the Kingdom he sought, and of his own role in its coming, were spoken to Nat's third ear. On May 12, 1828, Nat said, "I heard a loud voice 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 and fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
As if to clear away any lingering doubt he might have had, Nat heard the spirit's clear instructions, that at the appearance of the proper sign "I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons."
For 28 years Nat Turner had been nutured by the black community, instructed by signs on the leaves and in the skies. But it may have been difficult to wait for the sign: about this time, it seems, Turner was whipped by Thomas Moore, his present owner, "for saying that the blacks ought to be free, and that they would be free one day or another."
Turner soon moved to a new home in the country, on the farm of Joseph Travis near Barrow Road. So Nat did his temporary work and bided his time, watching for the sign.
Hatchets and axes
The sign came in February 1831, with an eclipse of the sun. He told his closest comrades that the time of battle and blood was approaching. With him in the initial leadership cadre were four men: Henry Porter, Hark Travis, Nelson Williams, and Samuel Francis. Evidently there was a group of some 25 who would form the core of the fighting force at first, convinced that others would be recruited as the struggle was openly joined.
The Fourth of July, that prime symbol of white American contradictions, was chosen as the date for the uprising. But as the time approached, Nat became ill (were there fears or premonitions?) and the date was abandoned. Another sign had to be sought. On August 13, 1831, there was "a day-long atmosphere phenomenon, during which the sun appeared bluish-green," and Nat knew that he had found the way again. One week later he met with Hark and Henry to agree on a final plan. The next night they met again, this time with several others; they agreed on their work, and ate a final meal together.
In the dark hours of the morning of August 22, Nat Turner's God pressed him forward at the head of his band of black avenging angels, drove him in search of what seemed the ultimate justice: that "the first should be last and the last should be first."
According to a black tradition, Nat's final words to his followers were: "Remember, we do not go forth for the sake of blood and carnage; but it is necessary that, in the commencement of this revolution, all the whites we meet should die, until we have an army strong enough to carry out the war on a Christian basis. Remember that ours is not a war for robbery, nor to satisfy our passions; it is a struggle for freedom." Whatever the words, this was the goal.
They began at the Travis household with hatchets and axes, and no life was spared. At that point, with very few exceptions, all whites were the enemy. It was not a matter of "good" and "bad" masters; all were involved in slavery. And the children were the heirs.
Temporarily filled with such resolve, organized into rudimentary cavalry and infantry sections, Nat's men continued down the Barrow Road, storming house after house, destroying family after family: Francis, Reese, Turner, Peeples, Whitehead, each in its turn experienced the terrible slaughter, not alien to the children of Africa.
At the height of the advance, there were apparently some 60 men in Nat Turner's company, including several described as "free." Together, in a breathlessly brief period of solidarity, they were marching to Jerusalem, Virginia, and their leader was now "General Nat."
As time wore on that Monday, there was a growing sense of confusion, disarray, and sometimes drunkenness among some of Nat's men. Often the prophet himself seemed distracted, and rode at the rear of his troops rather than at the front. Added to these internal problems was the tragic fact that General Nat's men "had few arms among them—and scarcely one, if one, that was fit for use."
Before they reached the road to Jerusalem, the alarm had been spread, leaping like fire from one blanched and trembling set of lips to another, echoing in the clashing sound of church bells across the countryside. The alarm struck fear in the heart of some of Turner's band and they deserted. Others, still on plantations, decided that the struggle was now hopeless, and decided to remain with their masters, biding their time.
Nevertheless, Nat had already challenged Virginia, the government of the United States, and all the fierce and chilling fears that raged within the depths of the white community. So vigilante groups, militia companies, and the military arm of the federal government were soon on their way to the battleground. By noon on Monday, in the blazing heat of a cornfield, Turner's insurrectionaries had their first encounter with the white militia and the volunteer companies which had rushed to organize. The blacks were heavily outgunned and, after suffering significant casualties, were forced to retreat.
Still, with less than a third of his army remaining, General Nat maintained his resolve to reach Jerusalem. But the path was blocked each way he moved, fear was rising among his decimated command, and night was now upon them. So they hid and prayed, while isolated members of their company were being trapped, captured, and sometimes murdered in the woods.
By the next day, Tuesday, August 23, the countryside was swarming with hundreds of armed white men from surrounding countries, cities, and military bases in Virginia and North Carolina, and Turner had fewer than 20 rebels remaining. Even in the face of these odds, Nat and his men were determined to fight on, if only they could draw more blacks to their side. Before daybreak they moved to attack a large plantation near their encampment, daring to hope they would attract fresh recruits out of the slave quarters there. Instead, Turner's fighters were repulsed by a defending force made up of the owners and their enslaved blacks.
As the beleaguered black remnant force separated in desperate search for other possibly surviving companies, all save Nat were killed or captured by the end of the day.
That night he hid and hoped. As hundreds of men and animals searched him out, he dug a hole in the ground and lay there, daring to nurture the dream that he might yet regroup his forces, refusing to believe that the promised time of judgment for Virginia's slave holders had not come (or had arrived in some form unrecognizable to him).
In spite of Turner's desperate hope, there was no regrouping for his troops. He remained in hiding, avoiding capture for six weeks after the attempted revolution.
On October 30, 1831, Nat Turner was captured. His sign had not come. Charged with "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection," he told his counsel that he wished to plead not guilty, because he "did not feel" that he was a guilty person. Guilt was not a relevant category for an instrument of divine judgment—even if the last sign had not come.
Nat Turner went to the gallows on November 11, 1831, refusing to speak any final word to the crowd gathered to see him die, knowing that it was his living which had been his last, best testimony. Then, in its quiet, secret ways, the black community of Virginia and of the nation took his life into its own bosom and pondered it. They continued to see signs, beginning with the day of his execution, for on that day, according to black tradition, "the sun was hidden behind angry clouds, the thunder rolled, the lightning flashed, and the most terrific storm visited that county ever known."
Vincent Harding is on the faculty at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. This article is a condensed excerpt from There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981). Used with permission.