Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

By Kenneth S. Greenberg | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The Nat Turner slave rebellion erupted in Southampton County, Virginia, during the early hours of 22 August 1831. It was directed by an extraordinary 31-year-old man who was inspired by a series of heavenly visions to lead his people in a great battle to destroy slavery. Seven conspirators, initially armed with a variety of farm implements, attacked Turner's home farm, the Joseph Travis residence, and killed all the white inhabitants in their sleep. During the next 24 hours, the rebels moved rapidly from farm to farm, killing every white man, woman, and child they encountered; gathering horses, guns, and recruits; and ultimately generating consequences that touched the entire nation and that continue to influence American race relations to the present day.

The revolt was short, lasting little more than a day. Although panic spread throughout the South, the major violence was confined to Southampton County. The number of people directly involved was limited—60 to 80 active rebels who killed no more than 57 to 60 whites, and an infuriated white population who retaliated by summarily executing scores, if not hundreds, of blacks. Yet Nat Turner and the revolt he initiated have become an important part of American historical memory. Whenever Americans have attempted to understand the meaning of the Southampton revolt of 1831, they also have had to grapple with the meaning of slavery and race relations in our society.

The present volume gathers the best recent scholarship on Nat Turner, a few classic works in the field, and transcripts of two interviews conducted for the documentary film Nat Turner ˜A Troublesome Property. Part One, “The Search for Nat Turner,” begins the volume with two essays that focus on a set of issues that are fundamental to any analysis of the subject. Every historian who deals with the world of Nat Turner encounters a set of sources that are notoriously obscure and difficult to interpret. They include newspaper accounts, letters from white eyewitnesses or from people who spoke to white eyewitnesses, trial records, government documents, folk memories, The Confessions of Nat Turner (a published pamphlet

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