Nat Turner and Sectional Crisis
LOUIS P. MASUR
The heavens darkened and Nat Turner prepared to strike. “And on the appearance of the sign, (the eclipse of the sun last February) I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons,” he proclaimed. The sign that signaled the beginning of the rebellion was no figment of his imagination. “THE GREAT ECLIPSE OF 1831,” alerted Ash's Pocket Almanac, “will be one of the most remarkable that will again be witnessed in the United States for a long course of years.” 1
On that day, 12 February 1831, Americans from New England through the South looked to the heavens. One diarist saw “men, women and children…in all directions, with a piece of smoked glass, and eyes turn'd upward.” The Boston Evening Gazette reported that “this part of the world has been all anxiety…to witness the solar eclipse…. Business was suspended and thousands of persons were looking at the phenomena with intense curiosity.” The Richmond Enquirer noted, “Every person in the city was star gazing, from bleary-eyed old age to the most bright-eyed infancy.” 2
In his Confessions, Turner explained that, following the eclipse, he initiated plans to strike on 4 July, but he fell ill and postponed the revolt until, in August, “the sign appeared again, which determined me not to wait longer.” That reappearing sign was every bit as real as the first one. Down the east coast, noted an observer in Philadelphia, the “western heavens seemed as one vast sea of crimson flame, lit up by some invisible agent. Thousands of our citizens gazed at the spectacle—some with wonder, oth-
This essay is adapted from Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001).