Though the subject of countless histories, novels, videos, and websites, Nat Turner, the leader of the largest slave insurrection in U.S. history, remains an enigma; yet, in this new and challenging study, the life and times of the legendary revolutionary come into much better focus. Rather than a biography of Nat Turner, Allmendinger’s painstakingly researched examination is a local history of Southampton County, Virginia, and the people Turner encountered throughout his short but significant life. By relying heavily on the “middle portion” (p. 7) of Thomas Gray’s controversial but wildly popular The Confessions of Nat Turner—a section in which Turner’s words appear less adulterated than throughout the remainder of the text—and digging deeper in the local archives than any previous scholar, Allmendinger explores the lives of a group of enslaved black men in the antebellum South who refused to accept their permanent status as chattel, valuable commodities wealthy white men and women bought and sold with impunity.
The result is a revision of the accepted historical narrative in several important ways. First, though a common laborer, Turner was an uncommonly resistant slave. Whether running away, talking to fellow bondspeople of the benefits of freedom, or experiencing a series of spiritual revelations that convinced him of a special purpose, Turner was destined to leave a significant antislavery legacy. No wild-eyed fanatic, Turner plotted and planned, schemed and strategized, for years. Second, the motives for the rebellion were crystal clear as Turner had the misfortune of remaining throughout his entire life in the possession of bottom-line businessmen and businesswomen who never even considered the possibility of manumitting their slaves. Exploring a dizzying number of estate, tax, and census records, Allmendinger demonstrates how vital slaves were to the personal wealth of slave owners who made a mockery of the idea that a paternalistic relationship [End Page 742] existed between master and servant; consequently, Turner’s only chance at freedom was the launching of a near-suicidal mission to extinguish the lives of those who held him, and others like him, in bondage. Finally, Turner and his roughly forty accomplices murdered more than fifty white Virginians not simply to seek vengeance but to spread terror across the region. Turner and his fellow revolutionaries dreamed that the bloody and lifeless corpses of men, women, and children left in their wake would force those responsible for slavery to dismantle the nefarious institution that made such bloodshed possible. As proof, Allmendinger shows that the route chosen by the rebels was no accident; instead, nearly every white casualty was chosen selectively as they (or someone in their household) either owned one or more of the rebel slaves or were public officials committed to maintaining the status quo regarding slavery.
Allmendinger makes a convincing argument that the 1831 Southampton revolt was a slave revolution intent on the destruction of slavery. He also provides convincing evidence that the massacre of dozens or even hundreds of slaves in the aftermath of Turner’s revolt by fearful and enraged white southerners never took place. Yet, despite these and other important contributions to the historiography, the book can be a difficult read. Some readers will recoil at lengthy genealogical asides and detailed lists of slave owners’ personal property, including the numbers of clocks, tables, desks, chairs, and ink stands in their possession at the time of their deaths. Still, the book is a must-read for historians of slave resistance and all others interested in the history of antebellum Virginia and in particular Southampton County. [End Page 743]
MATTHEW J. CLAVIN, associate professor of history at the University of Houston, is the author of Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War (2010). His current research focuses on fugitive slaves and their allies in Pensacola, Florida.