Nat Turner, Slave rebellions, Southampton County, Slavery
For generations, the story of Nat Turner, the slave rebel of Southampton County, Virginia, has challenged historical narrators to weave a coherent story from thin strands of sparse source material. This has resulted in seamless narratives, such as Stephen Oates's Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion (1975), as well as magisterial furor, such as that occasioned by the novel that William Styron titled after the rebellion's key source, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). The real Turner has remained obscure, however. Kenneth S. Greenberg's fine collection of essays, Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (Oxford, UK, 2004) went far in offering correctives. But, as Charles Burnett ably presents in his film Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property (2003), Turner has always been a malleable figure, used for a wide range of purposes from his own day into the present.
The culprit has been a paucity of sources, compelling historians to rely on the vexatious Confessions. More than any other scholar, David F. Allmendinger, Jr. has remedied this. In Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County, he offers the most comprehensive account of the rebellion. His meticulous research into unpublished local records helps him make a strong case for the basic veracity of the Confessions, corroborating key points with other testimony and filling in critical gaps. In the process, he offers a compelling interpretation of the uprising's motives and meanings.
The backstory of the rebellion lay in the late eighteenth century. Whereas in the wake of the American Revolution many tidewater planters forsook slavery and emancipated their human property, the grandfather of Nat Turner's owner was among those who remained dedicated [End Page 390] to the institution. Ensuing years witnessed a growing network of tide-water alliances sewn together through credit relationships built on the collateral represented by slave property. The enslaved themselves witnessed their owners' ever-deepening commitment to the institution. They saw family members scattered upon the death of owners, given as dowries, and disposed of to settle estates. Turner himself may have been motivated partly by forcible separation from his wife and child, while others in his band had personal axes to grind with the local whites who wound up being their first targets. Allmendinger argues that one of the key motives for the insurrection lay in the slaves' remarkable awareness of their owners' legal machinations, and consequently in their broken hopes of individual emancipation and the family lives freedom would have made possible.
In his central thesis, Allmendinger asserts another level of motivation—attributable to Turner's "developing theory of how to overturn slavery" (96). Turner and his men "saw themselves as mounting a revolution," he argues, detailing the rebels' remarkably coherent plan of attack (97). While members of the group initially set their sights on families implicated in their own enslavement, they quickly broadened their scope, suggesting "that Turner's men were taking aim at slavery itself" (117). The insurrection's path from the countryside toward the town of Jerusalem broadened into an increasingly impersonal swath of destruction. Turner shifted to attacking active slaveholders and local magistrates while exempting those less clearly associated with the institution.
The evidence of Turner's thinking is understandably thinner, but Allmendinger's case is compelling. Turner premeditated a plan to secure Jerusalem, recruit more rebels, and turn to a military confrontation with authorities. But at Parker's field, more than two dozen slave rebels fell back in the face of a hastily mustered white militia, marking the insurrection's high tide. Shortly after this, Allmendinger argues, Turner's thoughts "turned from deeds to words, from revolution to the idea of terror" (198). At rare moments this interpretation is strained, as when Allmendinger reasons that the killing of the infant in the Travis house was intended "to leave a sign for those who would later enter the house, announcing that slaveholding was a capital crime that corrupted blood and for which there could be no...