Are Slave Rebellions Part of the Story of American Freedom?

The Georgia Historical Society is in the process of installing new historical markers that expand our understanding of how the war impacted society beyond the battlefield.  One of the markers focuses on a failed slave revolt in the town of Quitman, Georgia, near the Florida border.  In 1864 three slaves and their white ringleader named John Vickery were hanged in Brooks County.  The reporter notes that, “The story highlights how three and a half years into war, many Georgians – especially poor, non-slaveholders — were hungry for food, war-weary and disillusioned with the Confederate cause.” And according to Todd Groce, the President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, the story “has a great relevance because it tells the African American people that they too are a part of the Civil War.”

Here is the text for the marker:

Civil War Slave Conspiracy

In August 1864, during the American Civil War, four men were executed in Brooks County, Georgia, for conspiring to plot a slave insurrection. The conspirators–led by a local white man, John Vickery, and three slaves named Nelson, George, and Sam–planned to seize weapons and take control of the town of Quitman, securing it for the U.S. Army in nearby Florida. Local authorities discovered the plot before it could be carried out. All four conspirators were convicted of insurrection and executed on August 22, 1864.  Anti-Confederate activity such as this, along with food riots, draft evasion, and labor unrest, increased during the final year of the war.

The choice of words is interesting.  Like most historical markers the basic outline of the event is presented, but there is little attempt to frame around a broader theme and that’s probably a good thing.  I assume that the “anti-Confederate” activity implied here is the slave insurrection itself, though it isn’t so clear.

I’ve asked this question before, but it is worth returning to given the placement of this marker: Is this event simply an example of anti-Confederate activity or is it part of a broader story of American freedom that we can all identify with?

[Note: I took the photo from one of the two article cited here because of the text that accompanied it: "A new plaque commemorates a failed slave revolt in Quitman. This image depicts a successful uprising by Nat Turner in Virginia."  It goes without saying that Turner's rebellion was not successful.]

12 responses... add one

Kevin-I think it the marker is, at best, a gross oversimplification. Without more information, even if they were executed for plotting a slave rebellion doesn’t mean they were.There are very well documented slave revolts like Stono and Nat Turner.. However, the massive white paranoia often manufactured slave revolts out of very little or even out of whole cloth. If whites suspected slaves were plotting, slaves were often tortured into providing “evidence” or other slaves, either to protect themselves or to gain privileges, would accuse others. Two books that go into this a great deal are Donald Reynolds “Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South” LSU 2007 and David Grimsted’s “American Mobbing 1828-1861: Toward Civil War” Oxford 1998. If the paranoia existed to such an extent in peacetime or when secessionists believed that they could and would prevail, how must it have been when defeat was imminent, a Union army was approaching, and whites had to have felt defenseless. It wasn’t unusual for a white person (often a northerner, but anyone who was a bit different or “soft” on the Peculiar Institution) to be accused since it played into the myth that slaves were incapable of such a thing without white leadership seducing them from their “loyalty” to their owners and planning it for them.

As for enabling black people to feel part of the war, the fact that approximately 200,000 black men CHOSE to be soldiers in the army that liberated slaves and that many slaves, as Union armies approached and offered some refuge, voted with their feet and stripped the Confederacy of much of a labor source on which it depended. This took great bravery. It truly was a step into the unknown.

Hi Margaret,

You make an excellent point and I second the book’s you cite, especially the Grimsted study. That said, I have a great deal of respect for Groce’s scholarship and have to believe that the committee took the steps to base their interpretation on a reasonable reading of the available evidence.

In addition to the volumes cited by Ms. Blough, your readers might wish to read “Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy” (Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 1996), by the late Winthrop D. Jordon. The paperback edition is the one to get, as it has two appendices with documents found after the first edition came out. The “conspiracy,” whatever it was, occurred in Adams County, Mississippi, in the Spring and Summer of 1861, and resulted in many deaths. News of it was intentionally suppressed, because of the fear that it would make the Confederacy appear weak and subject to internal revolt. It’s a story, once read, never to be forgotten.

I definitely think that this is an example of the larger story of American freedom. What I don’t like about the new marker is how it halfheartedly implies that the slaves were ‘part’ of the confederacy by lumping them in with bread riots and draft evasion. I don’t think the slaves were revolting against the Confederate government so much that they were revolting against the institution of slavery. Freedom, not what government currently enslaved them drove the slaves to revolt. It seems almost as it this marker is only one step away from criticizing the slaves for revolting.

In terms of the Brooks County insurrection plot:

A Higher Duty: Desertion Among Georgia Troops During the Civil War by Mark A. Weitz (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2005) mentions that a Mrs. Mitchell Jones informed the governor of the plot and that “the slave leader belonged to her husband (p. 158).

It is also mentioned in On the threshold of freedom: masters and slaves in Civil War Georgia by Clarence L. Mohr (LSU Press, 2001) along with a plot in Hancock County in 1863.

I agree that there was a fearful hysteria about insurrections and the threat of insurrection but I also think that existed generally. For example, after the 1790s uprising in Haiti there was paranoia which started before Gabriel’s plot in 1800. Fear continued to exist and then there was the unraveling of the Denmark Vesey plot in South Carolina (1822). More fear and Nat Turner in 1831. Indeed a good description of this hysteria and how it impacted slaves exists in Harriet Jacobs’ narrative which can be found here (http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html#jac97). Victorious Atlantic perspectives found with the Amistad and Creole and the failed attempt of John Brown help flesh out this narrative.

I say all that because it is easy to see the hysteria of whites but I think within that it is easy to forget that there could indeed have been more failed insurrections than the ones we are all familiar with (i.e., the ones above plus the Stono Rebellion from the colonial era) and it is worthy of further exploit to see small armed revolts such as at Chatham in 1805 (http://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/slave-revolt-at-chatham/) within the larger context of real revolts and fear about insurrection.

The Vickery episode is one of many similar stories from Georgia, and it was featured in “Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War” published a few years back. The Vickery “conspiracy” demonstrates the intersecting of two themes of southern resistance to the Confederacy – that from the slaves and that from the poor whites. And I do not think those two forces were necessarily divergent.

Unless someone steps forward with the thoughts of Vickery and his partners captured in writing, we can really only speculate as to the underlying motivations. However, Vickery operated within the area for some time before acting in consort with the slaves. And the timing of the plot coincided with Stoneman’s abortive 1864 raid and activity by the Gulf Blockading Squadron along the coast. Perhaps the slaves were motivated by a chance for freedom. But, based on my research, I would lean towards other possible motives for Vickery.

One must be vigilant, especially here, because it is so hard to hear the voices of the enslaved. I think placing slave insurrections within a framework of American liberty strays too close to ventriloquism. We don’t really know what slaves intended in most cases, and thus I think it goes too far to place this within any meaningful framework of American freedom. Take Peter Charles Hoffer’s newest book, for instance:
http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/HistoryAmerican/Southern/?view=usa&ci=9780195386615. He essentially argues that a minor act of resistance by enslaved blacks spiraled out of control and led to a larger uprising, spontaneous and with little concerted planning. If one remains preoccupied within showing concerted political action to attain what we view as “American freedom,” interpretive distortions emerge. Take for instance Nat Turner. I would think from what we know about Nat Turner, it would be more appropriate to say that his God failed him (and that is why the uprising failed). From Turner’s perspective, he was only the agent to catalyze some sort of eschatological occurrence (God would take care of the rest). Does this fall within a concept of expanding American freedom? We also have to reckon with the fact that Turner’s revolt became far more violent that he wished; it is entirely plausible that Turner’s compatriots seized upon the moment to exact revenge upon the whites who had enslaved them. From their perspective, the insurrection might have been entirely successful, insofar as their goals could have been simply to kill as many whites as possible before their own deaths or capture.

Excellent points, Peter. It looks like I need to pick up Hoffer’s book, which I should have done at the Southern. I agree with you re: the problem of sources in discerning what slaves believed/intended.

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