Tag Archives: Nat Turner

“Before 2Pac, Before Barack, There Was Nat Turner”

Update: Those of you in Virginia may want to check out the upcoming Nat Turner Rebellion Symposium.

I learned of this planned movie about Nat Turner from my twitter feed and via this blog post. It’s hard to know what to make of the movie website. There is a script, but the casting call is open to anyone who wants to audition over YouTube. The trailer, which echoes some of the gratuitous violence of Django, will likely disturb some of you. Whether we ever see this movie in the theaters is anyone’s guess. At this point that might be a good thing.

A Glaring Omission

It’s difficult to tell whether much of anything is going to happen here in Virginia this weekend in acknowledgment of Lee-Jackson Day.  Yes, there is the parade tomorrow in Lexington, but that’s not surprising given the fact that the city serves as their final resting place.  It would be very strange indeed if the city didn’t mark the day with a public celebration, especially one organized by the SCV.  Given the apparent lack of interest, perhaps we need a new holiday.  So, which Virginians do you believe deserve his or her own day as a state holiday?  Don’t be shy.

I’ve been giving this some thought, not so much in the context of a state holiday, but in reference to our collective memory here in the good state of Virginia.  We have such a rich history here and there are plenty of important and obscure individuals who deserve to be remembered in one way or another.  It seems to me that the one glaring omission is the lack of any kind of monument to Nat Turner.  That’s right, I said Nat Turner.  I’m not suggesting that what is needed is something overtly celebratory, but some kind of acknowledgment of his role in Virginia history and the broader civil rights movement.  The fact that we still do not have a public site dedicated to Turner (even in Southampton County) tells us quite a bit about how we choose to remember our past.  More specifically, it tells us what we as a community have difficulty coming to terms with.  We will see this on Monday as the nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr.  Schools will perform the mandatory rituals and local news teams will cobble together the standard narrative that celebrates King’s commitment to non-violence and his role in singlehandedly bringing an end to racial injustice.  Perhaps we will see a few hoses from Birmingham.  The point is that most Americans would much rather celebrate the expansion of freedom in this country as emerging through non-violent means rather than through violence.

Turner raises all of these issues and more.  Can you imagine a Nat Turner day here in Virginia?

Update: Thanks to everyone who stopped by today. Friday is usually slow around here, but yesterday’s- and especially today’s posts clearly made an impact. My stats counter went through the roof. There is something quite powerful about blogging. On this Lee-Jackson Day I managed to steer at least a small portion of the public discussion in the direction of another Virginian who I believe deserves to be acknowledged in a more public way. [Please keep in mind the nature of a blog post.  Most of my posts reflect topics that I think about over time and rarely reflect conclusions that are set in stone.  Please feel free to challenge me and offer a different perspective.  I have nothing to lose, but ideas that I had not considered.]  A number of Yahoo groups picked up the post as well as the Civil War Talk Forum.  Even my friend in Fredericksburg, who never fails to point out how unimportant I am, chose to link to one of my comments. It’s a sign of just how unimportant I am that he would devote his blog to me on this Lee-Jackson Day. I am truly blessed with so many devoted readers.

Nat Turner Lived 40 Miles From the Crater

Nat_Turner_woodcut

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about the images of slave rebellions and miscegenation that shaped the world view of white Southerners throughout the antebellum period.  In the case of Nat Turner’s Rebellion newspapers throughout Virginia and beyond offered extensive coverage and attempted to offer an explanation that would assuage the concerns of what white Southerners believed to be docile and loyal slaves.  However, even before the bloody events that transpired in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831 there had already been close coverage of slave insurrections in the broader “Atlantic World” that stretched back to the rebellion in Saint Domingue.  In fact, by 1831 explanations purporting to explain why their slaves might rebel had already been strongly embedded by subsequent rebellions in Demerera, Barbados, and elsewhere.  The explanation that abolitionists (Missionaries) were responsible for the violence on their plantations provided a ready-made answer for Southern slaveowners who pointed the finger at the small abolitionist community in Boston.  Such an explanation, however, makes little sense without a broader appreciation of how events throughout the Atlantic World shaped their outlook.  Indeed, as historian Edward Rugemer asserts in his excellent study, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the Civil War, explanations of Turner’s Rebellion take on a hysterical quality.  He notes that by the time of the insurrection William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator had only recently begun publication, though its circulation was quite limited, The American Anti-Slavery Society had not yet been formed, the “Declaration of Sentiments” had not been written, and the New England Anti-Slavery Society had not even published its second Annual Report.  Finally, many northern newspapers condemned the violence in Virginia.

A few months after Turner’s Rebellion a much larger insurrection in Jamaica (“Baptist War”) involving 60,000 slaves broke out.  This was followed by England’s decision to abolish slavery in the West Indies.  My point is that to understand the fears of white Southerners (slaveowner and nonslaveowners alike) we have to consider the few rebellions that took place throughout the colonial and antebellum periods in a much broader context.  Information flowed back and forth freely first through word of mouth in port cities and later via the printed word.  White Southerners did not have to have seen the above woodcut, which was published in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County to understand the dangers of insurrection or their role in preventing such a nightmare.  By 1831 many white Southerners had come to view their world from a defensive posture which acknowledged the threat to slavery as stemming from ruthless abolitionists and a distant government.

William L. Garrison → Nat Turner → Jamaica → England abolishes slavery in West Indies → John Brown → Election of Republican Party → Emancipation Proclamation → Crater → ?

The men who joined the regiments that constituted the Virginia brigade of Mahone’s division at the Crater did not have to have seen the above woodcut because they lived it.  All of the regiments were raised in the Richmond-Petersburg-Norfolk area and William Mahone was born and raised in Southampton County.  The woodcut beautifully frames how we as historians should unpack/analyze how Confederates at the Crater viewed the presence of USCTs as well as how they responded.