The First Civil War, 1830-1837

Nat Turner -- and the Others Like Him

Real War 
   Grounded Networks 
      The Plains   
      Custom, & the Ports    
      Nat Turner, & Others   
      The Islands   
      The Southern Slopes   
      The Mission Coasts  
  Control Networks 
      Mills & Planters  
      Silver & opium  
      Alamán & Calhoun  
      Rancheros & Pilots  
      The War of the South  
      Siege & Contagion 
A Note on Then and Now 
What They Called "Civil War"  
   Liberal Projects 
   Conservative Demagogues 
   Fight Scenes  
  Grounded Reaction 
Outcomes, and Vision 
There are those who would say that the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, in the South Carolina of 1822, worked mostly in the paranoid imagination of slaveholders like Joel Roberts Poinsett.  And some would say that the conspiracy of La Escalera, in the Cuba of 1844, was just talked up by the authorities to justify repression. 

The same logic would have it that Nat Turner, who really did rebel in the Virginia of 1831, acted in a vacuum:  But: 

The slaves of Virginia and the Carolinas enjoyed an extended personal network. They shared news and reactions, even if their own network was no hierarchy that could command them into action.  News could be picked up from whites -- or passed on to whites.  Because the slave network operated well for transmitting information, but poorly for maintaining organization, any action by the network as a whole was likely to result from some "sporadic" increase in local anger, which then aroused echoes and repeats through the area. 

Nat Turner, a slave on a very ordinary farm in southeastern Virginia, was a religious visionary.  With images of blood in his prophesying, he became a strong figure among those around him.  He knew the lay of the land from one plantation to another, knew what kinds of feelings were shared by slaves, knew too what kinds of supplies or weapons were likely to be found in the typical farmhouse.  Gathering a small band around him one night -- only seven persons at first -- he set out on a circuit through their part of Southampton County, killing whites they encountered, seizing weapons, recruiting other slaves into the band. Within three days, they killed over fifty whites, and increased their own numbers to over fifty. 

News spread, to both whites and blacks.  Where groups of slaves were known to be restive, some became more agitated.  Their more fearful fellows sometimes reported this agitation to the whites as conspiracy -- which it was probably becoming, in some cases.  Whites reacted quickly -- whether to the fact of Nat Turner's outbreak, to true reports of conspiracy elsewhere, to false reports of conspiracy, or to their own fears.  Units of militia were sent to counties throughout the area, and were backed up by small groups of U.S. soldiers and marines from Norfolk.  Most of the rebels in Southampton County, plus many reported conspirators in other neighborhoods, were rounded up quickly.  Turner himself, isolated, went into hiding. After two months he was finally tracked down, tried, and executed.

Nat Turner was not alone.  There were others, in three directions: 
  • There were individual slaves, scattered through the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, ready to seize economic opportunities, and ready to act in other ways too.  As drivers on plantations, as traders in local markets, as workers whom their owners hired out to whites in the towns, they parlayed what they could out of the slave regime.  Some were ready to stir in a more ominous way, when they heard of violence like Turner's.  These people were not phantasms imagined by white paranoia.
  • There were slaves in Turner's own neighborhood, in southeastern Virginia, who picked up and followed him.  And when the news of his action spread, its reach was not limited to the individuals whom prosecutors soon discovered and named.
  • There were black preachers and prophets through much of the United States.  Free and slave, with messages like enough to Turner's, they did not always stick to their own neighborhoods.  Some few went off to the West Indies, and acted within networks there.
The events of 1831, in Virginia, were only one local phase of a broad drive by slaves and ex-slaves, to comprehend and use their universe.  For good reasons, Turner's action was not even the most successful one of the period.
There was an obvious difference between the larger tropical colonies, like Guyana or Jamaica, and the 19th-century North American continent.  In Carolina and Virginia, slaves could and did rebel. But they had little in the way of a backcountry where they might establish communities of their own.
Exclusive attention to Turner as hero or martyr is one of the stranger forms taken by U.S. cultural nationalism.  The concentration on one individual, there, ignores the breadth of conflict in other parts of the continent.

Turner's individual charisma and individual failure were less important than the responsiveness, the organic aliveness of the slave network in his area.  Even when potential activists were isolated within the whole slave population, they could observe how individuals reacted to the reports that drifted in, about attacks on slavery in other areas.  The outbreak of 1831 was less an actual rebellion, than it was a confrontation between two networks:  between the main body of the criollo network on the one hand, equipped with elaborate physical resources, and a diffuse personal network of slaves, whose equipment consisted of words and labor power.

The individual slaves and free blacks who built up systems of trade and farm operations, and the individual preachers who built up systems of prophecy, were working out different aspects of the same thing, a network for possessing as much as they could of their own universe.

  • Turner described how, several years before the rebellion, his visions leapt beyond what slaves around him understood.  In the words reported by a white who took them down:
  • The elements Turner envisioned had their practical counterpart in the way slaves around there dealt with life.  On one plantation in Washington County, North Carolina, hardly a hundred miles from Turner's ground, slaves were quick to pick up on any slackening in the overseer's control.  Early in 1836, while their owner was off in Washington as a member of Congress, it was the drivers who led the crew in taking over for a great celebration and holiday.  One ring-leader, Henry, got a hundred lashes for his pains, and the congressman came scurrying back to re-order things.  As the years went on, Henry would go off to the swamps for a time, then return.  He was on the property a quarter of a century later when the U.S. Army brought emancipation. He claimed the plantation as his own for several months, giving orders to other ex-slaves.  Then he went off to establish a small farm. All along, he paid attention to what he heard from the world, but pushed for what he could get.
  • The slaves' sense of connectedness reflected the way discipline was exerted over them. They, and their family members, were in constant danger that slaveowners would use them as marketable items, to be separated, moved at will from one part of the continent to another. This threat helped to keep them under discipline.  When the younger sons of plantation owners left the area, taking some of the slaves and joining the land boom in Mississippi and Texas, this move reinforced the convergence between liberal speculation and conservative discipline.  Sensitive to the effects of this nation-building combination, slaves were already building up their own systems of connection.


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