He had escaped, he was free.
Most, if not all, in his position, would have kept running, and not looked back. They would have fled to the Northern Free States, or perhaps British North America, to try and start a new life there, just out of reach of their slave master. That was what his father had done before him when the boy was still too young to remember him. Not young Nat Turner though. After a month in the wilderness, he would return to his master by his own free will. Later, he would explain to Thomas Ruffin Gray, a lawyer who frequently represented slaves, and who’d go on to write “The Confessions of Nat Turner”, “the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master.”
In many senses, though Turner was different than his brothers and sisters in bondage, something that was recognized early on in his life. Though a slave, his first master, Benjamin Turner, would let him be educated in reading, writing, and religion. When Benjamin died in 1810, the ten-year-old Nat faced an uncertain future, sold three times after that. Still, what had stuck with him was the religious training he had received from the youngest of ages, and it had shaped who he would become. Fasting, praying, conducting Baptist services, reading his bible, he would become known as the Prophet by his fellow slaves. In his mind that was exactly what he was, a modern Moses who had come to lead his people from slavery. In his words, “I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching, when the first should be last, and the last should be first.” It was just that he had to wait for the sign.
In 1831 that sign would finally come to him he became convinced that following the eclipse, “I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.” Laying out his plans to his closest friends, he would begin to strategize, plotting the next move in what would become his revolt, that rebellion that he believed he was divinely ordained to take upon his shoulders and lead. At no point was he mistaken as to what it was, referring to it as “the work of death.” Whatever the cost though it was, in his mind, the price to pay for the freedom of his people, even if it was to be paid in the lives and blood of others.
Still, as he found that though he could recruit others, building his following to 70 slaves and free blacks, many would turn their back on him. It would, at least according to him, leave him so sick that the day would pass and he would have to wait for the next sign. Just over a month later, on August 13th of that same year, as Mount St. Helen erupted and the skies took on a strange new hue, it had come. There would be no more waiting.
Just after midnight on the 22nd of August, Turner and his supporters would launch their Rebellion. Even in the earliest of hours it turned bloodied, as Turner ordered his people that they were to kill indiscriminately of age or sex all white people they would come across. He would sneak into his Master’s chamber, a man he described as kind to him. Dark, too dark for him to see, he would swing a hatch and glance his head. John Travis would awake and call out to his wife. As Turner would tell the story, “it was his last word. Will laid him dead with a blow of his axe, and Mrs. Travis shared the same fate, as she lay in bed. The murder of this family five in number was the work of a moment, not one of them awoke; there was a little infant sleeping in the cradle, that was forgotten, until we had left the house and gone some distance, when Henry and Will returned and killed it.” Leaving guns as they believed they would attract too much attention, his followers would march, almost in military formation, with hatchets and axes and knives and clubs, freeing the slaves and murdering any white people they came across. In one instance they would hack at one woman, the sword so dull that Turner would keep bludgeoning her over the head.
With a trail of violence, blood staining the streets behind them they would cut through Southampton County Virginia, leaving few alive, sparing only the poorest white individuals, believing they were in the same estate as the slave and the black. 60 men, women and children would be brutally murdered, butchered at the order of Turner in his attempt to strike fear and terror into the hearts of the white population as they sought to gain in strength and numbers to get that foothold. Turner would later claim that he had no intention of letting the murders continue, it was only a part of his preliminary plan to build on his momentum and prevent any from stopping him.
Whether that was true or not, it would bring a swift reaction, not of submission, or defeat, but anger as a Militia twice the size of Turner’s insurrection, and supported by three artillery companies would put down the rebellion quickly. In the end, the Militia would kill over a hundred blacks, and the state would execute another 56, including a number who had nothing to do with the rebellion, an almost indiscriminate slaughter that answered Turner’s indiscriminate slaughter blood for blood. Word would quickly spread through the South as rumors circulated that the rebellion was not an isolated occurrence. Executions would become commonplace over the next weeks. John Hampden Pleasants of the Richmond Constitutional Whig would call it “the slaughter of many blacks, without trial, and under circumstances of great barbarity”, while Theodore Trezvant would announce that “The scouting parties through the county have killed 22, without law or justice, as they determined to shew them no mercy.” Men would be tortured, burned and maimed as the list of atrocities mounted in the name of Turner’s Rebellion, until the Commander, General Eppes of Sussex County, seeing enough of what he described as “revolting,” “inhuman” “acts of barbarity and cruelty” ordered it to stop.
Turner himself would survive until November of that year when he was captured by a farmer and then executed by hanging in Jerusalem Virginia, with rumors that he had been skinned afterward. The effects though would be long felt after as Virginia debated the gradual abolition of slavery, and found that the pro-slavery faction controlled too much of the state. Instead it would be the excuse many slave owners needed to pass even more oppressive measures on an oppressed people as laws would be enacted that made it illegal to teach any black or half black to read or write, and that would ban them from assembling or holding religious service without a licensed white minister in attendance.