Maryland Reaction to the Nat Turner Rebellion, by Laura Bernstein & Laura Torbet, Montgomery College, Fall, 1999.
Nat Turner was born October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia on
the farm of Benjamin Turner. Being the child of a slave, Nat inherited
the inescapable burden of slavery. Nat grew up in a sixteen-foot windowless log hut with a dirt floor and a corn shuck-stuffed pallet for a bed. His childhood was short-lived due to the laboring that was required of him. However, as a youth, the son of his owner taught him how to read and write. In spite of the fact that it was illegal in Virginia to teach a slave to read, out of fear that they would read abolitionist writings and begin revolts, his master encouraged it as long as it was only the Bible.
Upon Benjamin Turner's death, Benjamin's son, Samuel, inherited Nat. Samuel, and his unmerciful attitude toward the labor of slaves, drove Nat to run away from the plantation in the early 1820. He made a clean escape. However, despite his success, he returned thirty days after the patrols stopped searching for him, because he strongly believed his destiny was to not only free himself, but to free his people as well. He married soon after, in 1821, to a slave named Cherry. Just after their second child was born, in 1822, Samuel Turner died, with no inheritance. All of the Turner property, lamps, tables, chairs, tools,
livestock and slaves, were priced and sold. Nat was sold to Thomas Moore at a top price of $400. Cherry and their children were sold to Morre's neighbor, Giles Reese. Nat would preach in black churches in Southampton and Greensville Counties on Sundays. Nat did it not only for religion, but for the opportunity to meet fellow slaves at every plantation in the area, not to mention every road, lake, swamp thicket and shed within thirty miles. A few warned the Moores that he was stirring a rebellion and requested that they keep Nat at home, but they felt that he was harmless. He didn't drink, steal or gamble, was polite and worked hard, so they let him continue preaching.
The insurrection is known as one of the bloodiest of all and also as one of the only effective ones. It began as Nat Turner response to a call from God. Nat believed himself to be an instrument of God to bring justice against the oppressors, in this case the whites. The catalyst for the insurrection was a solar eclipse in 1831. The insurrection was not spontaneous, Nat spent months collecting trusted followers. The original plan was to start the attack on July 4 because it was a holiday, and the whites would be at ease, also it was a significant date to represent their own independence. However Nat fell ill and the insurrection was postponed.
The insurgents went into action in late August of that same year. Nat and his followers moved from farm to farm killing all of the white inhabitants with no regard to sex or age. In his confession he said that he was instructed to slay his "enemies with their own weapons." His numbers grew from farm to farm as he "freed" more slaves. The insurrectionists did encounter some well fortified plantations where slaves as well as masters fought off the insurgents. Eventually all the insurrectionists, about eighteen in all, were either captured or killed. In the end about sixty whites were killed, exact numbers vary. The
insurrection was seen as a work of savages and brutes, not of men.
The slave insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831 caused a bitter reaction in the Maryland General Assembly. The Assembly adopted the policy of colonizing free blacks in Liberia in legislation passed that autumn of 1831, providing an annual appropriation to the Maryland State Colonization Society. Furthermore, the Assembly prohibited any future importation of slaves into the state. There was already a statute on the books prohibiting free blacks from other states settling in Maryland, they were only allowed to remain in the state for two weeks. This act of 1807 was given more severe penalties in 1831.
Also the General Assembly forbade free black citizens to buy liquor, own guns, sell food without a license, or even attend religious meetings
unless one white was present. Since the independent church was the only
real institution that the black community had been able to develop during its enslavement, the execution of this development was an especially callous regulation. Maryland further discouraged slave owners from manumitting their slaves by requiring them to send the free persons out of the state.
The county of Prince George dispatched an armed number of troops to a
suspected sympathizer. They took into custody any slaves that might be
connected with the rebellion. After questioning the overseer they determined five of the slaves to be suspects. Two of the five ran away and were shot, while the other three were taken into custody and thrown into jail.
The reaction of the press was panicked. Reports were exaggerated to a point of being ridiculous. It was a classic example of hysteria fueled by misinformation. "The Insurrection of the Blacks" stated that the
number of insurgents was from 130 to 400 and that the fallen numbered 25-30 families. The insurgents were called "wretches", but that was kind compared to some other reports.
"Insurrection in Virginia" was a letter from a civilian stating that 70 whites had been killed. The number of insurgents was ridiculously high, reporting that they numbered from six to eight hundred armed with scythes, muskets and axes. The description of the insurgents was harsh, calling them "demons in human shape". The letter was closed with the reassurance that the insurgents would be "shot down like crows and made examples of."
Other letters were published. One reported the insurgents decapitated the whites. It reported that the rebels would "massacre every white, even the infant in the cradle."
In September the "True Account of the Late Massacre in Southampton, Va. =
Committed by Some Whites and Negroes United" was published in the Easton Gazette of Easton, Maryland. It was a more accurate account of the incident. It mentioned that two to three whites were involved in the uprising, calling it a "calamitous affair". The rebels were called savages and wild beasts. In this article the author seemed to blame Virginia for fostering the event.
"It is hoped in the future, that Virginia will attend a little better to =
the hordes of bandits that live in the Dismal Swamp, whether white or black, and not here after indolently suffer a body of brigands to grow into savages in their immediate neighborhood, and again to perpetrate such savage acts."
To conclude, the Maryland reaction to the Nat Turner revolt was charged.
Newspaper reports however, were few and brief and legislation passed in reaction
to the revolt added impetus to the colonization movement in the various states and to the burdens of it free black population.
Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner, Slave Revolt Leader. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Easton Gazette, September 10, 1831
Eldion, Ray and MacMaster, Richard K. A Grateful Remembrance: The Story of Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery County Government and the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, MD
The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. (Baltimore, Md, 1831).
McDonald, Lawrence H. Failure of the Great Reaction in Maryland" Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maryland, 1974