In August 1831, in Virginia’s Southampton County, a literate, highly intelligent if eccentric enslaved man—consumed with such an outsize religious fervor that he was nicknamed “The Prophet” by those in his orbit—led what was to become the largest slave uprising in American history. Nat Turner’s Rebellion turned out to be a brief but bloody affair that resulted in the largely indiscriminate slaughter of dozens of whites—men, women, children, even infants—before it was put down. The failed revolt itself was and remains far less important than its repercussions and the dramatic echoes that still resounded many years hence during the secession crisis. Rarely would any historian of the American Civil War cite Nat Turner as a direct cause of the conflict—after all, the rebellion took place three decades prior to Fort Sumter—but it is almost always part of the conversation. Turner’s uprising not only reinforced but validated a deep-simmering paranoia of southern whites—who like ancient Spartans vastly outnumbered by Helots were often in the minority to their larger chattel population—and spawned a host of reactionary legislation in Virginia and throughout much of the south that outlawed teaching blacks to read and write, and prohibited religious gatherings without a white minister present. And while for those below the Mason-Dixon it was an underscore to the perils of their peculiar institution, at a time when abolitionism was in its infancy it also served to remind at least some of their northern brethren that the morally questionable practice of owning other human beings was part of the fabric of southern life. Indeed, one could argue that the true dawn of what we conceive of as the antebellum era began with Nat Turner.
For such a pivotal event in the nation’s past, the historiography has been somewhat scant. There is the controversial “confession” that Turner dictated to lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray in the days between his capture, trial and hanging, which some take at face value and others dispute. But in the intervening years, surprisingly few scholars have carefully scrutinized the rebellion and its legacy, which remains far better known to a wider audience from William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner than from the analytical authority of credentialed historians.
A welcome remedy can be found in The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, a brilliant if uneven treatment of the uprising and its aftermath by Patrick H. Breen, first published in 2016, that likely will serve as the academic gold standard for some time to come. While giving a respectful nod to the existing historiography—which has tended to breed competing narratives that pronounce Turner hero or villain or madman—Breen, an Associate Professor of History at Providence College, instead went all in by conducting an impressive amount of highly original research that locates the revolt within the greater sphere of the changing nature of the institution of slavery in southeastern Virginia in the early 1830s, which as a labor mechanism was in fact in a slow but pronounced decline. Nat Turner and his uprising certainly did not occur in a vacuum, but prior to Breen’s keen analysis, the rebellion was generally interpreted out of its critical context, which thus distorted conclusions that often pronounced it an anomaly nurtured by a passionate if deranged figure. For the modern historian, of course, this is not all that shocking, since the uncomfortable dynamics found in the relationships of the enslaved with wider communities of whites and other blacks (both free and enslaved) has until recent times been typically afforded only superficial attention or entirely overlooked. It is nevertheless surprising—given the notoriety of the Turner revolt—that until Breen there was such a lack of scholarly focus in this arena.
The book has eight chapters but there are three clear divisions that follow a distinct if sometimes awkward chronology. The first part traces the start and course of the rebellion and presents the full cast of characters of conspirators and victims. The second is devoted to subsequent events, including both the extrajudicial murder by whites of blacks swept up in the initial hysteria spawned by the revolt, as well as the carefully orchestrated trials and executions of many of the participants. The final and shortest section concerns the fate of Nat Turner himself, who evaded capture for two months—long after many of his accomplices had been tried and hanged.
The general reader may find the first part slow-going. The story of the revolt should be an exciting read, especially given the passion of prophecy that consumed Turner and the violence that it begat with its slaughter of innocents by an unlikely band of recruits whose motives were ambiguous. Instead, the prose at times is so dispassionate that the drama slips away. In my opinion, this is less Breen’s fault—he is, after all, a talented writer—than the stultifying structure of academic writing that burdens the field, the unfortunate reason why most best-selling works of history are not written by historians. But I would encourage the discouraged to press on, because the effort is intellectually rewarding; the author has deftly stripped away myth and legend to separate fact from the surmise and invention pregnant in other accounts. If there can be such a thing as a definitive study of the Nat Turner rebellion, Breen has delivered it.
It is clear from the character of the narrative that follows that Breen’s true passion lies in the aftermath of the revolt, where he serves as revisionist to what has long been taken for granted as settled history. This is as it should be, because it was the repercussions of the rebellion and the way it was remembered (north and south) in the thirty years leading up to secession that was always of far greater importance to history than the uprising itself. And it is unfortunately this echo—much of which has been unsubstantiated—which has tainted later scholarship. The central notion that prevailed, which Breen challenges, is that the reaction to Nat Turner was a widespread bloodbath of African Americans by unruly mobs whose suspicion was that all blacks were complicit or were simply driven by revenge. The other, also disputed by Breen, is that whatever trust might have once existed between white masters and the enslaved had forever evaporated, the former ever in fear that the latter were secretly plotting a repeat of the Turner episode. Finally, Breen takes issue with the view of many historians that the authorial voice in Turner’s “confession” is unreliable because it was dictated to a white man who was guided by his own agenda when he published it.
Breen refutes the first by lending scrutiny to the empirical evidence in the extant records of the enslaved population. A little general background for the uninitiated here: the enslaved were treated as taxable chattel property in the antebellum era, so meticulous records were kept and a good deal of that survives. Many slave-owners insured their human “property,” often through insurance companies based in the north. If an enslaved person was convicted of a capital crime, the state compensated the slave-owner for the executed offender. Breen, as a good historian, simply reviewed the records to determine if prevailing views of the rebellion’s aftermath were accurate or exaggerated. What he learned was that there was indeed much hyperbole in reports of widespread massacres of African Americans. Yes, certain individuals and militias did commit atrocities by murdering blacks, and sometimes torturing them first. But the numbers were vastly overstated. And local officials quickly put a stop to this, motivated perhaps far less by ethical concerns than in an effort to protect valuable “property” from the extrajudicial depredations of the mob, whose owners would not then be duly compensated. Breen should be commended for his careful research—which demonstrates that long-accepted reports of mass murder are simply unsupported by the records—yet it seems astonishing that those who came before him failed to follow the same road of due diligence that he traveled. This should underscore to all budding historians out there that there remains lots of solid history work ahead, even and especially in otherwise familiar areas like this one where what turns out to be a flawed analysis has long been taken for granted as the scholarly consensus.
This business of assigning value to chattel human property is uncomfortable stuff for modern students of this era, but as those who have read The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry’s outstanding treatment of the topic, it is absolutely essential to understanding how slavery operated in the antebellum south. The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood steps beyond the specifics of Nat Turner to offer a wider perspective in this vein, as well. The enslaved were often subject to the arbitrary sanctions of their masters, but those accused of capital crimes were technically granted a kind of due process of law. Breen points out that special courts of “Oyer and Terminer” that lacked juries—the same kind that convicted and hanged those accused of witchcraft in Salem—were ordained in Virginia to judge such cases. Initially enacted to expedite the trial process of the enslaved, the courts—captained by five magistrates who were typically wealthy slave-owners, and which duly supplied defense attorneys to the accused—came to have the opposite effect, convicting only about a third of those brought before them. [p108] Much of the reason for these results seems to be connected to an effort to limit the cost of the state for compensation for those sent to the gallows for their crimes.
It turns out that these same courts also had a tempering effect on the trials of those accused of taking part in the rebellion. But this time, it wasn’t only about the money. Breen argues convincingly that the elite magistrates who controlled the trial process also created and marketed to the wider community a reassuring narrative that the uprising was a small affair involving only a small number of the misguided. In the end, eighteen were executed, more than a dozen were transported and there were even some acquittals. Thus, state liability was limited, and the peculiar institution was protected.
That reassurance seems to have been effective: freedom of movement for the enslaved subsequent to the revolt was not as constrained as some have maintained, as evidenced by the fact that Nat Turner was discovered in hiding and betrayed by other enslaved individuals who were hardly prohibited from wandering alone after dark. By the time Nat Turner was captured and executed, the rebellion was almost already history. As to the veracity of Turner’s “confessions” to Grey, Breen makes a compelling argument in support of Turner’s words as recorded, but that will likely remain both controversial and open to interpretation. So too will the person of Nat Turner. The horror of human chattel slavery might urge us to cheer Nat and his accomplices in their revolt, while the murder of babies in the course of events can’t help but give us pause. Likewise, we might harshly judge those white slave-owners who dared to judge them. But, of course, that is not the strict business of historians, who must sift through the nuance and complexity of people and events to get to the bottom of what really happened, warts and all.
I first learned of The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood when I sat enthralled by Breen’s presentation of his research at the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2019 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, and I purchased a copy at the college bookstore. While I have some quibbles with the style and arrangement of the book, especially to the strict adherence to chronology that in part weakens the narrative flow, the author has made an invaluable contribution to the historiography with what is surely the authoritative account of the Nat Turner Rebellion. This is and should be required reading for all students of the antebellum era.
NOTE: My review of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is here: