The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. By Stephen B. Oates. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831 left the idea of slave insurrection seething under the skin of southern whites up until emancipation. Stephen B. Oates sets out to trace the life of Nat Turner in his book The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. He approaches this topic primarily to achieve a scholarly study on Turner, but partially to refute the negative scholarship on Turner. Finally, he gives an analysis of the impact which the revolt had on southerners.
Before Turner’s rebellion, the South watched over their slaves with little caution. It was thought that allowing their slaves families, their own churches, and small doses of free time would build discipline and loyalty. Slave insurrection always remained a fear in the back of southern minds, especially after Haiti in the 1790s; however, Virginians particularly believed that slaves had a good life within slavery and would not risk rising up against their masters. No major slave plot had been carried out, and a few plans had been thoroughly crushed as an example.
Nathanial Turner was born into this more lenient and na´ve South in 1800. Found to be exceptionally gifted early on, he was the talk of the slave and white communities. According to Oates, the Turners who had owned Nat were never too oppressive, but they did expect for him to do his work. He studied religion fervently, and began preaching to blacks all over Southampton County, VA. With his widely known intelligence and preaching ability came the hope that he would be set free, a man too valuable to waste laboring in the sun; unfortunately, successive owners condemned Turner to the fields.
Oates attributed Turner’s plans of rebellion with the final realization that he would not be freed by white men. At around 25 Turner believed that God had sent him a message to lead his people to freedom. He kept this plan to himself but began to build up support in the black community. In 1831 a solar eclipse convinced Turner to begin plotting his war on the whites. Turner interpreted another solar phenomenon as a sign to start his crusade. On August 21 Nat began a rebellion with six trusted men. Their goals were simply to kill every white person they came across and to take the town of Jerusalem, VA.
Nat began his rebellion with six trusted lieutenants and by the height of the rebellion he had around eighty soldiers. The plan was to go from house to house slaughtering its white population while freeing and recruiting its slave population. However, most slaves seemed terrified by the barbaric butchery, and fled to warn the other whites. After attacking a half dozen homesteads, the rebels realized that some of the whites had evacuated already. Turner divided his forces to reach maximum efficiency and set a rendezvous point. This was perhaps the downfall of the rebellion; the lack of firm leadership led many of the raiding parties, after killing a homestead’s inhabitants, to stay and get drunk. Turner would come back to these groups and have to rally his troops back into the fight. This disorganization led to two skirmishes with white militias, which killed, wounded, or scattered the majority of Turner’s forces. Turner was forced to hide out in a small hole for weeks after his rebellion failed.
Meanwhile, his conspirators were being tried and hung in Jerusalem. Furthermore, blacks throughout Virginia and North Carolina were becoming the target of terrified and angry whites. Both states had mobilized their militia, and even federal troops were in Jerusalem within a few days. Panic spread throughout the South; Oates estimates that 60 whites died in the rebellion, but 200 blacks died in retaliation. The panic continued until Turner was found, tried, and executed. After this point, the legislatures of the South began to tighten their policies on slavery.
Oates’s final section looks at the impact the rebellion had on the south. Foremost, the revolt crushed the little freedom which slaves had. Blacks, free and slave alike, lost freedom of movement, religion, and basically any other small liberties. Northern abolitionist pamphlets were made illegal throughout the south, and the mere mention of abolition could land a person, white or black, in serious trouble. Colonization was debated and thrown out, while slavery became more entrenched in the South. Oates believes that the rebellion was the turning point for the South. After 1831 the South would never end slavery on its own, and it would begin to isolate itself from the North into a state of irreconcilable turmoil. Oates provides the historian with an exciting and detailed account of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, although he does seem to make a habit of writing Nat’s inner voice from time to time. Something a Historian probably shouldn’t do.
The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. By Stephen B. Oates. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
In Stephen Oates’s work, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion, the author not only gives a retelling of the infamous slave revolt in August 1831 in Southhampton County, Virginia, he details the reaction of Southern culture. Most of the slave owners in Virginia felt that they had provided a benevolent and kind guardianship over their slaves. But, since the 1790 slave riots in Haiti, beneath the slaves’ calm exterior, there lay a dormant volcano, a seething mass of anger awaiting the right moment to explode.
The South had experienced several incidents of slave rebellions either actually in progress or in the planning stages. In 1767, four overseers were killed outside of Alexandria, Virginia. White lynch mobs reacted quickly by decapitating the four slaves thought responsible. The 1800 conspiracy of Gabriel Prosser and other skilled slaves who intended to destroy Richmond struck a deep, resonating chord of fear in slave owners.
Into this cauldron Nat Turner was born. Born into slavery in 1800, from the very beginning Nat and others had great expectations of him as a prophet. The congenital bumps found on his body had many slaves recalling those as marks had many slaves, recalling an African tradition, seeing bumps as assign that he was destined to lead. Oates relates how the self-educated Nat Turner used his extensive knowledge of the Bible to create aura of mysticism around him.
The author notes that Nat Turner experienced an extremely difficult period when the delusion he would be freed evaporated with the death of Master Turner. Nat’s sale to a new owner crushed his feverish hopes of obtaining his freedom. During this period, Nat drew solace from studying the Bible and from prayer.
Slowly Nat’s reputation as an intelligent black preacher and mystic grew. He used Sundays not only to preach to his fellow slaves but to also to develop a network of loyal followers to whom he vented his anger and frustrations. In total secrecy, he developed a plan to cause a massive slavery revolt and slay all the whites in Southhampton County. And on a Sunday night, August 21, 1831, he put his plan into action. The initial attack fell upon the current masters of Nat Turner. The rebels then marched from plantation to plantation all through the night slaughtering whites in their homes. The rebels gained more followers as they progressed, but not all the slaves joined them on Nat’s march, (which surprised Nat), until numbering just over 40 slaves.
During the rebellion Nat Turner abstained from drinking any alcohol; he also spared a white childhood friend, and the owners of his wife. Nat also admonished his fellow slaves not to loot the various plantations. However, by Tuesday morning, the anger that fueled the slave revolt had expended itself. The main leaders of the revolt had died, been captured or, like Nat Turner, taken to hiding. By October 1831 Nat Turner had been captured, and after a short trial, he was hung by the neck until dead.
The last section of the book deals with the South’s reaction to their worst fear coming to life. The slave owners’ sensed that the Nat Turner rebellion had its roots in Northern abolitionists, and in religious teachings, led Southerners not toward reform and elimination of slavery but rather toward harsher slave codes.
Stephen B. Oates provides a thoroughly well written, easily readable work that provides a wealth of researched material for any historian to use. It shows how a desperate man with delusions of grandeur, fell far short of the expectations he had in himself.
Texas Christian University Thomas Walker
The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. By Stephen B. Oates. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Pp. xi + 187. Forward, prelude, epilogue, reference notes, index. ISBN 0-06-013228-0. Cloth)
Nat Turner of Virginia fomented the most famous slave rebellion in American history in August of 1831. Stephen Oates’ book on Turner is not simply a recounting of the revolt, but, more important, an analysis of the far-reaching impact the incident had upon both antebellum North and South. Slave owners in 1831 Virginia regarded relations between master and slave as “sweetness and sunshine”. (p.3) They viewed their slaves as the best cared for in the South. In many area churches Sunday sermons focused on the kindness and caring of the masters, urging the slaves in attendance to be obedient and follow orders. Yet all was not well in the land of sweetness and sunshine. Beneath the veneer of the idyllic pastoral society was an intense fear that struck Southerners to their very core.
From the 1760s to 1830 there had been several incidents of slave uprisings in the South. In 1767, four white overseers were killed in Alexandria, Virginia. Whites responded by severing the heads of four slaves and putting their “grinning skulls on chimneys”. (p.15) In 1790 the massive slave revolt on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in the Caribbean ended with 60,000 dead. American slave owners were terrified this rebellion would spread to the South. Southampton County, Virginia saw its first local uprising in 1799 when slaves killed two whites. In reprisal, four blacks were hung. A year later, a large conspiracy in Richmond led by Gabriel Prosser and other skilled urban slaves to burn the town and take whites hostage was uncovered. Prosser and 34 other blacks were hung.
The Prosser revolt convinced many in Virginia their fears concerning Santo Domingo were not illusory. For the next three decades slave owners lived in constant terror such revolts might occur again, striking any time and any place. Planters had “nightmarish visions of death and destruction, of ax-wielding blacks, their once submissive “darkies” satanically transformed into rebels who would butcher, burn and rape their way across the South in an apocalypse of violence worse than Hell itself.” (p.18)
A fourth conspiracy, in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822 ended with 35 blacks sentenced to hang. Rather than address the root difficulty of why slaves were revolting, and examine the institution of slavery, Southerners instead looked to externals to rationalize their problems. Some said slavery was a “necessary evil”, the fault of the British, who had brought it to the colonies. Planters in the 1830s were now “stuck” with slavery and had no choice; it had become “an economic necessity.” (p.19) Slavery, they were certain, was the will of God.
Set against this backdrop were the events of August 1831 in Southampton County, located in southeastern Virginia. Nat Turner, a self-educated slave who could read and write, began preaching dissension to other blacks at Sunday morning church meetings. Turner felt he was special, not just a field hand, but chosen by God for a special mission. His mission was to rise up and slay his white enemies with their own weapons. Then the day of Jubilee (Judgment Day) would be at hand, the blacks that had been last, would now be first, and the whites obedient to them.
Turner and his group of trusted confidantes set their plan in motion on Sunday August 21. During the next two days the small group of about 15-20 blacks declared war on slave owners in the vicinity of Jerusalem, the county seat. White men, women and children were brutally butchered on their farms. Local militia finally dispersed the rebels, killing some, and arresting the survivors. Turner escaped, but was apprehended two months later, tried and executed. The uprising by local slaves Turner expected never materialized. Alienated by the savagery and carnage of the attacks, the slaves refused to participate. Some slaves took news of the uprising to white townspeople and others physically defended their masters. Virginia slaves despised bondage, but not enough to kill.
Whites in Southampton County were also guilty of many excesses during the Turner rebellion. Vigilante groups committed many grisly outrages, killing 120 innocent blacks, decapitating some and mounting their heads on stakes.
Southern society was never the same after Turner and the events of August 1831. Planters were now forced to admit that not everything was “sweetness and sunshine”. Slavery did not create happy, smiling slaves. Landowners were forced to consider there might be other Turners in the South, perhaps on their very plantation. An immense wave of paranoia, rumors and hysteria now swept over the South in the aftermath of the revolt.
As in the past, Southerners were once again confronted with repercussions from their adherence to the institution of slavery. And again, as in the past, whites chose to focus on externals rather than confront a situation they were perpetuating. The governor of Virginia, John Floyd, accused Northern abolitionists of planning the rebellion. One Boston abolitionist newspaper claimed the South had gotten what it deserved. Governor Floyd demanded such seditious Northern newspapers be muzzled, or else the South would be forced to leave the Union.
However, Northern abolitionists did not condone the use of violence in bringing an end to slavery. Most Northerners were not abolitionists, and many were white supremacists. The Northern society was discriminatory and did not admit blacks into positions of authority. Some Northerners favored moving the blacks away to a colony overseas or in the West. Others wanted to leave slavery alone, and a few Northern newspapers advocated providing the South military support in future revolts.
One significant result of Turner’s rebellion is that Virginia, from 1831-1832, debated emancipation of its slaves. In the end however, the state chose instead to strengthen slave codes and increase patrols and militia. Free blacks had most of their rights taken away, and slave schools and religious meetings were banned. Slave owners did not want the system producing another educated Nat Turner. During the Virginia debate, William and Mary Professor Thomas Dew concluded “slavery was not an evil, but a necessary stage of human progress, an indispensable means of regulating Negroes who were not ready for freedom. Blacks were vastly inferior to whites and should not be liberated. They were inherently lazy and no free black would work unless you made them” (p. 141)
What could have been a great opportunity for Virginia and the South to finally come to terms with slavery was lost. In 1832 Virginians glanced at emancipation, flinched and looked the other way. It was too much to consider. In the South, the amount of slaves one held was a status symbol, a measure of one’s importance on which to base their standing in society. Slaves represented a large investment of time and money. Combining these sentiments with the prevalent fears and attitudes of the time, it was not feasible for Southerners to give up their “institution”. They were unwilling to face or adapt to the prospect of no slavery. In the end it would take a war to permanently dislodge this institution that had become so entrenched in their psyche and society.
Oates’ book is well written, researched, and engaging. He puts the reader into Turner’s mind and clearly shows the evolution from a young boy playing in the woods with his white friends, to a bitter, fanatical black man chafing at the chains of slavery. Turner knew he deserved more than life as a field hand slave, but society would not permit him to rise above his lot. So he struck a misguided and misdirected blow for freedom. With that blow, Turner’s legacy among some Virginia blacks today approaches that of folk hero, while to a few whites in Southampton County, August 1831 is a memory best left alone.
The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. By Stephen B. Oates. (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, c. 1975. Pp. ix, 187. ISBN 0-06-013228-0)
In The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion, Stephen Oates offers a “dramatic narration” that relates with “empathy and accuracy” the story of the notorious Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. Oates sets the historical context, tells the story and offers a chapter on the legacy of the uprising. The narrative includes nearly as much information about southern attitudes about slavery and the reaction of Virginia governor John Floyd as it does about the enigmatic Nat Turner. The work includes a short bibliographical essay and an extensive endnote section.
Oates lays out a brief historical context of the life of a slave in Southampton County, Virginia in the 1820s. He then relates what little information is known about Nat Turner. Born in 1800 and into slavery, Nat Turner played with white children until he reached the age of 12, when he began toiling in the fields. The author discusses the life of a slave in this period, if not Turner’s specifically. The author also offers the reader information on the growing southern fear of a slave rebellion. The uprising in Haiti caused considerable concern in the south, but thwarted slave uprisings instigated by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessey brought those concerns literally into southern backyards.
Oates next describes the strange coincidences in Turner’s youth and early adulthood. Stories of knowledge, which the boy simply could not have acquired, bumps or marks on Turner and an insatiable interest in the Bible all created an almost mystical reputation for Nat Turner as he began his adult life. Many of the sources agree on the intelligence of Turner as well as his fascination with the Bible, but many of the other stories may be apocryphal. The author notes the intense frustration of a man so intelligent to be forced to do intense manual labor. As Turner’s interest in religion grew, he became a self-styled black preacher and increasingly believed that he was destined to free his people.
Several whites owned Turner, but he basically remained within Southampton County. His reputation continued to grow both within and outside the slave community. His obvious religious leanings and intelligence earned him some leeway and mobility, which he used to establish close bonds to several other slaves in the area. As his frustrations mounted and his biblical study increased, Nat Turner believed that his destiny involved freeing his people. He confided this in very few others, and remained confident that once the rebellion began, other slaves would flock to the cause. This secrecy allowed the conspiracy to continue when others had been discovered due to a lack of security. Turner simply waited for a sign from God to begin his “Old Testament”-style uprising.
That sign came in 1831. First, in February 1831, Turner believed that a recent eclipse was that sign. Later in 1831 an atmospheric condition distorted earth’s view of the sun and Turner’s conspirators began preparations in earnest. The author offers information on Turner’s lieutenants, but this information may also be apocryphal. The rebellion began late Sunday night, August 21, 1831. The rebels counted on the militia being disbursed hindering initial response to the insurrection and the usual noises of slaves hunting on Sunday masking any commotion the rebellion might cause. The only real goal of the rebellion was to march on the city of Jerusalem, the county seat. The first assault came against Nat Turner’s master and family. They were butchered in their sleep with axes to avoid noise.
The small band of slaves went from plantation to plantation butchering whites along the way. Most were killed with knife, axe or sword. The rebels acquired guns, ammunition and supplies as they went. After several inept attempts, Turner killed a white woman later Monday morning. Paradoxically, although wholesale slaughter was encouraged, Turner allowed no raping and discouraged pillaging. The rebellion contained many such oddities. First, a few whites were spared. His childhood white friend and the owners of his slave wife never witnessed the carnage unleashed on their neighbors. Second, even though Turner inspired many to join his band, an equal number of slaves refused, ran off or resisted. Most feared the white man’s retribution, once the rebellion faltered. Several slaves even assisted in defense of their masters or hid them from the butchery. Third, even though Turner frowned on pillaging, many slaves raided the empty houses and a good number of them became drunk. Finally, Nat Turner followed the rebellion from behind after the initial assault on his master’s house. Though everyone knew he was the leader, he did not assume leadership duties until the eventual confrontation with armed white men occurred on Monday afternoon.
As the rebellion continued toward Jerusalem it met stiffer and stiffer resistance. The random patterns of attacks actually aided the rebels by confusing their armed white pursuers. With the road to Jerusalem blocked and numerous white bands on their heels the rebels fought several skirmishes and lost many of their number. Monday night brought renewed enthusiasm for a morning assault on Jerusalem with new slave recruits. By Tuesday morning news had reached Richmond and sheer panic ensued. Ironically, by Tuesday morning the rebellion had petered out and those slaves who were not dead or captured were on the run, including Nat Turner.
As panic gripped the Virginia and North Carolina countryside, whites bent on revenge unleashed a greater carnage on any black person they could get their hands on. By the end of the slave rebellion, some 60 whites, mostly women and children, had died. By the end of the white reaction some 200 blacks had died. The end of the rebellion brought renewed concern to other areas of the South that might experience the same thing. Through the rest of August and into September, Nat Turner remained at large. His capture in late October did little to assuage those fears. As he was tried and executed, southerners looked for answers as to why this happened. Of course, the brutality of slavery escaped examination and the scapegoat proved to be northern abolitionists.
The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison, advocated the abolition of slavery. This miniscule paper began its publication in early 1831 and was instantly seized upon by southern slavery defenders as the causus belli of the rebellion. Thus began the southern obsession with the “heinous Yankee conspiracy” to end their way of life. The obvious factors of causality were ignored and one of the sectional tensions that helped cause the eventual Civil War was born. The author included a short chapter on the legacy of Nat Turner’s rebellion. Besides the “abolitionist conspiracy” the rebellion caused an increased rationalization of the peculiar institution. Religious teaching to slaves and black preachers became very unpopular in many southern minds. The South strengthened slave patrols and increased the severity of slave code violation. While the Nat Turner rebellion caused some debate over slavery, especially in Virginia, most southerners embraced the new rationalization of slavery as a “positive good.”
The lack of definitive scholarly sources causes the author to place contemporary common attributes on some of the characters without necessarily going too far. The book offers a very readable narrative of the rebellion for undergraduate, graduate or even popular readers, as well as an extensive commentary on southern views and reactions.