In the early years of the 19th century, some Southern planters took pains to treat their slaves well, as healthy slaves were more likely to work efficiently and reproduce. Slaveholders contended that the master-slave relationship was a mutually beneficial one.
But periodic slave uprisings gave the lie to such a notion. The most notorious uprising took place in the summer of 1831, when a Virginia slave named Nat Turner led a rampage that left more than 50 whites dead. Whites retaliated by murdering more than 100 blacks, slave and free alike; imposing new restrictions throughout the South; and seizing and destroying Northern abolitionist literature.
In 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist, minister, and frequent Atlantic contributor (and sometime assistant editor), drew on newspaper reports, Turner’s published confession, and accounts by witnesses to chronicle Turner’s insurrection. The following year, Higginson would become colonel of the Union’s first black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers (an experience he also wrote about; see “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal”).
|A pair of former slaves, photographed after their escape. Across the South, in the years leading up to the war, the thought of slave uprisings struck fear in the hearts of slave-owners. (Corbis)|
Near the southeastern border of Virginia, in Southampton County, there is a neighborhood known as “The Cross Keys.” It lies fifteen miles from Jerusalem, the county-town or “court-house,” seventy miles from Norfolk, and about as far from Richmond … Up to Sunday, the twenty-first of August, 1831, there was nothing to distinguish it from any other rural, lethargic, slipshod Virginia neighborhood, with the due allotment of mansion-houses and log-huts, tobacco-fields and “old-fields,” horses, dogs, negroes, “poor white folks,” so called, and other white folks, poor without being called so. One of these last was Joseph Travis, who had recently married the widow of one Putnam Moore, and had unfortunately wedded to himself her negroes also.
In the woods on the plantation of Joseph Travis, upon the Sunday just named, six slaves met at noon for what is called in the Northern States a picnic and in the Southern a barbecue. The bill of fare was to be simple: one brought a pig, and another some brandy, giving to the meeting an aspect so cheaply convivial that no one would have imagined it to be the final consummation of a conspiracy which had been for six months in preparation … The party had remained together from twelve to three o’clock, when a seventh man joined them,—a short, stout, powerfully built person, of dark mulatto complexion and strongly-marked African features, but with a face full of expression and resolution. This was Nat Turner.