1831 - Nat Turner’s Rebellion (watch)
Born on Oct. 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Va., the week before Gabriel was hanged, Nat Turner impressed family and friends with an unusual sense of purpose, even as a child. Driven by prophetic visions and joined by a host of followers — but with no clear goals — on August 22, 1831, Turner and about 70 armed slaves and free blacks set off to slaughter the white neighbors who enslaved them.
In the early hours of the morning, they bludgeoned Turner’s master and his master’s wife and children with axes. By the end of the next day, the rebels had attacked about 15 homes and killed between 55 and 60 whites as they moved toward the religiously named county seat of Jerusalem, Va. Other slaves who had planned to join the rebellion suddenly turned against it after white militia began to attack Turner’s men, undoubtedly concluding that he was bound to fail. Most of the rebels were captured quickly, but Turner eluded authorities for more than a month.
On Sunday, Oct. 30, a local white man stumbled upon Turner’s hideout and seized him. A special Virginia court tried him on Nov. 5 and sentenced him to hang six days later. A barbaric scene followed his execution. Enraged whites took his body, skinned it, distributed parts as souvenirs and rendered his remains into grease. His head was removed and for a time sat in the biology department of Wooster College in Ohio. (In fact, it is likely that pieces of his body — including his skull and a purse made from his skin — have been preserved and are hidden in storage somewhere.)
Of his fellow rebels, 21 went to the gallows, and another 16 were sold away from the region. As the state reacted with harsher laws controlling black people, many free blacks fled Virginia for good. Turner remains a legendary figure, remembered for the bloody path he forged in his personal war against slavery, and for the grisly and garish way he was treated in death.
The heroism and sacrifices of these slave insurrectionists would be a prelude to the noble performance of some 200,000 black men who served so very courageously in the Civil War, the war that finally put an end to the evil institution that in 1860 chained some 3.9 million human beings to perpetual bondage.