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Slave Revolts

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Discovery of Nat Turner

"The Discovery of Nat Turner", by Elisha Andrews. Color lithograph (c. 1894-1903). Courtesy of Peter Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library.

As Frederick Douglass has become embedded in American mythology for his escape from slavery, Nat Turner endures as the nation's most potent symbol of slave insurrection. In just a few days in 1831, Turner waged the bloodiest challenge to the slave system in American history, killing nearly sixty men, women, and children in Southampton County, Virginia, before he and his followers were subdued. Before his execution, Turner was able to transmit his autobiography to his lawyer, Thomas Gray, while in prison. Though the veracity of Gray's transcription has long been debated, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia cemented Turner's status as a mystical freedom fighter. In the book, Turner famously insisted that his revolt was inspired by God, explaining to Gray his vision of "white and black spirits engaged in battle." On 11 November 1831—less than two weeks after his capture and two and a half months since his initial assault—Turner was hanged. The legacy of Turner's ill-fated rebellion was threefold: it validated the resolve of abolitionists, who pointed out the barbaric lengths to which enslaved men were driven in order to escape bondage—even if the escape was death; it destroyed the fiction of the complacent savage, toiling happily away for a beneficent master; and it precipitated an even more brutal crackdown on slaves and free blacks in Virginia.

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