The cover page of Negro plot : an account of the late intended insurrection among a portion of the blacks of the city of Charleston, South Carolina, by James Hamilton. Courtesy of Documenting the American South, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.
The Denmark Vesey Conspiracy might have mustered the largest group of rebel slaves in the country's history, but the plot was betrayed just before it was to begin. The conspiracy, which was hatched in the black churches of Charleston, South Carolina, was named for its lead planner, an accomplished carpenter and black leader who had purchased his own freedom after seventeen years of bondage in the city. Conflicting accounts on Vesey's personal history abound, but it is generally agreed that the degradations of his family life at the hands of slavery (though he lived as a free man, his children remained enslaved) steeled his resolve to achieve freedom at any cost. At the time of his arrest on 21 June 1822, Vesey was rumored to have readied several thousand blacks, free and enslaved, to seize various weapons caches throughout the city. After driving the city's white residents into retreat, the rebels were to make a mass exodus to Haiti, the recently created country born itself from a slave uprising. Vesey's plans unraveled, however, after two slaves—one a former coconspirator—informed their masters about the plot, and Vesey was forced into hiding. No longer willing to dismiss rumors of an insurrection, city authorities, led by Mayor James Hamilton, launched a manhunt for Vesey and other main plotters. Steadfastly refusing to confess, Vesey was tried and hanged five and a half weeks later.