The Two Faces of Abolitionism: Slave Revolts (Part 1)

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War
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Slave RevoltsThe rise and spread of abolitionism by its very nature had two faces. On the one hand was non-violent abolitionism as characterized by men like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass who were supported by a significant minority of Americans and anti-slavery organizations.

On the other hand there were armed insurrections throughout America that were met with remorseless responses by slaveholders and their states who were seeking to preserve their “peculiar institution”. In this post we’ll take a look at the slave revolts and plots in America.

The very first instances of servile insurrections occurred in New York in 1712 and 1741. The New York Slave Revolt of 1712 was an uprising in New York City of 23 enslaved Africans who killed nine whites and injured another six. More than three times that number of blacks, 70, were arrested and jailed. Of these, 27 were put on trial, and 21 convicted and executed.

The New York Conspiracy of 1741 was a supposed plot by slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York in 1741 to revolt and level New York City with a series of fires. Historians disagree as to the existence of such a plot. Two slaves were burned at the stake. Before their executions, they confessed to burning the fort and named dozens of others as co-conspirators.

News of the “conspiracy” set off a stampede of arrests. Trials and executions followed through the summer. At the height of the hysteria, nearly half the city’s male slaves over the age of 16 were in jail. The number of arrests totaled 152 blacks and 20 whites. They were tried and convicted in a show trial. John Ury, a teacher and suspected Catholic priest, was charged with instigating the plot. Most of the convicted people were hanged or burnt – how many is uncertain.

In the summer of 1800 a literate enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser planed an insurrection in the capital of Virginia, Richmond. On August 30, 1800, Gabriel intended to lead slaves into Richmond, but the rebellion was postponed because of rain. At that point the plot unraveled.

The slaves’ owners had a suspicion of the uprising, and two slaves told their owner, Mosby Sheppard, about the plans. He warned Virginia’s Governor James Monroe who called out the state militia. Gabriel escaped downriver to Norfolk, but he was spotted and betrayed there by another slave for the reward offered by the state. That slave did not receive the full reward. Returned to Richmond, Prosser and 25 other slaves were hanged.

Gabriel’s Revolt was followed by a slave revolt at Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia in 1803. It is sometimes referred to as Igbo Landing (alternatively written as Ibo LandingEbo Landing, or Ebos Landing) because it involved West African slaves from what is now Nigeria. The captives rose up, killed the crew and committed mass suicide by drowning themselves in nearly Dunbar Creek.

Chatham Manor is the Georgian-style home completed in 1771 by William Fitzhugh. In January 1805, the plantation was the site of a minor slave rebellion. A number of slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and assistants. An armed posse of white men quickly gathered to capture the slaves. They killed one slave in the attack, and two died trying to escape. The posse deported two other slaves, likely to a slave colony in the Caribbean.

In January 1811 a slave uprising known as the German Coast Uprising to place on the  east bank of the Mississippi River in what are now St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes, Louisiana. While the slave insurgency was the largest in US history, the rebels killed only two white men. Confrontations with militia and executions after trial killed ninety-five black people.

Between 64 and 125 enslaved men marched from sugar plantations near present-day LaPlace on the German Coast toward the city of New Orleans. They collected more men along the way. Some accounts claimed a total of 200-500 slaves participated. During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses (three completely), several sugarhouses, and crops. They were armed mostly with hand tools.

In March 1815, George Boxley white abolitionist and former slaveholder allegedly planned an uprising with slaves in and around the Spotsylvania, Virginia area. He tried to recruit slaves to meet at his home with horses, guns, swords and clubs. He planned to attack and take over Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia. Lucy, a local slave, informed her owner, and the plot was foiled. Six slaves involved were imprisoned or executed. With his wife’s help, Boxley escaped from the Spotsylvania County Jail and, despite a reward, he was never caught.

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