Slave Revolts (Part 2)

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Am I not a man and a brotherSlave revolts were not a very common occurrence but they continued, on shore and on sea. From 1822 their were a number of revolts and conspiracies by slaves throughout the Southern United States. Slaveowners and state authorities responded by crushing almost all of them.

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a South Carolina freedman, supposedly plotted an uprising of slaves in that state. Vesey won $1,500 in a Charleston city lottery in 1799. He used the money to buy his freedom from his owner and began working as a carpenter.

Apparently, Vesey was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution and also the closing of his African Methodist Episcopal Church. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast.

The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation. Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.

In August 1831 a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner took place in Southampton County, Virginia. We have a description of Turner from a reward poster that was circulated after his uprising:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather “bright” [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow. 

Turner was highly intelligent and how to read and write at an early age. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently had visions, which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life. Turner often conducted Baptist services and preached the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet.”

On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as the final signal, and began the rebellion a week later on August 21. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing all the white people they encountered. Turner started with a small number of slaves but eventually 70 enslaved and free blacks joined in the revolt.

Turner and his followers used knives, axes, hatchets and other edged weapons rather than firearms since the sound of gunfire would alert the countryside. Traveling from one house to another, they killed almost all of the white people that they encountered.

The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children before Turner and his accomplices were defeated. A white militia with twice the manpower of the rebels and reinforced by three companies of artillery eventually defeated the insurrection.

Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina surrounding Southampton. The state executed 56 blacks. Militias killed at least 100 blacks, and probably many more. Another estimate is that up to 200 blacks were killed. The number of black victims overall far exceeded the number of white victims.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion spread fear throughout the South. The fear and alarm led to whites’ attacking blacks across the South with flimsy cause. The editor of the Richmond Whig, writing “with pain,” described the scene as “the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity.” 

Turner eluded capture over two months. On October 30, a White farmer discovered him in a hole covered with fence rails, and Turner was arrested. A trial was quickly arranged. On November 5, 1831, Nat Turner was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection”, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner’s corpse was flayedbeheaded and quartered.

In 1839 the slaves on the Spanish schooner La Amistad revolted, killed several members of the crew and took over the ship. They demanded to be returned to Africa but were deceived by the remaining crew members who steered the ship to the coast of the United States. The vessel was discovered off the coast of Long Island and was seized by the United States revenue cutter USS Washington.

This began a complex legal case that involved all of the participants including the American captain of the Washington, the owners of the slaves, the Spanish government, the British government and the Africans on board. The case eventually worked its way through the federal court system and arrived at the Supreme Court in February 1841.

The Court ruled that the Africans were in fact free and that the ship itself was lawful salvage. The Africans were taken in by abolitionists. The Amistad Committee instructed the Africans in English and Christianity, and raised funds to pay for their return home. Along with several missionaries, in 1842 the surviving 36 Africans sailed to Sierra Leone.

In 1841 the brig Creole was was transporting 135 slaves from Richmond to New Orleans for sale in the slave market there. While the United States had prohibited the international slave trade effective in 1808, it permitted the domestic slave trade among those states that authorized slavery. Many slave traders transported captives by the coastwise slave trade along the East Coast.

On November 7, 1841, Madison Washington and eighteen other male slaves rebelled. They overwhelmed the crew and killed John R. Hewell, one of the slave traders, with a knife. The crew and passengers had only one gun among them, which they never used. They ordered the crew to take them to Nassau in the Bahamas.

The Bahamas was a British colony and slavery had been outlawed by Britain. After a series of court rulings 128 slaves gained freedom. It has been termed the “most successful slave revolt in US history”.

The 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation was the largest escape of a group of slaves to occur in the Cherokee Nation. The slave revolt took place on November 15, 1842, when a group of African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee escaped and tried to reach Mexico, where slavery had been abolished. They were soon captured, after killing two pursuers. Five slaves were later executed for these deaths.

The event inspired subsequent slave rebellions to take place in the Indian Territory and throughout North America. Although the 1842 slave revolt participants were captured before reaching the Mexican border, the aftermath of this revolt led Cherokee Nation slave holders to create stricter slave codes, expel Freedmen from the territory, and found a ‘rescue’ (slave-catching) company to prevent further loss of slaves.

Perhaps, the most famous attempt at freeing slaves was led by John Brown who along with 19 followers attempted to capture The U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He intended to arm arms with the rifles from the arsenal. You can read about it here.

Series Navigation<< The Two Faces of Abolitionism: Slave Revolts (Part 1)The Rise of the Abolitionists >>

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