Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“That is how slave revolts work.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 27, 2017

Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall considers a proposal in Richmond, Virginia, to include Nat Turner in an anti-slavery monument:

Virginia had seen Gabriel’s rebellion in 1800 and Charleston, South Carolina had been rocked by the Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822. But critically, neither of these planned insurrections ever happened. The plots were uncovered before they could begin. Most of what we know about all these events either comes from whites or from the testimonies of free or enslaved blacks communicated through whites. They are often ‘confessions’ or under confinement, testimonies from people either facing death or trying to escape it. Most of what we know about Turner, his ambitions, goals, life history comes from a jailhouse interview conducted after he was captured by a lawyer named Thomas Ruffin Gray. Because of this, it is difficult to know how far along these plots were or, possibly, whether some of them were products of panics or paranoia among white slaveholders. But Turner’s rebellion was real and bloody. The write-up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch says Turner is “seen as a freedom fighter by many and a mass murderer by others.” The simple truth is that he was unquestionably both. That is how slave revolts work. . . .

Memorializing Turner or other slave rebels has simply been a step too far in the US, at least until now. In a sense, this is hardly surprising. The South is covered with monuments to men who fought a war to preserve slavery. They are only now starting to come down. Most still stand.

The state of Virginia executed Turner. The state must still consider him a criminal. He hasn’t been pardoned or exonerated. Now it’s memorializing him. That is a sea change and I suspect still a highly controversial one. There are many forms of slave resistance. Most are incremental and small – what the political scientist James C. Scott called the ‘weapons of the weak.’ The most tangible. The ones we know most about is running away.

But slave revolts are inherently violent and uncompromisingly brutal. That is hard for this country, which still honors a legal continuity with a long history of slavery, to grapple with. Because coming to the terms with the brutality of slave revolts brings the brutality and violence of slavery itself to the fore in a way America has seldom publicly faced. It’s like a tight and uncompromising algebraic equation. Honoring Turner means that his actions were laudatory and merit public memorialization. But his actions involved killing families and small children in their beds. If such actions, which are normally among the worst we can imagine, merit praise and public honor, the system they were meant to fight and destroy must have been barbaric and unconscionably violent beyond imagining. Very few of us would contest this description of slavery. But bringing Turner into the discussion of public commemoration will air these issues in a new (I think very positive) and jarring way.

I struggle with this, like Marshall does, like any thinking person does. It’s not easy to square this circle, and I suspect it’s not really possible anyway. What’s important is to have this discussion, which up to now mostly hasn’t happened. It’s high time it does.

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6 Responses

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  1. Jeffry Burden said, on September 27, 2017 at 9:20 pm

    I was part of the early state discussion of the monument idea as part of the Lincoln & Emancipation Bicentennial senate sub-committee, before the state MLK Commission made its final choices. (My particular favorite among the first list of names, freedman and Reconstruction legislator James D. Bland, didn’t make the final cut.) Many on the committee, both black and white, had reservations about including Turner. It’s a bold choice, to say the least.

  2. Matt McKeon said, on September 30, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    Any armed slave revolt was going to be bloody. In the case of Nat Turner and nearly anyone else who tried something similar(direct armed rebellion) it was going to be stupid as well.

    Enslaved Americans didn’t stand a chance in open battle. They were a numerical minority. They were divided into small groups with no means of communication. They had no way to gather weapons, ammunition or supplies. They had no sanctuaries to retreat to. They had no allies. They had no military training. They faced local armed whites, state militia and federal troops. What possible outcome could there be other than rapid defeat, followed by hysterical reprisals?

  3. Matt McKeon said, on September 30, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    The fugitive slaves who raided from Spanish Florida into Georgia was a more sustained effort, and more successful, exactly because they had a sanctuary and Native American allies.

  4. Matt McKeon said, on September 30, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Nat Turner was every southern whites’ nightmare. But in a sense he was the nightmare they were prepared for. Contrast Turner’s rebellion, which barely moved the needle, with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, a much less bloody affair. The slave states lost their shit over Harper’s Ferry, because although it was relatively mild, Brown had a sanctuary, allies, financing, arms, and because most of he and his followers were white, could travel freely using an alias.

  5. J.B. Richman said, on October 14, 2017 at 12:16 am

    Remember History’s only completely successful slave revolt. The revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue had two separate conflicts. The first one with Toussaint Louverture as leader had advantages not available to American slaves. First, the vast majority in the colony were of black or mixed race. Second, they got support from the Spanish side of Hispaniola. Third, France was beset with a revolution and did not wish a conflict, and the French colonial governor was amenable to abolition. France abolished slavery in 1794, and Louverture switched to the French side. he actually fought for France against Spain and Britain and won. The pro-Spanish Blacks left, and Toussaint ruled in the name of France. But factional intrigue and the rise of Napoleon caused more conflict. Louverture was betrayed and died in a french prison. The mercurial Dessalines took power and Napoleon sent troops to establish total control (including the re-establishment of slavery). The warring mixed-race and black factions united against the outnumbered French because of their brutality. Another factor was the British blockade which prevented reinforcements from arriving. Dessalines won the war, declared himself Emperor of Haiti, and started a massacre of the French. This was selective, and non-french white people were left alone. He was assassinated and Haiti for a while split into two countries.

    The United States Government did not recognize the Government of Haiti until the Lincoln administration. The Southern partisans used the Haitian massacres in propaganda, even though the regime responsible for them was overthrown, and other White countries recognized Haiti. No massacres of Whites occurred when the British freed their slaves in their colonies. The massacre in Haiti was due to the actions of one dictatorial ruler, and was a response to even more brutal massacres of Haitians by France.

  6. Lyle Smith said, on October 16, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Well said.


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