Thursday, April 30, 2015

My Visit to Southampton County, Virginia

I took advantage of some beautiful, cool, late April weather yesterday to travel about fifty miles southeast of Petersburg to Southampton County. Southampton may ring a bell for many of you that are Southern history enthusiasts; it was the location of the Nat Turner insurrection in August 1831.

The main reason I wanted to visit Southampton was because of my fascination with Turner's rebellion. Since I first read Stephen Oates's Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion many many years ago, I have attempted to read anything that I can find on the subject.

My first stop was in the county seat of Courtland, presumably named for the county courthouse located there. In the nineteenth century Courtland was known as Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Plank Road (now Crater Road and Highway 35) ran between Petersburg and the historic Southampton town. The county courthouse (pictured above) was constructed in 1834, and thus missed the Nat Turner drama that occurred there three years before.

To the left of the courthouse is the county's Confederate monument. It was erected in 1902. Several Confederate companies were raised during the Civil War in Southampton County and the town contained a number of convalescent hospitals during the conflict. A small relatively new bronze plaque in front of the monument reads: "Not Forgotten - The two hundred and nineteen names that are engraved on the bricks before you are the men from Southampton County who gave their lives defending their families, friends and homes from the Northern Invaders. They were killed in action or died from wounds or disease in the War of Northern Aggression 1861-1865. We honor their bravery and sacrifice. We will not forget their struggle to preserve the principles on which our country was founded." I thought it was an interesting choice of words, and certainly an interesting interpretation for the Southampton men's motivations to go to war. However, I was not surprised that slavery was not mentioned, although in 1860, the county's population was almost half enslaved.

Right across Main Street from the courthouse was the Mahone Tavern. Confederate general William Mahone was born in Southampton County and as a youth his father, Fielding Mahone, purchased this building and an adjacent structure as a business venture. The tavern was constructed in the late 1700s and was one of the original lots in Jerusalem. The interpretive panel in front of the building explained that as a young man Mahone earned part of the necessary money to attend the Virginia Military Institute by gambling with the tavern's visitors. 

Also in Courtland is the Rebecca Vaughan House. This structure was moved from its original location out in a rural section of county in 2004. The house is currently being restored at the Southampton Agriculture and Forestry Museum and Heritage Village. It is noted as being the last house in which residents were executed during Nat Turner's rebellion. It appears there is a plan to have the house serve as a visitor's center for a proposed Nat Turner/1831 Southampton Insurrection Trail, if funding can be secured. I could not help but wonder if the people of Southampton are ready to embrace and promote this difficult history or not. It is a story that needs to be told and known, and I believe it would bring significant tourism dollars to their community.

I know I certainly would have benefited from a map of some kind that told me how to get to the places where events happened during the insurrection. All I was really able to locate was the Virginia highway marker, which is located along Highway 35 south of Courtland. As the sign says, the insurrection began some seven miles to the west of this location, but obviously, did not provide needed specifics on how to get scenes of the event.  

Beside the highway marker was a cotton field which appeared to have been picked and cut last fall. I found it fascinating that the Nat Turner slave insurrection marker would be located next to a cotton field. I would suppose that cotton was grown in this part of the state in the 1830, although I guess I always associate tobacco with this section and era.

After leaving the highway marker I attempted to take the closest road heading west just to get a feel for the terrain of the insurrection. I do not remember the name of the road, but along the way there were many more cotton fields and wheat fields. At a country intersection I found a dilapidated farmhouse (pictured above). It looked like it was about to crack in half. As I often do when I see such sites, I wondered who had lived here and what their lives had been like. Was the family that lived here black, or were they white? Were they prosperous or were they poor? Did they only farm or did they travel to work in town too? Was this house around during the Civil War, or was it from later times? So many questions.

On my circuitous return drive back to Courtland, I followed the General Thomas Highway. I had hoped that a helpful Virginia Civil War Trails sign would point me to Thomaston (pictured above), but alas, it was not to be. So, I made it back to Courtland and stopped in at the Walter Cecil Rawls Library. There a kind reference librarian allowed me to use their internet to find directions to the house. I had been so close during my drive, but was determined to find it, which I did easily with the directions. I guess that is a lesson for my next excursiona--always take directions in the first place.

Union General George Henry Thomas was born at Thomaston in Southampton County in 1816, and lived there until his appointment to West Point in 1836. When Thomas decided to remain loyal to the Union, his sisters, who still lived in the house at the time, spurned him. They refused to send his Mexican War sword, allegedly turned his picture toward the wall, and proudly supported their Southampton Confederate soldiers. Thomas never returned to Virginia. He lived in California after the war, where he died in 1870. He was buried in his wife's city of Troy, New York. After his death, his sisters, apparently contrite, supported the erection of his monument in Washington D.C. 

Traveling back cross county with my trusty Virginia highway map I got back to Highway 58 and headed west. Before getting too far on 58, I spotted two more highway markers. One noted the former location of a plantation called Buckhorn Quarters, and was near where Nat Turner spent the night after his slave force was defeated near Jerusalem by the militia. Turner managed to escape and hide out in Southampton County for about seventy days until he was finally captured and hanged. 

Beside the Buckhorn Quarters plaque was an additional and intriguing marker. It notes the Southampton County roots of the famous Supreme Court plaintiff Dred Scott. Scott's famous case in 1857 ruled that congress could not legislate slavery and that African Americans could not be citizens. The Dred Scott Decision threw yet another log on the sectional fire and brought the country closer to civil war.

There is so much important history in this still largely rural southeastern Virginia county. I would highly recommend a day's visit, or more, if you find yourself in area.


  1. I enjoyed reading this as we drive through Southampton on a beautiful and sunny Sunday afternoon.

    1. Next time you come to the County, give me a call and I'll direct you around the Insurrection Sites. Rick Francis, Clerk of Court (757) 653-2200. Our Historical Society is working on a driving tour and in 2016 should complete a walking tour of Courtland (old Jerusalem).

    2. Thank you anonymous (Rick Francis?). Do you know when exactly the walking tour of Courtland might be up and running? I have searched desperately trying to find some tour of the area and the Nat Turner Rebellion to take. I am writing a dissertation on the rebellion and am hoping to gain more familiarity with the geographical region and the sites of Southampton County.

  2. Barb Heinauer (Pond)July 30, 2016 at 9:34 AM

    My great grandfather was in the civil war in South Hampton. I am just starting to learn of the many historical treasures in your county and trying to reassemble my roots. thank you for your information.

  3. We are proud of our heritage and those who stood up against the invaders who recreated the country from its founding principles to the nationalistic leviathan we have today.

  4. Good read as I love history. Like to visit Courtland soon to take visit myself.

  5. Where is the Hines lucky rock located?

  6. Tim, a great read! I'm researching my uncle's great-grandfather, who was born in Jerusalem in 1868. As he was a colored man, I'm at a brick wall as to his father, Frank Wyche, but I liked reading that Nat Turner's rebellion was right there to contextualize the times for me. Thanks!

  7. Serena, Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck with your research and attempt to connect with your ancestors. It is a difficult but worthy endeavor.

  8. I finally got to move to courtland and meet Rick verry nice.really like this peaceful hard to believe the tragic history that took place here so long ago.