Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Eclipse and Nat Turner

Well, tomorrow marks the big day. For weeks now, people have been talking about the solar eclipse. Its path has been mapped, folks have purchased special glasses for viewing it, and some organizations and companies are giving time off for their employees to watch the infrequent heavenly occurrence. I don't want to sound like a humbug, but personally I don't get all of the fuss. I suppose it that infrequent thing that grabs most people's attention. I doubt many people will take the eclipse's appearance as an omen or sign, but that was not the case 186 years ago.

Nat Turner grew up enslaved. He knew what it meant to work a hard day. He observed the injustice of slavery, the passionate rages of slave owners, and the physical and mental suffering of African Americans. Through this Nat learned how to read. He felt a spiritual calling and became a preacher. He saw signs in his daily work, and in the heavens, telling him to do something against the injustice.

On February 12, 1831, an eclipse occurred. The path of this eclipse ran across southeastern Virginia, where Nat Turner's Southampton County was located. Like tomorrow, people knew of the eclipse's arrival. Men, women, and children turned out in great numbers to watch the seeming phenomenon in places such as Richmond, Virginia. Well educated people understood that science predicted and explained the eclipse. Most people did not see it as foreboding doom and destruction. However, Nat Turner did.

For Nat Turner the eclipse was a sign for action. In his jailhouse confession given to attorney Thomas Gray, Turner explained "I had a vision - and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened - the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams."

Turner had previous visions. As a young man he ran away for a time. Upon his return he explained that a vision told him to return to his earthly master. Later, he saw lights in the sky and had a vision of "blood on the corn, as though it was dew from heaven." He also saw messages in the leaves of the woods. Later he had a vision that he had been chosen to lead a fight where the "first shall be last and the last shall be first," and that he would receive a sign from the heavens telling him to start the work assigned to him.

That sign for Turner came in the form of the February 12, 1831 eclipse. He told those fellow slaves he felt he could trust that the time would arrive on the coming Fourth of July. Turner was ill when Independence Day rolled around. The rebellion was delayed. But an atmospheric occurrence on August 12, which turned the sky into a odd color, prompted Turner to see this as yet another sign to commence the job of overturning slavery. In the early hours of August 21, Turner and his followers started killing white men, women, and children on area farms and plantations. When it was all said and done about sixty whites were dead by the hands of Turner and his band.

White response was swift and decisive. Most of Turners followers were killed or captured by local men and militia troops, and although Turner escaped capture for about two months, he was apprehended by a local farmer named Benjamin Phipps. Turner was held in a Jerusalem (now Cortland) jail where he gave an account of his life and the events of the rebellion to Thomas Gray. After tired and being convicted, he met his death by hanging on November 11, 1831.

The Nat Turner rebellion put whites in the slave states on high alert. Their worst nightmares were realized. Virginia debated potential gradual emancipation in the wake of the affair, but decided instead to enact more stringent legislation directed at the enslaved as well as free people of color.

 Nat Turner's rebellion was yet another historical event that helped create and widen the split between the North and South over the issue of slavery and put the nation on the path toward civil war.

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