Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County

The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, is an episode in U.S. history that has received its fair share of scholarship since it happened. Still many misconceptions remain.

In what in my opinion is the most thoroughly researched work yet on this subject, David F. Allmendinger, Jr.'s Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County draws upon both public and private documentation previously unexamined. By looking closely at the family histories and their county tax records, Allmendinger convincingly contends that Turner's enslaved experience created a sense of hopelessness of ever getting out from under its control. Thus, he conceived a plan and acted to end it.

Chapter Two's second paragraph is so well written, and clearly put I can't help but share it in full: "Their exceptional slave [Turner] could not have forgotten them [owners]. From his seventh or eighth year onward, they had passed him down a line of willing heirs and beneficiaries, assigning him as personal property in almost every conceivable way: the Turners had lent him, given him as patrimony, and conveyed him by will; the others had sold or transferred him, hired him out, and held him in trust. Whenever a vital event had taken place--a marriage, a death, or remarriage--his masters had been given an opportunity to consider anew his future, and at every such opportunity they had kept him in their holdings. Their decisions about dowries and patrimonies, gifts, and loans, transfers and exchanges had determined the course of his life." This inability to control one's destiny when combined in the mind of an exceptional human being made for a volatile mixture. Turner's own experience showed him that white people were unwilling to consider black people as anything other than valuable property. Too valuable to emancipate.

One popular misunderstanding is that in the wake of Turner's rebellion owners retaliated by killing hundreds of their slaves. Allmendinger does an exceptional job of explaining how this myth seemed to originate and then compared the Southampton tax records before the event and after the event to show that about 54 slaves in the county perished from all causes during and after the uprising.

In addition, the author's look into attorney Thomas R. Gray's personal history and his writing and publishing of "Nat Turner's Confessions" provides significant insight into this important but probably flawed primary source.

Lastly, the appendices are a true bonus to an excellent book. They offer readers ready references to a roster of the insurgents, a list of the 55 white victims and where they were killed, and yet more information on the use of tax rolls and the perceived atrocities in the wake of the rebellion.

While the depth of the author's research and detailed analysis may be a bit off-putting to casual readers who might get lost in family history details, to a student serious in understanding the Nat Turner affair, this book is second to none. I highly recommend it.

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