Sec. 5, Ch. 28 -- Blood on the Cross
Garden of Gethsemane: Escape or Martyrdom?
Nathaniel Turnerís moral dilemma can be more fully appreciated by
a closer look at his second wilderness experience, or his so-called escape. For
seventy days Turner endured the isolations and deprivations of the wooded
wildness of Southampton. Turnerís miraculous disappearance sketches out in
greater detail the complexity of Turnerís character and the religious design
of his life.
Turnerís motives and intent during this period, from 22 August
(the end of the Rebellion) to 30 October (his "capture"), have been somewhat
skewed by Drewry, Johnson, and others. Nathaniel Turnerís spiritual war against the
abominations of Cross Keys did not begin nor end with these dates. His concerted
struggle against the Christian slaveholders of Cross Keys began as early as 1828
and continued beyond his death.
Wilderness experiences in the biblical context were times of
testing and preparation. "Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the
wilderness to be tempted of the devil" (Matthew 4.1). For Turner, the prime
temptation was one that promised freedom and power to escape his responsibility
for the holy war. In the bible, Satan tempted the Son of man "to abandon
his vocation of suffering" (Achtemeier, p. 1134).
Beyond settled life and
government control, the wilderness is a dangerous place. The wilderness is also
"the place where man meets God, particularly in a crisis" (McKenzie,
pp. 195-196). In his crisis, running away from Sam Turner, Nathaniel also had an
encounter with the divine. That encounter with the Holy Spirit led to his
justification and then his sanctification. And God gave him power over the
elements. Turnerís final wooded sojourn followed the pattern.
Turner was alone in the forests and swamps of Cross Keys
stripped down to nothing but his Bible and his ceremonial sword. Turner,
however, had not yet completed his mission. This period of wandering reveals the
depth of Turnerís faith and the strength of his convictions. For seventy days,
he lived the life of the hunted. His compatriots were wild cats, bears,
moccasins, mosquitoes, ticks, and other vermin of the regionís swamps and
Undoubtedly, his lifelong ascetic practices served him well. The gnawing
question, for him, was whether he could obey Christ until the very end. Would he
turn the clock back to 1821, when he attempted to escape. Or would he go forward
boldly into eternity, joyfully awaiting the judgment. This 70-day periodóAugust
22 to October 30ówas Turnerís final spiritual test, that which would deliver
him to "perfected perfection."
All who have considered Turnerís feat of disappearance have
been amazed that he was able to evade capture within such a small area with
hundreds, if not thousands, of men looking for him. Turnerís disappearance for
exactly 70 days must be read in a religious light. As Turner pointed out in his
dark woods vision, the reading of numbers is important to understand the divine
message. "The significance of 7 in the Bible is fairly obvious; it means
totality, fullness, completeness," according to John L. McKenzie. "The
number seven is important in ritual actions."
The number 70 also has its
special resonance throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Daniel 9.1-27, it
signifies a nearing of the end, of a time, of an era (Dictionary of the Bible,
pp. 173, 794). In that Turner managed his disappearance exceedingly well, one
suspects that Turner was just as attentive in arranging his own capture and the
time of his capture.
How Turner managed his miracle or, according to some, this
"trick" was questioned strenuously in the fall of 1831. Others have
subsequently chimed in. Turner, nevertheless, claimed he lived by day in a
"cave," a hole dug in the marshy ground in the environs of Cross Keys.
Turner told Gray, "I scratched a hole under a pile of fence rails where I
concealed myself for six weeks, never leaving my hiding place but for a few
minutes in the dead of night to get water which was very near . . . . I began to
go about in the night and eaves drop the houses in the neighborhood . . . afraid
of speaking to any human being, and returning every morning to my cave before
the dawn of day."
Turner reconnoitered by night and slept secluded during
the day. His expressed need to know what was going on indicates that his
interest was still restricted and focused on Cross Keys. His movement was back
toward Cross Keys not away from it. Seemingly, he stayed within a two-mile
radius of the Travis place on which he had lived the last three years.
The seasonal climate of the region must be a factor in
determining whether such a feat was humanly possible. Most think that it was not
possible for Turner to remain in two caves for seventy days. And with good
cause. Usually, September and October are the months of the rains. The morning
dew is heavy. These months are damp, cool, brisk, especially at night. This
period is also the season of hurricanes, of flooding, more so for Southampton,
in that the numerous swamps are less spread out than in Sussex and Greensville
Even if a drought did occur during those seventy days in 1831, living
one night in such conditions was not a task to be taken on without some
trepidation. Unless many assisted him, which was highly unlikely, this deed was
nothing less than miraculous. Only with the blessings of the Holy Spirit was
Turner then able to accomplish such a feat. At least, that is the implied
argument of the "Confessions."
Two Negroes who lived in the vicinity "discovered"
Turner and his cave and ran away when he begged "concealment." That is
how the "Confessions" reads on the surface. But a measure of
deception, or misdirection, exists in Turnerís testament. Surely, that was
impossible to avoid when the primary linguistic mode used was symbolical.
Moreover, Turner wanted to assure the publication of the
"Confessions." None would have believed that he engineered his own
death, if he had said it in plain words. They would have indeed thought him
"mad." Moreover, Gray then may not have been so agreeable in his
complicity. The divine had indeed ordered that some matters were to be kept
Turner had a special agenda apart from his own personal
freedomóa mission from Christ. This tale of Turnerís discovery must be read
more carefully. Turner was "discovered," but he allowed himself to be
discovered. For six weeks he evaded capture without incident when thousands of
men were combing the woods. By early October, the army and the militia disbanded
and most thought he had long left the region. That Turner would ever be captured
was doubted by many (Aptheker, p. 56).
That he evaded a great force in arms
demonstrated again his aptitude. Turner wanted to be caught by local forces
rather than the state militia. He engineered his sighting to rekindle interest
in his capture and sustained the local terror. In that he felt a deep need
"to atone," which is a public act, Turner thus needed to be
"discovered." The last two weeks was a cat and mouse game that
operated on a spiritual level. The "discovery" moved him closer to his
Because of the hardships of being hunted like an animal in
the woods, many have put forth their own versions on how Turner was able to
sustain himself and evade capture. According to Turner, he moved from his cave
"under a pile of fence rails" to another cave he dug "under the
top of a fallen tree." There he remained until he was "taken a
fortnight afterwards by Benjamin Phipps."
Newspapers in Virginia carried
conflicting accounts of Turnerís means of disappearance. Norfolkís The
American Beacon (2 November 1831) reported that Nat was "taken about 12
oíclock on Sunday, in a Cave, that he had just finished and gotten
into." (Tragle, p. 133). According to this report, Turner constructed the
last cave the day he was arrested. Johnson placed the cave "two miles
northwest" on the "farm of Dr. Musgrave" (The Nat Turner Slave
Insurrection, p. 143).
In a letter to The Richmond Enquirer (15 November
1831), Elliot Whitehead, a resident of Suffolk, Virginia, a town about twenty
miles east of Jerusalem, also questioned Turnerís time frame for the
construction of the caves. Whitehead reported that Turner told him that he did
not move to his next cave immediately after leaving the one under the rails.
Nat says he remained in his first hiding place five weeks
and six days, that after being discovered there he retreated to some fodder
stacks in a field of Mr. Nathaniel Francisís, where he remained until
Wednesday, the 28th October [actually the 28th was on
a Friday], when he was routed from thence by Mr. Francis, and narrowly
escaped being shot by Mr. F. who put twelve buck-shot through his hat.
He then made for the woods where he made a small cave or hole under the top
of a large pine tree that had fallen, not more than a mile and a half from
Mr. Travisís, where the first murders were perpetrated [my italics] (Tragle,
pp. xiii, xviii, and 139).
This account differs in time and other particulars. In the
"Confessions," Turner admitted having had "many hair breadth
escapes," but he did not mention the Francis incident or the shooting. He
did not elaborate because Grayís time did "not permit" him "to
relate" them. Possibly, the Francis incident did occur, though Whiteheadís
time might be in error.
Clearly, Whiteheadís report on the events of Cross
Keys/Jerusalem is a mixture of fact and fancy. For the Francis incident,
nevertheless, has been repeated often in various forms. Another letter writer to
The Richmond Enquirer (8 November 1831) added a different version of the
Francis event: "He [Turner] had been seen several times within the last
fifteen days by negroes, and about three days before he was taken, Mr. Francis
found him in one of his stacks and fired a pistol at him, but he succeeded in
making his escape" (Tragle, p. 138). After the Rebellion, rumors and half
truths flew about and were reported as "news." This letter arms
Francis with a pistol; while the other report, with a shotgun.
Whiteheadís depiction of the event has an air of the
extraordinary. But such were the times. The Suffolk writer contended that
Francis "put twelve buck-shot" through Nathanielís hat." That twelve
buck shots could pass through a single hat of a man running away seems a feat
exceedingly miraculous, not only on the part of Turner but also of the shooter,
Francis. Supposedly, Nathaniel stumbled as the shot passed overhead. The
"Confessions," I must reiterate, does not mention this Francis
incident. Yet there is still another account.
F. Roy Johnson accepted the pistol version. But he too added
his own coloring. Johnson brushed aside Turnerís assertion about the two caves
as an outrageous exaggeration. In his appended remarks, Gray, however, did not
question the veracity of the caves, which suggests that he believed Turner was
truthful throughout his testament. For Johnson, Turner was nothing less than a
trickster, a con man, a liar, however exceedingly skilled. "Nat had hidden
on several plantations long familiar to him," according to Johnson.
"However, his chief place of concealment was a fodder stack on the
Nathaniel Francis farm.
Here Francis discovered and shot at him." Johnson,
however provided no proof or evidence for his version of Turnerís escapades.
To sustain his truth, Johnson simply added: "Tradition claims that Francisí
pistol ball cut a hole through his hat and the hat was shown as a curiosity
after his capture" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 142).
Johnsonís scenario may indeed possess a kernel of truth that needs to be
Though he strayed from the facts, F. Roy Johnson
appropriately questioned Turnerís ability to sustain himself for seventy days
in the wilderness. Jesus only remained there 40 days. Of course, Johnson did not
believe Turner was a prophet, a man of God, with extranatural powers. Johnson
believed that all that appeared miraculous could be explained by reason. Turner
was exceedingly crafty and skilled in the arts of deception. Johnson, in effect,
did not believe it humanly possible to hide out in caves for seventy days.
him Turner was an arch deceiver, deluded, and possibly insane. To sustain this
view, Johnson pointed out that Nathaniel Turner had a "grandson" that was
institutionalized for insanity (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p.
179). At times, Johnson poured out the same kind of venom which generally
characterized much of Nat Turner scholarship.
Turnerís wilderness experience, Johnson believed, aptly,
was extremely significant in establishing Turnerís full identity. That Turner
was a mountebank, Johnson is mistaken. Undoubtedly, this period needs a greater
consideration. Johnson emphasized two elements. One of them I alluded to before,
that is, the question of the weather. Johnson pointed out that the "autumn
nights were growing chilly." Another factor, according to Johnson, was
fear. "The ĎGeneralí assuredly was aware of the firm repressive
measures which had been taken by the whites."
Johnson believed that fear
was the most important factor. "Heads were to be seen posted at key points,
and skeletons lay in some woods" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection,
p. 143). Here, Johnson absurdly imagined that the dead would cause Turner a
terrifying, bug-eyed fear. Johnsonís accounts regrettably tend toward the
minstrel in his estimation of Turnerís religious consciousness and experience.
Undoubtedly, fear, weather, hunger, and, possibly,
carelessness were factors that affected Turnerís thinking while in the
wilderness of Southampton. Whether he had extranatural powers or not, he was
still human and subject to human frailties. Ten years before, Turner had
survived such dire deprivations for thirty days. He was seasoned in such
His whole life was one of a practiced austerity. Turner had prepared
himself a lifetime for just this moment when events were their worst. The
physical and psychological discomforts he endured through the seventy days were
not, evidently, beyond his manageability. With certitude, one cannot say that such
factors led to his capture.
A key to Turnerís capture may lie, however, in an assertion
and yet another tale "collected" by F. Roy Johnson. "Nat,"
according to Johnson, "meditated on giving himself up." Two other
purported events led Johnson to this belief. Supposedly, at Nathaniel Francisí
house, Lavania Francis and her mother heard a knock at their door. They,
however, refused to answer the door or to awaken Nathaniel Francis. "Nat
acknowledged afterwards," according to Johnson, "that it was he who
had knocked intending to give himself up, because he believed that Francis, a
lifelong acquaintance, would be more merciful than anyone else" (The Nat
Turner Slave Insurrection, pp. 142-143). The source of Johnsonís tale is
uncertain and questionable. In addition, the "Confessions" does not
sustain Johnsonís scenario.
Johnsonís belief that Nathaniel Francis would be merciful
seems far-fetched on four accounts. First, by Johnsonís own account, Nathaniel
Francis tried to kill Turner. Two, Turner had killed some of Francisí kinsmen.
Three, as a slaveholder, Francis barely escaped Turnerís "great
work." And four, Francis would have had little interest in the bounty on
Turnerís head. In spite of these objections, there still may be a kernel of
truth in Johnsonís re-creation of events before Turnerís
With respect to this issue, Johnson, I believe, is on the
mark. Turner did meditate "on giving himself up." Turner had not yet
completed his mission. Turner had not fulfilled his fervent need "to
atone," to bring a closure to a religious drama in which he was the leading
Virginia needed Turner alive in order to bring all the pieces
together. The great fear was that there was a broad and concerted conspiracy on
the scale of Prosser and Vesey. For his own reasons, Johnson discounted the
possibility that Turner headed a broad-based conspiracy. In Johnsonís view,
Turner initially "sought to devise a plan to escape the country." Turner,
however, "gave up the idea," Johnson believed. "He could not
travel by day, and he observed the patrols were too vigilant by night" (The
Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 143).
Johnson was guessing, trying to
piece events together to conform to an intellectual prejudice. His tale falls
short of a full appraisal. After the collapse of the Rebellion, 23 August 1831,
Turner had three to four days before the militia became fully organized to
escape the area. That time period could have gotten him easily to the Dismal
Swamp, if escape were his intent. In addition, the night patrols late September
into October decreased significantly and became less of a barrier for Turnerís
The "Confessions" is silent on any planned escape.
The sense that we get is that Turner was waiting for something. He was listening
to what people were saying, how they were responded to his holy war. His
engagement of Cross Keys continued as intensely as before. This was his
audience. Turner accepted willingly his destiny as prophet, that role required
engaging the world in which he lived. Throughout his testament, Turner presented
himself implicitly as a Christ figure. In taking up the Cross, Turner, by
implication, understood and expected he would have to sacrifice all, martyr
At the end of the Rebellion, Turner knew that the drama could not end
except in his own death. He knew he had to suffer the same fate as the men he
led into war. That he too must be scourged and publicly humiliated as his
Savior. For Turner, to run away from a struggle he had carried on unceasingly
for three years, and
now run away to the Dismal Swamp would have been the
ultimate betrayal of his fellow Christian soldiers, who awaited him in heaven.
In regard to his 12th of May 1828 revelation,
Turner told Gray, the Spirit said, "the time was fast approaching when the
first should be last and the last should be first." Gray stopped Turnerís
narration and asked, "Do you not find yourself mistaken now?" And
Turner answered with a question, "Was not Christ crucified?" Turner
thus expected his "public murder," hanging from a tree, would bring
his holy war to a close. "He who loses his life for Christís sake and for
the gospelís sake will save it." As he had attempted to show slaveholders
how to live the Christian life, he would now show how to die like a Christian.
Based on his words and acts, Turner readied himself as early as 1828 for his own
death. He "took up the yoke" then that Christ had laid down and gave
up all thoughts of escape. An 1831 attempt to escape for personal comfort would
have been a spiritual betrayal of the highest order. It would have been contrary
to all the principles by which he had lived his life. For Turner to desire
escape would have been a rejection of God.
* * *
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
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Cited by a
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most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
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In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign. The Economy
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update 14 December 2011