The First and Last Battle of The Civil War
SKETCH BY:DONYALE K NEWSOM
Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831)
A Commentary By:
CIVIL WAR LEGACIES
Emotions were a bit strained in the heat of preparations for the Jamestown Colony’s 400th birthday in 2007. The event would commemorate America’s 1607 birthplace where, after several attempts, a fragile group of Englishmen with much help from the Powhatan Indians, finally managed to survive in the New World. Sharing the story of how one embryonic colony grew into thirteen, then into fifty and then ultimately, the most powerful nation on the planet is an important job. The values and principles of these United States of America were forged by a great experiment in democracy that was declared in 1776, held together in 1865, revived in the 1930s and today in this very moment of now being demanded by 99% of the American people.
There are many examples of civilizations reaching an apex and collapsing. Today America is at such an apex and whether we can overcome the “isms” of race, gender, class, religion and other labels which divide rather than unite us is being determined as you access this article in a language and device of your choice. In 1831 the Commonwealth of Virginia was enjoying the apex of power and then Nat Turner struck a bloody blow in the early morning hours of August 21st and the war against slavery officially started with the deaths of almost 60 white men, women and children. Less than ninety days later the deaths of over 200 Black men, women and children were directly attributable to the insurrection and the “Bandit Nat Turner” formerly known as the “Prophet Nat Turner” in the small hamlet of Jerusalem, VA marched into the halls of infamy.
Shock and fear with a great deal of righteous indignation were the prevailing emotions as both the South and the North realized that slavery was an unresolved national issue. In “The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion” scholar Stephen B. Oates describes the progressive thinking of the times in the weeks and months after the insurrection, “Virginia must lead the way and remove the peculiar institution, thus freeing itself from conflicts that otherwise would inevitably come. If Virginia failed to do this, law and constitution would one day be forgotten and antagonisms over slavery would force the strong hand to govern all.” 1 In the period between Nat Turner’s hanging on November 11, 1831 through March of 1832, those who insisted that the issue was not about the enslavement of human beings, but states’ rights won that battle.
Again, from Professor Oates, “Virginia’s legislators committed to polices which strengthened the militia and patrol systems; stripped free Negroes of human rights (including prohibiting any more from entering Virginia); eliminated most slave schools; religious meetings; and slave preachers.”
On this 180th anniversary of Nat Turner’s capture the Commonwealth of Virginia is once again well positioned to guide the nation across the slippery slopes of history and culture. The question now, as it was in 1832, is will Virginia’s leaders do the right thing which would be to reshape the Historic Triangle into a quadrangle that would include Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Fort Monroe.
Old Point Comfort at Fort Monroe is the place where the first Africans arrived in 1619 and went to work as indentured servants. Two hundred and forty-two years later Fort Monroe is where the first of the enslaved were put on the path to citizenship in 1861 before the Civil War. The 565 acres situated on the Chesapeake Bay are sacred lands where the history of slavery in America should be taught without shame or blame. In 2019 the 400th anniversary of Africans in America should be properly recognized at Fort Monroe.
FIRST BATTLE OF THE CIVIL WAR
If Virginia had possessed the vision to end slavery in 1832, America would not have needed to fight a civil war that still reigns as the nation’s bloodiest. Today, 180 years later, we can see what they could not at the time, which is how important this history is that defines the very essence of America. Here in Hampton Roads, where we literally walk in the footsteps of our nation’s ancestors, one’s perspective about the past tends to be very personal at this first stop south of the Mason-Dixon divide. My favorite story about how tense things can get in Dixie happened like this …
“Nat Turner killed my family!” interrupted Rose Nichols, as she glared at James T.L. Cooper, the actor playing the role of the 19th century insurrectionist Nat Turner during a celebration of Black History Month in a 2009 performance of Abolitionists’ Museum at Riddick’s Folly Museum located in Suffolk, VA. Also in the audience that day were members of the Sons of the Confederacy. A postscript that occurred about a month after the performance was that the museum staff member responsible for booking the play was fired.
In the play Turner and seven other historical figures (Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln and David Walker) are wax figures in a museum. When the Curator hangs a Confederate flag a lively debate ensues about whether or not to burn this highly combustible symbol of America’s unresolved feelings about slavery.
From the Gettysburg Address to David Walker’s Appeal the play employs language from the actual speeches and writings of these eight individuals as they consider the rebel cloth. This sets the stage for a post-show discussion when audience members are asked to share their about this main topic and any other connected ones.
Since Abolitionists’ Museum premiered in 1998 at the second annual Hampton Roads Juneteenth Festival hosted in Virginia Beach, VA it has been seen by almost 10,000 mostly middle and high school students and teachers. In the post-show we ask for a show of hands and pose this question, “If you lived in an Abolitionists’ Museum, what would your vote be? To burn or not to burn is the question.
”Most often, students overwhelmingly feel that the best place for the Confederate flag is in a museum and never at all above a state capitol. They mostly do not vote to burn it because for some people the stars and bars represent their heritage and if those people want to sport it on their bumper stickers and flagpoles in their privately owned yards it is their right as American citizens to be offensive.
The play also brings to light many other perspectives such as noting what a difficult job it is to be president of the United States. In the play Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Sojourner Truth despise Abraham Lincoln because he moved so slowly on ending slavery. Sometimes AM audiences boo Honest Abe. We further push all the iconic stereotypes about Lincoln by using non-tradition casting. In the C.A.T. / Juneteenth VA world America’s 16th president has been played by everyone from Black females to a Hispanic teenage boy because we believe that once you put a stovepipe hat and beard on anyone you get Abe Lincoln.
Audience response to President Lincoln is always a good reminder about the transformative power of theatre not only for audience members but cast and crew as well. Friend and writer Greg Raver-Lampman quipped after a performance where he had been primarily booed, “Who knew agreeing to play Lincoln met playing the heavy?” On that day when Rose Nichols interrupted, Abe was being ably represented by Matthew Crowley who between 2005 and 2009 made several presidential appearances including Thomas Jefferson in conversation with Benjamin Banneker (first recognized African American scientist) in Ben & Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Stars over Cavalier Manor that highlights the famous figures who have streets named after them in the Portsmouth, VA community that proudly stakes its claim as America’s first Black middle-class neighborhood.
LAST BATTLE OF THE CIVIL WAR
He was born October 2, 1800 near the county seat of Jerusalem, Virginia. At an early age it was prophesied that Nat Turner would leave his mark on history. He was able to read the Old Testament from the age of four. About a year before the insurrection he left Southampton County. It was assumed Nat had escaped to freedom, but about a month later he returned saying that God had a bigger plan for him. This further identified him as a holy man among family and friends. Among whites Nat Turner was regarded as smarter than most slaves. He was dismissed by many as a “dreamer of dreams.” Most important to the whites who knew him were the profits they earned by Nat’s trustworthiness and the fruits of his free labor.
In 1827, five years before the insurrection, Nat Turner baptized a white man and himself at Pearson’s Pond. This act amazed everyone – both black and white. Again from the “Fires of Jubilee” we learn Etheldred T. Brantley was an overseer at a nearby plantation and upon his commission of some “wickedness” he could find help from no one in his own community, so he turned to Nat. Nat explained to Brantley that God had blessed Nat with powers. At that point, sores festered, bled and broke out on Brantley’s face. For nine days and nights he and Nat fasted and prayed together. On the day of the baptism a large crowd gathered deep in the woods. Blacks came to witness a holy man baptize a white man. Whites came to mock them and to assure themselves that Benjamin Turner’s nigger hadn’t gone plum crazy. Later Nat would explain, “We went down to the water together, in the sight of many who reviled us, and were baptized by the Spirit.”
In an interview given to attorney Thomas Gray during the week of his trial Nat Turner revealed himself to be intelligent and unafraid. He described his mission to strike a blow against slavery. He gave a chronology of the signs that were shown to him by God as he planned his mission. A soft-spoken, small boned man Nat Turner changed the trajectory of race relations in America. Nat Turner became the mad, crazed Black man who lusted after white women while eating watermelon and fried chicken.
Today when a brother can’t catch a taxi in New York thank Nat Turner. Because Nat was literate, after 1831 it became a felonious offense to educate Blacks – free or enslaved. In the 1660s Virginia’s politicians began to increasingly add laws to the Virginia Codes that steadily legalized slavery. Virginia laws provided the blueprint for the deal made by the signers of the Constitution regarding the 3/5s formula used to determine how to properly tax human property.
Today, in a world where corporations are treated as people, a small group continues to grow obscenely rich on the backs and by the sweat of poor people. Public school budgets are being decimated. Teachers vilified. Incarceration of black and brown people is high. Fifty million Americans cannot afford healthcare. The vast difference between the average accumulated wealth by descendants of the enslaved is reported to be about $2500 versus $135,000 for whites. This gross inequity is one of slavery’s most damning legacies.
Nat Turner struck first with bloody violence that begat more violence. Politicians, slaveholders and the U.S. Supreme Court fought back thirty-four more years until Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865. Fortunately, today it is our good luck to learn from the past. Nat Turner lived in an Old Testament world and Nat believed God wanted him to exact vengeance on the slaveholding class regardless of age or gender.
Those who are now gathering together around the world, represent the 99% who believe that people of all races, ages and backgrounds must have access to their dreams. From the beginning in 1492 people immigrated from somewhere else to the New World. Those who came to America founded a nation based on the principle of “freedom for all” but policies of Manifest Destiny derailed that magnificent dream. Today’s message from the 99% is that we still believe in the American Dream and ironically note with sadness how 180 years ago, Nat Turner another dreamer of dreams, articulated the very same message that went unheard. Today we have learned from Mr. Turner that it only takes one lone angry voice to start a fight, but to achieve peace and equity requires the blended voices of the multitudes and this time we, the People, will be heard.
1 Oates, Stephen B., “The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce
Rebellion,” (Harper and Row Publishers), New York, p. 155