Nat Turner: Necrosis of the Serpent
Written by Guy A. Sims
“Git’im in heah! Quick now!”
The barn side door was opened just enough for the two dark men to carry the third in. The barn was quiet except for the sounds of a few animals and low voices near the hay station.
“Him hurt bad?”
The taller of the two shook his head. “Uh-huh! Bloodied bad but need to tell what he know.” The man who opened the door motioned for the two to lay the wounded man on a pile of old cloths. He left them there, disappearing into the collection of gathered bodies at the hay station. Briefly, heads turned to the direction of the man on the floor but returned just as fast to a figure who slowly began to rise. The group parted as the silhouette illuminated by the small fire moved toward the three men. The two standing men could see the man was holding a machete but they did not move. The figure kneeled next to the man on the ground.
“Tell me what happened.”
He placed his hand on the forehead of the man. The man shivered but managed a smile when the face became recognized.
“My body is broken,” The man coughed, trickling blood from the corner of his mouth. “But my spirit is with you.”
The man tried to sit up but he collapsed under his own pain.
“Stay still brother. Our day of resurrection and jubilee is near. I have seen it in the sky. The sign…the signal from the trumpet of Gabriel…ordered by Gawd A’mighty. Tomorrow we move like shadows.”
He was now talking to the group who had encircled the man on the ground.
“Tomorrow we seize what Gawd done destined for us.”
The figure pointed to the men around him.
“Gather your tools and sharpen your blades…” The weakened man groaned as he struggled to grasp the leader’s shirt.
“No…listen…listen to me Nat Turner.”
An hour passed before the beaten man was able to sit up. Nat Turner’s men applied poultice and wrapped his wounds. The gash on the side of his face was bandaged but still continued to bleed. Although advised to drink slowly, the man gulped down the ladle of water before speaking.
“I know’d I was joinin’ up with you so I make’d like nothin’ was goin’ on but Massa Miller was all drunktified and spittin’ fire. He come ruunnin’ down to the fields wit his rifle in one hand and whip in the other. Him yellin’ about folk not workin’ hard. I reckon he was gonna make a example of me.”
One of the men who brought him in interrupted. “Jes tell’im what you tole us and stop extra storyin’.”
The wounded man glared.
“I’m the one wit the buss head so I tell the story my way. Anyway Mr. Turner, Massa Miller know he wasn’t shootin’ one o’ his slaves cause his money ain’t as much as before…but he’ll whip you up good for true. Anyways, he knocks me good on my face and I falls to the ground. He starts to lash me up but he can’t get no good swing holdin’ the gun. So here’s what he do. He jams it into a bushel o’ ‘taters so it stay up. From there he whips me and cuss me.”
“Now tell ‘im.” The other man stamped his feet.
“Here it is!” The wounded man adjusted in his seat.
“Lissen good Nat Turner. When Massa Miller finished wit’ me he go to get his gun and there be a ‘tater stuck on the end. Massa Miller start belly laughin’ like someone jes tell a funny.”
Nat Turner turned away from the man, thinking him delirious but the man’s hand clutched his trousers. “But then sompthin’ happen. Sompthin’ that might bring you the victory.”
Nat Turner stopped. The other men drew their attention to the man on the floor.
“Go on!” Nat Turner ordered.
“Massa Miller takes the gun, points it in the air, and then shoots.
I thought he musta knocked my senses out cause’n I ain’t hardly hear the shot. Like it was shushed. Here what I’m sayin’ Mr. Turner? The ‘tater made the gun hush.”
Nat Turner took a couple of steps as he looked to the top of the barn. He then looked at the machete in his hand. He pointed to one of the men by the door.
“Get me some bags of ‘taters!”
Slaves toiled under the sweltering sun on Robert Miller’s plantation. Most days were filled with pain, anguish, and internalized grief but not this day. Careful not to raise attention of overseers and others not to be trusted, hands slipped potatoes into pockets, pants, and shirts upon the instruction of their beloved prophet Nat Turner. Songs of rivers and places beyond the Jordan were sung in cryptic harmony. Melodies calling for the great getting’ up morning were merely the countdown to the setting sun. For once, in a long time, there was hope for tomorrow, a longing for Gawd’s mighty hand to sweep time and bring forth dawn. With each stooping, each picking, toting, washing, chopping, lashing, pulling, carrying, struggling, weeping, and wailing, the seeds of hope and desire took root in spirits and began to grow.
A group of twenty to twenty-five were gathered at the predetermined meeting place when the next group arrived, led by Nat Turner. Even in the cover of darkness, his eyes, wide and intense, shined like beacons, blazed like fire. His face was strong, forged from years of whippings, hunger, abuse, degradation, and loss. On this night it was communicated that a new tomorrow was coming, carried on the wings of Heaven and fired on the winds of Hell. Nat Turner stepped up onto a fallen tree trunk and surveyed the crowd. His piercing eyes touched the faces of the sixty or more anxious hopeful ex-slaves. The silence was accented by the rhythmic chirping of crickets. Nat Turner raised his hand and the crowd dropped to one knee. His voice was low and strong, laced with anger and retribution, charged with passion and spitfire, and seething with the breath of God and man and pain and hope.
“My brothers and sisters. Let not your hearts be troubled. Let not fear hold you in place. The glory of the Lawd strengthens us in the same way Joshua was strengthened at Jericho.”
Nat Turner’s hand pointed sharp and quickly toward the Miller home.
“There stands the wall of our Jericho. Listen! Listen! Do you hear the trumpets of the angels? The trumpets that puts power in your hands and feet. They blow with the hot winds of retribution and justice.”
The continually swelling crowd quietly moaned in agreement. They shifted, anxious to stand, anxious to run, anxious to be free. Nat Turner raised both hands above his head.
“Rise up soldiers of Gawd! Rise up because you’s already free! Let tonight be the last time you are ever on your knees ‘cept to pray to the Lawd. You no longer bend as those shackled in the fields. You stand as children in the bosom of the A’mighty! You stand as men! Now, gather your instruments of Jubilee and let us move as heaven prepares a new day for us!”
One of the men signaled to his group and they took off toward the Miller home. Other men doing the same with their groups began their quickened pace down the road. In the warm summer night, the muffled cries of rebellion began to rise, filling the skies and stoking fury. One group remained behind with Nat Turner.
“Tonight you are my archangels who carry the swords of the Divine. We stay behind because we know Satan’s army will come but we will face them when they manifest themselves.”
Nat Turner reached down behind the tree trunk and lifted a rifle.
“I have one for each of you. I also have this.”
He bent down again, this time lifting a small satchel.
“Inside are ‘taters. After you prime your gun, place a ‘tater on the end before you shoot. God will make your guns whisper. So stay low and in the bush. After you shoot, move so you confuse. The A’mighty has foretold our victory so be not afraid.”
Each man secured his rifle and satchel and then said a prayer before heading out to the brush adjacent to the road.
“Them niggas done gone plumb crazy! Done lost their natural minds.”
The captain of the militia signaled halt and turned to address the talkative teen.
“Let me tell you! Let me tell alla you! We got serious business. The word is slaves from the Miller place and the Thomas place are staging a revolt.”
The three rows of halted men stood silently, listening intently to the words of their superior officer. “Our job is to track them down and suppress them…and for those who don’t know that ten-dollar word…it mean put’em in the ground without question!” The teen raised his hand and offered a Sir? The captain nodded.
“Sir? Do you think we’ll get a skirmish…”
The teen’s words were cut short as he dropped to the ground. By the time the militia men next to the teen could react, a second man clutched his throat and stumbled before falling.
“We’s under attack!” Cried one man.
“Where’s it coming from?” Another screamed.
“Return fire!” The captain ordered. The men leveled their guns in multiple directions, eyes pierced for movement.
“You see anything?”
“It’s too dark to see nothin’.”
The captain pointed toward a clump of bushes and the men trained their sights. He raised his hand but never finished the count. A hail of bullets picked the militia men off, causing them to fall, to panic, to run. Those who hightailed into the darkness were soon heard screaming as sounds of bludgeoning echoes rose then subsided. In moments, a group of thirty slaves stepped from out of the darkness with bloodied sticks, rocks, candlesticks and other blunt household items.
“Damn you.” The captain, his hands pressed against the increasingly wet circle on his chest, attempted to stand.
“Damn you niggas to hell!” From within the crowd, Nat Turner moved to the now fallen militia leader.
“The Lawd told me to cut the snake or else it will strike with poison. Well, the serpent may have gotten the best of Adam and Eve but tonight we cut off its head.”
Nat Turner positioned himself so he could see eye to eye with the slowly fading captain.
“The hell you speak of is not prepared for me or mine. We are promised to paradise.”
Nat Turner stood and signaled for all survivors to be killed. “Gather their weapons for our journey has just begun. The Lawd commands us to keep on.”
The courier ran feverishly down the corridor of the Governor’s mansion. He stopped when he reached the main chamber. He caught his breath as he tried to compose himself.
“Go right in sir.” The colored attendant opened a large ornate door. “The governor is awaiting with great interest.” The courier stepped with a quickened pace and entered the room. In seconds he was standing in front of the governor’s desk.
“What’s the word from Southampton?”
“It’s bad Governor Floyd. What started as a brazen mob of some crazed slaves has turned into what can only be described as an insurrection.”
“An insurrection?” The last word I received was that a militia of about thirty were dispatched to quell the problem.” The courier handed Governor Floyd a letter which was read immediately.
The courier remained at attention. Moments later, the governor exploded.
“Dead? Two militias dead? One hundred and ten civilians murdered? All those people killed and that group is still on the loose?”
“And gathering strength by overpowering plantation owners. Those people are gentle farmers, not fighters.” The governor screamed for his secretary who bolted into the room.
“Get me the Adjutant General right away!”
The governor patted his now perspiring forehead with a handkerchief. “How? Who?” The courier pointed to a portion of the letter.
“While many of the slaves were killed their numbers continued to grow as they overtook plantations. They must have a group of about two to three hundred now. Maybe more.”
The governor felt sick. He had often bragged how Virginia had the most slaves, almost five hundred thousand. He felt dizzy imagining what could happen if they were all suddenly free. What would happen if it spread to other states? America would cease to be. As he pondered the demise of the nation the Adjutant General arrived and was immediately updated. The governor grabbed his quill and wrote furiously.
“I’m putting an executive order for the use of troops to suppress and eliminate all threats to the life and liberty of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” As he handed the document to the Adjutant General he sneered. “Kill all those animal bastards!” The courier stepped in between the governor and the general.
“Sir, if I may. It’s been said that two of the rampaging slaves had been captured. The first refused to talk so he was killed right away. The second was a little more fearful and mentioned the name Nat Turner. He might be their leader. Might I suggest that if he is found to be alive it would make for a great example to capture him and put on display as a way to regain faith in our people and fear in theirs? Just a suggestion.” Governor Floyd pressed the order into the Adjutant General’s hand.
“I want that agitator caught, disemboweled, and disassembled before us all. Call up any Virginia Militia you need. Use whatever arms at your disposal. In the meantime I will dispatch a call for arms from President Jackson, asking him to mobilize the army for support.” The governor paused, looking out of the window. “Understand this! While I’ll implore for his position to be on the ready,” The governor now looked the Adjutant General directly in his eyes. “I want us to satisfy our own dilemmas.” The Adjutant General saluted and exited with all promptness, taking the courier with him. The governor continued to speak out loud. “Whatever leanings I may have had regarding slaves is now no longer a conflict of conscious and consequence.”
For seven days, Nat Turner’s raid evolved into an uprising then wholly into a revolution. At first, plantation owners aware of what was going on awaited for the mythical band of raging Negroes only to be met with a growing hoard of freedom desiring humans.
Others, fearing for their lives, set their slaves free with the hopes they would induce mercy–only to be slain by even their most trusted and good darkies. The swell of ex-slaves with the taste of freedom and vengeance began their march toward Petersburg, Virginia.
It was there they confronted the forces of the Adjutant General and his one-thousand troop army. The Adjutant General released his cannons, raining spheres of fire and steel on the charging men and women hungry for liberty long denied. In the end, three hundred-fifty black men, women, and children were killed.
Another one-hundred eighty were captured and dispersed to plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. Fifty-three escaped the carnage of Petersburg, disappearing into the dense woods, never to be seen again. The end had arrived but the citizens of the United States didn’t sense comfort until two weeks later when on a hog farm in Chesterfield, Virginia a farmer discovered discarded food remains and eventually a Negro, Nat Turner, hidden in his well. Captured, the leader, the prophet, and now a malcontent, stood shackled in a courtroom in Richmond, Virginia.
The courtroom was filled to capacity; from the floor to the gallery to the front steps and out into the street. The angry. The curious. The mournful. The vengeful. All awaiting the outcome of the trial of Nat Turner. During the course of the day, Nat Turner, tired, beaten, and weary, stood stoic, straight, and strong in the presence of the many white faces cursing and jeering him, wishing for a slow and painful death for his atrocious acts against civilized men, women, and children. His eyes, though swollen from the pummeling, were clear, fixed on the judge’s face. His hands, lacerated and aching from their brine bath, were shackled behind him yet they remained clenched rocks of defiance. A descending hush overcame the room as the judge raised his hand.
“As we prepare to pass judgment on the one called Nat Turner, the court shall continue its practice to afford the accused an opportunity to say words on his behalf.” A rise of hisses and boos were met by the banging of the gavel. When peace was restored, the judge looked to Nat Turner. “Go ahead boy!”
Nat Turner closed his eyes before slowly shuffling his shackle-clad ankles, turning away from the judge to face the courtroom audience. When he opened his mouth the voice was shrill and clear, resonating independence. Nat Turner looked past the faces reddened by hate and anger. He looked beyond the man-made system of power which continued to press the vice of oppression on his people. He gazed past the country which continually fabricated lies woven within the fabric of its creed that all men were created equal. He looked past of all that and into the visage of the god who defined his every word, step, and deed. Nat Turner opened his mouth and spoke.
“I stand before you, not in fear of your judgment but in anticipation of the standing in judgment of Gawd A’mighty. His divine finger ordered my steps and those of my people. The sparrow singing his song and has no regrets for the sound it makes. The river that swells and floods the countryside has no regrets. I have no regrets for the liberation of my brothers and sisters. We have tasted the bitter sweetness of freedom and know we can never be satisfied with the false servings of enslavement. Every man deserves to be free. No! Every man must be free! And I too am a man because you proved it today. For you could have killed me in the street like an animal in a slaughterhouse but today, I stand on trial to hear my fate. For only a man can be tried by another man. You today acknowledge my manhood. So I say again, every man must be free! I am free! My people are free!”
Days later, a White House aide entered the office of Andrew Jackson. His face, sweaty and lacking in color caught the president’s attention.
“What is it?”
“Mr. President. A most disturbing message sir.” The aide collapsed to one knee, catching himself on the edge of the president’s desk. “Massive uprisings of slaves in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi…all over. They’ve raided armories and have gained the advantage.” The president dropped his glasses as he stood. “It’s spreading Mr. President,” gasped the aide. “It’s spreading.”
Guy A. Sims is the author of the romantically romance novel, Living Just A Little, and the crime novellas, The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim. He is also the head writer of the Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline comic book series and the forthcoming Brotherman graphic novel, Revelation. BCEPressworks.com