Pre-Civil War Slave Revolts and Abolitionist Movements

In the United States

San Miguel de Gualdape – 1526





San Miguel de Gualdape was the first European settlement in the North American continent, founded in 1526 by Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón. The settlers lasted only through three months of winter before abandoning the site in early 1527.


Ayllón had brought a group of Africans to labor at the mission, to clear ground and erect the buildings. This was the first time that Spanish colonists had used African slaves on the North American continent. During a period of internal political disputes among the settlers, the slaves rebelled. This 1526 incident is the first documented slave rebellion in North America.


New York Slave Revolt – 1712




The New York Slave Revolt of 1712 was an uprising in New York City of 23 enslaved Africans who killed nine whites and injured another six. More than three times that number of blacks, 70, were arrested and jailed. Of these, 27 were put on trial, and 21 convicted and executed.


While in the early 1700s, New York had one of the largest slave populations of any of England’s colonies, slavery in New York differed from some of the other colonies because there were no large plantations. Enslaved Africans lived near each other, making communication easy. They also often worked among free blacks, a situation that did not exist on most plantations. Slaves in the city could communicate and plan a conspiracy more easily than among those on plantations. They were kept under abusive and harsh conditions, and naturally resented their treatment.


The men gathered on the night of April 6, 1712, and set fire to a building on Maiden Lane near Broadway. While the white colonists tried to put out the fire, the enslaved African Americans, armed with guns, hatchets, and swords, attacked them and ran off.


Seventy blacks were arrested and put in jail. Six are reported to have committed suicide. Twenty-seven were put on trial, 21 of whom were convicted and sentenced to death. Twenty were burned to death and one was executed on a breaking wheel. This was a form of punishment no longer used on whites at the time. The severity of punishment was in reaction to white slaveowners' fear of insurrection by slaves.


After the revolt, laws governing the lives of blacks in New York were made more restrictive. African Americans were not permitted to gather in groups of more than three, they were not permitted to carry firearms, and gambling was outlawed. Other crimes, such as property damage, rape, and conspiracy to kill, were made punishable by death. Free blacks were no longer allowed to own land. Slave owners who decided to free their slaves were required to pay a tax of £200, a price much higher than the price of a slave.




Stono Rebellion – 1739




With the increase in slaves, colonists tried to regulate their relations, but there was always negotiation in this process. Slaves resisted by running away, work slowdowns and revolts. In this case, the slaves may have been inspired by several factors to mount their rebellion. Spanish Florida offered freedom to slaves escaped from British colonies; the Spanish had issued a proclamation and had agents spread the word about giving freedom and land to slaves who got to Florida. Tensions between England and Spain over territory in North America made slaves hopeful of reaching Spanish territory, particularly the free black community of Fort Mose, founded in 1738 outside St. Augustine. Stono was just 50 miles from the Florida line.


In addition, a malaria epidemic had killed many whites in Charleston, weakening the power of slaveholders. Lastly, historians have suggested the slaves organized their revolt to take place on Sunday, when planters would be occupied in church and might be unarmed. The Security Act of 1739 (which required all white males to carry arms even to church on Sundays) had been passed in August but not fully taken effect; penalties were supposed to begin after 29 September.


Jemmy, the leader of the revolt, was a literate slave described in an eyewitness account as "Angolan". Historian John K. Thornton has noted that, because of patterns of trade, he was more likely from the Kingdom of Kongo in west Central Africa, which had long had relations with Portuguese traders. His cohort of 20 slaves were also called "Angolan", and likely also Kongolese. The slaves were described as Catholic, and some spoke Portuguese, learned from the traders operating in the Kongo Empire at the time. The patterns of trade and the fact that the Kongo was a Catholic nation point to their origin there. The Kingdom of Kongo had voluntarily converted to Catholicism in 1491; by the 18th century, the religion was a fundamental part of its citizens' identity. The nation had independent relations with Rome. Slavery predated the introduction of Christianity to the royal court of Kongo, was regulated by the Kingdom and was still practiced as late as the 1870s.


Portuguese was the language of trade as well as one of the languages of educated people in Kongo. The Portuguese-speaking slaves in South Carolina were more likely to learn about offers of freedom by Spanish agents. They would also have been attracted to the Catholicism of Spanish Florida. Because Kongo had been undergoing civil wars, more people had been captured and sold into slavery in recent years, among them trained soldiers. It is likely that Jemmy and his rebel cohort were such military men, as they fought hard against the militia when they were caught, and were able to kill 20 men.


On Sunday, 10 September 1739, Jemmy gathered 20 enslaved Africans near the Stono River, 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Charleston. This date was important to them as the Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary's nativity; like the religious symbols they used, taking action on this date connected their Catholic past with present purpose. The Africans marched down the roadway with a banner that read "Liberty!", and chanted the same word in unison. They attacked Hutchenson's store at the Stono River Bridge, killing two storekeepers and seizing weapons and ammunition.


Raising a flag, the slaves proceeded south toward Spanish Florida, a well-known refuge for escapees. On the way, they gathered more recruits, sometimes reluctant ones, for a total of 80. They burned seven plantations and killed 20–25 whites along the way. South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor William Bull and four of his friends came across the group while on horseback. They left to warn other slaveholders. Rallying a militia of planters and slaveholders, the colonists traveled to confront Jemmy and his followers.


The next day, the well-armed and mounted militia, numbering 20–100 men,[citation needed] caught up with the group of 80 slaves at the Edisto River. In the ensuing confrontation, 20 whites and 44 slaves were killed. While the slaves lost, they killed proportionately more whites than was the case in later rebellions. The colonists mounted the severed heads of the rebels on stakes along major roadways to serve as warning for other slaves who might consider revolt. The lieutenant governor hired Chickasaw and Catawba Indians and other slaves to track down and capture the Africans who had escaped from the battle. A group of the slaves who escaped fought a pitched battle with a militia a week later approximately 30 miles (50 km) from the site of the first conflict. The colonists executed most of the rebellious slaves; they sold other slaves off to the markets of the West Indies.



New York Conspiracy – 1741





The Conspiracy of 1741, also known as the Negro Plot of 1741 or the Slave Insurrection of 1741, was a supposed plot by slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York in 1741 to revolt and level New York City with a series of fires. Historians disagree as to whether such a plot existed and, if there was one, its scale. During the court cases, the prosecution kept changing the grounds of accusation, ending with linking the insurrection to a Popish plot of Spanish and other Catholics.


In 1741 Manhattan had the second-largest slave population of any city in the Thirteen Colonies after Charleston, South Carolina. Rumors of a conspiracy arose against a background of economic competition between poor whites and slaves; a severe winter; war between Britain and Spain, with heightened anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feelings; and recent slave revolts in South Carolina and Saint John in the Caribbean. In March and April 1741, a series of 13 fires erupted in Lower Manhattan, the most significant one within the walls of Fort George, then the home of the governor. After another fire at a warehouse, a slave was arrested after having been seen fleeing it. A 16-year-old Irish indentured servant, Mary Burton, arrested in a case of stolen goods, testified against the others as participants in a supposedly growing conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn the city, kill the white men, take the white women for themselves, and elect a new king and governor.


In the spring of 1741 fear gripped the Manhattan as fires burned all across the island. The suspected culprits were New York's slaves, some 200 of which were arrested and tried for conspiracy to burn the town and murder its white inhabitants. As in the Salem witch trials and the Court examining the Denmark Vesey plot in Charleston, a few witnesses implicated many other suspects. In the end, over 100 people were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake.


Most of the convicted people were hanged or burnt – how many is uncertain. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, Caesar, a slave, and John Hughson, a white cobbler and tavern keeper, were gibbeted. Their corpses were left to rot in public. Seventy-two men were deported from New York, sent to Newfoundland, various islands in the West Indies, and the Madeiras.



German Coast Uprising (Orleans Territory) – 1811


[FROM: WIKIPEDIA, Except Where Noted in Italics]


The 1811 German Coast Uprising was a revolt of black slaves in parts of the Territory of Orleans on January 8–10, 1811. A group of conspirators met on January 6, 1811. It was a period when work had relaxed on the plantations after the fierce weeks of the sugar harvest and processing. As planter James Brown testified weeks later, "the black Quamana [Kwamena, meaning "born on Saturday"], owned by Mr. Brown, and the mulatto Harry, owned by Messrs. Kenner & Henderson, were at the home of Manuel Andry on the night of Saturday–Sunday of the current month in order to deliberate with the mulatto Charles Deslondes, chief of the brigands." Slaves had spread word of the planned uprising among the slaves at plantations up and down the German Coast.


The revolt began on January 8 at the André plantation. After striking and badly wounding Manuel André, the slaves killed his son Gilbert. "An attempt was made to assassinate me by the stroke of an axe," Manuel André wrote. "My poor son has been ferociously murdered by a horde of brigands who from my plantation to that of Mr. Fortier have committed every kind of mischief and excesses, which can be expected from a gang of atrocious bandits of that nature."


The rebellion gained momentum quickly. The 15 or so slaves at the André plantation, approximately 30 miles upriver from New Orleans, joined another eight slaves from the next-door plantation of the widows of Jacques and Georges Deslondes. This was the home plantation of Charles Deslondes, a field laborer later described by one of the captured slaves as the "principal chief of the brigands." Small groups of slaves joined from every plantation which the rebels passed. Witnesses remarked on their organized march. Although they carried mostly pikes, hoes and axes but few firearms, they marched to drums while some carried flags. From 10–25% of any given plantation's slave population joined with them.


At the plantation of James Brown, Kook, one of the most active participants and key figures in the story of the uprising, joined the insurrection. At the next plantation down, Kook attacked and killed François Trépagnier with an axe. He was the second and last planter killed in the rebellion. After the band of slaves passed the LaBranche plantation, they stopped at the home of the local doctor. Finding the doctor gone, Kook set his house on fire.


Some planters testified at the trials in parish courts that they were warned by their slaves of the uprising. Others regularly stayed in New Orleans, where many had townhouses, and trusted their plantations to be run by overseers. Planters quickly crossed the Mississippi River to escape the insurrection and to raise a militia.


As the slave party moved downriver, they passed larger plantations, from which many slaves joined them. Numerous slaves joined the insurrection from the Meuillion plantation, the largest and wealthiest plantation on the German Coast. The rebels laid waste to Meuillion's house. They tried to set it on fire, but a slave named Bazile fought the fire and saved the house.


After nightfall the slaves reached Cannes-Brulées, about 15 miles northwest of New Orleans. The men had traveled between 14 and 22 miles, a march that probably took them seven to ten hours. By some accounts, they numbered "some 200 slaves," although other accounts estimated up to 500. As typical of revolts of most classes, free or slave, the insurgent slaves were mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 30. They represented primarily lower-skilled occupations on the sugar plantations, where slaves labored in difficult conditions. The uprising occurred on the east bank of the Mississippi River in what are now St. John the Baptist and St. Charles Parishes, Louisiana. While the slave insurgency was the largest in US history, the rebels killed only two white men. Confrontations with militia and executions after trial killed ninety-five black people.


Between 64 and 125 enslaved men marched from sugar plantations near present-day LaPlace on the German Coast toward the city of New Orleans. They collected more men along the way. Some accounts claimed a total of 200–500 slaves participated. During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses (three completely), several sugarhouses, and crops. They were armed mostly with hand tools.


White men led by officials of the territory formed militia companies to hunt down and kill the insurgents. Over the next two weeks, white planters and officials interrogated, tried and executed an additional 44 insurgents who had been captured. Executions were by hanging or decapitation. Whites displayed the bodies as a warning to intimidate slaves. The heads of some were put on pikes and displayed at plantations.


After being injured, Col. André went to the other side of the river to round up a militia organized by planters, who began pursuing the slave rebels.


By noon on January 9, the residents of New Orleans had heard of the insurrection on the German Coast. Over the next six hours, General Wade Hampton I, Commodore John Shaw, and Governor William C.C. Claiborne sent two companies of volunteer militia, 30 regular troops, and a detachment of 40 seamen to fight the slaves.


By about 4 a.m., the troops reached the plantation of Jacques Fortier, where Hampton thought the insurgents had encamped for the night. The insurgents had left hours before Hampton's arrival and started back upriver. Over the next few hours, they traveled about 15 miles back up the coast and neared the plantation of Bernard Bernoudy.


There, planter Charles Perret, under the command of the badly injured André and in cooperation with Judge Saint Martin, had assembled a militia of about 80 men from the opposite side of the river. At about 9 o'clock, this second militia discovered the slaves moving toward high ground on the Bernoudy estate. Perret ordered the militia to attack the slaves. Perret later wrote that there were about 200 slaves, about half on horseback. (Most accounts said only the leaders were mounted, and historians believe it unlikely the slaves could have gathered so many mounts.)


The battle was brief. Within a half-hour of the attack, 40 to 45 slaves had been killed and the remainder slipped away into the woods. Perret and Andrée's militia tried to pursue slaves into the woods and swamps, but it was difficult territory.


On January 11, the militia captured Charles Deslondes, whom André considered "the principal leader of the bandits." The militia did not hold him for trial or interrogation. Samuel Hambleton described Deslonde's fate: "Charles [Deslondes] had his Hands chopped off then shot in one thigh & then the other, until they were both broken – then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted!"


Having suppressed the insurrection, the planters and government officials continued to search for slaves who had escaped. Those captured were interrogated. Officials conducted two sets of trials, one at Destrehan Plantation owned by Jean Noel Destréhan and one in New Orleans. The Destréhan trial, run by the parish court resulted in the execution of 18 slaves, whose heads were put on pikes. The plantation displayed the bodies of the dead rebels to intimidate other slaves. One observer wrote, "Their Heads ... decorate our Levée, all the way up the coast, I am told they look like crows sitting on long poles." By the end of January, around 100 dismembered bodies decorated the levee from the Place d’Armes in the center of New Orleans forty miles along the River Road into the heart of the plantation district. . . .Planters wanted to make sure that anyone who might empathize with the revolutionaries, anyone who wanted to see the dead as martyrs, would have to recon with the image of rotting corpses. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, by Damiel Rasmussen. Harper Collins, New York, NY. 2011. Pp. 147-149.


The trials in New Orleans, also in the local court, resulted in the conviction and summary executions of 11 more slaves. Three of these were publicly hanged in the Place d'Armes, now Jackson Square, and their heads were put up to decorate the city's gates.


U.S. territorial law provided no appeal from a parish court's ruling, even in cases involving imposition of a death sentence on an enslaved individual. Governor Claiborne, recognizing that fact, wrote to the judges of each court that he was willing to extend executive clemency (“in all cases where circumstances suggest the exercise of mercy a recommendation to that effect from the Court and Jury, will induce the Governor to extend to the convict a pardon.”) In fact, Gov. Claiborne did commute two death sentences, those of Henry, and of Theodore, each referred by the Orleans Parish court. No record has been found of any referral from the court in St. Charles Parish, or of any refusal by the Governor of any application for clemency.


Some accounts of the events erroneously ascribe greater participation in the resultant deaths of the enslaved men both to Claiborne and to the U.S. Army. In fact, the territorial legal "superstructure" in place for the United States, i.e., the Superior Court, had no role in the trials, which were conducted solely by the parish courts, comprising the judge and a jury of planters. The U.S. Army arrived too late on the scene, after "volunteers" had killed many of the alleged insurgents. General Hampton's January 16, 1811, report to the Secretary of War describes having his forces in place, prepared to advance, but that the enslaved individuals slipped out in the night "in great silence" and were subsequently attacked "five leagues" away, not by the Army and not by the militia, but by "a spirited party of Young Men from the opposite side of the river."


Whites killed about a total of 95 slaves at the time of the insurrection, and by execution after trials as a result of this revolt. From the trial records, most of the leaders appeared to have been mixed-race Creoles or mulattoes, although numerous slaves in the group were native-born Africans. These trials were not meant for the benefit of the slaves, but rather to present the powerful as legitimately, ethically, and rightly powerful. . . .[T]he only purpose of the questioning was as the preamble to a trial whose end was clear from the beginning; the quick execution of all slaves involved in the insurrection. Ibid., 153.


Fifty-six of the slaves captured on the 10th and involved in the revolt were returned to their masters, who may have punished them but wanted their valuable laborers back to work. Thirty more slaves were captured, but the whites determined they had been forced to join the revolt by Charles Deslondes and his men, and returned them to their masters.


The heirs of Meuillon petitioned the legislature for permission to free the mulatto slave Bazile, who had worked to preserve his master's plantation. Not all the slaves supported insurrection, knowing the trouble it could bring.


As was typical of American slave insurrections, the uprising was short-lived and quickly crushed by local white forces; it lasted only a couple of days and did not overcome local authorities. Showing planter influence, the legislature of the Orleans Territory approved compensation of $300 to planters for each slave killed or executed. The Orleans Territory accepted the continued presence of US military troops after the revolt, as they were grateful for their presence. The insurrection was covered by national press, with Northerners seeing it arising out of the wrongs suffered under slavery.


No state or federal historical marker commemorates the insurrection, though it is mentioned on the marker for the Woodland Plantation (formerly Andre Plantation): "Major 1811 slave uprising organized here." Despite its size and connection to the French and Haitian revolutions, the rebellion is not thoroughly covered in history books. As late as 1923, however, older black men "still relate[d] the story of the slave insurrection of 1811 as they heard it from their grandfathers." Since 1995, the African American History Alliance of Louisiana has led an annual commemoration at Norco in January, where they have been joined by some descendants of members of the revolt.


Gabriel Prosser – 1800


Gabriel (1776 – October 10, 1800), today commonly—if incorrectly—known as Gabriel Prosser, was a literate enslaved blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond area in the summer of 1800. Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, and he and twenty-five followers were taken captive and hanged in punishment. In reaction, Virginia and other state legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as prohibiting the education, assembly, and hiring out of slaves, to restrict their chances to learn and to plan similar rebellions.


Born into slavery at Brookfield, a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia, Gabriel had two brothers, Solomon and Martin. They were all held by Thomas Prosser, the owner. As Gabriel and Solomon were trained as blacksmiths, their father may have had that skill. Gabriel was also taught to read and write.


By the mid-1790s, as Gabriel neared the age of twenty, he stood "six feet two or three inches high". His long and "bony face, well made", was marred by the loss of his two front teeth and "two or three scars on his head". White people as well as blacks regarded the literate young man as "a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life".


Gabriel planned the revolt during the spring and summer of 1800. On August 30, 1800, Gabriel intended to lead slaves into Richmond, but the rebellion was postponed because of rain. The slaves' owners had suspicion of the uprising, and two slaves told their owner, Mosby Sheppard, about the plans. He warned Virginia's Governor, James Monroe, who called out the state militia. Gabriel escaped downriver to Norfolk, but he was spotted and betrayed there by another slave for the reward offered by the state. That slave did not receive the full reward.


Gabriel was returned to Richmond for questioning, but he did not submit. Gabriel, his two brothers, and 23 other slaves were hanged.


Gabriel was a skilled blacksmith who was mostly "hired out" by his owner in Richmond foundries. Hiring out was the way that slaveholders earned money from their slaves, whom they needed less for labor as they had reduced the cultivation of tobacco as a crop. The market for tobacco was depressed, but Virginia planters also had to deal with depleted soils because of the crop. Slaveholders leased skilled slaves for jobs available in Virginia industries. Gabriel would have been stimulated and challenged at the foundries by interacting with co-workers of European, African and mixed descent. They hoped Thomas Jefferson's Republicans would liberate them from domination by the wealthy Federalist merchants of the city.[citation needed] In that environment, Gabriel also would have heard about the uprising and struggles of slaves in Saint Domingue.


It is believed that Gabriel had two white co-conspirators, at least one of whom was identified as a French national. He found reports that documentary evidence of their identity or involvement was sent to Governor Monroe but never produced in court, and suggests that it was to protect the Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. The internal dynamics of Jefferson's and Monroe's party in the 1800 elections were complex. A significant part of the Republican base were major planters, colleagues of Jefferson and Madison. It is possible that any sign that white radicals, and particularly Frenchmen, had supported Gabriel's plan could have cost Jefferson the presidential election of 1800. Slaveholders feared such violent excesses as those related to the French Revolution after 1789 and the rebellion of slaves in Saint-Domingue. Gabriel planned to take Governor Monroe hostage to negotiate an end to slavery. Then he planned to "drink and dine with the merchants of the city".


Gabriel did not order his followers to kill all whites except Methodists, Quakers and Frenchmen; rather, he instructed them not to kill any people in those three categories. During this period, Methodists and Quakers were active missionaries for manumission, and many slaves had been freed since the end of the Revolution in part due to their work.[citation needed] The French were considered allies as they had abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies in 1794.


Gabriel initially escaped on a ship owned by a former overseer. It was discovered that Gabriel was a recently converted Methodist who repeatedly overlooked information as to Gabriel's true identity. A slave hired out to work on the ship turned in Gabriel, seeking the reward so that he could purchase his own freedom. The state paid him only $50, not the $300 advertised.


Gabriel's uprising was notable not because of its results—the rebellion was quelled before it could begin—but because of its potential for mass chaos and widespread violence. In Virginia in 1800, 39.2 percent of the total population were slaves; they were concentrated on plantations in the Tidewater area and west of Richmond.[5] No reliable numbers existed regarding slave and free black conspirators; most likely, the number of men actively involved numbered only several hundred


In 2002 the City of Richmond passed a resolution in honor of Gabriel on the 202nd anniversary of the rebellion. In 2007 Governor Tim Kaine gave Gabriel and his followers an informal pardon, in recognition that his cause, "the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality for all people—has prevailed in the light of history".


Igbo Landing – 1803




In May 1803 a shipload of seized West Africans, upon surviving the middle passage, were landed by US-paid captors in Savannah by slave ship, to be auctioned off at one of the local slave markets. The ship's enslaved passengers included a number of Igbo people from what is now Nigeria. The Igbo were known by planters and slavers of the American South for being fiercely independent and more unwilling to tolerate chattel slavery.


The group of 75 Igbo slaves were bought by agents of John Couper and Thomas Spalding for forced labour on their plantations in St. Simons Island for $100 each. The chained slaves were packed under the deck of a small vessel named the The Schooner York to be shipped to the island (other sources write the voyage took place aboard The Morovia). During this voyage the Igbo slaves rose up in rebellion taking control of the ship and drowning their captors in the process causing the grounding of the Morovia in Dunbar Creek at the site now locally known as Ebo Landing. The following sequence of events is unclear as there are several versions concerning the revolt's development, some of which are considered mythological. Apparently the Africans went ashore and subsequently, under the direction of a high Igbo chief who was among them walked in unison into the creek singing in Igbo language "The Water Spirit brought us, the Water Spirit will take us home", thereby accepting the protection of their God, Chukwu and death over the alternative of slavery.


Roswell King, a white overseer on the nearby Pierce Butler plantation, wrote one of the only contemporary accounts of the incident which states that as soon as the Igbo landed on St. Simons Island they took to the swamp, committing suicide by walking into Dunbar Creek. A 19th century Savannah-written account of the event lists the surname Patterson for the captain of the ship and Roswell King as the person who recovered the bodies of the drowned. A letter describing the event written by William Mein, a slave dealer from Mein, Mackay and Co. of Savannah states that the Igbo walked into the marsh, where 10 to 12 drowned, while some were "salvaged" by bounty hunters who received $10 a head from Spalding and Couper. Survivors of the Igbo rebellion were taken to Cannon’s Point on St. Simons Island and Sapelo Island where they passed on their recollections of the events.


The Igbo Landing site and surrounding marshes in Dunbar Creek are claimed to be haunted by the souls of the perished Igbo slaves.


Chatham Manor – 1805




The wealthy William Fitzhugh built Chatham in the three-year period ending in 1771. He was a friend and colleague of George Washington, whose family's farm was just down the Rappahannock River from Chatham. Washington's diaries note that he was a frequent guest at Chatham. He and Fitzhugh had served together in the House of Burgesses prior to the American Revolution, and they shared a love of farming and horses. Fitzhugh's daughter, Mary Lee, would marry the first president's step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Their daughter wed the future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.


Fitzhugh owned upwards of 100 slaves, with anywhere from 60 to 90 being used at Chatham, depending on the season. Most worked as field hands or house servants, but he also employed skilled tradesmen such as millers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Little physical evidence remains to show where slaves lived; until recently, most knowledge of slaves at Chatham was from written records.


In January 1805, a number of Fitzhugh's slaves rebelled after an overseer ordered slaves back to work at what they considered was too short an interval after the Christmas holidays. The slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and four others who tried to make them return to work. An armed posse put down the rebellion and punished those involved. One black man was executed, two died while trying to escape, and two others were deported, perhaps to a slave colony in the Caribbean.


A later owner of Chatham, Hannah Coulter, who acquired the plantation in the 1850s, tried to free her slaves through her will upon her death. Her will provided that her slaves would have the choice of being freed and migrating to Liberia, with passage paid for, or of remaining as slaves with any of her (Coulter's) family members they might choose.


Chatham's new owner, J. Horace Lacy, took the will to court to challenge it and had it overturned. The court denied Coulter's slaves any chance of freedom by ruling that the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that slaves were property, and not persons with choice.


George Boxley – 1815




George Boxley (1780–1865) was a white abolitionist and former slaveholder who allegedly tried to coordinate a local slave rebellion on March 6, 1815, while living in Spotsylvania, Virginia. His plan was based on "heaven-sent" orders to free the slaves. He tried to recruit slaves from Orange, Spotsylvania, and Louisa counties to meet at his home with horses, guns, swords and clubs. He planned to attack and take over Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia. Lucy, a local slave, informed her owner, and the plot was foiled. Six slaves involved were imprisoned or executed. With his wife's help, Boxley escaped from the Spotsylvania County Jail and, despite a reward, he was never caught.


Boxley fled to Ohio and Indiana, where he was joined by his family. He built a cabin in 1830, the first in Adams Township. He helped runaway slaves, taught school, and supported abolitionism.

Denmark Vesey - 1822


Denmark Vesey was born in 1767 , either in America or the Caribbean; no one is sure. He was living on St. Thomas by the time he was 14. Sugar Cane was the primary crop and, like tobacco in Virginia and rice in South Carolina, it was a labor intensive crop. Captain Joseph Vesey had originally sold Denmark to a French planter, but when Denmark was diagnosed with epilepsy, Captain Vesey he was compelled by law to buy Denmark back from the planter. Because of this, Denmark became the personal slave of Captain Vesey and escaped the labor of the Caribbean plantations. Captain Vesey had given his personal slave the name of Denmark because the slave had been part of a shipment from the Danish colony of St. Thomas.


Captain Vesey was an experienced slave trader, seeing Africa as just another place of business. During the acquisition of slaves, Denmark was forced to watch the Captain examine African men, women and children as if they were cattle. Once they had been acquired, the slaves were chained below deck of the slave ships – packed side-by-side – for most of the journey across the Atlantic, which was known as the Middle Passage. As many as 1/3 of the slaves died from illnesses or committed suicide during the long, arduous journey.


By the time Denmark was 16, he had learned all about the evils of the slave trade and its brutal treatment of the Africans. He also learned of the profits that were made by the sea captains and slave traders when he sailed with Captain Vesey from 1781-1783. However, with the market for slaves in America beginning to decline by 1783, Captain Vesey gave up the slave trade and settled in Charleston, South Carolina.  Northern farmers began growing crops that required less intensive labor than before. In addition, the economic reasons for abandoning slavery, as well as the moral and ethical reasons, coupled with the language of the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men are created equal,” made for a more democratic republic. [NOTE: The first draft of the Declaration of Independence contained language that strongly condemned slavery, but those words were ultimately omitted from the final version.]


During the Revolutionary War, plantation production had been brought to a standstill, property had been destroyed, and the American currency had become worthless. Denmark Vesey: Slave Revolt Leader, by Lillie J. Edwards. Chelsea House Publishers, New York, New York. P. 34-35. ISBN: 1-55546-614-1.  A great deal of labor was now needed to rebuild Charleston. Non-slaveowners could hire slaves for $6 to $10 a month to help in the labor of rebuilding, as well as helping the railroad men, shipbuilders, merchants, doctors, lawyers, engineers and many other businessmen in their task to restore the cities to their former glory. Denmark was a skilled carpenter, and soon found himself involved in this skill throughout Charleston. Because he was still owned by Captain Vesey, he turned his salary over to the Captain.  However, Denmark commanded much of his time and worked with less supervision by Captain Vesey as he had on the slave ships.  Captain Vesey paid Denmark with a portion of the wages he earned, as an allowance. During his free time, Denmark had the opportunity to read the newspapers, exchange opinions with other slaves and free blacks, and participate in the lottery. At the age of 32, Denmark won $1500.00 in the lottery, which was more than enough to buy his freedom. When he asked to buy his freedom from Captain Vesey, the Captain set a price of $600.00 and scheduled a sale to take place the following month. In January of 1800, Denmark bought himself from Captain Vesey in exchange for his manumission papers.


Although these papers were required to prove Denmark’s status as a free man and had to be carried by him at all times, they did not legally guarantee that he would not be abducted and sold back into slavery. Although he was now a free man, he realized that he would never be totally free, due to laws in the South that allowed slavery. He had to pay two annual taxes – one $10 tax because he was self employed in a trade and the other, a $2 poll tax, required for residency. Failure to pay these taxes could result in having their services sold by the sheriff. In addition, free blacks accused of a crime were tried in the same manner as slaves – without any legal representation and, instead of a jury, the trial was in front of a judicial committee composed of two justices of the peace and several landowners, with only a simple majority of the committee members requiring a conviction and with no right of appeal. Free blacks also could not serve on a jury or testify against a white. Blacks could only testify against blacks. Ibid., P. 45-48.


Among many organizations that sought to protect the rights of free blacks – such as the Human and Friendly Society, Minors Moralist, the Friendly Union, The Brown Fellowship Society and the Society of Free Blacks – the most important were the churches. Denmark’s involvement in a black church caused him to believe that he had been freed from slavery because he had a special mission in life: to put an end to slavery.


The wealth of the South was concentrated among the large plantation owners and was dependent on slavery. The Northern farms were smaller and produced crops that were not as labor intensive.  Slave labor had never become an integral part of the North’s economy. The Industrial Revolution was underway. In the North, industrialization combined with an influx of poor European immigrants to provide a deterrent to slavery. Ibid., 54.  In 1793, industrialization came to the South with Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin.  Work that had once taken a slave a day to produce a pound of seed-free cotton, was now a thing of the past.  The cotton plantations of the South now demanded more slaved and, with this demand, the northerners began to free their slaved or sold them to the southern cotton planters for profit, causing a southern resurgence in slave trade. The U.S. Constitution allowed slave trade in the United States until 1808. Old slave laws that had been enacted in Virginia in 1680 had now become the model for the entire southern United States. The laws did not allow negroes to carry arms and provided thirty lashes if a Negro lifted up his hand against any Christian. Also, if a slave refused to work, escaped or resisted lawful apprehension, the slave could be killed.


Also in 1793, France abolished slavery within its territories, but did little to stop the revolution on St. Domingue. In 1804, the revolutionary forces won their independence and named the new republic Haiti. The news of the successful revolt in Haiti soon reached the South. After an unsuccessful slave rebellion in Norfolk, Virginia in 1793, South Carolina’s governor ordered that all free blacks and people of color that had come as refugees from St. Dominique the previous year had to leave the state within 10 days.  In addition, French refugees from St. Domingue who came to the United States were no longer permitted to bring slaves.  The precautions taken to suppress news about the Haitian revolution failed. Since literate slaves could read about the revolution in newspapers, slaves in southern cities soon overheard conversations about the revolt. In the spring of 1800, two slaves - Gabriel Prosser and Jack Bowler – had stockpiled weapons for a planned attack on Richmond, Virginia.  A violent storm interrupted Prosser’s plans and Prosser’s band of slaves were arrested and 35 of them were executed, putting an end to the revolt. Ibid., 59-62.


By 1820, Charleston was the 6th largest city in the United States. The black population (14,127) now exceeded the white population (10,653) and whites began to fear of a potential uprising. Patrols were established in all districts and slave owners were required to serve in the militia after they turned 18. Female slave owners and those unwilling to serve could pay for a substitute. When the whites who headed Charleston’s Methodist church took away the black congregation’s right to meet on its own, Morris Brown, the minister of the black congregation led a secession from the white church., forming the Hampstead African Church. In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was created.  In 1817, when Morris Brown organized the African Association in Charleston, they followed the example of the A.M.E. church.  Shortly after Brown founded the Hampstead Church, 469 black worshippers were falsely accused and arrested for disorderly conduct. In June of the following year, 140 Hampstead worshippers were put in jail. A bishop and four ministers from the group were given the choice of spending a month in jail or leaving the state. Eight ministers were also sentenced to either receive 10 lashes or pay $10 each. Also in 1820, a group of free blacks from the Hampstead church petitioned the legislature to allow the church to hold services without white supervision. The petition was denied. The Hampstead church, however, continued to hold services until 1822, when attempts to suppress it could no longer be controlled. Ibid., 71-73.


Although several efforts were made to appease the white authorities, Denmark Vesey would have none of it. He was determined to free all black people forever. He chose to fight. Biding his time, he spent years challenging the slave system. Because of this many blacks feared retaliation from the white community.


In 1820, Vesey and a few other slaves began to conspire and plan a revolt. Because Vesey was now considered a preacher, he recruited other followers and planned revolts at his home during religious classes. He inspired the others by the tales of the delivery of the children of Israel from bondage. He planned the insurrection to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. This month and day were chosen because it was the same date that the French Revolution had first abolished slavery on Saint Domingue. News of the plan was said to be spread among thousands  of blacks throughout Charleston and for miles along the Carolina coast. Although the black population included a growing class of people of color and mulattos, Vesey generally aligned with the slaves, creating a large network of supporters. Later, fearing that word of the rebellion would surface, Vesey advanced the date to June 16.


The insurrection was essentially over before it began. Beginning in May, two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme, George Wilson and Joe LaRoche gave the first specific testimony about the coming uprising to Charleston officials, stating the date of the planned insurrection. These testimonies confirmed an earlier report that had been received from another slave, Peter Prioleau. Officials hadn’t believed the less specific testimony of Prioleau, but did believe Wilson and LaRoche because of their unimpeachable reputation with their masters. This testimony caused the city to begin a search for the conspirators. Charleston Mayor, James Hamilton, organized a citizen’s militia and many suspects were arrested by the end of June, including 55-year-old Denmark Vesey. As suspects were arrested, they were held in the Charleston Workhouse until the newly-appointed Court of Magistrates and Freeholders heard evidence against them. The Workhouse was also the place where punishment was applied to slaves for their masters, and likely where Plot suspects were abused or threatened with abuse or death before giving testimony to the Court. The suspects were also visited by ministers. Vesey told the ministers that he would die for a “glorious cause.”


From June 17, the day after the purported insurrection was to begin, to June 28, the day after the court adjourned, officials arrested 31 suspects, and more as the month went on. The Court took secret testimony about suspects in custody and accepted evidence against men not yet charged. Some witnesses possibly testified under threat of death or torture, but the accounts appeared to provide details of a plan for rebellion.


Newspapers remained silent while the Court conducted its proceedings. The Court pronounced Denmark Vesey and five black slaves guilty, sentencing them to death. The six men were executed by hanging on July 2. None of the six, however, had confessed and each proclaimed his innocence to the end. Their deaths quieted some of the city residents’ fears and the news in Charleston about the planned revolt began to die down. No arrests were made in the next three days.


After that, in July the cycle of arrests sped up and the suspect pool was greatly expanded. Most blacks were arrested and charged after the first group of hangings on July 2. Over the course of five weeks, the Court ultimately ordered the arrest of 131 blacks, charging them with conspiracy.  The arrests and charges in July more than doubles but the court was finding it increasingly difficult to get “conclusive evidence,” Three men sentenced to death implicated scores of others when they were promised leniency in punishment. In total, the courts convicted 67 men and hanged 35, including Vesey in July 1822. A total of 31 men were transported (deported or sold into slavery), 2y reviewed and acquitted, and 38 questioned and released.


The remainder of Vesey’s family was also affected by the Court proceedings. His enslaved son Sandy Vesey was arrested, judged to have been part of the conspiracy, and included among those deported from the country, probably to Cuba. Vesey’s wife Susan later emigrated to Liberia, the colony established for freed American slaves. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived through the Civil was and was emancipated. He helped rebuild Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865 and also attended the transfer of power when U.S. officials took control again at Fort Sumter.


On October 7, 1822, Judge Elihu Bay convicted four white men for a misdemeanor in inciting slaves to insurrection during the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy. They were sentenced to varied fines and reasonably short jail time. None of these four men were found to be a known abolitionist. The harshest punishment of the four whites was a sentence of twelve months in jail and a $1,000 fine.


Two of the other white conspirators were given a $100 fine and three months in prison, while the fourth received a sentence of six months and a five hundred dollar fine. Judge Bay sentenced the four white men as a warning to any other whites who might think of supporting slave rebels. He also pushed state lawmakers to strengthen laws against both mariners and blacks in South Carolina in general and anyone supporting slave rebellions in particular. The convictions of the men enabled the white pro-slavery faction to continue to believe that their slaves would not stage rebellions without the manipulation of “alien agitators or local free people of color.”


Nat Turner - 1831


Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800 on the farm of Benjamin Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, just 5 days before Gabriel Prosser was executed in Richmond. Turner learned to read and write and, from books, learned how to make paper and gunpowder. He became religious almost to the point of fanaticism and was recognized as a Baptist preacher by the slaves and once actually baptized a white man. He was regarded by the slaves as a leader. In May 1828, the Spirit informed him that, like Christ, he was to take up the “fight against the Serpent” and that a sign would soon be given for the “war” to commence.


Nat Turner was purchased by Thomas Moore upon the death of Benjamin Turner and was now owned by Moore’s infant son Putnam, but worked for Moore’s widow and her new husband, Joseph Travis.


The sign that Turner had been waiting for appeared as an eclipse of the sun in February 1831. Turner confided with 4 trusted slaves and they agreed to commence on July 4, 1831, but Turner fell ill. On August 13, 1831, the sun rose with a greenish tint that later turned to blue and a dark spot was visible on its surface later that afternoon. This was a taken as a new sign to Turner. A week later, Turner, a slave named Hark “General Moore” Travis and another slave named Henry Edwards met at a stream near Joseph Travis’ home. Hark brought a pig and Henry brought some brandy. Four other slaves joined them and, after drinking late into the night, they set out on their path of destruction.


When Joseph Travis and his family arrived home from church close to midnight on August 22, Turner entered the house soon afterward through a 2nd story window and unbarred the door to let the other slaves in. They murdered Travis and his family with axes. Salathiel Francis – owner of the rebels Sam and Will – was next. He was killed in his farmhouse about 600 yards away. As they went from house to house, they gathered muskets, swords and other weapons and their numbers increased from seven to sixty. No white along the route was spared except one family so poor that, Turner observed, “they thought no better of themselves than they did of the negroes.” Turner sent a band of slaves to gather recruits at the farm of James Parker, but the slaves discovered Parker’s cellar was full of apple brandy and did not return quickly. Many of the whites were away at a camp in North Carolina and, as the word spread of the rebellion, a militia was hard to raise. A militia unit finally arrived from Jerusalem and this proved too much for the slaves, which dispersed. This defeat at Parker’s field prevented the rebels from marching on Jerusalem where 300 to 400 women and children had fled for safety.


That night, Turner tried to rally his forces and gather new recruits and the next day the rebels appeared at the home of Dr. Simon Blunt, where the final skirmish was fought.  Blunt had armed his slaves and they helped resist the rebels, although rumors were that Blunt and his sons did the work themselves. The rebellion was now over. One Virginian noted that “not one female was violated.”  Only one of the victims, Margaret Whitehead, was killed by Turner himself. At least four free blacks had joined the rebellion and one of them – Bill Artis – in order to avoid execution or sale into slavery, walked into the woods, placed his hat on a stake and shot himself.


On Tuesday and Wednesday, as militia units from the surrounding countries arrived at Jerusalem along with United States troops from Fortress Monroe*, a massacre of the blacks of Southampton began. Most of the torture and killing was done by vigilante groups, such as a party of horsemen that set out from Richmond, “with the intention of killing every black person they saw in Southampton County.” The militia also took part. One militia unit from North Carolina beheaded a group of prisoners and placed their heads on poles, where they remained for weeks. The number of blacks that were killed is unknown, but the number ranges into the hundreds. The massacre subsided largely because the militia commander, General Epps, quickly disbanded and sent home the militia and the artillery and infantry units, and strongly condemned the “inhuman butchery.”


On Wednesday, August 31, the court of Southampton County convened to try the rebels.  By this time, almost all of them had been captured except Turner. Varying accounts exists of the fate of the rebels. One account states that 21 were hanged, and 16 were sold into slavery. Another account shows that 45 slaves were tried. Of these, 15 were acquitted, 18 were hanged and 12 were transported out of the state and sold into slavery.


However, Turner was able to hide in the woods close to where the rebellion began until Sunday, October 30 or Monday, October 31, when Benjamin Phipps captured him. On November 5, Turner was convicted and sentenced to hang. He went to his execution six days later – November 11 - with dignity and composure, refusing to make a final statement to the crowd that had gathered to watch him hang. The heirs of Turner’s owner were awarded $375 in compensation by the court. Turner’s body was flayed (skinned), beheaded and quartered. His headless remains were either buried unmarked, given to surgeons for dissection, or were rendered into grease. Souvenir purses were supposedly made of his skin. His skull passed through many hands, and sat for a time in the biology department at Wooster College in Ohio. It was last reported as being in the collection for a planned civil rights museum in Gary, Indiana, despite calls for its burial.


Soon after Turner’s execution, Thomas Ruffin Gray, the lawyer that defended Turner at trial, took it upon himself to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner, derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is considered the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner.


*Fortress Monroe would later serve as the site of Jefferson Davis’ incarceration while awaiting trial for treason


The sentencing of Nat Turner is as follows:


The Commonwealth


Nat Turner


Charged with making insurrection, and plotting to take away the lives of divers free white persons, &c. on the 22d of August, 1831.


The court, composed of -------, having met for the trial of Nat Turner, the prisoner was brought in and arraigned, and upon his arraignment pleaded Not guilty; saying to his counsel, that he did not feel so.


On the part of the Commonwealth, Levi Waller was introduced, who being sworn, deposed as follows: (agreeably to Nat’s own Confession.) Col Trezvant1 was then introduced, who being sworn, narrated Nat’s Confession to him, as follows: (his Confession as given to Mr. Gray.) The prisoner introduced no evidence, and the case was submitted without argument to the court, who having found him guilty, Jeremiah Cobb, Esq. Chairman, pronounced the sentence of the court, in the following words: “Nat Turner! Stand up. Have you anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced against you?


Ans. I have not. I have made a full confession to Mr. Gray, and I have nothing more to say.


Attend then to the sentence of the Court. You have been arraigned and tried before this  court, and convicted of one of the highest crimes in our criminal code. You have been convicted of plotting in cold blood, the indiscriminate destruction of men, of helpless women, and of infant children. The evidence before us leaves not a shadow of doubt, but that your hands were often imbrued in the blood of the innocent; and your own confession tells us that they were stained with the blood of a master; in your own language, “too indulgent.” Could I stop here, your crime would be sufficiently aggravated. But the original contriver of a plan, deep and deadly, one that can never be effected, you managed so far to put it into execution, as to deprive us of many of our most valuable citizens; and this was done when they were asleep, and defenseless; under circumstances shocking to humanity. And while upon this part of the subject, I cannot but call your attention to the poor misguided wretches who have gone before you. They are not few in number – they were your bosom associates; and the blood of all cries aloud, and calls upon you, as the author of their misfortune. Yes! You forced them unprepared, from Time to Eternity. Borne down by this load of guilt, your only justification is, that you were led away by fanaticism. If this be true, from my soul I pity you; and while you have my sympathies, I am, nevertheless called upon to pass the sentence of this court. The time between this and your execution, will necessarily be very short; and your only hope must be in another world. The judgment of this court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.


1 The committing Magistrate


Source: Great Lives Observed: Nat Turner. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Edited by Eric Foner. Pp. 40-52.




A List of Persons Murdered in the Insurrection, on the 21st and 22nd of August, 1831


A List of Negroes Brought before the Court of Southampton, with Their Owner’s Names, and Sentence




Creole Case – 1841



The Creole case was the result of an American slave revolt in November 1841 on board the Creole, a ship involved in the United States coastwise slave trade. As 128 slaves gained freedom after the rebels ordered the ship sailed to Nassau, it has been termed the "most successful slave revolt in US history". Two persons died as a result of the revolt, a black slave and a white slave trader.

The United Kingdom had abolished slavery effective 1834; its officials in the Bahamas ruled that most of the slaves on the Creole were freed after arrival there, if they chose to stay. Officials detained the 19 men who rebelled on ship until the Admiralty Court of Nassau held a special session in April 1842 to consider charges of piracy against them. The Court ruled that the men had been illegally held in slavery and had the right to use force to gain freedom; they were not seeking private gain. The 17 survivors were also released to freedom (two had died in the interim).

When the Creole reached New Orleans in December 1841 with three women and two child slaves aboard, Southerners were outraged about the loss of property. Relations between the United States and Britain were strained for a time. The incident occurred during negotiations for the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 but was not directly addressed. The parties settled on seven crimes qualifying for extradition in the treaty; they did not include slave revolts.

Eventually claims for losses of slaves from the Creole and two other US ships were covered, along with other claims dating to 1814, in a treaty of 1853 between the US and Britain, for which an arbitration commission awarded settlements in 1855 against each nation.

Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation - 1842


The 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation, then located in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi River, was the largest escape of a group of slaves to occur among the Cherokee. The slave revolt started on November 15, 1842, when a group of 20 African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee escaped and tried to reach Mexico, where slavery had been abolished in 1836. Along their way south, they were joined by 15 slaves escaping from the Creek in Indian Territory.

The fugitives met with two slave catchers taking a family of eight slave captives back to Choctaw territory. The fugitives killed the hunters and allowed the family to join their party. Although an Indian party had captured and killed some of the slaves near the beginning of their flight, the Cherokee sought reinforcements. They raised an armed group of more than 100 of their and Choctaw warriors to pursue and capture the fugitives. Five slaves were later executed for killing the two slave catchers.

What has been described as "the most spectacular act of rebellion against slavery" among the Cherokee, the 1842 event inspired subsequent slave rebellions in the Indian Territory. But, in the aftermath of this escape, the Cherokee Nation passed stricter slave codes, expelled freedmen from the territory, and established a 'rescue' (slave-catching) company to try to prevent additional losses.

John Brown – 1859

John Brown, an abolitionist from Ohio, came to the Kansas Territory to fight slavery in October 1855. On November 21, 1855, the so-called “Wakarusa War” began when a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler. The war had one fatality, when the free-stater Thomas Barber was shot and killed near Lawrence on December 6. On May 21, 1856, a posse led by Sheriff Jones of Douglas County, Kansas, invaded Lawrence and burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and ransacked homes and stores. The home of Charles L. Robinson, who would later become the first governor of Kansas, was taken over as Jones’ headquarters.

John Brown was particularly affected by the sacking of Lawrence because it had been founded by anti-slavery settlers to help insure that Kansas would become a “free state.” The violence across the area continued to escalate, earning the state the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown led four of his sons – Frederick, Owen, Salmon and Oliver and two other followers – Thomas Weiner and James Townsley to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, 1856, the group seized five pro-slavery men - James P. Doyle and his two adult sons, William Doyle and Drury Doyle, Allen Wilkinson and William Sherman - from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords, leaving their gashed and mutilated bodies as a warning to the slaveholders. Brown and his men escaped and later began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection to take place at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, with financial support from Boston abolitionists.  Brown had originally asked Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to join him in the insurrection. Tubman was prevented from joining because of illness and Douglass declined, believing that Brown would fail and telling Brown “You’ll never get out alive.”

On Sunday night, October 16, 1859, Brown detached a party under John Cook, Jr., to capture Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington at his nearby Beall-Air estate, along with some of his slaves and two relics of George Washington: a sword allegedly presented to Washington by Frederick the Great and two pistols given by the Marquis de Lafayette, which Brown considered talismans. On the return trip, Brown’s men captured several watchmen and townspeople at Harper’s Ferry. They cut the telegraph wire and seized a Baltimore & Ohio train that was passing through. A free black man, Hayward Shepherd, the baggage-handler on the train confronted the raiders. They shot and killed him. Brown let the train continue down the line and the conductor alerted the authorities. Brown had thought that local slaves would join his group in the rebellion, but word had not spread, as Brown originally anticipated. Despite this and some resistance from the white community, Brown and his men succeeded in capturing the Harper’s Ferry Armory that evening. On the morning of October 17, the Armory was surrounded by local militia, farmers and shopkeepers. When a company of militia captured the bridge across the Potomac River, Brown and his men had no means of escape. Four townspeople were killed that day, including the mayor.  Realizing that his escape was cut, Brown took nine of his captives and moved into the smaller engine house, which would come to be known as John Brown’s Fort. At one point, however, Brown sent out his son, Watson, and Aaron Dwight Stevens with a white flag, but Watson was mortally wounded and Stevens was shot and captured. The raid was rapidly deteriorating. William H. Leeman, one of the raiders, panicked and tried to escape by swimming across the Potomac River, but he was shot and killed. During the intermittent shooting, Brown’s other son, Oliver was also shot; he died after a brief period.

By 3:30 that afternoon, President Buchanan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines to march on Harper’s Ferry under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee.  On October 18, Colonel Lee sent Lt. J.E.B. Stuart under a white flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of Brown and his followers. Lee instructed Lt. Israel Greene to storm the engine house if Brown refused. When Brown refused the terms of the surrender, the Marines’ attempted to storm the engine house, using sledgehammers against the doors, to no avail. Greene found a wooden ladder and he and about 10 Marines used it as a battering ram to knock the front doors in. Once inside, the Marines took Brown and all of his group alive and as their prisoners within three minutes.  Brown was found guilty of treason against the state of Virginia and was hanged on December 2, 1859. His execution was witnessed by John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Over the next few months, six more of Brown’s gang would be executed.

When John Brown was sentenced to hang in late 1859 for the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection, Edmund Ruffin made sure to attend his execution. Ruffin managed to obtain some of the pikes with which Brown had intended to arm escaped slaves, and sent them to southern governors with a letter warning them that the “fanatical Northern party” intended great harm to the South. A song called John Brown’s Body, was written about Brown’s death and was sung by Union soldiers as they marched into battle. The tune was later used by Julia Ward Howe when she wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Thomas J. Jackson gave an eyewitness account of the execution.  On July 21, 1861, Thomas J. Jackson would acquire the nickname of “Stonewall” at the First Battle of Bull Run. 

Edmund Ruffin was an outspoken agronomist, secessionist, and the one to later claim to have fired the first shot in the Civil War. He was also considered to be the exact opposite of the abolitionist John Brown. Four years later, upon hearing of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Edmund Ruffin was despondent. Plagued by ill health, family misfortunes, and the rapid collapse of Confederate forces in 1865, Ruffin proclaimed his hatred for the Yankees.  As his last expression of the southern code of honor, the refusal to accept a life in defeat, he wrote in his final journal entry:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule -- to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race.  Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!

...And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my latest breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule--to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.”

On June 18, 1865, Edmund Ruffin went upstairs to his room, wrapped himself in a Confederate flag, put a rifle in his mouth, and used a forked stick to press the trigger. The percussion cap went off without firing the rifle. The noise alerted Ruffin’s daughter-in-law. By the time she and Ruffin’s son got to his room, Ruffin had reloaded and finished the job. He is buried at Marlbourne Estate, Hanover County, Virginia.

Suicide Article 1     Suicide Article 2     Suicide Article 3


Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner

On May 22, 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In his speech called “The Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying his pro-slavery agenda toward Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms. The next day, Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split. Brooks’ action was applauded by many Southerners, and abhorred in the North. An attempt to oust him from the House of Representatives failed, and he received only token punishment in his criminal trial. He resigned his seat in July 1856 to give his constituents the opportunity to ratify his conduct in a special election, which they did by electing him in August to fill the vacancy created by his resignation, He was reelected to a full term in November 1856, but died five weeks before the term began in March, 1857.  Sumner spent months convalescing and finally returned to the Senate in 1857, but was unable to last a day. His doctors advised him to travel abroad, and he immediately found relief. He spent two months in Paris in the spring of 1857 and toured several countries, including Germany and Scotland before returning to Washington where he spent only a few days in the Senate in December. After finding himself too exhausted to listen to Senate business, he sailed once more for Europe on May 22, 1858, the second anniversary of the Brooks attack. After spending weeks in Paris undergoing treatments and recovery for spinal cord damage inflicted by the attack, he finally returned to the Senate in 1859. He died on March 11, 1874. Brooks’ cane used in the attack is now on display at the Old State House in Boston.


Articles Detailing Brooks’ May 22, 1856 Assault on Sumner

Article 1     Article 2     Article 3     Article 4





NOTE: Since this page is focused on slave rebellions in the United States, some important rebellions that occurred outside of the country are not included. Here is a list of some of them:



Gaspar Yanga’s Revolt – 1570 – Veracruz


St. John Slave Revolt – 1733 – St. John


Tacky’s War – 1760 – Jamaica


Haitian Revolution – 1791-1804 – Saint-Domingue


Bussa’s Rebellion – 1816 – Barbados


Baptist War – 1831-1832 – Jamaica


Amistad Ship Rebellion – 1839 – Off the Cuban Coast




Confederate States and the Civil War







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