In August 1831, Nat Turner struck fear into the hearts of white Southerners by leading the only effective slave rebellion in U.S. history. Born on a small plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, Turner inherited a passionate hatred of slavery from his African–born mother and came to see himself as anointed by God to lead his people out of bondage. In early 1831, Turner took a solar eclipse as a sign that the time for revolution was near, and on the night of August 21, he and a small band of followers murdered his owners, the Travis family, and set off toward the town of Jerusalem, where they planned to capture an armory and gather more recruits. The group, which eventually numbered around 75 blacks, murdered some 60 whites in two days before armed resistance from local whites and the arrival of state militia forces overwhelmed them just outside Jerusalem. Some 100 slaves, including innocent bystanders, lost their lives in the struggle. Turner escaped and spent six weeks on the lamb before he was captured, tried and hanged.
Oft–exaggerated reports of the insurrection—some said that hundreds of whites had been killed—sparked a wave of anxiety across the South. Several states called special emergency sessions of the legislature, and most strengthened their slave codes in order to limit the education, movement and assembly of slaves. While supporters of slavery pointed to the Turner rebellion as evidence that blacks were inherently inferior barbarians requiring an institution such as slavery to discipline them, the increased repression of southern blacks would strengthen anti–slavery feeling in the North through the 1860s amd intensify the regional tensions building toward civil war.
Under threat of punishment, enslaved families found small ways to rebel against an oppressive system.