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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsBlack Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts - Gabriel's Defeat
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Black Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts - Gabriel's Defeat Post by :eggibiz Category :Nonfictions Author :Thomas Wentworth Higginson Date :May 2012 Read :1464

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Black Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts - Gabriel's Defeat

In exploring among dusty files of newspapers for the true records of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, I have caught occasional glimpses of a plot perhaps more wide in its outlines than that of either, which has lain obscure in the darkness of half a century, traceable only in the political events which dated from it, and the utter incorrectness of the scanty traditions which assumed to preserve it. And though researches in public libraries have only proved to me how rapidly the materials for American history are vanishing,--since not one of our great institutions possessed, a few years since, a file of any Southern newspaper of the year 1800,--yet the little which I have gained may have an interest that makes it worth preserving. Three times, at intervals of thirty years, did a wave of unutterable terror sweep across the Old Dominion, bringing thoughts of agony to every Virginian master, and of vague hope to every Virginian slave. Each time did one man's name become a spell of dismay and a symbol of deliverance. Each time did that name eclipse its predecessor, while recalling it for a moment to fresher memory: John Brown revived the story of Nat Turner, as in his day Nat Turner recalled the vaster schemes of Gabriel.

On Sept. 8, 1800, a Virginia correspondent wrote thus to the Philadelphia _United-States Gazette:_--


"For the week past, we have been under momentary expectation of a rising among the negroes, who have assembled to the number of nine hundred or a thousand, and threatened to massacre all the whites. They are armed with desperate weapons, and secrete themselves in the woods. God only knows our fate: we have strong guards every night under arms."


It was no wonder, if there were foundation for such rumors. Liberty was the creed or the cant of the day. France was being disturbed by revolution, and England by Clarkson. In America, slavery was habitually recognized as a misfortune and an error, only to be palliated by the nearness of its expected end. How freely anti-slavery pamphlets had been circulated in Virginia, we know from the priceless volumes collected and annotated by Washington, and now preserved in the Boston Athenaeum. Jefferson's "Notes on Virginia," itself an anti-slavery tract, had passed through seven editions. Judge St. George Tucker, law-professor in William and Mary College, had recently published his noble work, "A Dissertation on Slavery, with a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of it in the State of Virginia." From all this agitation, a slave insurrection was a mere corollary. With so much electricity in the air, a single flash of lightning foreboded all the terrors of the tempest. Let but a single armed negro be seen or suspected, and at once, on many a lonely plantation, there were trembling hands at work to bar doors and windows that seldom had been even closed before, and there was shuddering when a gray squirrel scrambled over the roof, or a shower of walnuts came down clattering from the overhanging boughs.

Early in September, 1800, as a certain Mr. Moseley Sheppard, of Henrico County in Virginia, was one day sitting in his counting-room, two negroes knocked at the door, and were let in. They shut the door themselves, and began to unfold an insurrectionary plot, which was subsequently repeated by one of them, named Ben Woodfolk or Woolfolk, in presence of the court, on the 15th of the same month.

He stated, that about the first of the preceding June, he had been asked by a negro named Colonel George whether he would like to be made a Mason. He refused; but George ultimately prevailed on him to have an interview with a certain leading man among the blacks, named Gabriel. Arrived at the place of meeting, he found many persons assembled, to whom a preliminary oath was administered, that they would keep secret all which they might hear. The leaders then began, to the dismay of this witness, to allude to a plan of insurrection, which, as they stated, was already far advanced toward maturity. Presently a man named Martin, Gabriel's brother, proposed religious services, caused the company to be duly seated, and began an impassioned exposition of Scripture, bearing upon the perilous theme. The Israelites were glowingly portrayed as a type of successful resistance to tyranny; and it was argued, that now, as then, God would stretch forth his arm to save, and would strengthen a hundred to overthrow a thousand. Thus passed, the witness stated, this preparatory meeting. At a subsequent gathering the affair was brought to a point; and the only difficult question was, whether to rise in rebellion upon a certain Saturday, or upon the Sunday following. Gabriel said that Saturday was the day already fixed, and that it must not be altered; but George was for changing it to Sunday, as being more convenient for the country negroes, who could travel on that day without suspicion. Gabriel, however, said decisively that they had enough to carry Richmond without them; and Saturday was therefore retained as the momentous day.

This was the confession, so far as it is now accessible; and on the strength of it, Ben Woolfolk was promptly pardoned by the court for all his sins, past, present, or to come, and they proceeded with their investigation. Of Gabriel little appeared to be known, except that he had been the property of Thomas Prosser, a young man who had recently inherited a plantation a few miles from Richmond, and who had the reputation among his neighbors of "behaving with great barbarity to his slaves." Gabriel was, however, reported to be "a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life," to be about twenty-five years of age, and to be guiltless of the alphabet.

Further inquiry made it appear that the preparations of the insurgents were hardly adequate to any grand revolutionary design,--at least, if they proposed to begin with open warfare. The commissariat may have been well organized, for black Virginians are apt to have a prudent eye to the larder; but the ordnance department and the treasury were as low as if Secretary Floyd had been in charge of them. A slave called "Prosser's Ben" testified that he went with Gabriel to see Ben Woolfolk, who was going to Caroline County to enlist men, and that "Gabriel gave him three shillings for himself and three other negroes, to be expended in recruiting men." Their arms and ammunition, so far as reported, consisted of a peck of bullets, ten pounds of powder, and twelve scythe-swords, made by Gabriel's brother Solomon, and fitted with handles by Gabriel himself. "These cutlasses," said subsequently a white eye-witness, "are made of scythes cut in two and fixed into well-turned handles. I have never seen arms so murderous. Those who still doubt the importance of the conspiracy which has been so fortunately frustrated would shudder with horror at the sight of these instruments of death." And as it presently appeared that a conspirator named Scott had astonished his master by accidentally pulling ten dollars from a ragged pocket which seemed inadequate to the custody of ten cents, it was agreed that the plot might still be dangerous, even though the resources seemed limited.

And indeed, as was soon discovered, the effective weapon of the insurgents lay in the very audacity of their plan. If the current statements of all the Virginia letter-writers were true, "nothing could have been better contrived." It was to have taken effect on the first day of September. The rendezvous for the blacks was to be a brook six miles from Richmond. Eleven hundred men were to assemble there, and were to be divided into three columns, their officers having been designated in advance. All were to march on Richmond,--then a town of eight thousand inhabitants,--under cover of night. The right wing was instantly to seize upon the penitentiary building, just converted into an arsenal; while the left wing was to take possession of the powder-house. These two columns were to be armed chiefly with clubs, as their undertaking depended for success upon surprise, and was expected to prevail without hard fighting. But it was the central force, armed with muskets, cutlasses, knives, and pikes, upon which the chief responsibility rested; these men were to enter the town at both ends simultaneously, and begin a general carnage, none being excepted save the French inhabitants, who were supposed for some reason to be friendly to the negroes. In a very few hours, it was thought, they would have entire control of the metropolis. And that this hope was not in the least unreasonable, was shown by the subsequent confessions of weakness from the whites. "They could scarcely have failed of success," wrote the Richmond correspondent of the Boston _Chronicle_; "for, after all, we could only muster four or five hundred men, of whom not more than thirty had muskets."

For the insurgents, if successful, the penitentiary held several thousand stand of arms; the powder-house was well stocked; the Capitol contained the State treasury; the mills would give them bread; the control of the bridge across James River would keep off enemies from beyond. Thus secured and provided, they planned to issue proclamations summoning to their standard "their fellow-negroes and the friends of humanity throughout the continent." In a week, it was estimated, they would have fifty thousand men on their side, with which force they could easily possess themselves of other towns; and, indeed, a slave named John Scott--possibly the dangerous possessor of the ten dollars--was already appointed to head the attack on Petersburg. But in case of final failure, the project included a retreat to the mountains, with their new-found property. John Brown was therefore anticipated by Gabriel, sixty years before, in believing the Virginia mountains to have been "created, from the foundation of the world, as a place of refuge for fugitive slaves."

These are the statements of the contemporary witnesses; they are repeated in many newspapers of the year 1800, and are in themselves clear and consistent. Whether they are on the whole exaggerated or under-stated, it is now impossible to say. It is certain that a Richmond paper of Sept. 12 (quoted in the New-York _Gazette of Sept. 18) declares that "the plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and, had the attempt been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required to render the scheme entirely abortive." But it is necessary to remember that this is no more than the Charleston newspapers said at the very crisis of Denmark Vesey's formidable plot. "Last evening," wrote a lady from Charleston in 1822, "twenty-five hundred of our citizens were under arms to guard our property and lives. But it is a subject _not to be mentioned (so underscored); and unless you hear of it elsewhere, say nothing about it." Thus it is always hard to know whether to assume the facts of an insurrection as above or below the estimates. This Virginian excitement also happened at a period of intense political agitation, and was seized upon as a boon by the Federalists. The very article above quoted is ironically headed "Holy Insurrection," and takes its motto from Jefferson, with profuse capital letters: "The Spirit of the Master is abating, that of the Slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying."

In view of the political aspect thus given to the plot, and of its ingenuity and thoroughness likewise, the Virginians were naturally disposed to attribute to white men some share in it; and speculation presently began to run wild. The newspapers were soon full of theories, no two being alike, and no one credible. The plot originated, some said, in certain handbills written by Jefferson's friend Callender, then in prison at Richmond on a charge of sedition; these were circulated by two French negroes, aided by a "United Irishman" calling himself a Methodist preacher, and it was in consideration of these services that no Frenchman was to be injured by the slaves. When Gabriel was arrested, the editor of the _United-States Gazette affected much diplomatic surprise that no letters were _yet found upon his person "from Fries, Gallatin, or Duane, nor was he at the time of his capture accompanied by any United Irishman." "He, however, acknowledges that there are others concerned, and that he is not the principal instigator." All Federalists agreed that the Southern Democratic talk was constructive insurrection,--which it certainly was,---and they painted graphic pictures of noisy "Jacobins" over their wine, and eager dusky listeners behind their chairs. "It is evident that the French principles of liberty and equality have been effused into the minds of the negroes, and that the incautious and intemperate use of the words by some whites among us have inspired them with hopes of success." "While the fiery Hotspurs of the State vociferate their _French babble of the natural equality of man, the insulted negro will be constantly stimulated to cast away his cords, and to sharpen his pike." "It is, moreover, believed, though not positively known, that a great many of our profligate and abandoned whites (who are distinguished by the burlesque appellation of _Democrats_) are implicated with the blacks, and would have joined them if they had commenced their operations.... The Jacobin printers and their friends are panic-struck. Never was terror more strongly depicted in the countenances of men." These extracts from three different Federalist newspapers show the amiable emotions of that side of the house; while Democratic Duane, in the _Aurora_, could find no better repartee than to attribute the whole trouble to the policy of the administration in renewing commercial intercourse with San Domingo.

I have discovered in the Norfolk _Epitome of the Times_, for Oct. 9, 1800, a remarkable epistle written from Richmond Jail by the unfortunate Callender himself. He indignantly denies the charges against the Democrats, of complicity in dangerous plots, boldly retorting them upon the Federalists. "An insurrection at this critical moment by the negroes of the Southern States would have thrown every thing into confusion, and consequently it was to have prevented the choice of electors in the whole or the greater part of the States to the south of the Potomac. Such a disaster must have tended directly to injure the interests of Mr. Jefferson, and to promote the slender possibility of a second election of Mr. Adams." And, to be sure, the _United-States Gazette followed up the thing with a good, single-minded party malice which cannot be surpassed in these present days, ending in such altitudes of sublime coolness as the following: "The insurrection of the negroes in the Southern States, which appears to be organized on the true French plan, must be decisive, with every reflecting man in those States, of the election of Mr. Adams and Gen. Pinckney. The military skill and approved bravery of the general must be peculiarly valuable to his countrymen at these trying moments." Let us have a military Vice-President, by all means, to meet this formidable exigency of Gabriel's peck of bullets, and this unexplained three shillings in the pocket of "Prosser's Ben"!

But Gabriel's campaign failed, like that of the Federalists; and the appointed day brought disasters more fatal than even the sword of Gen. Pinckney. The affrighted negroes declared that "the stars in their courses fought against Sisera." The most furious tempest ever known in Virginia burst upon the land that day, instead of an insurrection. Roads and plantations were submerged. Bridges were carried away. The fords, which then, as now, were the frequent substitutes for bridges in that region, were rendered wholly impassable. The Brook Swamp, one of the most important strategic points of the insurgents, was entirely inundated, hopelessly dividing Prosser's farm from Richmond; the country negroes could not get in, nor those from the city get out. The thousand men dwindled to a few hundred, and these half paralyzed by superstition; there was nothing to do but to dismiss them, and before they could re-assemble they were betrayed.

That the greatest alarm was instantly created throughout the community, there is no question. All the city of Richmond was in arms, and in all large towns of the State the night-patrol was doubled. It is a little amusing to find it formally announced, that "the Governor, impressed with the magnitude of the danger, has appointed for himself three aides-de-camp." A troop of United-States cavalry was ordered to Richmond. Numerous arrests were made. Men were convicted on one day, and hanged on the next,--five, six, ten, fifteen at a time, almost without evidence. Three hundred dollars were offered by Gov. Monroe for the arrest of Gabriel; as much more for another chief named Jack Bowler, _alias Ditcher; whereupon Bowler _alias Ditcher surrendered himself, but it took some weeks to get upon the track of Gabriel. He was finally captured at Norfolk, on board a schooner just arrived from Richmond, in whose hold he had concealed himself for eleven days, having thrown overboard a bayonet and bludgeon, which were his only arms. Crowds of people collected to see him, including many of his own color. He was arrested on Sept. 24, convicted on Oct. 3, and executed on Oct. 7; and it is known of him further, only, that, like almost all leaders of slave insurrections, he showed a courage which his enemies could not gainsay. "When he was apprehended, he manifested the greatest marks of firmness and confidence, showing not the least disposition to equivocate, or screen himself from justice,"--but making no confession that could implicate any one else. "The behavior of Gabriel under his misfortunes," said the Norfolk _Epitome of Sept. 25, "was such as might be expected from a mind capable of forming the daring project which he had conceived." The _United-States Gazette for Oct. 9 states, more sarcastically, that "the general is said to have manifested the utmost composure, and with the true spirit of heroism seems ready to resign his high office, and even his life, rather than gratify the officious inquiries of the Governor."

Some of these newspapers suggest that the authorities found it good policy to omit the statement made by Gabriel, whatever it was. At any rate, he assured them that he was by no means the sole instigator of the affair; he could name many, even in Norfolk, who were more deeply concerned. To his brother Solomon he is said to have stated that the real head of the plot was Jack Bowler. Still another leader was "Gen. John Scott," already mentioned, the slave of Mr. Greenhow, hired by Mr. McCrea. He was captured by his employer in Norfolk, just as he was boldly entering a public conveyance to escape; and the Baltimore _Telegraphe declared that he had a written paper directing him to apply to Alexander Biddenhurst or Weddenhurst in Philadelphia, "corner of Coats Alley and Budd Street, who would supply his needs." What became of this military individual, or of his Philadelphia sympathizers, does not appear. But it was noticed, as usually happens in such cases, that all the insurgents had previously passed for saints. "It consists within my knowledge," says one letter-writer, "that many of these wretches who were or would have been partakers in the plot have been treated with the utmost tenderness by their masters, and were more like children than slaves."

These appear to be all the details now accessible of this once famous plot. They were not very freely published, even at the time. "The minutiae of the conspiracy have not been detailed to the public," said the Salem (Mass.) _Gazette of Oct. 7, "and perhaps, through a mistaken notion of prudence and policy, will not be detailed in the Richmond papers." The New-York _Commercial Advertiser of Oct. 13 was still more explicit. "The trials of the negroes concerned in the late insurrection are suspended until the opinions of the Legislature can be had on the subject. This measure is said to be owing to the immense numbers who are interested in the plot, whose death, should they all be found guilty and be executed, will nearly produce the annihilation of the blacks in this part of the country." And in the next issue of the same journal a Richmond correspondent makes a similar statement, with the following addition: "A conditional amnesty is perhaps expected. At the next session of the Legislature (of Virginia), they took into consideration the subject referred to them, in secret session, with closed doors. The whole result of their deliberations has never yet been made public, as the injunction of secrecy has never been removed. To satisfy the court, the public, and themselves, they had a task so difficult to perform, that it is not surprising that their deliberations were in secret."

It is a matter of historical interest to know that in these mysterious sessions lay the germs of the American Colonization Society. A correspondence was at once secretly commenced between the Governor of Virginia and the President of the United States, with a view to securing a grant of land whither troublesome slaves might be banished. Nothing came of it then; but in 1801, 1802, and 1804, these attempts were renewed. And finally, on Jan. 22, 1805, the following vote was passed, still in secret session: "_Resolved_, that the Senators of this State in the Congress of the United States be instructed, and the Representatives be requested, to use their best efforts for the obtaining from the General Government a competent portion of territory in the State of Louisiana, to be appropriated to the residence of such people of color as have been or shall be emancipated, or hereafter may become dangerous to the public safety," etc. But of all these efforts nothing was known till their record was accidentally discovered by Charles Fenton Mercer in 1816. He at once brought the matter to light, and moved a similar resolution in the Virginia Legislature; it was almost unanimously adopted, and the first formal meeting of the Colonization Society, in 1817, was called "in aid" of this Virginia movement. But the whole correspondence was never made public until the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831 recalled the previous excitement; and these papers were demanded by Mr. Summers, a member of the Legislature, who described them as "having originated in a convulsion similar to that which had recently, but more terribly, occurred."

But neither these subsequent papers, nor any documents which now appear accessible, can supply any authentic or trustworthy evidence as to the real extent of the earlier plot. It certainly was not confined to the mere environs of Richmond. The Norfolk _Epitome of Oct. 6 states that on the 6th and 7th of the previous month one hundred and fifty blacks, including twenty from Norfolk, were assembled near Whitlock's Mills in Suffolk County, and remained in the neighborhood till the failure of the Richmond plan became known. Petersburg newspapers also had letters containing similar tales. Then the alarm spread more widely. Near Edenton, N.C., there was undoubtedly a real insurrection, though promptly suppressed; and many families ultimately removed from that vicinity in consequence. In Charleston, S.C., there was still greater excitement, if the contemporary press may be trusted; it was reported that the freeholders had been summoned to appear in arms, on penalty of a fine of fifteen pounds, which many preferred to pay rather than risk taking the fever which then prevailed. These reports were, however, zealously contradicted in letters from Charleston, dated Oct. 8; and the Charleston newspapers up to Sept. 17 had certainly contained no reference to any especial excitement. This alone might not settle the fact, for reasons already given. But the omission of any such affair from the valuable pamphlet published in 1822 by Edwin C. Holland, containing reminiscences of insurrections in South Carolina, is presumptive evidence that no very extended agitation occurred.

But wherever there was a black population, slave or emancipated, men's startled consciences made cowards of them all, and recognized the negro as a dangerous man, because an injured one. In Philadelphia it was seriously proposed to prohibit the use of sky-rockets for a time, because they had been employed as signals in San Domingo. "Even in Boston," said the New-York _Daily Advertiser of Sept. 20, "fears are expressed, and measures of prevention adopted." This probably refers to a singular advertisement which appeared in some of the Boston newspapers on Sept. 16, and runs as follows:--


"NOTICE TO BLACKS.

"The officers of the police having made returns to the subscriber of the names of the following persons who are Africans or negroes, not subjects of the Emperor of Morocco nor citizens of any of the United States, the same are hereby warned and directed to depart out of this Commonwealth before the tenth day of October next, as they would avoid the pains and penalties of the law in that case provided, which was passed by the Legislature March 26, 1788.

"CHARLES BULFINCH, Superintendent.

"By order and direction of the Selectmen."


The names annexed are about three hundred, with the places of their supposed origin, and they occupy a column of the paper. So at least asserts the _United-States Gazette of Sept. 23. "It seems probable," adds the editor, "from the nature of the notice, that some suspicion of the design of the negroes is entertained; and we regret to say there is too much cause." The law of 1788 above mentioned was "An Act for suppressing rogues, vagabonds, and the like," which forbade all persons of African descent, unless citizens of some one of the United States or subjects of the Emperor of Morocco, from remaining more than two months within the Commonwealth, on penalty of imprisonment and hard labor. This singular statute remained unrepealed until 1834.

Amid the general harmony in the contemporary narratives of Gabriel's insurrection, it would be improper to pass by one exceptional legend, which by some singular fatality has obtained more circulation than all the true accounts put together. I can trace it no farther back than Nat Turner's time, when it was published in the Albany _Evening Journal_; thence transferred to the _Liberator of Sept. 17, 1831, and many other newspapers; then refuted in detail by the _Richmond Enquirer of Oct. 21; then resuscitated in the John-Brown epoch by the Philadelphia _Press_, and extensively copied. It is fresh, spirited, and full of graphic and interesting details, nearly every one of which is altogether false.

Gabriel in this narrative becomes a rather mythical being, of vast abilities and life-long preparations. He bought his freedom, it is stated, at the age of twenty-one, and then travelled all over the Southern States, enlisting confederates and forming stores of arms. At length his plot was discovered, in consequence of three negroes having been seen riding out of a stable-yard together; and the Governor offered a reward of ten thousand dollars for further information, to which a Richmond gentleman added as much more. Gabriel concealed himself on board the "Sally Ann," a vessel just sailing for San Domingo, and was revealed by his little nephew, whom he had sent for a jug of rum. Finally, the narrative puts an eloquent dying speech into Gabriel's mouth, and, to give a properly tragic consummation, causes him to be torn to death by four wild horses. The last item is, however, omitted in the more recent reprints of the story.

Every one of these statements appears to be absolutely erroneous. Gabriel lived and died a slave, and was probably never out of Virginia. His plot was voluntarily revealed by accomplices. The rewards offered for his arrest amounted to three hundred dollars only. He concealed himself on board the schooner "Mary," bound to Norfolk, and was discovered by the police. He died on the gallows, with ten associates, having made no address to the court or the people. All the errors of the statement were contradicted when it was first made public, but they have proved very hard to kill.

Some of these events were embodied in a song bearing the same title with this essay, "Gabriel's Defeat," and set to a tune of the same name, both being composed by a colored man. Several witnesses have assured me of having heard this sung in Virginia, as a favorite air at the dances of the white people, as well as in the huts of the slaves. It is surely one of history's strange parallelisms, that this fatal enterprise, like that of John Brown afterwards, should thus have embalmed itself in music. And twenty-two years after these events, their impression still remained vivid enough for Benjamin Lundy, in Tennessee, to write: "So well had they matured their plot, and so completely had they organized their system of operations, that nothing but a seemingly miraculous intervention of the arm of Providence was supposed to have been capable of saving the city from pillage and flames, and the inhabitants thereof from butchery. So dreadful was the alarm and so great the consternation produced on this occasion, that a member of Congress from that State was some time after heard to express himself in his place as follows: 'The night-bell is never heard to toll in the city of Richmond, but the anxious mother presses her infant more closely to her bosom.'" The Congressman was John Randolph of Roanoke, and it was Gabriel who had taught him the lesson.

And longer than the melancholy life of that wayward statesman,--down even to the beginning of the American civil war,--there lingered in Richmond a memorial of those days, most peculiar and most instructive. Before the days of secession, when the Northern traveller in Virginia, after traversing for weary leagues its miry ways, its desolate fields, and its flowery forests, rode at last into its metropolis, he was sure to be guided ere long to visit its stately Capitol, modelled by Jefferson, when French minister, from the Maison Carree. Standing before it, he might admire undisturbed the Grecian outline of its exterior; but he found himself forbidden to enter, save by passing an armed and uniformed sentinel at the doorway. No other State of the Union then found it necessary to protect its State House by a permanent cordon of bayonets. Yet there for half a century stood sentinel the "Public Guard" of Virginia; and when the traveller asked the origin of the precaution, he was told that it was the lasting memorial of Gabriel's Defeat.

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