Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Patrick H. Breen's "The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood"

Patrick H. Breen is Associate Professor of History at Providence College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, and reported the following:
Could Ford Madox Ford be wrong about Page 99? The thought crossed my mind as I read my discussion of number of blacks who were killed without trials as the revolt was suppressed.
How many of the 178 uncounted [by 1832 tax collectors] slaves were among the dead after the revolt? Nat Turner and twenty-nine others were found guilty by the white courts for their involvement in the revolt. They were all sentenced to die. Although some had their sentences reduced to transportation, all thirty convicted slaves were absent from the 1832 tax survey. As a result, it is likely that fewer than 148 Southampton slaves lost their lives during the period of panic and uncertainty that followed the revolt.

Primary sources, including The Confessions of Nat Turner, newspaper articles, letters from Southampton, trial notes, and petitions to the Virginia General Assembly mention between thirty-seven and thirty-nine slaves who were involved in the revolt. Of these, at least twenty-one survived long enough to be tried. Among the rebels never tried, nine men had their deaths documented: their owners and executors for their owners’ estates sought compensation for the property they lost when their slaves were killed without trial. (Since slave owners in Virginia were compensated for slaves who were executed or transported by the state, these owners argued that the owners of slaves who had been killed as the revolt was being suppressed also should have received compensation from the state.) Two other rebels were mentioned as prisoners, but their serious injuries—one newspaper described Tom as “desperately wounded and about to die”—meant that they did not survive long enough to stand trial. Add to the list three prominent rebels—Henry, Will “the executioner,” and Austin (who killed Hartwell Peebles)—whose disappearance from the record following the revolt is most readily explained by their deaths, and one can identify fourteen rebels who almost certainly died as the revolt was put down. Two more slaves—the unnamed slave who died at Samuel Blunt’s plantation and Nathaniel Francis’s Charlotte—were also killed after the revolt, bringing the minimum number of slaves who died without trial to sixteen.
The range discussed here is less important than the conclusion on the next page where I show it most likely that the number of blacks killed without trials was between thirty and forty. This is lower than most historians have thought and leads to an important question: how did it happen that whites did not kill more blacks after the revolt? My answer to this question—that the slaveholders intentionally prevented a massacre—is at a key to the second half of the book.

But the problem with Ford’s test is not that he chose page 99 instead of 100. Instead, the problem is that I am making a formal argument about the number of people killed in the aftermath of the revolt. But numbers—as important as they are—are not people, and my book is about the people and the terrible position that they found themselves in during the revolt. On page 99, names are mentioned, but I do not tell the stories of these people. Just to take one example, the unnamed slave who died at Samuel Blunt’s had been seen with a gun just as the alarm had sounded. It seems that the white man who killed him did not realize that the man had been armed to defend Blunt’s plantation. Irony is, of course, a stock technique of so many careful historians, but the irony is just one level of the story of the unnamed man’s death. This story raises the uncomfortable issue of slave loyalty: why did the unnamed man fight for the slaveholders? Was he trying to suppress the revolt? Or was he worried about what would happen if Blunt’s plantation, where his family lived, were captured by the rebels? It also raises the question of white confidence. Did the slaveholders really believe that their slaves would remain faithful to them? If so, it was a bit odd that they only distributed the guns at the moment when they heard that a rebel attack was imminent and then collected the guns from their slaves as soon as the alarm passed. These are the stories at the heart of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood, but you can’t find them on page 99.
Learn more about The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue