Sunday evening, August 21, 1831, seven negros gathered ‘round a campfire in the woods of Southampton County Virginia. Out front of the fire was Cabin Pond, a good size swimming hole that leads to the swamp south of Norfolk. Embers from the campfire reflected off black water, shining onto lily pads, rushes, and mossy stumps. The night sounds of frogs, crickets, and owl offered some cover as the men discussed their murderous plans.
The leader, a slave called Nat, told how God called him to kill the whites. Maybe it’s so. I read my Bible regular. More so now than when I was back home on my farm. I read how God told folks to attack one group and kill everything, even the babies. So maybe God did tell Nat Turner to do such a vile thing. But more’n likely, it was Satan that done the talking.
Not long after midnight, Nat and his band set out along a footpath that wound its way through cypress and water oaks. When they reached the clearing that was the Travis farm, they scaled split-rail fences and slipped past hedgerows until they found their way to the cider press. Drinking liquor will give a body terrible ideas. We ain’t allowed none in my company ‘cept when a body is near death’s door or a limb has to come off. But I reckon Nat’s men got some courage from it, because it weren’t long afterwards that they crept up to the Travis home.
A feller named Hark placed a ladder against the chimney and held it firm while Nat climbed. When he was all the way up, Nat opened the upstairs window and slipped in the way a snake ‘ill slither into a bedroll on a cool fall night. Was pitch black dark in his master’s bedroom, but that didn’t stop Nat from killing. He swung his hatchet at his master’s head and missed. Travis sat upright and bolted from his bed, but before he could warn Mrs. Travis, Hark rushed into the bedroom and cut him down with an ax. Blood covered the bed and floor’s planking. Them two butchered Mrs. Travis in her bed like she wasn’t nothing more’n a hog. Hacked up the couple’s infant boy, too. Cut his head clean off. Now I ask ya: what sort of man called by God does a thing like that?
The Union soldiers across the river from our camp call what Nat Turner did a righteous thing. They sing songs ’bout John Brown’s body and say killing is what comes from keeping a man like he’s nothing more’n property. I ain’ never owned a slave and don’ want none. Fair wages for a days work is the way Mom brought me up. Nat killed my grandma, Elizabeth Turner, and I can’t forgive him or his kind for that. I’d have hung him myself if I could. But that parts over. All I want is to go back to farming but them Yankees would let me.
Seems to me that army across the river ain’ no different than Nat Turner. They come onto my place and want to kill me and my kin. No sir, I didn’ start this quarrel but I can do my part to end it.
I ain’ fighting for the slave owners. The north can keep all the negros if they want. Just keep off my land is all I ask. But they want. Yankees is worse’n Nat’s band of murders. They just keep coming and coming and all the while talking how they’s in the right and the Lord’s on their side.
Some asked why I joined up. To keep’em off my place and out of my county, that’s all. I’d write more ’bout how come I’m fighting, but right now revelry sounds and we got to get marching towards a train depot called Manassas Junction. Some in my company say this’ll all be over soon as we whip them Yankees. I have my doubts. They hung Nat and the killing didn’t stop. Don’t see as how one battle will end this.
But I pray it will. I miss sister’s sweet potato pie.
(rough draft, typos included – EJ )