Civil War Road Trip
Visit some of the lesser-known sites of the blue and the gray
The Other Rebels: Enslaved People Who Fought Back
Eleven states seceded from the Union, paving the way for war. Among their stated reasons: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world” (Mississippi); and “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery” (South Carolina). The latter pointed to non-slaveholding states that “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” as having permitted societies to form “whose avowed object is to encourage…and assist…thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain have been incited…to servile insurrection.”
Indeed, enslaved people fought back against their oppression in numerous ways, with many instances occurring well before war broke out. Most people have already heard about abolitionist John Brown’s Oct. 16, 1859, raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where he and his sons, along with free blacks, a freed slave, a fugitive slave and others, hoped to incite an armed slave rebellion (which can be explored at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park). Here are two more locales to add to your lesser-known tour.
One of the most notable slave revolts in the U.S. took place in and around the cotton and peanut fields of Southampton County 30 years before the Civil War: Nat Turner’s Rebellion, in August 1831. The Southampton Historical Society is planning to introduce a self-guided walking tour around Courtland to follow the insurrectionists’ trail. Until then, Rick Francis (email@example.com), clerk of the Southampton Circuit Court and the great-great-grandson of one of the slaveowners who survived Turner’s revolt, gives private bus tours marking the locations of Turner’s birth, life, attacks, and hanging death, based on the facts of historical documentation. He lets visitors decide whether Turner was a “saint or sinner.”
Thirty years prior to Turner’s rebellion, in August 1800, an enslaved man named Gabriel Prosser planned an insurrection of hundreds of slaves in central Virginia, hoping to capture the Capitol and the Virginia State Armory in Richmond and hold the governor hostage to negotiate freeing Virginia’s slaves. A self-guided Richmond Slave Trail takes visitors to 17 sites, including the African Burial Ground, where Prosser was hanged and is believed to be buried, and Bryan Park, where he strategized the rebellion using the means he had available to try to further the equality of all people.
Arlington-based writer and history buff Sue Eisenfeld (sueeisenfeld.com) is the author of Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal, and a contributing author in The New York Times Disunion: A History of the Civil War.