PETERSBURG AND GABRIEL'S REBELLION

The best source for Gabriel’s Rebellion is the work of Douglas Egerton, in particular, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. The following passage quotes extensively from his article “Gabriel’s Conspiracy and the Election of 1800” in the Journal of Southern History, Vol. 56, No. 2 (May, 1990), pp. 191-214.

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At the turn of the 19th century, Gabriel was a highly skilled enslaved blacksmith in Richmond, who, like his counterparts in neighboring Petersburg, lived in an urban and economically robust center, with a large skilled population of African Americans, both enslaved and free. Gabriel lived primarily on Thomas Henry Prosser’s tobacco plantation outside of town; however, Gabriel often hired out in Richmond where he spent several nights a month.  Apart from Gabriel’s considerable personal abilities, it was precisely this kind of urban, dynamic milieu, in the wake of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, where skills and ambitions were fostered and revolutionaries might dream “realistic dreams of freedom” (Egerton 1990, p. 192).  Gabriel devised a plan to end slavery: a three pronged insurgency to take the state capitol (and Governor James Monroe), the prison, and the arsenal and the attack would be coordinated with various cities throughout the state. 

Gabriel and his collaborators set out to recruit other enslaved artisans.  “[A]s the conspiracy grew, it remained the secret of like-minded black elites in Virginia towns,” (Egerton p. 197).  Since Gabriel and his followers were initially targeting black artisans “whose talents and skills had made them self-sufficient and nearly free in their unique urban world,” (Egerton p. 199) Petersburg was a crucial site for recruitment and became a hub of the conspiracy.

“By mid-summer the conspiracy was well known to many black artisans in Petersburg.  Sam Byrd, Jr., one of the most active…recruiters, was able to use his respected uncles, Reuben and Jesse Byrd, ‘two free men of color,’ to contact other urban blacks.  Reuben, a moderately prosperous mason and carpenter agreed to serve as the coordinator of the Petersburg men.” (Egerton p. 197)

“Gabriel hoped that under the leadership of the Byrds and John Scott, a Petersburg hireling, a ‘union of plan’ among the towns could be devised so that the other conspirators would know to rise after he and his Richmond followers had ‘commenced the insurrection.’” (Egerton p. 198)

“With many blacks from Richmond and Petersburg involved in the conspiracy, the word began to flow down the James River to Suffolk and Norfolk.  Black boatman along the James had long been the carriers of information and runaway slaves as well as goods for merchants; now several were involved as couriers.  One of them, William Wilson’s Jacob, was a ship’s captain for hire who regularly passed between [Petersburg] and Norfolk.” (Egerton p. 198)

In addition to black artisans, enslaved and free, Gabriel’s co-conspirators included a small number of whites, including two Frenchmen.  The number of followers galvanized by Gabriel’s plan made it “perhaps the largest slave rebellion in southern history.” “[M]ost contemporaries believe that it probably could have succeeded.  Had that been so it probably would have changed not only the course of American race relations but also change the course of American political history.” (Egerton p. 191) The plan, however, was derailed by a thunderstorm and then revealed by slaves to their respective owners, simultaneously, in both Richmond and Petersburg.  “Petersburg slaves and free blacks, including the Byrds, where swept up…. John Scott too was captured in Petersburg….” (Egerton p. 209)

Blacks and whites were questioned all over the state and trials were held in Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk.  Ultimately twenty four slaves were hanged. “The last slave to die, Peter, owned by the estate of William Claiborne, was hanged in Petersburg on October 24.” (Egerton personal communication)

Primary documents from the trials can be found at the Library of Virginia.