Last updated: July 17, 2020
Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and formerly enslaved person, allegedly planned an enslaved insurrection to coincide with Bastille Day in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. Vesey modeled his rebellion after the successful 1791 slave revolution in Haiti. His plans called for his followers to execute the white enslavers, liberate the city of Charleston, and then sail to Haiti before the white power structure could retaliate. Two of the slaves involved leaked details of the plot before it could be implemented. On receiving word of the plot, Charleston authorities mobilized quickly and arrested Vesey and his men. Out of 131 men arrested and charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted and 35 were hanged, including Vesey.
Vesey's date and place of birth are unknown, but while probably in his mid-teens he was sold to Carolina-based slaver named Joseph Vesey in 1781. Following the British evacuation in 1783, Vesey's owner settled in Charleston with young Denmark. Vesey eventually fathered three children by at least two wives. After winning a $1,500 lottery in 1799, Vesey purchased his freedom and set up a carpentry shop in Charleston, where he prospered. Vesey and several of his co-conspirators worshiped at the African Church, the AME congregation which became Mother Emanuel after the Civil War. Along with white abolitionists in the North, Vesey referenced the Bible in his attacks on the institution of slavery. In the aftermath of the execution, white Charlestonians tore down the church and supported new efforts to control the black majority. Funds were appropriated to support a Municipal Guard of 150 men and the construction of "a Citadel" to house them and weapons. In 1843, the structure became home to the cadets of the South Carolina Military Academy.
Additionally, as Vesey's rebellion relied on assistance from free black sailors, South Carolina passed legislation known as the Negro Seamen Acts. The act called for the incarceration of visiting free black sailors in local jails while their vessel remained in Charleston to eliminate contact between free black sailors from outside of South Carolina and black Charlestonians. Despite protests from northern states and British consuls, South Carolina stubbornly insisted on its right to police its population in this way.
Denmark Vesey was later held up as a hero among abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, during the Civil War. Douglass used Vesey's name as a rallying cry in recruiting and inspiring African American troops, including the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Vesey's son, Robert, attended the April 14, 1865 ceremony at Fort Sumter. Henry Ward Beecher discussed the meaning of the war and argued against the evils of slavery after brevet Maj. Gen. Robert Anderson raised the 33 star US flag that flew over the fort before the cruel rebellion began.