An Insurrection Plotted by Slaves in Camden, South Carolina

December 2-3, 1977


Edited by

Published for the Southern Studies Program
University of South Carolina


‘The July Fourth Incident’ of 1816:
An Insurrection Plotted by Slaves in
Camden, South Carolina

By L. Glen Inabinet


Prior to emancipation, many Negroes in America attempted to server the bonds of slavery by both overt and covert means.  Some overt actions are well known: for example, the bloody rebellion of Nat Turner and the earlier attempted revolts of Gabriel Prosser in Virginia and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina.  In the latter conspiracy, discovered in Charleston in 1822, procedures for trail and punishment were based upon a precedent set six years earlier in the quelling of a less well-known insurrection plot in Camden, South Carolina.[1]

In the early 1800s Camden had long known the insecurity of warfare and conflict.  Indian attacks had threatened the areas through the mid-1700s. During the Revolution, fourteen military engagements had been fought within a radius of thirty miles of the town.  In 1780, Lord Cornwallis had occupied Camden, fortifying it with a log wall and five earthen forts as British headquarters for the Southern campaign. Local men who refused to pledge loyalty to the king were imprisoned in chains.  Treachery, betrayal, and murder were not uncommon during these times as neighbors and relatives were forced to choose between partisan and loyalist cases.

The Fourth of July of 1816, however, seemed to be a holiday worthy of an especially joyful celebration.  The previous year a treaty had ended the War of 1812; the British were now completely vanquished.  Peace, prosperity, and security seemed assured.  Yet, victories for freedom were empty for more than one-half the area’s populace—those held in slavery.  During the Revolution, the British had offered the lure of freedom to Negroes who would desert patriot masters and serve the Royal cause.  Existing Revolutionary accounts from Camden indicate that both loyalist and patriot masters consumed a great deal of time pursuing runaways and otherwise controlling their slaves.  Although enemy-incited, wide-scale slave rebellions never materialized, the possibility of danger from blacks remained a concern in the early 1800s as the Negro populations continued to increase.

A Quaker prophet passing through South Carolina between 1800 and 1804 warned that, unless slaves were freed, the recent horrors of the rebellion in the island republic of Santo Domingo could become a reality here.  Fulfillment of the prophecy must have seemed underway in 1816 when a number of slaves in Camden actively embarked on a plot for armed rebellion.  They planned to seize arms from an unguarded powder magazine in the town, striking on the Fourth of July when they expected whites to be in a carefree and inebriated state, celebrating the anniversary of political freedom.  The captured arms would be turned on the white populace—and the slaves would be free.[2]

One of their own race betrayed the plan, however, Scipio, a slave of Col. James Chesnut, in mid-June went to his master’s room to warn him and his family, then living near the powder magazine, of the dangers to them.[3] Col. Chesnut, according to contemporaries, was held in high regard by his slaves, among whom he was active in Christian ministry.  Instructing Scipio to attend the meetings of the rebel slaves to obtain further  information, Col. Chesnut, an aide-de-camp to Gov. David R. Williams, alerted the governor.  Williams in turn gave Chesnut instructions which were to be kept secret from all but the town council.

From that point on, leading citizens of the town, with advice of Governor Williams, moved to quell the rebellion by secretly gathering evidence.  Details of the proposed conspiracy, as reported by Camden attorney Francis Dellesseline, show the ambitious nature of the uprising:


The scheme had for its object the conflagration of a part of

the town—the massacre of all the white male inhabitants,

and the more brutal sacrifice of the female.  Their plan was

entrusted to a few only, and hey left its development and

consummation to chance; relying on the presumed disposition

To rebellion on the part of the blacks of every description.

The night of the 4th of July was appointed for the explosion—

great anxiety had been exhibited among the younger and more

ardent associates in the revolt, in the different meetings that

were held, to precipitate the period of attack, and beginhe

work of desolation and desolation and slaughter some

time before.  But the cautious and calculating judgment of the

more cunning and elder, urged as reasons for deferring it, that

there was a scarcity of provisions—that the crops not yet made

would ensue, and that famine would accomplish what force

might not be able to effect.  They confidently relied, also, upon

the usual indulgences among us on a day celebrated as a great

national jubilee; and it was finally determined, that the night

of the 4th of July should be appointed as the time for the re-

enaction of the horrors of the Sicilian Vespers.  The different

commands had been regularly assigned to particular leaders

and all had been allotted, except that of commander-in-chief.

This was reserved for him who should first force the gates

of the arsenal.  To strengthen the possibility of success, the

Negroes from the circumjacent country were invited,

under various pretenses, to Camden that night.


When sufficient evidence of the plot was available, arrest warrants were issued and promptly executed.  Deliesseline writes of the arrest: 

. . . such was the secrecy with which the whole affair was conducted,

that on the morning of the 1st or 2nd of July, the young men chosen

to arrest the ringleaders of the conspiracy were assembled under

the pretense of a fox chase, and dispatched under the command of

leaders, who were enjoined to the utmost secrecy.  They were

perfectly ignorant of the nature of the service they were on, until

the moment they were ordered to arrest the conspirators, most of

whom  were at work in the fields, many miles apart.  Their movements

were so secret and simultaneous, that the arrests were made almost

at the same instant of time, and without any intimation on the part

of those respectively arrested, of the fate of their confederates.[4]

Still in existence are the notes of the town council meeting held July 2nd to investigate “information. . . . given to the council of an intended insurrection of the slaves in the neighborhood.”[5] The  council consisted of R. W. Carter, John Reed, Wyatt Stark, Dr. William Langley (then editor of the Camden Gazette), and the Intendant, Abram Blanding.  The notes of the meeting have been identified as being in Blanding’s hand.[6]

Of the slaves questioned, seven denied knowing anything at all about a conspiracy; four of these—March, Ned, Cameron, and Jack—were also later hanged as ringleaders.  Two other slaves who were also later hanged—Issac and Spottswood—admitted knowledge of the plot but denied taking part themselves.  Information gathered at this meeting was obviously not considered final proof of guilt or innocence.  Judging from the notes, no witnesses at the preliminary but two Negroes accused Tom, who was tried and freed.  There were also other slaves who were accused by witnesses but not brought to trial.

The two who were most frequently implicated in pre-trial testimony were March and Issac.  Each was accused by three witnesses.  Tom stated that he had met March at the brickyard and, “He asked me if I would join him to fight this country—that the black people who did not join they would kill.  I said I would not join.  He said then they would kill me.”  Another slave testified that at the brickyard March, asking him to help fight and get guns, said he was going to get “a heap more” people to fight.  The witness then said that March had often stopped blacks to talk with them.

Though twice questioned at the hearing, Issac maintained his own innocence but implicated March, stating that twice March had asked him to join him in the plot to take the magazine.  Isssac admitted, “I  have said . . . that I thought it would be a good scheme if they could get through with it, but that Negroes were so deceitful that it would not do.  [Others] said the same.”

The lengthiest testimony against Issac was given by Spottswood, also later condemned.  Spottswood stated, “About a month ago . . . Issac said he had a notion so get a parcel of men and go and fight the white people.” Issac asked Spottswood to join but the latter claimed he did not say whether he would or not, adding “Issac. . .said if I told he would have me killed.”  Issac allegedly directed Spottswood to speak to as many blacks as he could and recruit them to the cause.

Spottswood was accused of being involved in the plot by an elderly witness who stated, “He said they (the blacks) were going to rise and take the country.  I said they had better not.  He said he was one that was to rise.  That they did not want old people to take any part in it.”  Spottswood admitted telling the other slave about the gathering of insurrectionists, but said, “ I don’t recollect whether I agreed to join or not.”

As a result of evidence gathered at the meeting of the town council, trials were set immediately for several slaves.  The trials were conducted by a court composed as provided by law, consisting of two Justices of the Peace, Thomas Salmond and John Kershaw, and five freeholders:  Benjamin Bineham, Joseph Brevard, Burwell Boykin, Thomas Whitaker, and Benjamin Carter.  The official records of the dispositions of the cases still exist,[7] but lamentably there are no transcripts of testimony given.

If the court records are bound (as they appear to be) in the order in which the trials were held, then the first tried was March, on July 3.  The charge stated against him, as against all the other prisoners, was “attempting to raise an insurrection amongst the slaves [of South Carolina}.”  All pleaded “Not Guilty.”  Two other trials on July 3 examined Cameron and Jack.  The State produced three witnesses against March, and called March as one of the five witnesses against Cameron.  Three slaves testified against Jack.  Each of the three cases was adjourned until July 4—ironically the day which had been set for the uprising—when each defendant was given a chance to produce witnesses on his behalf.  None being presented, March, Cameron, and Jack were each declared “Guilty” and July 5 they were sentenced to hang that afternoon from four to five before the town goal.

Four trials were begun July 4, the first that of Isaac.  Among the fur prosecution witnesses were March, Spottswood, and Scipio—the informant.  Although Issac presented one slave as a defense witness, he was adjudged “Guilty” and on the fifth sentenced to hang that afternoon.

The second trial of July 4 ended in a “Not Guilty” verdict for Tom who had produced no defense witnesses against the State’s two witnesses.  In the third case of the day, the Court tried Spottswood, calling three witnesses, including Issac and Scipio.  Having presented no witnesses in his behalf, Spottswood was declared “Guilty” and on the fifth was sentenced to hang with the others.

The final trial on July 4 ended with a curious punishment, the reasons for which are not included in the court record.  Scipio was the only witness in the case against Stephen who presented one slave to testify in his defense.  Stephen was declared “Guilty” and, on the fifth, the Court ordered that Stephen “have the sentence of death passed on him at the same time that his fellows are condemned—and that his pardon of his said sentence be announced to him—after all the ceremonies of execution have been made.”

One trial was held on July 5, that of Ned.  For an unexplained reason, the Court convened with John Kershaw and John Reide as justices and only four of the other original members, “Thomas Salmond one of the justices and Joseph Brevard Esq. Having withdrawn.”  The trial was obviously held before the afternoon hangings for Issac appeared as a State witness.  Four days later on July 9, Ned presented two witnesses in his defense but was declared “Guilty” and sentenced to be hanged on Friday, July 12.  The final one of the six conspirators to be executed, Ned was the only one to die alone.

Two trials were held on July 8, the first against “Big Negro Frank.”  The State called nine witnesses, among them six whites.  Big Frank was declared “Guilty” and sentenced to solitary confinement.  The Court ordered, however, that his clergyman be allowed to visit him.  In the second trial of the day, the State called a free mulatto woman to testify in the case against Rantey, but the Court decreed him “Not Guilty” and subsequently freed him.

On July 9 the Court freed five slaves, George, Andrew, another George, Joe and Deck.  On Friday, July 12, Abram and Catoe were tried together and both were freed.  The business of the Court was finally completed five days later on July 17 with the re-opening of the case of Big Frank, who had been sentenced to solitary confinement.  Two blacks and three whites were examined on the part of the State and the witness.  As a result, Big Frank was sentenced to one year in irons in solitary confinement.  However, the Court said that his master could release him at any time he would agree to remove Frank from the United States.

For a description of the proceedings of the trials, we have only Deliesseline’s account:

The same caution [as practiced in the arrest of the slaves] was

Subsequently used, at their trial, to conceal the name of the informer

who was likewise in custody.  The most satisfactory testimony,

independent of that of the informer, and regulated by the most

rigid rulers of evidence sufficiently established their guilt; and the

first gang who were executed died ignorant of the informer.

They all confessed their crimes, and the most intelligent of them

acknowledged that they had no causes of complaint against

their individual masters, and advised their surviving brethren

of the futility of any further attempt.  They expressed themselves

surprised with the mild and humane manner of the proceedings

instituted against them, and freely acknowledged that they

had anticipated immediate death in case of a discovery.[8]


The whole procedure of conducting the trials and executions of the  slaves was intended both to firmly subdue Negroes and, at the same time, to reassure the public by avoiding undue alarm concerning racial dangers.  This precedent set at Camden was later to be followed in Charleston’s Denmark Vesey trials in 1822, following a determination that members of the public.


Who had no particular interest in the slaves accused, should

not be present at their trials; but that the owners of all the slaves

tried, and their counsel, as well as the owners of those who

were used as witnesses, should be admitted, if they desired it.[9]

In addition to preventing public excitement by “exaggerated information of testimony” which might be misinterpreted by the auditors, this procedure was designed to secure secrecy for witnesses who had volunteered information but who feared incurring the resentment of their comrades by testifying against them in a public court.

Of the principals in the conspiracy we know but little.  More is known about their owners, well-to-do Camdenites, some closely related, all of whom had residences within the town limits.  Ned belonged to Mrs. Sarah Martin, the elderly widow of a Revolutionary surgeon.  Cameron and Issac were the property of another prominent widow, Mrs. Sarah Lang, whose youngest son Thomas Lang owned Jack.  A major planter, Thomas Lang was the son-in-law of Duncan Mc Rae, an energetic merchant and owner of Spottswood.  March was the property of Chapman Levy, a lawyer, state legislator, and captain of volunteer company in the War of 1812.

The earliest description of the conspirators appeared in The Camden Gazette on July 11, six days after the first executions.  Editor William Langley, a member of the town council, stated that:


"Upon trial every one who was most deeply implicated manifested

the greatest apparent innocence, but upon conviction acknowledged

the correctness of the Court’s decision, nor did they evince the

least compunction for having conceived and matured the design.

It is melancholy to reflect that those who were most active in the

Conspiracy occupied a respectable stand in one of the churches,

several were professors [of Christianity] and one a class leader.[10]"


In his account, Deliesselin recalls that:


Two brothers engaged in this rebellion could read and write, and were hitherto of unexceptional characters.  They were religious, and had always been regarded in the light of faithful servants. A few appeared to have been actuated solely by the lust of plunder, But most of them by wild and frantic ideas of the rights of man, and the misconceived injunctions and examples of Holy Writ.[11]


More information remains on record about Issac than about any other of the condemned conspirators.  In the minutes of the town council he is identified as  “a  drummer fore Captain Levy’s company” and in the trial records as “Captain Levy’s runner.”  Among the names on the muster roll for apt. Chapman Levy’s Company of Riflemen, a regiment of militia in the War of 1812, is found Issac, designated as a servant.  Issac apparently accompanied the militiamen when they left Camden on October 6, 1814, to help fortify Charleston, then threatened by British attack.  Considering Issac’s military association, one might imagine him to have been one of the rebels described as motivated by “wild and frantic ideas of the rights of man” (a description British Loyalists a few years past would have applied to colonial patriots).

Perhaps it was memory of Issac’s behavior which in 1828 prompted “Sundry Citizens of Kershaw District” to petition the South Carolina House of Representatives to forbid “slaves and free persons of color . . .from being musicians in the Military corps of the state and other things.”[12] One writer has said that it was feared if slaves in military parades and on muster grounds witnessed military functions they “would become acquainted with the use of arms and the institution of war.”[13] Probably alluding to the attempted insurrection in the past, the petition warned that martial music was “calculated to fire [Negroes’] bosoms with  feeling which might cause them to rise up with destructive fury and destroy the peace and lives of the citizens.”

Despite the deliberate attempts to reassure the public concerning what was often afterwards called “the July 4th incident,” fears engendered by the rebellion plot remained in the minds of Camdenites  and South Carolinians for years to come.  The earliest documented record reflecting this concern is the trial record and testimony of a runaway slave from Charleston who attacked and wounded a white man in late July, 1816.  Tried in the Kershaw District Court in Camden, Abraham (and other Negroes like him) was warned about the hangings earlier that month.  Abraham was sentenced to confinement until noon of September 24 when he was taken to the gallows to “be branded publically on each cheek and forehead with letter v in large letters and further have one half of each ear cut off beginning at top and cutting to the bottom.”[14]


The excitement of Negro insurrection in South Carolina, during the early 1800’s and until the Civil War, caused a reign of terror to overcome South Carolina’s white population . . .
White reaction toward the institution of insurrection resulted in strong resistance and hostility toward the Negro.[15] 

The code of laws governing the state’s slaves became stricter and stricter.  More and more the movements of Negroes were restricted and their rights limited.  It became unlawful to teach a slave to read. (it will be remembered two of the convicted conspirators at Camden possessed this skill.)  Furthermore, because free Negroes posed as great, if not greater threat then slaves, except by edict of the State Legislature.

Martial efforts were also made to safeguard the lives and property of white citizens.  The state budget signed December 19, 1816, set aside $2,000  to establish a guard of a subaltern and ten men to protect the Camden arsenal, the same unguarded magazine the rebel slaves had planned to seize.[16] A bill on March 28, 1817. Authorized payment of $645 for “29 rifles already directed to the Arsenal Keeper of Camden.”[17] The 1817 budget appropriated $300 for the arsenal keeper and powder receiver, $2,000 for the guardsmen (subaltern and ten men), and a maximum of $800 for repairs to the arsenal.[18] To further insure security for whites, on December 16, 1818, the Legislature by special act gave the Town Council of Camden the “power and duty of organizing, detailing and enforcing the performance of patrol duty.”[19]The act also provided penalty for neglect of such duty.

Other documents also still exist concerning more personal aftermaths of the July 4th incident.  South Carolina law for some time had provided monetary compensation to slave owners whose servants were executed by the laws of the state (except in the case of murder, for which no compensation was allowed).  The South Carolina Archives contains applications and records for a number of such payments made, the usual compensation for the time being $122.43 for an executed slave.  The state budget passed in 1816 allotted the set amount to the owners of the Camden slaves who were hanged.[20]

This relatively small compensation stands in sharp contrast to the amount of $1100 which the Legislature on March 28, 1817, voted to the Governor “to purchase the freedom of the servant who gave information of the projected insurrection in the city and neighborhood of Camden.”  The bill further directed that “the sum of fifty dollars per annum, out of the public treasury, be allowed to said servant, until otherwise directed by law.”[21] The following June 10, manumission papers for James Chesnut’s Scipio were entered into public record, stating therein the origin of the purchase money.[22] An original copy and a part of a smaller copy of these “freedom papers” may be fund in the South Carolina Archives.[23]

Scipio’s life after his “freedom” reads like a page from an old Southern romance.  Apparently, he chose to remain with James Chesnut, perhaps as a paid servant, rather than live life as a free Negro in those troubled and restricted times.  There is reason to believe that in his lifetime the fact was not known, or at least not widely known, that Scipio was the informer.  His name is mentioned in none of the old accounts in this connection, including none of the published Camden, citing a Chesnut family tradition, stated that the informer was a servant of Col. Chesnut but that his name was unknown.[24] Were it not for the modern discovery of the manumission papers, his name would no double still be unknown.

Nevertheless we can feel fairly secure that Scipio the informant is the Scipio who is mentioned in the following account of the burial of Col. Chesnut, as related by his granddaughter:


It was a bright day in February, 1866, that we gathered on that lonely hilltop, children, grand-children and great- grandchildren, and a still larger circle of those who, though free, still loved and honored ‘Old Marster.’ The last rites were over, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, earth to earth”: the last prayer and benediction said, when Scipio, my grandfather’s body servant, faithful to the end, steeped forward and asked that they might sing . . . .[25]


The position of esteem accorded to Scipio in the Chesnut family passed to the next generation, as evidenced by the following description of the death in 1885 of General James Chesnut who had served the Confederacy on the staff of Jefferson Davis:


. . . at his death General Chesnut, statesman and soldiers, was surrounded by faithful friends, born in slavery on his own plantation, and that the last prayer he ever heard came from the lips of a Negro man, old Scipio, his father’s body-servant; and that he was borne to his grave amid the tears and lamentations of those whom no Emancipation Proclamation could sever from him, and who cried aloud: “O my master! My master! He was so good to me! He was all to us!  We have lost our best friend!”[26]

Thus concludes the broad story of the July 4th, 1816, incident in Camden, combining paradoxically co-existing pictures of the old South:  the religious slave faithful to his “good old master”—and the rebellious Negro desiring his place in this land of the free.  Both portraits, in there times, had their influences on South Carolina law.

[1] Lionel H. Kennedy and Thomas Parker, An Official  Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes (Charleston, 1822), vii.

[2] The fullest published account of the rebellion and its times is that found in Thomas J. Kirkland and Robert M. Kennedy, Historic Camden (Columbia, 1926), II, 187-195.

[3] Scipio’s name is revealed to us only by the records of his manumission, preserved in the South Carolina Archives.  Extant accounts of the period do not identify him by name.

[4] Deliesseline’s letter is quoted by Edwin C. Holland, A Refutation of the Calumnies. . . .(Charleston, 1822), 75.  Deliesseline’s account is also reprinted by Asa H. Gordon, Sketches of Negro Life and History in South Carolina (Columbia. 1929), 42-44.

[5] The original document may be located in Miscellaneous Kershaw County papers, compiled by Thomas J. Kirkland, Box 2, July 2, 1816-May 8, 1860, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina Columbia.  All statements quoted in the following testimonies are recorded in what appears to be rapid notetaking.  They cannot definitely be interpreted as exact direct quotations of the defendants.  Only in one instance does the recorder use quotation marks, but he appears to use third person for paraphrasing and first person for quoting the wording of the defendants.

[6] Kirkland and Kennedy, 188.

[7] Record of Trial of Slaves for Attempted Insurrection, July 3-17, 1816, Item A-786, South Caroliniana Library.

[8] Holland, Refutation, 75/  (An extensive search has been made among papers in the South Caroliniana Library, and, while testimony is usually attached to the records of court proceedings in other cases, none is present in a similar manner in this instance.  Perhaps the testimony was lost, or perhaps—due to the secrecy of the proceedings—testimony was not recorded.)

[9] Kennedy and Parker, vii.

[10] July 18, 1816, The Gazette printed a correction to this statement, saying “We are authorized to state that those who were professors of  religion did not belong exclusively to one church.”  Copies of the newspaper are located in the South Caroliniana Library.

[11] Holland, 75

[12] “Slavery: 1800-30,” Loose Legislative Papers, South Carolina Archives..

[13] W. Wells Van Felt, “The Hiring Out of Slaves in Charleston,” in Black Carolinians. Ed. By Charles W. Joyner (Laurinburg, N. C., 1969), 8.

[14] Miscellaneous Kershaw County Papers.

[15] Sally Neil, “The Great Fear:  White Reaction to Negro Insurrection in South Carolina,” in Joyner, ed., Black Carolinians, I.

/98*+[16] The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, VI (Act. No. 2129, p. 54; (1839), South Carolina Archives.

[17] Ibid., Act No. 2132,  p. 58.

[18] Ibid., Act No. 2173, pp. 82-87

[19] Ibid., Act No. 2193, p. 98.

[20] Ibid., Act No. 2129,  p. 52.

[21] Ibid., Act No. 2132,  p 58.

[22] Miscellaneous Records, p. 396.

[23] Loose Legislative Papers.

[24] Kirkland and Kennedy, Historic Camden, II, 189.

[25] Esther S. Davis, Memories of Mulberry (n.d.). 14

[26] “One who knew [General Chesnut] well” is cited as the author of this account, quoted by Isabella D. Martin in her introduction to A Diary from Dixie by Mary Boykin Chesnut, edited by Mrs. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary (1905).