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Nat Turner, 1800?-1831
The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.
Baltimore: T. R. Gray, 1831.


Perhaps no other moment in history crystallized the fears of slave owners in the South like the 1831 slave insurrection led by Nat Turner in South Hampton, Virginia. During a span of approximately thirty-six hours, on August 21-22, a band of slaves murdered over 50 unsuspecting whites (Goldman). The exact number of whites killed remains unsubstantiated—various sources claim anywhere from 50 to 65. Almost all of those involved (or suspected of involvement) in the insurrection were put to death, including Nat Turner, who was the last known conspirator to be captured. Following his discovery, capture, and arrest over two months after the revolt, Turner was interviewed in his jail cell by Thomas Ruffin Gray, a wealthy South Hampton lawyer and slave owner (French). The resulting extended essay (summarized below), "The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in South Hampton, VA.," was used against Turner during his trial. The repercussions of the rebellion in the South were severe: many slaves who had no involvement in the rebellion were murdered out of suspicion or revenge.

The full title of Gray's essay includes all the points it touches upon: "The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in South Hampton, VA. As fully and voluntarily made to THOMAS R. GRAY In the prison where he was confined, and acknowledged by him to be such when read before the Court of Southampton; with the certificate, under seal of the Court convened at Jerusalem, Nov. 5, 1831, for his trial. ALSO, AN AUTHENTIC ACCOUNT OF THE WHOLE INSURRECTION, WITH LISTS OF THE WHITES WHO WERE MURDERED, AND OF THE NEGROES BROUGHT BEFORE THE COURT OF SOUTHHAMPTON, AND THERE SENTENCED, &c." Gray begins his essay by acknowledging that the "late insurrection . . . has greatly excited the public mind, and led to a thousand idle, exaggerated and mischievous reports" in this "first instance in our history of an open rebellion of the slaves" (p. 3). Gray seeks to "understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influences its diabolical actors" (p. 3). Since all the "insurgent slaves" except Turner had been "destroyed, or apprehended, tried and executed . . . without revealing any thing at all satisfactory, as to the motives which governed them" or their methods, Gray turns to Turner for explanation (p. 3).

Gray attempts "to commit his [Turner's] statements to writing, and publish them, with little or no variation, from his own words" (pp. 3-4). It should be noted, however, that Gray maintained all control over the text. And while Turner acknowledged Gray's rendering of his confession as "full, free, and voluntary" during his trial, there can be no doubt that Turner's execution was inevitable, regardless of his confession, given the climate in the state following the insurrection (p. 5). Gray's own editorial comments are clear at the beginning of the text when, before beginning his "record" of Turner's words, he recounts how this "great Bandit" was captured "by a single individual . . . without attempting to make this slightest resistance" (p. 3). Gray seems to want to emphasize the power of whites following the insurrection, making a point of including the fact that "Nat's only weapon was a small light sword which he immediately surrendered, and begged that his life might be spared" (p. 3).

After noting that he visited Turner in prison "on Tuesday the 1st November," Gray recounts the "Confession" in the first person, hoping thereby to simulate Turner's voice (p. 7). Turner begins his story by describing his childhood. Alleging to have told a story "when three or four years old" about an event that occurred before his birth in such detail that those around him were "greatly astonished," Turner states that the adults around him proclaimed he would be a "prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth" (p. 7). Turner's mother repeatedly tells him he is "intended for some great purpose" because of his gifts and because of "certain marks on my head and breast" (p. 7). Gray is quick to debunk Turner's narrative, dismissing his "marks" as but "a parcel of excrescences which I believe are not at all uncommon, particularly among negroes" (p. 7).

As a child, Turner is considered by others to possess an "uncommon intelligence." He is told by his master and his master's friends that he "had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave" (p. 8). Turner's master foresaw the potential difficulty in controlling such an intelligent slave, even when Turner was young. Indeed, Turner admits to being "restless, inquisitive and observant," with a keen interest in religion (p. 8). He relates no memories of learning the alphabet. He simply read and spelled aloud from a book handed to him to keep him quiet, he says, much to the astonishment of those around him (p. 8). As he ages, he gives all his time "not devoted to my master's service" to "prayer" or "making experiments in casting different things in moulds made of earth, in attempting to make paper, gunpowder, and many other experiments" (p. 8). Gray again breaks into the narrative to affirm that Turner, indeed, seemed "well informed" on such subjects (p. 8).

One day, while he was plowing, says Turner, the "Spirit" spoke to him. saying, "Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you" (p. 9). After two years of prayer, he receives the message again, "which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty" (p. 9). Turner begins telling other slaves that "something was about to happen that would terminate in fulfilling the great promise that had been made to me" (p. 9). Around this time, however, Turner's master brings in a new overseer, from whom he runs away. He survives in the woods for thirty days. Turner returns to work, however, "to the astonishment of the negroes," because the "Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of Heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master" (p. 9). Upon his return, around 1825, Turner has "a vision" in which he sees "white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle and the sun was darkened." The accompanying voice tells him, "Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it" (p. 10).

Turner claims that the Spirit revealed to him "the knowledge of the elements," with the promise of much more (p. 10). He is "made perfect, and the Holy Ghost was with me" because of his true faith (p. 10). Soon after, he finds "drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven" and "hieroglyphic characters" on the "leaves in the woods" (p. 10). Turner believes that the signs indicate Christ "was now returning to earth again in the form of dew" and "the great day of judgment" had arrived (pp. 10-11). He feels he has been called to "slay my enemies with their own weapons" (p. 11). He shares his mission with four fellow slaves and begins planning.

Turner says that his master, Mr. Joseph Travis, was "kind" and "placed the greatest confidence in me" (p. 11). Nonetheless, the group decides they will "commence at [his] home on that night, and until we had armed and equipped ourselves, and gathered sufficient force, neither age nor sex was to be spared," a point Gray is clear to note was "invariably adhered to" (p. 12). The group indeed sneaks into Mr. Travis' home that evening while the family sleeps, and Turner determines to "spill the first blood" to motivate his followers (p. 12). His hatchet, however, "glanced from his [Mr. Travis'] head," and one of Turner's men "laid him dead" with his axe and then killed his wife "as she lay in bed" (p. 12). The five members of the family are all killed in their sleep, even the "infant sleeping in a cradle" (p. 12). The narrative details each of the subsequent murders Turner witnessed or participated in. Turner repeatedly fails to kill his victims because of poor weapons. He does finally kill a woman "by a blow on the head, with a fence rail" (p. 14).

Turner's party grows as they move from home to home, eventually reaching "fifty or sixty" men who split into groups to continue their plan (p. 15). While the initial party was small, slaves join the party readily as the troop moves through the surrounding area. As they gather horses, Turner notes that the mounted men would ride ahead to many of the homes "to prevent their escape and strike terror to the inhabitants" (p. 14). The speed of the riders prevents Turner from participating in many of the later murders, but he "sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed, viewed the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction" (p. 14). Turner "determined on starting for Jerusalem," a nearby town, to continue the killing (p. 15). While waiting for part of his crew to return, Turner and some of his men encounter "a party of white men, who had pursued our blood stained track" (p. 15). A skirmish ensues, and while Turner's men initially push the small group back, they soon realize there are reinforcements for the white men, and several of Turner's men are injured. Turner's men "became panick struck and squandered over the field" (p. 16). The insurgents disperse, and Turner attempts, unsuccessfully, to "procure arms and ammunition" (p. 16). Several men meet up with him at a local home that evening but disperse again when the sentinel sounds the alarm. None of the men returns, and Turner soon realizes that his closest men "had been taken, and compelled to betray me" (p. 17).

Turner thus "gave up all hope for the present" and, after securing "provisions," "scratched a hole under a pile of fence rails in a field, where I concealed myself for six weeks" (p. 17). Turner ventures out at night, at first just for water, and then to gather intelligence by attempting to "eaves drop the houses in the neighborhood" (p. 17). He is discovered only after "a dog in the neighborhood" finds his hole and eats his meat (p. 17). The dog returns several nights later with "two negroes" who were hunting; the dog barks and alerts the men to Turner's presence (p. 17). Turner reveals himself and begs for their secrecy, but knowing he will be betrayed, he "immediately left" his hiding place and "was pursued almost incessantly until I was taken a fortnight afterwards by Mr. Benjamin Phipps" (p. 17). Turner notes, with finality, that he is "here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits" him (p. 18).

When asked whether he had an "extensive or concerted plan" with other insurgents—including those who took part in a similar insurrection in North Carolina (p. 18)—Turner denies any knowledge of other rebellions. Gray thus begins a "cross examination" to verify Turner's story and finds it "corroborated by every circumstance coming within my knowledge or the confessions of others whom had been either killed or executed" (p. 18). Gray concludes that Turner is, despite claims to the contrary, not ignorant, cowardly, or motivated by money, and that, "for natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension," he is "surpassed by few men I have ever seen" (p. 18). His failure to resist capture when outmatched in weaponry, he writes, "shews the decision of his character," not cowardice (p. 18). Nonetheless, Gray also notes the "expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence" (p. 19). Gray ends this section of the narrative by telling the stories of the few victims who escaped Turner and his men.

The narrative includes details from the trial, in which Turner was charged with "making insurrection, and plotting to take away the lives of divers free white persons" (p. 20). Turner pleads "Not guilty; saying to his counsel, that he did not feel so" (p. 20). As Turner "introduced no evidence, and the case was submitted without argument to the court," he is quickly found guilty and sentenced to death via hanging (p. 20). The final pages of the narrative include a list of the murdered men, women and children, followed by a "list of Negroes brought before the Court of Southhampton, with their owners' names, and sentence" (p. 22). The death of Turner, however, certainly did not end the fear and curiosity surrounding the insurrection. Slave owners would never again view slave rebellion as impossible; indeed, many historians have argued that the insurrection led to increased violence and a push for greater control over slaves. It also led to speculation concerning Turner's "divine" status; such curiosity led American author William Styron to write his 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, which focuses on a fictional telling of Turner's life leading up to the revolt.

Works Consulted: Goldman, Steve, "The Southhampton Slave Revolt,"—A Nonprofit Organization, accessed 23 Oct. 2010; French, Scot, "The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Ed. Brendan Wolfe, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, accessed 30 Oct. 2010.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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