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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.


During a span of approximately thirty-six hours, on August 21-22, a band of enslaved people murdered over fifty unsuspecting white people around Southampton, Virginia. The exact number killed remains unsubstantiated—various sources claim anywhere from fifty to sixty-five. 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 Southampton lawyer and slave owner. The resulting extended essay, "The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, 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.

Gray attempts "to commit his [Turner's] statements to writing, and publish them, with little or no variation, from his own words" (p. 3-4). He recounts the "Confession" in the first person, hoping thereby to simulate Turner's voice (p. 7). It should be noted, however, that Gray maintained all control over the text. 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 Turner 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).

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 claims that, as an adult, the Spirit revealed to him "the knowledge of the elements," with the promise of much more (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; details of how the party was assembled are given on ensuing pages.

The narrative also 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." Turner pleads not guilty and is quickly found guilty and sentenced to death via hanging (p. 20). The final pages of the narrative include a list of the men, women and children killed during the insurrection, followed by the names of the people charged with participating (p. 22).

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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