Two Revolts, One Confession
A Contemporary Account of the Nat Turner Insurrection
This was the second time since 1800, when a rebellion planned by a Henrico County slave named Gabriel was thwarted, that white Virginians had experienced the chaos and terror of a conspiracy of enslaved people. Both Gabriel and Nat Turner were expected to “confess” their guilt, provide information on means and motive, and, if necessary, help put idle rumors to rest. Gabriel used the promise of a confession to secure his safe transportation from Norfolk, where he was discovered hiding aboard a ship, to the state capital in Richmond, where he was to stand trial on charges of conspiracy and insurrection.
Once granted an audience with Virginia governor James Monroe, however, Gabriel confessed little or nothing of value to his captors. Monroe was somewhat perplexed by this turn of events: “From what he said to me, he seemed to have made up his mind to die, and to have resolved to say but little on the subject of the conspiracy.” Gabriel’s refusal to cooperate with state authorities only raised his stature in the eyes of the press. “The General is said to have manifested the utmost composure,” the U.S. Gazette reported, “and with the true spirit of heroism seems ready to resign his high office, and even his life, rather than gratify the officious inquiries of the Governor.” In refusing to make a full, free, and voluntary “confession,” Gabriel deprived posterity of his perspective on the event that bears his name.
Nat Turner, by contrast, freely and voluntarily confessed his role as mastermind of the 1831 uprising and offered a detailed account of the conspiracy from the perspective of the rebel leader. Working through a white recorder, Turner used the vehicle of the “confessions” to impose his prophetic voice on the narrative of the event. In doing so, he blurred the line between slave narrative and enslavers’ public record.
Turner’s Confession to Thomas Gray
Thomas Ruffin Gray, an enterprising white Southampton County lawyer, assumed the task of recording Turner’s confessions. Gray was born in 1800, the same year as Turner. Though their families worked the same Southampton County soil, their birthrights could not have been more different. Gray grew up in a wealthy family with deep roots in Southampton County and powerful connections in local, state, and federal politics. With the help of his father, Gray acquired extensive holdings in land and enslaved people. With little explanation, he then sold his farmland and most of his enslaved laborers, moved to the county seat of Jerusalem, and embarked on a career in law.
Gray met with Turner at the jail on November 1, introduced the Confessions as evidence at Turner’s trial on November 5, and secured a copyright for his pamphlet on November 10, the day before Turner was hanged. In a prefatory note “To the Public,” Gray spelled out his aims. Public curiosity was “at a stretch,” he said, to understand the motives behind the rebellion. Gray hoped to replace “a thousand idle, exaggerated and mischievous reports” with a single, authoritative account of the event. To do so, he had to establish that the confession was voluntary, that the transcript was accurate, and that Turner was telling the truth. Gray attached a sworn statement signed by six members of the county court, certifying that the confessions were read to Turner in their presence and that Turner “acknowledged the same to be full, free, and voluntary.” Gray verified that he recorded the confessions of Turner “with little or no variation, from his own words.” As for the sincerity and truthfulness of the prisoner, Gray said he cross-examined Turner and found his statement corroborated by the confessions of other prisoners and other circumstances.
Gray depicted Turner as an exceptional figure, distinguished from his followers by his honesty, his commanding intelligence, and his firm belief in the righteousness of his cause. “He makes no attempt (as all the other insurgents who were examined did,) to exculpate himself, but frankly acknowledges his full participation in all the guilt of the transaction,” he wrote. To those who thought Turner “ignorant,” Gray responded: “He certainly never had the advantages of education, but he can read and write, (it was taught to him by his parents,) and for natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, is surpassed by few men I have seen.”
Gray disputed any suggestion that Turner acted out of base motives, “that his object was to murder and rob for the purpose of obtaining money to make his escape. It is notorious, that he was never known to have a dollar in his life; to swear an oath; or drink a drop of spirits.” Nor was Turner motivated by “revenge or sudden anger.” Turner’s confessions made clear that he viewed Joseph Travis as “a kind master” against whom he had no special grievance. Gray attributed the insurrection to religious enthusiasm and fanaticism of a mind “warped and perverted by the influence of early impressions.” That Turner was every bit the madman he appeared to be, Gray had little doubt. “He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably.”
Turner’s narrative—presented, Gray insisted, “with little or no variation, from his own words”—gave an autobiographical history of the “late insurrection” and the motives behind it. A series of incidents, beginning in childhood, confirmed Turner in the belief that he was “intended for some great purpose” and that he would “surely be a prophet.” His father and mother “strengthened him” in this belief, as did his grandmother, “who was very religious, his master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house.”
Taught to read and write at an early age, Turner devoted himself to prayer and study and, over time, separated himself from society with his fellow enslaved laborers. One day while praying at his plow, the same Spirit “that spoke to the prophets in former days” spoke directly to him: “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” This he interpreted as a sign from God that his “great purpose” would soon be revealed.
Not long afterward, in 1825, Turner had a second vision: “I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled, and the blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it’.” This spirit confronted Turner again in May 1828: “
I heard a loud noise in the heavens and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.”
Turner was instructed to await the appearance of a sign in the heavens before communicating his “great work” to any others. An eclipse of the sun in February 1831 inspired Turner to confide in four fellow enslaved men: Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. “It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th July last,” Turner noted. Yet, when Turner fell ill, the date passed without action. Finally, when the sign appeared again late in August, Turner decided they could not wait longer.
Gray, who claimed to have said little during Turner’s narration, asked Turner at one point if he did not find himself “mistaken” now that the deeds to which he had been called by the spirit had ended in calamity. Turner’s reported answer: “Was not Christ crucified?”
The pamphlet created a powerful, enduring image of Turner narrating his own story as Gray looked on in horror: “The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiendlike face when excited by the enthusiasm, still bearing the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”
Virginia newspapers helped to promote and publicize the Confessions of Nat Turner. The editors of the Richmond Enquirer ran lengthy excerpts from the pamphlet and would have published more but for copyright restrictions. “One confession of Nat Turner is important,” they wrote. “He was asked, ‘if he knew of any extensive or concerted plan. His answer was, I do not.'” Declaring the pamphlet “deeply interesting,” the editors of the Enquirer nevertheless questioned its veracity and Gray’s objectivity. The “eloquently and classically expressed” confession attributed to Turner appeared to be “calculated to cast some doubt over the authenticity of the narrative, and to give the Bandit a character for intelligence which he does not deserve, and ought not to have received.”
Still, the Enquirer saw the pamphlet as a useful weapon against northern abolitionists. “It ought to teach [William Lloyd] Garrison and the other fanatics of the North how they meddle with these weak wretches.” Garrison, for his part, read the Confessions of Nat Turner as a testimonial to the heroic stature of Turner. Gray’s pamphlet, he wrote, would “only serve to rouse up other black leaders and cause other insurrections, by creating among blacks admiration for the character Nat, and a deep undying sympathy for his cause.”
Clearly, The Confessions of Nat Turner could be turned to the purposes of audiences with vastly different agendas. It gave enslavers and their sympathizers a plausible explanation for the uprising, one that placed the blame on a single charismatic leader acting under extraordinary conditions. Likewise, it gave northern abolitionists a Black hero and a martyr for a burgeoning movement. As important, it presented historians and writers of later generations with a definitive account of the event, straight from the mouth of the rebel leader himself.
The Confessions, Styron, and Beyond
Tens of thousands of Americans have come to know the event only through William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron fictionalized a historic character, Nat Turner, but nevertheless remained faithful to the known facts, most of which came from the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner. For his effort, he received the 1968 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, but there was also an angry backlash from Black readers who accused Styron, a white southern male whose grandmother had been an enslaver, of racism, especially in his depiction of Turner’s lust for and killing of a white woman.
If Styron’s novel inspired lay readers to wonder about Turner, it also had a profound impact on scholarship, inspiring an outpouring of books, articles, and document collections that stress the multiplicity of perspectives on the event. Ironically, The Confessions of Nat Turner also sparked renewed interest in the original Confessions of Nat Turner. Historians and literary critics subjected the pamphlet to close scrutiny and, in several provocative and pathbreaking studies, suggested radically new possibilities for interpretation.
In the first of several book-length studies to date—The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, and Politics in Sixties America (1992)—Albert E. Stone credited Styron with leading twentieth-century readers back to the “original scene” of the rebellion and, in effect, resurrecting “the single most powerful narrative circulating in Nat Turner’s own day and aftermath.” The power of the Confessions of Nat Turner, Stone suggested, lay in its articulation of “a basic story,” to which all subsequent narratives returned. Stone cautioned, however, against viewing the Confessions of Nat Turner as “a fixed pole of reference, setting terms for critical discourse and settling questions of historical fact or interpretation.” Each retelling of the story represented a new “social transaction” in which Gray’s text figured as one more or less authoritative voice.
Efforts to canonize the original Confessions of Nat Turner as a great work of American literature in the 1990s reflected its rising stature within the academy. In To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993), literary critic Eric Sundquist argued that the idea of a “conspiracy” between Gray and Turner obscured “the intricate antagonism between slave’s voice and master’s voice that the language and formal structure of the ‘Confessions’ makes evident.” Sundquist characterized the Confessions of Nat Turner as more of a literary “collaboration” that—like slavery itself—could be read from the dominant perspective of the enslaver or from the subversive perspective of the enslaved person. Scholarly critics of the post-Styron era, he noted, had tended to emphasize the “unreliability” of Gray’s narrative rather than the “unique revelatory powers of Nat’s story.”
Sundquist, by contrast, argued for “the possibility that Nat Turner’s voice—and hence his thought, his vision, and his leadership—remains strongly present in the historical ‘text’ that may be reconstructed from the accounts of his revolt and his published document.” Sundquist acknowledged his own scholarly agenda in recovering Turner’s voice. With Turner firmly established as author of the Confessions of Nat Turner and his radical commentary on race and American democracy fully explicated, the text could assume its rightful place in the literary canon of the American Renaissance. “Indeed,” Sundquist wrote, “given its formative role in the course of African American cultural history and both anti- and proslavery argument, it is hard to imagine why Turner’s ‘Confessions’ should not be accorded the same attention granted, say, Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ or Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience.'”
The growing emphasis on Turner as an author in control of his own Confessions of Nat Turner drew a sharp rebuke from legal historian Daniel S. Fabricant, who read the document as a legal and literary instrument of repression. Any suggestion of a voluntary “collaboration” between Turner, a Black slave accused of insurrection, and Gray, a white lawyer with “a keen interest in maintaining the Southern social order,” struck Fabricant—a practicing lawyer—as naive and dangerously misleading.
In an essay titled “Thomas R. Gray and William Styron: Finally, A Critical Look at the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner,” published in the American Journal of Legal History (1993), Fabricant theorized that most scholars accepted the Confessions of Nat Turner at face value despite seemingly obvious reasons for doubting its veracity because they had an enormous literary-historical stake in the authentication of the Gray-Turner narrative. “Reluctance to probe Gray’s work,” he wrote, “may reflect the belief that criticism would necessarily call into question the veracity of the narrative he attributes to Nat, and the validity of much of what has come to be accepted as Nat’s life story and his legacy as one of the earliest and most important black-American revolutionary figures.”
Fabricant himself represented the Confessions of Nat Turner as the work of a “white Southern racist” dedicated to “the political, social, and economic interests of the Southern slaveocracy.” He concluded that Gray’s pamphlet revealed a great deal more about “the systematic victimization of blacks that was carried out under the guise of law and justice in early nineteenth-century Virginia” than it revealed about the enigmatic figure of Nat Turner.
Without the literary-historical controversy surrounding Styron’s novel, however, the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner most likely would not be enjoying this scholarly renaissance. Styron, who died in 2006, recognized the cottage industry he had spurred as an ironic consequence of his own “meditation on history.”