Nat Turner is widely regarded as one of the most complex figures in American history and American literature. October marks the anniversary both of his birth and of his arrest as the leader of one of the United States’ most famous slave rebellions.
Nat Turner was born October 2, 1800 on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was deeply committed to his Christian faith and believed he received messages from God through visions and signs in nature. When he was in his early 20s, these signs led him to return to his master after an escape attempt. Similarly, a solar eclipse and an unusual atmospheric event are believed to have inspired his insurrection, which began on August 21, 1831.
Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of the bloodiest and most effective in American history. It ignited a culture of fear in Virginia that eventually spread to the rest of the South, and is said to have expedited the coming of the Civil War. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, however, many Southern states, including North Carolina, tightened restrictions on African Americans. Over the course of two days, dozens of whites were killed as Turner’s band of insurrectionists, which eventually numbered over fifty, moved systematically from plantation to plantation in Southampton County. Most of the rebels were executed along with countless other African Americans who were suspected, often without cause, of participating in the conspiracy. Nat Turner, though, eluded capture for over two months. He hid in the Dismal Swamp area and was discovered accidentally by a hunter on October 30. He surrendered peacefully.
The Confessions of Nat Turner appeared shortly after Turner’s capture. Published as the definitive account of the insurrection and its motivation, the “confession” remains shrouded in controversy. Thomas Gray, a lawyer, released the account, claiming that Turner had dictated the confessions to him and that there was little to no variation from the prisoner’s actual testimony. However, as a slaveholder mired in financial difficulty, Gray likely saw tremendous profit and propaganda potential in satiating the public’s thirst for knowledge about such an enigmatic figure. In addition, literary critics have consistently pointed to discrepancies in Turner’s language and tone throughout the document. They suggest that Turner and Gray’s agendas conflict consistently in the text and thus create the ambiguity that has characterized the document for over a century and a half.
The Confessions of Nat Turner is part of three collections on DocSouth: “North American Slave Narratives,” which includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920; “The Church and the Southern Black Community,” which presents a collected history of the way Southern African Americans experienced and transformed Protestant Christianity into the central institution of community life; and “The North Carolina Experience, Beginnings to 1940” collects a wide variety of print and manuscript materials that tell the story of the Tar Heel State.