The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.

Author: Thomas R. Gray  | Date: 1831

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Thomas R. Gray 1831

Insurrection in Virginia


Everything connected with this sad affair was wrapt in mystery until Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout our widely extended empire, was captured.

Since his confinement, by permission of the jailer I have had ready access to him; and, finding that he was willing to make a full and free confession of the origin, progress, and consummation of the insurrectory [s/c] movements of the slaves, of which he was the contriver and head, I determined, for the gratification of public curiosity, to commit his statements to writing, and publish them, with little or no variation from his own words.

Nat has survived all his followers, and the gallows will speedily close his career. His own account of the conspiracy is submitted to the public without comment. It reads an awful, and it is hoped a useful, lesson as to the operations of a mind like his, endeavoring to grapple with things beyond its reach,—how it first became bewildered and confounded, and finally corrupted and led to the conception and perpetration of the most atrocious and heart-rending deeds.

If Nat’s statements can be relied on, the insurrection in this county was entirely local, and his designs confided but to a few, and these in his immediate vicinity. It was not instigated by motives of revenge or sudden anger, but the result of long deliberation and a settled purpose of mind—the offspring of gloomy fanaticism acting upon materials but too well prepared for such impressions:

[Turner:] "Having arrived to man’s estate, and hearing the Scriptures commented on at meetings, I was struck with that particular passage which says, ’Seek ye the kingdom of heaven, and all things shall be added unto you.’ I reflected much on this passage, and prayed daily for light on this subject. As I was praying one day at my plough, the Spirit spoke to me, saying, ’Seek ye the kingdom of heaven, and all things shall be added unto you.’"

Question: "What do you mean by ’the Spirit’?"

Answer: "The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days. About this time I was placed under an overseer, from whom I ran away, and, after remaining in the woods thirty days, I returned, to the astonishment of the Negroes on the plantation, who thought I had made my escape to some other part of the country, as my father had done before. But the reason of my return was, that 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. And the Negroes found fault, and murmured against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision, and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened; the thunder rolled in the heavens, and 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 bear it.’

"I now withdrew myself, as much as my situation would permit, from the intercourse of my fellow servants for the avowed purpose of serving the Spirit more fully. [Turner recounted seeing visions and supernatural portents.] And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me; for as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew . . . it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great joy of judgment was at hand. And on the 12th of 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."

Question: "Do you not find yourself mistaken now?"

Answer: "Was not Christ crucified? Since the commencement of 1830 I had been living with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment of me. On Saturday evening, the 20th of August, it was agreed between Henry, Hark, and myself to prepare a dinner the next day for the men we expected, and then to concert a plan as we had not yet determined on any. Hark, on the following morning, brought a pig, and Henry brandy; and, being joined by Sam, Nelson, Will, and Jack, they prepared in the woods a dinner, where, about three o’clock, I joined them. . . . I saluted them on coming up, and asked Will how came he there. He answered, his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him. I asked him if he thought to obtain it. He said he would, or lose his life."

We will not go into the horrible details of the various massacres, but only make one or two extracts, to show the spirit and feelings of Turner:

"I proceeded to Mr. Levi Waller’s, two or three miles distant [from Captain Newit Harris’s]. I took my station in the rear, and, as it was my object to carry terror and devastation wherever we went, I placed fifteen or twenty of the best armed and most to be relied on in front, who generally approached the houses as fast as their horses could run. This was for two purposes—to prevent their escape and strike terror to the inhabitants. On this account I never got to the houses, after leaving Mrs. Whitehead’s, until the murders were committed, except in one case. I sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed; viewed the mangled bodies, as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims. Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. William Williams’s, having killed him and two little boys that were there. While engaged in this, Mrs. Williams fled and got some distance from the house, but she was pursued, overtaken, and compelled to get up behind, one of the company, who brought her back, and, after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead.

"The white men pursued and fired on us several times. Hark had his horse shot under him, and I caught another for him as it was running by me; five or six of my men were wounded, but none left on the field. Finding myself defeated here, I instantly determined to go through a private way, and cross the Nottoway River at the Cypress Bridge, three miles below Jerusalem, and attack that place in the rear, as I expected they would look for me on the other road, and I had a great desire to get there to procure arms and ammunition. After going a short distance in this private way, accompanied by about twenty men, I overtook two or three, who told me the others were dispersed in every direction.

"On this I gave up all hope for the present; and on Thursday night, after having supplied myself with provisions from Mr. Travis’s, I scratched a hole under a pile of fence-rails in a field, where I concealed myself for six weeks, never leaving my hiding-place but for a few minutes in the dead of the night to get water, which was very near. Thinking by this time I could venture out, I began to go about in the night, and eavesdrop the houses in the neighborhood; pursuing this course for about a fortnight, and gathering little or no intelligence, afraid of speaking to any human being, and returning every morning to my cave before the dawn of day.

"I know not how long I might have led this life if accident had not betrayed me. A dog in the neighborhood, passing by my hiding-place one night while I was out, was attracted by some meat I had in my cave, and crawled in and stole it, and was coming out just as I returned. A few nights after, two Negroes having started to go hunting with the same dog, and passed that way, the dog again came to the place, and, having just gone out to walk about, discovered me and barked; on which, thinking myself discovered, I spoke to them to beg concealment. On making myself known, they fled from me. Knowing then they would betray me, I immediately left my hiding-place and was pursued almost incessantly, until I was taken, a fortnight afterwards, by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, in a little hole I had dug out with my sword, for the purpose of concealment, under the top of a fallen tree.

"I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me."

Mr. Gray asked him if he knew of any extensive or concerted plan. His answer was:

"I do not."

He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably. On other subjects he possesses an uncommon share of intelligence, with a mind capable of attaining anything, but warped and perverted by the influence of early impressions. He is below the ordinary stature, though strong and active, having the true Negro face, every feature of which is strongly marked.

I shall not attempt to describe the effect of his narrative, as told and commented on by himself, in the condemned hole of the prison—the calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions; the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of 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.

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Chicago: Thomas R. Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., ed. Thomas R. Gray in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., edited by Thomas R. Gray, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Gray, TR, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from