The Truth About Nat Turner

On the 180th anniversary of the slave revolt, this author says his "Confessions" were a lie.

An engraving depicting the Horrid Massacre in Virginia duringNat Turner's Rebellion, circa 1831. (Getty Images)
An engraving depicting the Horrid Massacre in Virginia duringNat Turner's Rebellion, circa 1831. (Getty Images)

I was confused. I read it again, searching for Gray’s name, searching for some mention of Turner’s confession. But there was no confession.

My reaction surprised me: I fluctuated between confusion, anger, disappointment, sadness and even fear. I felt betrayed. We have been taught to trust the transcribed primary-source documents, like trusting the word of a parent or a priest.

I was filled with questions. What other historical “truth” that I accepted was really fiction? If Gray’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was not true, then what had actually happened? Who was Nat Turner, really?

That afternoon of discovery led me to other revelations, like the roles played by a Virginia congressman and a prosecution witness, Levi Waller, in Turner’s trial.

There were dozens of other slave trials related to Turner’s revolt. Rep. James Trezvant sat as a judge at most of them, including Turner’s trial — though his name is excluded as judge in Gray’s pamphlet. Trezvant fed stories of the uprising to newspapers, controlling the spin, and soon Turner’s infamy spread far and wide — he became a household name.

Southerners reacted with fear and anger. It is estimated that hundreds of slaves and freemen were murdered by whites in the wake of the uprising. The severed heads of some were placed on poles as a warning. (The place of the impalement still bears the name Blackhead Signpost Road.)

Waller was a poor farmer, well-known for his illegal still. A self-proclaimed eyewitness, he testified at several of the slave trials. Though his testimony appeared to change at each trial, his evidence resulted in the deaths of many slaves. His story seemed to change each time he testified — finally, it appears that he botched things at Turner’s trial as abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison kept close watch.

In the face of Southern anger, abolitionists like Garrison opined that slavery’s chickens had finally come home to roost. Garrison reported on Turner’s revolt and, no doubt, followed developments in the related slave trials.

What I found puts everything we believe about Nat Turner and what happened in the uprising in question. It appears that sometimes history is fiction, and there is more truth in novels. We have been misled by a 180-year-old lie. This is an American story. It is time the truth was told.

On the 180th anniversary of the uprising and his death, perhaps it is time Nat Turner finally had his day in court.

Sharon Ewell Foster is author of The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I: The Witnesses, published this month. She is a speaker and author of seven previous books. Contact her on Facebook or at

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