"The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.," as told to Thomas Gray, is accepted as the primary historical source document on the slave uprising in the predawn of Aug. 22, 1831, that left more than 50 whites dead. The pamphlet was the basis of novelist William Styron's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Assumed to be a Baptist preacher, Nat Turner has been referred to as a religious fanatic whose uprising, considered the only successful U.S. slave revolt, still garners regular mention in the news — particularly as the U.S. commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
In the original "Confessions," Gray asserts that he was Turner's defense attorney. Gray further claims that Turner's confession was read in open court and affirmed by Turner at his trial. As part of a five-year research effort, I located the 1831 Virginia trial transcripts.
I had argued with myself as to whether the trip was necessary. The original document is widely available online. But something inside me would not let me rest: If I could locate the trial transcripts, I must see them. A local newspaper story led me to a county official, who directed me to the court documents.
Courtland, Va., is a sleepy rural town with tree-lined streets. Even in 2011, it is not hard to imagine the citizens of what was then called Jerusalem, Va., going about their daily activities.
The countryside is littered with antebellum homes, some still in good repair. The building that housed Mahone's Tavern, once owned by the family of Confederate Gen. George Mahone, still stands. Age has collapsed others, and there are others that were the homes of slave owners — tiny buildings not bigger than slave shacks — that whisper a different song of slavery than the one we've been sung. They sing of a slavery where poor farmers who could barely feed their families owned slaves for status, trying to live up to a Southern ideal.
Standing in the courthouse, my hand touching the actual handwritten trial records, I was transported. An African-American woman like me would not have been allowed in the courthouse in 1831. Still, I could imagine the court clerk and the judges. I could imagine the shouting men and women outside the jailhouse demanding Turner's life.
It took me a moment to adjust to the script; though it was slow going, eventually it got easier. I began with Turner's trial. Immediately, I noticed that Thomas Gray was not Turner's attorney. Then I read that Turner pleaded innocent. There is no mention in the transcript of a confession or of Gray.
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 sharonewellfoster.com.