Nat Turner's Rebellion: Background information when reading American Histories

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American Histories

by John E. Wideman

American Histories by John E. Wideman X
American Histories by John E. Wideman
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 240 pages
    Mar 2019, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Nat Turner's Rebellion

This article relates to American Histories

Print Review

One of Wideman's most vivid stories is centered around the confession of Nat Turner, an enslaved Virginia man who organized a revolt in 1831, involving upwards of 50 other slaves. The rebels killed 51 people (mostly slave owners and their families). The rebellion began in the late hours of August 21 when Turner and his fellow slaves murdered their master, Benjamin Travis and his family. They then fanned out across the countryside, killing any white people they encountered. They marched to Jerusalem, Virginia where they hoped to take control of an armory, but the authorities had by then gotten word of the rebellion and it was quickly stanched. Turner and 16 of his co-conspirators hid out for roughly six weeks, intermittently clashing with local militias, before being captured on October 30. Turner and 56 of his co-conspirators were found guilty of "conspiring to rebel and make insurrection" on November 5, 1831 and executed on November 11.

Depiction of Nat Turner Rebellion Turner was a deeply religious man and believed that God had spoken to him as he had to the prophets in the Bible. Turner believed he was "ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty," and that he had seen a vision of "whites and blacks engaged in battle." The rebellion was largely a result of his interpretation of God's message – that he should "fight against the Serpent." Turner also took the 1831 solar eclipse as a cosmic sign that the time to revolt had come.

Wideman takes Turner's real-life confession to his defense attorney Thomas Gray as the springboard for his story. Gray published Turner's confessions as a book titled The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Despite being Turner's attorney, Gray made no effort to portray his client in a positive light by toning down the violence in his account and scholars have questioned the veracity of the published version.

In the South, the response to the rebellion was swift and harsh. Roving bands of white vigilantes perpetrated acts of violence against slaves who had nothing to do with Turner, and state legislatures enacted harsher laws intended to outlaw the education of and restrict the movements of slaves, making further rebellion more difficult. There were numerous slave uprisings in the decades leading up to the Civil War, including the Louisiana Revolt and the raid on Harper's Ferry, but Turner's revolt was one of the most dramatic and largest in scale, both in terms of number of participants and fatalities.

19th Century woodcut depiction of the Nat Turner Rebellion from U.S. Library of Congress

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to American Histories. It originally ran in April 2018 and has been updated for the March 2019 paperback edition.

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