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The confessions of Nat Turner.


Students should understand

* Nat Turner led the bloodiest slave revolt in United States history;

* slavery existed in the U.S. from the founding of the American Colonies until the end of the American Civil War in 1865.


Tell students to imagine themselves as slaves who are contemplating escape. Ask: "Would you risk your life and the lives of your family members to escape slavery?" Explain.


The slave trade became an important and profitable commercial venture during the European settlement of the Americas. In all, about 12 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes and taken to the New World as slaves. The first slaves in the future United States were brought to Virginia in 1619.


CAUSE AND EFFECT: What were some of the consequences of Nat Turner's rebellion? (Nat Turner and 55 people accused of involvement in the rebellion were executed. Southern states passed laws that further restricted the movements of slaves. About 200 black people were killed in retaliation after the revolt.)

MAKING INFERENCES: What was unusual about Nat's first master, Benjamin Turner? (Benjamin Turner allowed slaves to attend church with whites--although they were required to sit separately. Most slave owners believed that blacks were naturally inferior beings. Studying the Bible helped Nat learn how to read, a skill denied to almost all slaves.)


POINT OF VIEW: Have students write a narrative from the point of view of a slave, slave trader, slave master, or abolitionist. Essays should include vivid language and detail.



* Time, continuity, and change: How slavery existed as a trade in the U.S. and how slaves were viewed as property,

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How Nat Turner, believing he had received divine inspiration, led a slave revolt that killed 55 people.



* Jacobs, Harriet, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Dover Pub., 2001). Grades 7-8.

* Greenberg, Kenneth (editor), The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents (Bedford/St. Martins, 1996). Grades 7-8.


* Slavery


* Nat Turner natturner/nat.html

* Slavery in America


As the 19th century began, the United States was only a few decades old. But already the country was beginning to be pulled apart by the issue of slavery. In the North, abolitionists attacked slavery as evil. But many Southerners claimed that slaves were vital to their farm-based economy. Besides, these Southerners said, slaves were happy where they were. In 1831, a troubled slave named Nat Turner helped to explode that myth.


Narrator A: Almost everything we know about Nat Turner comes from a confession he made to a white lawyer named Thomas R. Gray. The date was November 1, 1831; the place, Turner's jail cell. Ten days later, he would be executed.

Nat Turner (in his confession): Sir, to tell you why I am here, I need to go back to my infancy. Certain unforgettable circumstances laid the groundwork for the tragic events for which I am about to atone [pay] on the gallows.

Narrator A: On October 2, 1800, Nat Turner was born a slave on the Southampton County, Virginia, farm of Benjamin Turner. Nat's mother, Nancy, held on to her native African beliefs.

Nancy: Old Bridget, I tell you the boy has spirit vision. Just yesterday, he was speaking to the other children of things that happened before he was born!

Old Bridget: He is a special one. The markings on his head and body show he is designed for some great purpose.

Narrator A: Unusual for the time, Nat's master allows him to attend church with the whites. In the process of studying the Bible, Nat learns to read.

Old Bridget: He's been doing it from a young age, Master Ben. We gave him a book to keep him from crying--and he began sounding out the words!

Benjamin Turner: With such a restless mind, this boy will never be of use to anyone as a slave.

Narrator A: Others around the farm marvel at young Nat's remarkable gifts.


Narrator B: Nat embraces Christian beliefs with fervor. By the time he is a young man, he is astounding many of those around him with his preaching.

Nat Turner: And as I stood praying at my plow, the Holy Spirit spoke to me, saying, "Seek ye the Kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added [given] to you."

Female slave: God be praised. The Spirit speaks to him like the prophets in the old days.

Narrator B: But nothing shields Nat from the cruelties of bondage. When he is 21, he runs away from an overseer and hides in the woods. While there, he has a disturbing vision.

Spirit: Nat, what have you done?

Nat Turner: Oh, Spirit, I am bowed down by this heavy weight. What is the purpose I am born for? How can I fulfill my destiny as a slave?

Spirit: Seek not the things of this world but the Kingdom of Heaven. Return to your earthly master, and you will be shown your destiny.

Narrator B: When Turner returns to the farm after 30 days, the other slaves are amazed--or suspicious.

Male slave 1: Why do you think he came back? Do you think he really has those visions of his?

Male slave 2: Tell you one thing--if I had his gifts, no way would I serve any master.

Nat Turner (in his confession): With the revelations made known to me, I began to direct my attention to the purpose for which I was intended. And I had a vision of spirits in battle and thunder in the heavens, and the sun was darkened. And a voice said, "This is what you are called to bear."


Narrator C: As the years pass, Turner suffers the injustices of slavery. In 1822, his wife is sold away from him. Turner too is sold and, in 1830, is living on the farm of Joseph Travis. Again, the slaves there are amazed at his visions.

Nat Turner: The Spirit said certain signs in the heavens would tell me when I should begin my great work. Then I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with my own hand.

Hark Travis: Man, I know who those enemies are. They are the people who own us like property.

Nat Turner: One day we will crush the evil serpent. And the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Narrator C: In February 1831, there is an eclipse of the sun. Turner believes this is the sign he has been waiting for, and he begins to gather fellow rebels. On Monday, August 22, in the early hours before dawn, Turner and six others meet in the woods.

Nat Turner: Is your freedom dear to you?

Will: Yes, and I will have it or lose my life.

Hark Travis: We know what we have to do. Let's start at Master Joseph's house.

Narrator C: Soon, a group of them are standing in Joseph Travis's darkened bedroom. After Turner strikes Travis a glancing blow in his bed ...

Joseph Travis: What? Who is there? What's going on here?

Sally Travis (frightened): What's happening? Oh, no!

Joseph Travis: Sally, run for your life!

Narrator C: Will quickly kills Joseph and Sally Travis with an axe.

Nat Turner (in his confession): The murder of this family five in number was the work of a moment.

Narrator C: With this, the die is cast. The rebellious slaves now proceed from farmhouse to farmhouse, armed with axes and clubs and guns they pick up on the way. One by one, they kill all the white people they find, many still in their beds.


Narrator D: As the men make their fateful journey, their number grows to about 50. The death toll also mounts, to 55. Around midday, Turner and his men head to Jerusalem, the nearest town. Suddenly, the rebels encounter an armed militia [emergency army of citizens].

Hark Travis: We can't face them head-on with their rifles. Our people are getting hit, and others are scattering.

Nat Turner: Let's circle around the militia and go on to town.

Narrator D: But it's the beginning of the end for the rebellion. Turner can't reassemble a large enough force to march to Jerusalem. The remaining rebels spend two nights on the run. Now, militia are everywhere, and with each confrontation, more men desert Turner. Finally, he is alone.

Nat Turner (in his confession): At this I gave up all hope for the present. [On Thursday night, after getting provisions [food and other supplies] from Mr. Travis's, I scratched a hole under a pile of fence rails in a field, where I concealed myself.


Narrator E: While Turner hides, news of his rebellion causes hysteria in the countryside.

Virginia man: They say that an army of 500 slaves is marching out of the swamps right now, ready to butcher us all.

Reporter (in his newspaper article): It is believed that all the brigands [bandits] were slaves--and most, if not all of them, the property of kind and indulgent masters.

Narrator E: On October 30, a white man named Benjamin Phipps finds Turner still hiding near the Travis farm. Phipps takes the runaway slave into custody at gunpoint. Turner is soon hauled before a judge.

Judge Jeremiah Cobb: Let the prisoner rise. Do you have anything to say for yourself?

Nat Turner: I plead not guilty because I do not feel guilty. I only did what I was destined to do.

Cobb: Your hands are stained with the blood of the innocent, and the blood of a master. The judgment of this court is that you will be hung by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead!

Narrator E: In jail, Turner makes his confession to Thomas R. Gray.

Nat Turner (in his confession): The beliefs I had from the beginning--even now, helpless and forsaken as I am, I cannot rid myself of them. Now I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.

Narrator E: Turner is hanged on November 11. In all, Virginia executes at least 55 people in connection with the rebellion. But Turner's legend will only grow, and for years slaves and ex-slaves will speak in hushed tones of "Old Nat's war."


Although Turner's rebellion failed, its effects were later felt. Alarmed that other uprisings could follow, the South passed a number of harsh laws further restricting the movement of slaves. White mobs sought revenge by killing as many as 200 black people.

But the rebellion also caused Virginia to briefly consider ending slavery. Ultimately, it chose not to, thus setting the stage for the larger drama soon to come--the Civil War.


* Nat Turner: a slave

Nancy: Nat's mother

Old Bridget: Nat's grandmother

Benjamin Turner: Nat's first master

# Female slave Spirit: a vision that appears to

Nat Turner

# Male slaves 1 and 2

* Hark Travis: a slave of Joseph Travis

Will: a slave

Joseph Travis: Nat's second master

Sally Travis: Joseph's wife

# Virginia man


Judge Jeremiah Cobb: the judge at Turner's trial

Narrators A-E

* indicates major character #indicates fictional character

RELATED ARTICLE: Rebels and abolitionists time line.

As long as there was slavery, there were slaves who rebelled. Some whites, generally from the North, sought to abolish, or do away with slavery. They were called abolitionists.
1775 The Pennsylvania Abolition
 Society is established to protect
 fugitive (runaway) slaves
 and freed blacks.

1777 Vermont becomes the first U.S.
 territory to abolish slavery.

1800 The first major slave rebellion
 by Gabriel Prosser and 1,000
 slaves in Henrico County,
 Virginia, is quickly put down.

1822 Ex-slave Denmark Vesey's
 planned revolt in Charleston,
 South Carolina, is betrayed
 before it begins.

1831 William Lloyd Garrison of
 Boston starts his abolitionist
 newspaper, The Liberator.
 Groups such as Garrison's
 New England Anti-Slavery
 Society begin to spring up.

1845 Runaway slave Frederick
 Douglass prints his autobiography,
 a publishing

1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel
 Uncle Tom's Cabin stirs antislavery

1863 President Abraham Lincoln
 issues the Emancipation Proclamation,
 declaring freedom for
 slaves in the Confederacy.

Your Turn


Was Nat Turner crazy? If so, did slavery make him crazy? Who was more to blame for what happened, Turner or his masters?


* Write the letter of the correct answer on the line provided.

--16. What reasons did Southerners give to justify slavery?

A. Slaves were content with their lives.

B. Slavery was vital to the region's agriculture-based economy.

C. A and B are correct.

--17. What was unusual about Nat Turner's first master?

A. Hark Travis gave slaves the opportunity to purchase their freedom.

B. Benjamin Turner allowed young Nat to go to church with whites.

C. Thomas R. Gray taught Nat how to read.

--18. In the play, Nat Turner interpreted what natural phenomenon (natural event) as a divine signal?

A. a solar eclipse

B. a lunar eclipse

C. a meteor shower

--19. Why did Nat Turner's master perceive him to be useless as a slave?

A. His physical strength had intimidated his slave masters.

B. He was lazy.

C. His restless mind made it difficult for him to submit to the bondage of slavery.

--20. How did Nat Turner's rebellion lead to even greater violence?

A. The slave revolt sparked the outbreak of the Civil War.

B. White mobs killed as many as 200 innocent blacks in acts of revenge.

C. A and B are correct.


16. C

17. B

18. A

19. C

20. B



Circle the letter of the definition that best describes each vocabulary word.

1. abolitionist

A. a person who lived in the Northern states in the 18th and 19th centuries

B. a person who opposed Abraham Lincoln's re-election as U.S. President in 1864

C. a person who favored the elimination of slavery in the United States

2. brigand

A. a person who is a member of a brigade (military unit)

B. a person who lives by stealing; a bandit

C. the lowest rank of an officer in the British army

3. fugitive

A. someone who is running away, for example, from the law, enemies, or brutal treatment

B: someone who is unable to escape a situation or condition

C. someone who is hired by individuals or companies to investigate criminal acts

4. militia

A. a police force within the U.S. military

B. a group of soldiers who gather information about an enemy's armed forces

C. a group of armed citizens

5. provisions

A. supplies of food and other things

B. a short, well-known saying that offers advice

C. a high-ranking administrative officer of a university


1. C

2. B

3. A

4. C

5. A
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:American History Play
Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 13, 2004
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