Want to know more about the Southampton Rebellion? Here’s a reading list.

Writings about the 1831 revolt in Southampton County are necessarily a product of their time.

Here’s a list of some influential — or in some cases, just illuminating — works.

Two different “Confessions of Nat Turner,” 1831 and 1967. “Each raised critical questions of accuracy, authenticity, and community control over historical interpretations of the past,” notes Encyclopedia Virginia.

“The Confessions of Nat Turner,” 1831. Nat Turner’s own account, if the attorney who published it is to be believed. That attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray, interviewed him in the county jail from Nov. 1 through 3 and labeled the published pamphlet Turner’s story, “fully and voluntarily made.” Some historians, having analyzed the text, think the language and the account indeed are his, unfiltered. In any case, Gray copyrighted it the day after Turner’s execution and had it published within a week; it sold an estimated 50,000 copies in its first few months, historians say. Free download, University of Nebraska: TinyURL.com/Confessions1831

“The Confessions of Nat Turner,” William Styron’s bestselling 1967 novel, won a Pulitzer Prize. It was controversial, with supporters and detractors both Black and white. In this fictionalized autobiographical narrative, Styron — a Newport News native and a white man — for example attributed Turner’s violence in part to lust for white women, as some historians also had done.


“Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion: The Environment, The Event, the Effects” by Herbert Aptheker (1966) was the first full-length study of the revolt, its implications and slave society. Aptheker challenged long-established mainstream scholarship about the revolt, the individuality and identities of enslaved people, and more. (Now in a Dover Edition, 151 pp., $8.94.)

“The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion” by Stephen B. Oates (1975). Oates, a historian, reconstructs Turner’s life, the world he lived in, and the impact on the South of the revolt — for enslaved and free Blacks and for whites. The newer paperback edition includes the 1831 “Confessions.” (Harper Perennial, 224 pp., $15.99.)

“Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County” by David F. Allmendinger Jr. (2014). The historian mined public and private documents to look at the lives of key people. He shows Turner’s strategic resistance and long awareness that he and others would not be freed, and finds that the attacks focused on people who enslaved him and people like him, or who were officials supporting slavery. The attacks also aimed to spread terror in hopes of ending slavery. Allmendinger sees Turner’s jailhouse “Confessions” as having purposes for both Turner and the attorney who published it. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 416 pp., $32.95.)

“The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt” by Patrick H. Breen, a historian who focuses on Turner (2016). Among other things, Breen revises the standard narrative of the revolt; sees “slave identity” as being necessarily fluid in relation to whites’ authority; and challenges the view that lawyer Thomas Gray altered Turner’s “Confessions.” Breen also finds that slave owners altered accounts of the revolt to protect their property from whites’ retribution. (Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $33.95.)

“Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community” by Vanessa Holden, a historian (2021). Holden makes the case that women were crucial to the resistance that made the revolt possible and that carried on its memory, as well as practices of resistance to oppression. (University of Illinois Press, 268 pp., $22.95.)


Understanding the Gospel of Nat Turner,” by Patrick H. Breen for Smithsonian Magazine online (2016). In this essay, Breen notes that unlike most enslaved people, Turner was taught as a child to read; his Christian faith was deep, “and his Bible was the book that he knew intimately.”

“Cave where Nat Turner hid becomes vanishing legacy” by Lon Wagner, who as a Pilot reporter visited the site of the cave, and the people who own the land. (March 2000.)

“Nat Turner’s trail is personal quest” by Lon Wagner, visiting a descendant of survivors, Rick Francis. (March 2000.)

National Geographic, which facilitated the transfer of the skull that may have been Nat Turner’s, has multiple stories. One, a 2017 piece by Virginia scholar Kelley Fanto Deetz, considers the fate of his body. (Paywall.)

— Erica Smith and Ben Swenson