Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
- Tony Horwitz
- Henry Holt
- 384 pp.
- November 4, 2011
How one man’s determination to make a difference in the struggle to eliminate slavery went disastrously wrong.
Reviewed by Clyde Linsley
The enduring public image of John Brown probably most closely resembles the image that appears on the mural in the Kansas State House: a tall, commanding firebrand with a long, gray beard and eyes that blaze with fury as he leads a motley band of irregulars. It is an arresting image and, as far as it goes, an accurate one. In this meticulously reported book, author Tony Horwitz reveals a more complicated man. You may still find Brown frightening ― antebellum Southern matrons used him as a kind of bogeyman to scare their children into obedience ― but you will also have a much more nuanced impression of the man. If nothing else, you’ll find it easier to understand why his name became a rallying cry for the abolitionist cause.
Puritans have had a bad rap in this country for a long time, and John Brown was the quintessential Puritan. New England born, from a long line of hard-nosed moralists, he seems never to have been afflicted by self-doubt or moral uncertainty, and slavery was the moral issue that most inflamed his passion.
His hatred of slavery, which was by no means universal, even in New England, seems to have been genuine. His little band of insurgents at Harpers Ferry included both free black men and escaped slaves, whom he treated with courtesy and respect. Indeed, even his little group of (presumably) pro-slavery hostages in the federal armory seems to have been treated with respect.
Brown’s mission, of course, was doomed to failure, probably from the beginning. At one point, Horwitz contrasts Brown’s failed attempt to strike a blow against slavery with the ultimately successful efforts of Abraham Lincoln, noting that “Lincoln was a self-questioning man; unlike Brown, he was willing to reconsider his views when they butted against circumstance.” In fact, one of Brown’s sons warned the others against following the old man to Harpers Ferry. “I said to the boys before they left: ‘You know father. You know he will dally till he is trapped.”
The same son asserted that the purpose of the Harpers Ferry raid was not so much to free slaves or to create insurrection but “to strike terror ― to make agitation.” In that task, John Brown probably succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
It was a long and winding road that led John Brown and his band to the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, and Horwitz follows him diligently for the entire distance (even to the extent of hiking the same route that Brown and his little band took from the hideout on a Pennsylvania farm to the armory at Harpers Ferry ― under similar, wintry conditions). Horwitz is not an academic biographer. A Pulitzer Prize winner for national reporting and author of several best sellers, he employs shoe leather in addition to brainpower in an effort to re-create the people he writes about and the conditions under which they lived.
After moving to Kansas, in the wake of a string of disastrous business ventures, Brown’s interest turned toward fighting the pro-slavery irregulars who were attempting to prevent the territory from entering the union as a free state. A man with enormous force of will and great influence over men, he led a band of anti-slavery irregulars, contributing his share of bloodshed for the opposition.
Still, he longed to make a greater difference in the struggle to eliminate slavery, and he began seeking a suitable target for taking the struggle to “Africa,” his term for the Southern slave states. He read extensively, pored over maps and apparently concluded that a successful taking of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry would sow the seeds of a slave rebellion that would overthrow Southern state governments and establish a new egalitarian regime. He had even written his own “preliminary” Constitution for this new regime.
Looking back from a distance of 150 years, it is difficult to imagine that Brown’s fanciful plan could have succeeded, or that anyone would follow him on this disastrous path. But the fact is that his band included people from all walks of life (including several of his surviving adult children), white and black, escaped slaves and free black men.
Few shared his passion for abolition and racial equality; fewer still agreed with his tactics, but they followed him. Those who survived the federal standoff (a few were never caught) went bravely to the gallows with “Captain” Brown, once all the legal complications were finally sorted out.
Interestingly, Brown seemed to beget respect ― in some cases admiration ― even from those who most detested the man and everything he represented. Even old Edmund Ruffin, the pro-slavery firebrand from South Carolina (who later helped fire the first shots on Fort Sumter) praised Brown’s courage on the gallows. John Wilkes Booth, who was also present at Brown’s execution, referred to Brown as a traitor but also called him “the grandest character of this century.”
Horwitz has done a masterful job of illuminating a major incident in American history. He covers not only the events of that aborted insurrection but the prelude and the aftermath ― not only the political outcome but the personal effects on nearly all the major players in the drama. So much has changed in American life since the Civil War that it is difficult for contemporary readers to make an imaginative leap into that antebellum milieu. Horwitz has done the job about as well as it can be done.
Clyde Linsley is the author of Death of a Mill Girl, Saving Louisa and Die Like a Hero, set in antebellum America.