"Midnight Rising" by renowned historian Tony Horwitz presents the riveting story of John Brown, whose attack on the U.S. armory in Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia might well have been the first salvo of the U.S. Civil War. Mr. Horwitz delivers a fresh perspective on one of 19th Century's most pivotal events in a way that is certain to reinvigorate the debate about Brown's legacy for many years to come. Exceptionally well researched and written, this thoroughly engaging book is destined to become a must-read for serious students of U.S. history.
Mr. Horwitz vivdly reconstructs the startingly different time in which Brown was born and raised. Often living a harsh frontier existence with few luxuries and beset by personal tragedy, Brown nonetheless cared deeply for his family and worked hard for their comfort in the steadfast belief that all were made equal before God. The fact of slavery's evil coexistence alongside free, industrious people deeply affected Brown, moving him to speak out against slavery and provide whatever assistance he could to the African- and Native American peoples he met.
Mr. Horwitz reminds us that in 1850s America the southern states were often able to impose their will, if not politically then by force. We learn that Brown first gained notoriety by fighting back against southern aggression in Kansas, whereupon his life changed forever as he moved underground to avoid arrest. As Brown subsequently spent much of the decade plotting his next, more ambitious move to take the offense and strike at the heart of the slave power, he came into contact with many of the leading progressives of the era including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Tubman. Mr. Horwitz shares how Brown's supporters admired his courageouness but differed with his tactical plans for the Harpers Ferry attack, which most believed to be foolhardy and doomed to failure.
As a historian, Mr. Horwitz breaks new ground when he argues convincingly that Brown is best understood as a Biblical Samson-like figure who sought to tear down the institution of slavery through an incredibly bold, self-conscious act of self-sacrifice. Mr. Horwitz explains that Brown's brazen foray into Harpers Ferry was not the work of a fanatic, terrorist or madman. Rather, by detailing the circumstances surrounding Brown's capture, trial and execution, Mr. Horwitz shows how Brown brilliantly parlayed the publicity about his death into a searing moral indictment of the slave system, ultimately leaving the south with little credible response but to secede from the union and engage in Civil War.
Throughout the book, Mr. Horwitz writes about the people who were swept up in these momentous events, thereby providing plenty of interest, drama and humanity to the narrative. Mr. Horwitz documents how financial hardships, mental illness and violent deaths on the battlefield severely tested Brown's long-suffering family especially as he descended down the path of guerilla warfare. Mr. Horwitz profiles Brown's recruits and reports how they and their loved ones fared, for better or worse, as a result of their adventures. The end result is an informative yet entertaining book that makes 19th century American history come alive for us today, in all its triumph, tragedy and controversy.
I highly recommend this outstanding book to everyone.
It's a commonplace that real history is much more interesting than what's taught in American schools, but the accuracy of the observation struck me anew as I read Tony Horwitz's book on John Brown and the Harpers Ferry raid. The rough outline of those events will be familiar to anyone who retains memories of high school history classes, where they're dutifully and rapidly treated as a precursor to the American Civil War. But it's the nuances of the situation that are truly fascinating. I'm tempted simply to repeat some of the more surprising nuggets of information here, but just as the reviewer of a comedy ought not spoil the good jokes, the reviewer of a popular history ought not spoil the good "factoids." Suffice it to say that Horwitz has the gift of any good popular historian: the ability to assemble the myriad details of the historical record into a generally coherent and compelling narrative.
I gather from other early reviews that Horwitz generally mixes his history with contemporary and personal observations, and that the absence of the latter from this book, which stays rooted in the nineteenth century, is a disappointment to some readers. That's fair enough, and it's certainly true that Midnight Rising is a straightforward historical narrative lacking individual voice. However, as a reader unfamiliar with Horwitz but interested in history, I admired the book for what it was. The author handles his large cast of characters (nineteen raiders and about as many uninvolved allies, to say nothing of those, from government officials to soldiers to ordinary residents, who fought against the raid) deftly, providing enough memorable personal detail to make each player stand out. The only exceptions are male members of John Brown's extended family. An underappreciated aspect of the raid is how much of a family affair it was, with four of Brown's sons and sons-in-law participating and a daughter and a daughter-in-law providing camouflage at the farm where the raiders lay in wait, while other of Brown's surviving children also figure into the story from their distant homes. Compared to their colorful father, the sons are hard to keep track of. But most of the men and women involved are easier to distinguish, and Horwitz characterizes them well enough that when some died violent and undignified deaths in the course of the raid, I was genuinely upset.
As with any historical narrative, there are blank spots where motivations and intentions are unknown. Horwitz's approach to these open questions (Brown's mental health, Brown's real intentions for Harpers Ferry) is to put forth the available evidence without reaching any conclusions, allowing readers to make up their own minds. I couldn't help focusing on the elements of tragic farce in Brown's life and behavior. He may not have been mentally ill in the most extreme sense of the term, but he was certainly driven, confident, and (over)ambitious. That the raid succeeded even briefly has more to do with government laxness than with strategic brilliance on his part, and its quick collapse once the residents of the village realized what was going on is a testament to Brown's poor planning. Some will argue that he had foreseen what would follow, a rushed trial and public response that treated his actions as something more than the fatal bungling they were, but given Brown's lifelong habit of making extravagant plans that he was unable to carry through, I think it's more likely that the martyrdom in which he so enthusiastically participated was, from his perspective, a happy accident.
But whatever John Brown was expecting when he led his men into Virginia that autumn night in 1859, what he achieved was a national sensation that, coupled with the election of Abraham Lincoln the following year, turned what was a latent conflict into an incipient one. It would be too much to claim that John Brown caused the American Civil War-- given the forces at work, some kind of conflict was inevitable-- but he brought it on more quickly, and with more force, than might otherwise have happened. As achievements go, inaugurating that bloodshed with a small-scale disaster of his own may not be high on the list, but in the hands of a gifted narrative historian, it does make for a remarkable story.
Tony Horwitz has written a thoroughly researched and eminently readable account of the life of one of history's most complicated and vexing characters. John Brown was a visionary hero ahead of his time. He was also a radical outlaw willing to match violence for violence and even take life in cold blood. He was also a seriously flawed human being whose inflexible nature and single-minded devotion to his cause and utter inability to manage business affairs left his wife and brood of children in near poverty and very likely imperiled his own mission. There is simply no way to reconcile this singularly complex figure into any of the neat packages history has tried to stuff him into - whether hero, madman or villain. Yet this fanatical hero-villain, in the course of a blundered raid, lit the spark that ended slavery and exploded the "Southern Way of Life".
After a brief prologue setting the stage for the raid on Harper's ferry, Horwitz returns to the beginning to trace what is known - and what Brown himself reported - of Brown's childhood and early life. Brown was raised by a strict Calvinist who espoused hard work, piety, strident punishment of sins, and the equality of all people, including blacks - a radical idea at the time, even among abolitionists. John, left motherless at age eight by his mother's death in childbirth, seems to have emulated his father in both temperament and action.
Early in this life, Brown "consecrated" himself to the cause of ending slavery, and he enlisted his wife and sons as a sort of independent army. While his business affairs careened up and down, Brown's passion, determination and independence brought him the attention - and financial support - of wealthy Abolitionist backers from Gerrit Smith to William Lloyd Garrison.
Brown's initial cause was keeping Kansas a free state during the fierce "Bleeding Kansas" period when both pro- and anti-slavery interests were pumping settlers into the new territory. Brown believed, rightly, that there was too little check on the pro-slavery forces who were using violence and intimidation to enforce their way. Brown came to believe that the non-violent response of the anti-slavery movement was inadequate, so in the middle of the night Brown, several of his sons and some allies abducted, killed and apparently mutilated six men believed to be important leaders of the pro-slavery faction. Brown and his allies both denied responsibility and claimed self-defense, but Horwitz dissects these defenses and concludes that the killings were likely carried out to inspire fear and deter future violence. Such an act could justifiably be labeled terrorism, but then, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. But regardless of the effect on Kansas, the effect on Brown's men was devastating. In addition to some physical wounds, some of the participants suffered mental breakdowns and life-long impairment. Brown himself, however, was unscathed and ready to do further battle.
Following the massacre, Brown, now an outlaw and a wanted man, retreated back east where he carried on his crusade in various forms while planning his attack on "Africa", Brown's code word for the slave-holding South. While imploring money from his benefactors and recruiting soldiers to his cause, Brown spoke of raids along the Southern border to free slaves (who would, it was believed, join Brown's band), strike fear into the hearts of slave owners, and make slave holding economically unviable. But little by little, through both coded references and open admission, Brown began to make it clear that something bigger was in the works, although what the something was, and what was the ultimate aim, remained rather muddy even as Brown and his rag-tag band of diverse followers began the march on Harper's Ferry.
Often throughout his life, Brown proclaimed that he received his orders from God. If that were true, then God is a pretty lousy general. Horwitz presents a masterful portrayal of the raid on Harper's Ferry, the bungling involved, the sheer luck that it succeeded as well as it did, and the tragedy along the way. Inadequate men, lack of communication and poor coordination of supplies hampered efforts from the beginning. An early and unintended shooting of a free black man (ironically, by white men seeking to liberate blacks, as Horwitz points out) was an ill omen and aroused the anger of the town. Brown failed to take into account the arrival of a train on the bridge to Harper's Ferry, and he wildly underestimated the support he would receive from both the townsfolk and the freed slaves (what few slaves he actually freed, that is). Furthermore, even once he captured the arsenal, Brown failed to use any of the federal arms or ammunition.
But as big a failure as the raid seemed to be, the aftermath of the raid brought much of the success Brown appeared to be seeking. Brown comported himself with composed dignity and did not flinch at the prospect of death. He willingly, even eagerly, met and spoke with all who sought him out (except his own wife, that is), especially pro-slavery advocates. Through inspired and eloquent speeches, writings and conversations, Brown sought to propound his vision of a just and equal society without the evils of slavery and oppression. He sought to make Southerners see the error of their ways and convert to Abolition. He largely failed on that count, but he did impress his opponents with his courage and conviction. He also appealed to Northern Abolitionists to bring pressure to bear against the iniquity of slavery.
Horwitz speculates - compellingly - that this platform to speak and be heard is what lay beneath the raid all along. Brown could never have expected to hold Harper's Ferry or free very many slaves. And ultimately, despite his violent acts, Brown was too conflicted and ambivalent about using violence to end slavery. Brown claimed not to want to take life, but the one life he could offer was his own. Through his martyrdom, Brown hoped to achieve what he and his meager band of followers could not otherwise achieve. And through is dignity and courage in his final days and his clarion call to the decency of all humans, he did in fact, in many ways, achieve what his violence did not.
Wrestling with the morality of the life of John Brown is no easy task. Is violence ever acceptable, even to end a great injustice? What about the men Brown lured into his fanatical plot without fully informing them of his plans - was it right to make martyrs of them too? What about free black porter Heyward Shepherd and the other innocent victims? And what right did Brown have to make his wife a widow and leave his children fatherless? Furthermore, this wrestling has to take into account the conditions and realities of Brown's time. It's easy now to point to the actual end of slavery as justification, but Brown had no way of knowing when or if slavery might end or how his actions might affect those bound in slavery. Following Brown's raid, life for slaves got a good deal harder, as slave owners became even more fearful of rebellion. Had the Civil War not ended slavery, Brown's actions would have been no favor to blacks bound in that "peculiar institution".
These issues and many more will never be neat and clean, but Horwitz does an excellent job of wrestling with them. Horwitz rules out the madman option, but wavers somewhat between the hero and villain, ultimately landing on the hero side. However, he pulls no punches and makes no attempt to tidy up history or present Brown as an unblemished hero. Horwitz closely examines the historical facts, dissects them this way and that, and paints a painfully honest and detailed portrait of villain-hero John Brown against the ugly backdrop of the times in which he lived. Highly recommended for all adults as well as kids who are mature enough and ready to wrestle with weighty, ambiguous moral issues.
on December 7, 2011
It's easier to enjoy a book when you can walk around looking at the scenes described in Midnight Rising. I loved this book and found it absorbing all the way through.
As someone who attended elementary school in the 1950s in northern Virginia and was taught the KKK did good works and John Brown was a crazy man and a traitor, I appreciated the care taken by the author to set the story straight. A very fine writer indeed.
Published in October 2011 by Macmillan Audio
Read by Daniel Oreskes
Duration: 11 hours, 9 minutes
John Brown (1800-1859) is one of those well-known yet elusive figures in history. He is literally in all of the American history books, but most people know almost nothing about him except for a few headline snippets like "Bleeding Kansas" and "Harper's Ferry" and "Slave Revolt." More knowledgeable readers may remember he used a sword to kill pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and worked with several prominent anti-slavery figures before his raid into Harpers Ferry, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and that his raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry was an utter failure and undoubtedly proved that he was insane.
Or, was he? And, was the raid really a failure?
Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising is an excellent biography of John Brown as well a well-rounded look at the politics of slavery in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. I have studied the Civil War for years (and I must recommend Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic as well) and Brown always gets a cursory look (if any look at all) in most Civil War histories. If nothing else, Horwitz has shone a light on a most interesting life - the life of a man unwilling to bend on the issue of the inherent evil of slavery.
But, Horwitz has done more than that - he has also shone a light on the fragile nature of the political compromises that were brokered to paper over the cracks in America's political foundation - a foundation that John Brown completely shattered when his men stormed into Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.
Clearly Brown's attempt to spark a slave revolt totally failed. Most of his raiders were shot or executed. Brown's hurried trial was a farce ( he had 6 different defense attorneys in 5 days of trial! ), but Horwitz demonstrates that that time in prison awaiting trial, sentencing and execution allowed John Brown the legendary opponent of slavery to become John Brown the monster throughout the south or John Brown the martyr in some parts of the north. He became the focal point of public opinion. For example, here is a prophetic poem written in 1859 by Herman Melville called "The Portent":
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo John Brown)
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
Whether John Brown really intended to become "The meteor of the war" by allowing himself to be caught and put to death or if it just turned out that way...we will never know. Horwitz is not sure, either - he flirts with both possibilities. But, we can be certain that this event does not deserve the short shrift it often gets.
I was fascinated by the number of well-known personalities that ended up being involved with John Brown in one way or another. Brown knew Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. He tried to get Douglass and Tubman to participate in his raid. A number of famous personalities participated in the trial or the capture of John Brown, including Robert E. Lee, Thomas (soon to be) "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, John Wilkes Booth, and Edmund Ruffin (widely credited with having fired the first shot at Fort Sumter). Any man that is the nexus of so many interesting people is bound to have an interesting story and Horwitz tells Brown's story very well.
The audiobook is very well read by Daniel Oreskes whose deep, resonant voice adds a feeling of somberness and importance to this history. Oreskes actually developed different voices to read the various direct quotes in this history. Horwitz often lets the historical figures speak for themselves and this is enhanced by Oreskes.
On a lighter note, the audiobook begins and ends with a bit of music from the Battle Hymn of the Republic - here are some lyrics as a reminder:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
This song was more famous during the Civil War for these lyrics:
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3X)
His soul is marching on!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul's marching on!
He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord! (3X)
His soul is marching on!
Somebody has a sense of humor at Macmillan Audio.
on December 7, 2011
We all learned the story in U. S. history class. That in April 1861 the former Governor of Virginia secretly put together a group of conspirators while appointing himself as commander. He then led them in seizing the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry before the U. S. Government could defend it. He declared, "Blood will be flowing at Harper's Ferry before night". This group of conspirators then took over the works at Harpers Ferry as townspeople who wanted to remain part of the union cried treason. Before surrendering, federal troops burned the arsenal but not until after this "terrorist" group carried off thousands of federal guns and factory machines and tools. This former Governor and his fanatics thus started the civil war.
Opps.... Wrong date. Wrong story?
Sorry, just got confused as all above happened 18 months after John Brown, a religious fundamentalist who was passionately against slavery tried in 1859 to do the same thing as former Governor Wise. In fact it was the very same Governor Wise who lead the state's response to Brown's attack and rushed the trial resulting in the hanging of Brown for treason. (But then, of course, it was these abolitionist fanatics and "terrorists" who lit the spark that began the Civil War wasn't? Jefferson Davis while still a Senator used the Brown attack as grounds for Southerners to leave the Union.)
Tony Horwitz's new book, Midnight Rising presents the history and origins of John Brown and the anti slavery cause in clear even handed journalistic language. But the John Brown depicted by Horwitz is not a wild eyed fanatic but is more a misguided complex moralist, resolute, stoic individual, who became obsessed with ending slavery no matter the personal cost to himself and family who unfortunately had given up on non-violence. He sacrificed himself and a large part of his family in what had to look like a lost cause.
So it is one of history's ironic twists that just 18 months following Brown's treasonous attack the very people who captured and hung him for insurrection duplicated Brown's act as part of their own efforts to get reluctant Virginians to support secession and defend slavery. In this case John Brown was considered a northern terrorist and Governor Wise a Southern freedom fighter. This is just one of many interesting observations one can learn and take away from Horwitz's book. And this is what I love about a good history book that is well researched and is in the hands of a good story teller. The irony's of history.
I really was not going to read this at first because Horwitz's style in previous books is more personal where he tells the history while being part of the story. Midnight Rising is straight story telling except in the Prologue when he relates things to today's events and what drew him to the story. If you are interested in this event which Horwitz believes has been treated as a "speed bump" on the way to Civil War I am sure you will enjoy this well researched book.
on November 22, 2011
A noted black historian looked back on the historiography concerning John Brown's life, his murders, his kidnappings, his armed insurrection and his execution for treason against the state of Virginia. He noted that many historians concluded that Brown was insane and an impractical, if not a stupid, terrorist. What makes Brown impossible to understand, the historian noted, is also what makes Brown understandable to blacks. Brown was willing to risk his life and was willing to die to set blacks free from slavery. For John Brown, slavery was a war against blacks and it was a war that started along time before Brown himself was born.
Since the 1980s John Brown has become understandable. Stephen Oates' To Purge This Land With Blood and David S. Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights have reignited interest in Brown's life of violence. Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising: John Brown And The Raid That Sparked The Civil War describes John Brown as expanding his sense of self from childhood through his execution and his death. Indeed, Horwitz finds suspense in Brown's wrestling, and at times failing, to become a successful family man, a prosperous businessman, an industrious community member and an accepted authority in a faith community.
John Brown cannot be understood without the context of America from 1800 to 1860, an era when multiple American revolutions were happening: political, industrial, transportation, religious, agricultural and economic. Brown was caught up in them all. Horwitz concisely acknowledges the state of the Union during these decades and recognizes the national trends that are causing havoc in Brown's life. He moved through New England and made friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Frederick Douglass, a man who stole himself from slavery, counted John Brown as a friend. Several abolitionists throughout the North contributed to Brown chosen cause and efforts. His friends included several of the wealthiest men of the era. But, there were also bankers who dealt with his business failures.
In the early 1850s with nothing to inherit due to Brown's financial failings in the domestic international wool markets, his children moved to Kansas for a fresh start. In June 1855 John Brown, at the urging of his sons, travelled to Kansas in order to participate in Kansas' civil war. By early 1856 the city of Lawrence had been burned and its abolitionist citizens were left dead in its streets. On May 24 Brown and his sons travelled to nearby Pottawatomie Creek and late at night he directed the murder of five pro slavery settlers.
Furing January 1857, In an effort to aid the antislavery fight in Kansas, Franklin Sanborn, secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, introduced Brown to influential abolitionists in the Boston area. These acquaintances constituted themselves as the "Secret Six" who would fund Brown's lawlessness. By January 1858 Brown, with his sons and others rode into Missouri and attacked two homesteads, confiscated horses and wagons and stole eleven of the farmers' slaves. Brown and the raiders traveled eighty-two days, covered over a thousand miles, and to delivered the slaves to freedom in Canada. Within the next year, Brown would conceive a plan to steal and move Virginia's slaves into the Appalachian Mountains and then northward.
On July 3 1859 John Brown rented a farmhouse a few miles outside of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A member of his party began to reconnoiter the U.S. arsenal at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. During August, Brown and Frederick Douglass gathered together for a clandestine meeting at a rock quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Brown tried to convince Douglass to join him in a raid to Harpers Ferry and its environs. Douglass told Brown that the place was 'a perfect steel trap' and refused to become an accomplice.
On October 16 Brown with his raiders seized the armory at Harpers Ferry, removed slaves from nearby plantations and remained long enough to be trapped in the fire engine house. By October 18 he fell into the hands of the U.S. Army. The politicos in Washington D.C. also sensed a trap for themselves and turned Brown and the surviving raiders over to Virginia authorities. On November 2 a Virginia jury after a week of trial and forty-five minutes of deliberation declared John Brown guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection.
During the morning of Decemeber 2 John Brown wrote the following message: 'I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think, vainly flattered myself, that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.' Brown was hanged that day and a year later, South Carolina was in the midst of seceding from the Union.
Much like the December 2 note, Horwitz shows Brown evolving into the role of a public martyr. Smoothly written, well paced and at times dramatic, Horwitz takes Brown seriously as a man who wrestles with his own failures and the failures of his nation. The author does not over dramatize the story. The characters around Brown are unique and engaging without a writer's help. Thankfully Horowitz avoids bringing forth into his John Brown story such currents events as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Such remarks have marred the Emory Thomas' Dogs of War and have already dated Louis P. Masur's A Concise History of the Civil War.
Readers of David Reynolds' John Brown and Stephen Oates' To Purge This Land With Blood are encouraged to return to Horwitz's John Brown. Like Reynolds and Oates, Horwitz offers an engaging, multi-dimensional and compelling biography of a puzzling character who makes trouble for nearly all readers. Those familiar with Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic will find a character who would not have believed that the Civil War started on April 12 1861, but had started many decades before.
For fans of Horwitz's earlier books, "A Voyage Long and Strange," "Confederates in the Attic," "Baghdad Without a Map" or "One for the Road," they may be disappointed in the lack of any personal participation of Horwitz in the story of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry that fateful October 1859. Absent is any flowing first-person reenactment of this event, any humorous anedotes or current descriptions of important locations in the story. This is not a travelog sprinkled with history, wit and personality. This is solid historical research. For lovers of good narrative history, however, this is a good read. There are many other books about John Brown and his raid, but most are insipid and overly scholarly that one understands why the raid on Harpers Ferry never gets the attention it should in US History books.
Horwitz makes the story interesting, provocative and well worth a critical look by maintaining an unbiased view of John Brown the man; a man possessed by depression, fanaticism and deep faith but who in the end was still just a man passionate in his hatred of slavery and his determination to end it. Horwitz shows in his book why this determination to end slavery by any means possible was also Brown's downfall: it was violent, poorly planned, badly executed and Brown lacked the skill to keep his raiders acutely in the loop of cause-and-effect.
Horwitz uses Brown as a symbol of the underlying discontent that prevailed in the US in the first half of th 19th century. Colonialism gave way to abolitionism, then segregation and discrimination that followed after the Civil War. Brown may have been a failed man in many ways--he lived a life of constant poverty--but he had many supporters in the North who provided him with financial backing, a support that lasted well past his execution to support his widowed wife and children. This underlying support from abolitionists led into the Civil War and the bloody divide within this country. The final chapter of this book, the post-Brown years that slid into the war, ends with a critical analysis of the Brown years and his determination to wipe out slavery. Horwitz is convincing in making the "Raid that sparked the Civil War" a much more important pre-Civil War event that previous historians have credited it to be. For this reason this book should be read with a critical, serious mind.
I enjoyed this book for the easy style, well-defined chapters and the many accompanying archival photographs. The repetitive use of the underline, however, may be annoying to some. To Horwitz, the underline was a common spelling technique that Brown used in his personal writings that Horwitz remained true to.
I highly recommend this book for US History buffs, lovers of good narrative fiction, and anyone interested in solid American biographies. For fans of Horwitz' previous works, this may be disappointing and a departure of his personal writing style. With "Midnight Rising" Horwitz is revealing a new side as a serious writer, researcher and journalist with a critical eye to facts and details. A reader will finish this book with a better understanding of pre-Civil War America.
As the USA commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Tony Horwitz's thoroughly researched and wonderfully written account of how John Brown came to plan and carry out the attack on Harpers Ferry adds to a complete understanding of the roots of the War Between the States. Brown was a complex, fiercely intelligent, deeply religious (perhaps fanatically religious) man whose fevered brain developed scheme after scheme, only to see each one defeated by his own blindered grandiosity and lack of attention to basic detail. Brown's powers of persuasion stemmed from his abiding faith in his plans and in his convictions, so he was able to raise considerable money for his business ventures. He also won the support, both political and financial, of many northern abolitionists who shared Brown's hatred of slavery.
His passion to free enslaved blacks was the driving force in Brown's life, superseding all others. He viewed slavery as a grave sin, and, as Horwitz writes, "Brown's ardor in the cause of racial justice was a powerful source of his ability to inspire others. But," Horwitz continues, "it may have clouded his strategic judgment." Brown firmly believed that black men "were not only desperate for freedom but ready and able to fight." In some cases, that proved true, but more often, enslaved blacks were too fearful of their owners and the consequences of rebellion to join up with Brown. That failure, as well as Brown's inexplicable lack of attention to some details at the expense of those he planned obsessively, doomed his attack on Harpers Ferry, as well as his own life and the lives of his supporters, including his own sons.
Horwitz tells the story of Brown's life, his few successes and many business failures, his devotion to the family he kept impoverished with unfulfilled schemes, his writings, and his years-long plan for an uprising against the government and slaveowners by arming and freeing blacks. Horwitz's research is impeccable -- he has accessed not only the letters and papers of Brown and his family, but also those of his many "soldiers" and supporters. The exchanges with his wife and family members stand out for their determination and tenderness, and, when Brown has lost his sons in battle, their raw grief. He has also found excellent illustrations from the time, including photographs and drawings, that personalize the story and bring the characters and events to life.
Horwitz makes it clear that, while a good case could be made for Brown's unstable mental condition, he always remained sharp and focused on his primary goal. Above all, Horwitz tells the story of John Brown not only thoroughly, but also with excitement. One knows that Brown and his compatriots were hanged for their part in the Harpers Ferry, but Horwitz maintains the tension of each moment so well, the foreknowledge is forgotten. Some of his details are grim, but war and its aftermath are unavoidably grim. This is great history that reads like a novel.
A battle hardened, religiously inspired, zealot plans to attack a symbol of American power in the heartland of the United States in hopes of sparking a larger war. He gathers nineteen recruits to plan and train for months in secret. Backed with money from rich and powerful co-conspirators he builds a stash of weapons. His actions will electrify the nation and send Americans into a bloody and protracted war. It reads like the opening salvo of the 21st century, but rather than 2001 the year is 1859, the man the abolitionist John Brown.
Mdnight Rising is the telling of the raid on the US armory at Harper's Ferry. The book does a great job of fleshing out what exactly happened at Harper's Ferry that fall, who John Brown was, and the consequences of his actions. My knowledge of this event prior to reading this was scarcely more than the paragraph worth in my high school history book. During the decades leading up to the Civil War the issue of slavery has continued to haunt the United States. New states are joining the union, abolitionists are concerned about containing the sin of slavery, while politicians work to enact toothless compromises which serve to continue the issue on slow boil. As the abolitionists gain momentum, a man named John Brown decides action is necessary. Midnight Rising details Brown's actions in skirmishes in Kansas, his travels to gain support, the attack itself, and the aftermath. Many famous men and women of the area are swept up in the drama. We see Brown's meetings with Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas while his attack draws Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and others inextricably to their destinies. I was amazed that I had not heard more details of this in school. I have read Horowitz' Blue Latitudes on Captain James Cook before and was excited to see this coming out. Horowitz does a great job of exploring John Brown's intentions, motiviations, and actions. Equally colorful are the recruits surrounding their leader: a man named John Cook, the "Faceman" of Brown's A-team who is so smooth he dazzels the townspeople, Dangerfield Newby trying to free his wife and children from slavery, and the women that supported the men while they waited and hid.
A great job is done to illustrate to the reader the controversy and dignity of John Brown, especially in the aftermath of the Harper's Ferry attack. The story of John Brown's raid strikes a chord as pertinent now as it was then. I found this book illuminating, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend this one to anyone who is a fan of history or wants to see how history repeats itself.