'Midnight Rising,' On John Brown Sparking the Civil War
By Brook Wilensky-Lanford
John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
(Henry Holt; 365 pages; $29)
Tony Horwitz likes to put a personal spin on history. "Confederates in the Attic" told the story of the Civil War through obsessive present-day re-enactors. "A Voyage Long and Strange" had him traipsing all over the New World finding traces of the lost century between 1492 and 1620. But Horwitz's engrossing new book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War," is a departure.
Horwitz is out to show us how militant abolitionist John Brown's 18-man, 1859 attack on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va., far from being just "a speed bump for students racing ahead to Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address," was actually the event that sparked the Civil War. And he does so strictly in the third person. With the exception of the prologue, where he explains why he's not putting himself in the story: "I could tread where Brown's men did, glimpse some of what they saw, but the place I wanted to be was inside their heads. What led them to launch a brazen assault on their own government and countrymen?"
Getting inside the head of someone like John Brown is not easy, mostly because there really is no one like John Brown. Like his father, Brown was a pious Calvinist, who showed an early "compulsion to punish wrongs [by] small acts of moral policing." Also like his ancestors, Brown fathered a small army of children, so many that Horwitz can be forgiven for not introducing them to us all at once. But unlike them, Brown was never a pacifist.
"For most of his life, he had shown little inclination to turn the other cheek; his own heroes were mostly Old Testament warriors." And unlike many intellectual abolitionists, he actually practiced racial equality. "Brown took blacks into his home and stayed at theirs; sought blacks' financial and logistical support; recruited them into his army; and communicated his egalitarian and tough-minded ethos to all under his command."
But how did he become so obsessed with his plan to start a new revolutionary state in the hills of Virginia that Frederick Douglass himself confessed that Brown's constant harping was "something of a bore to me"? This we may never know.
Brown's military strategy was naive to nonexistent. The first casualty of his campaign for abolition was actually "a free black man, shot down while defying the orders of armed whites." Brown and most of his men would be surrounded, captured and hanged. Horwitz's moment-by-moment account of the doomed raid unfolds with such immediacy that he reintroduces suspense to a story we all know from textbooks.
But it's after Brown's capture that the story really gets going. Horwitz draws a convincing case that Brown's abject failure is not the point. Brown believed that slavery could be ended only by bloodletting, and he was going to force the issue by sparking a war. And in this, he was astonishingly successful.
Brown's words, spoken in court, galvanized Northern abolitionists: "In a speech of just six hundred words, without notes or apparent preparation, he had cut through decades of cant and equivocation over slavery." They "cast Brown as a Christ figure," though he had a bloodier biblical role model, Samson: "God's avenger, wounded and in bonds, triumphantly crying at the last, 'Let me die with the Philistines!' "
Interestingly, Brown also provoked admiration among Southerners. John Wilkes Booth called him "the grandest character of this century!" Virginia Gov. Henry Wise, who fought to have Brown hanged in his state, would later borrow his archenemy's methods. In the midst of seceding from the Union, he sent conspirators to seize the Harpers Ferry federal armory before Union forces could fortify it.
But the story sparks questions that are still difficult to answer: Is there such a thing as a just war? Is martyrdom actually an effective battle technique? Can someone who sparked four years of bloodshed really be considered a hero? Some thought not, even then. While Alcotts and Longfellows eulogized Brown, New York lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote: "It was unwise to give fanaticism a martyr. Why could not Virginia have condescended to lock him up for life in a madhouse?" These ominous questions are outside Horwitz's purview.
"Midnight Rising" is a richly detailed and engaging history. Horwitz expertly culls letters, diaries and documents to let his idiosyncratic, highly articulate 19th century cast of characters speak for themselves. Especially heartbreaking are the letters to loved ones from the young idealists who traveled with him. But it's difficult not to miss the bridge to the present that Horwitz builds in his previous adventures in history. Without his help, it's hard to identify with John Brown, an extraordinary and still inaccessible character. All we can do is sit back and watch history unfold.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Midnight-Rising-by-Tony-Horwitz-review-2324746.php#ixzz2FPy4idDN