In the service of economy, student texts on Civil War history usually sum up John Brown’s famous October 16, 1859, abolitionist raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry by noting that Robert E. Lee, then a colonel commanding a modest squad of U.S. soldiers, was responsible for bringing Brown and his associates to bay. Yet as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz describes in his engrossingly detailed Midnight Rising, Brown and his ill-fated, motley band of insurrectionists were in fact thwarted thoroughly enough by the local citizenry and hastily organized militia. Lee, later to head up the Confederate Army once war broke out, did eventually arrest Brown and his surviving associates, delivering them to the Virginia authorities, who shortly thereafter tried them for treason and hanged them for their deeds.

Horwitz’s potent prose delivers the facts of this bellwether incident in riveting fashion. He also chronicles the New England-born Brown’s peripatetic existence as the nation’s leading activist freedom fighter in the cause of ending slavery, including his exploits combating pro-slavery forces in “Bleeding Kansas” on the heels of the passage of the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Harpers Ferry episode is center stage here in all its complexity, yet Horwitz further offers a mini-biography of the fanatical Brown, with insight into his brooding religious beliefs, his penchant for fathering children, his failures as a conventional businessman and his Spartan, gypsy-like lifestyle. It is an absorbing portrait of the often frustrated but passionately driven firebrand who successfully convinced a country of the shame of slavery and, to the South’s great regret, earned martyr status in the aftermath of his execution.

Brown qualifies as America’s first important post-revolution terrorist—marshaling resources from many places, expecting unquestioning allegiance from his followers, successfully maintaining an underground existence—yet his legally ignoble actions, while responsible for death and destruction, also pointed the inevitable way for a conflicted nation destined to tread the path of hard-won righteousness and morality. Horwitz brings events to life with almost cinematic clarity, and for American history and Civil War aficionados, Midnight Rising is required reading.

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