Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
Forgotten hero – or crazed fanatic? Journalist Tony Horwitz reexamines the story of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry.
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But Horwitz does a good job of painting a more three-dimensional portrait of his subject. Brown was also a loving husband and father who, in many ways, genuinely lived his Christian principles. One black activist of the era wrote that Brown – different from some other white crusaders – showed “no offensive contempt for the Negro while working in his cause.” He noted that Brown treated people of all kinds and classes, black and white, as equals and maintained a home “wherein no hateful prejudice dared intrude its ugly self.”Skip to next paragraph
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Brown’s eventual plan to march into Virginia with fewer than 20 men, raid a federal armory, and liberate all the state’s slaves horrified even most of his closest allies. But to Brown’s way of thinking, true patriotism required nothing less. Slavery was a violation of the principles of both Brown's God and his country – and only a second revolution could reinstate justice.
Horwitz’s description of the little band of idealists and adventurers who signed on for Brown’s offensive – including five black men and two of Brown’s own sons – is both fascinating and touching. His careful recreation of the bloody events of October 16, 1859, the day of Brown’s disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry, is both suspenseful and heartwrenching. (Within a mere 36 hours, Brown’s second American Revolution was all over, with most of Brown's tiny posse either captured or dead.)
But perhaps most remarkable in “Midnight Rising” is the story of the months after the raid during which Brown was imprisoned and sentenced to death. His courage and comportment as a prisoner were so impressive that he ended up scoring a propaganda victory perhaps greater than the military victory he had dreamed of. With impeccable manners and calm, persuasive speech, Brown told his captors exactly why he behaved as he did, invoking the Bible and the principles upon which the United States was built. Brown was “fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, and truthful, and intelligent,” admitted no less an enemy than slave-holding Virginia governor Henry Wise.
Brown was eventually hanged – along with his surviving confederates – but not before making himself a hero and martyr. When Lincoln finally declared war in 1861, it seemed to some that the country was finally just catching up to John Brown.
Brown’s enemies “could kill him,” said freed slave and black leader Frederick Douglass, “but they could not answer him.”
Horwitz’s compelling account holds this flawed hero up high, offering him to us in all his odd fanaticism – and his soul-stirring rigor.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.