Midnight Rising

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
by Tony Horwitz
2011 / 384 pages
non-fiction / history
rating  ?

I’ve read quite a number of Horwitz’ books,  Confederates in the Attic,  On the Road,  Blue Latitudes,  but this one, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War,  is his best.

John Brown is a complex and fascinating figure – obsessed with freeing the slaves,  driven by a very personal and demanding God,  imperial father,  absent husband, courageous leader and possibly quite mad.

Prior to reading this book I thought that John Brown was a kind of nut-case,  risking his sons and whomever would listen in the name of abolition.  I thought that his invasion of Harpers Ferry was a kind of fluke and not, in the long run, terribly important.  Horwitz disagrees.  Horwitz sees Brown and his  excursion into the Virginia Armory and Arsenal as being a touchstone of the actual Civil War.

John Brown was not just an abolitionist – he was a fire brand abolitionist.  He abhorred slavery from childhood and was driven to a personal fight with it – in accord with his Calvinist  roots.   He wanted to bring on a civil war by triggering a slave revolt in the hills of Eastern Virginia.  This was in 1858-59.

Horwitz brings it all to life – the characters are vivid and knowable.  The story is told with the relentless push of Brown himself.  This is literary history at its best.  The book reads like a novel – but the notes and the sources are all there – it’s thoroughly documented and nothing is “made up,” or the result of over-speculation (insufficient basis).
Briefly,  John Brown took it into his head that he was the one to start the uprising which would end with the emancipation of the slaves.  He convinced his wife and children. He convinced people with money and power. He put his plans on paper and revised them over and over.  He moved to Kansas but it couldn’t happen there – not yet.  Then he settled on Virginia.

He needed more money,  more men,  more guns to do the job,  but he took what he had and went in anyway.  The plan was to get guns into the hands of the slaves who would come from further south,  and push these “freed” blacks further north or into the hills  so they could start their rebellion.  There was an armory at Harpers Ferry and that was the short-term goal.

If you don’t know the story of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry I won’t spoil it for you here.  If you do know the story of John Brown at Harpers Ferry you’re in for a treat because Horwitz fills in so many the blanks,  so many missing pieces.  He brings the story to life with beginning, the middle the ending, the aftermath and the long term effects.  


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