'Midnight Rising' illuminates John Brown
Book review: Tony Horwitz' "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War," the new book by the author of "Confederates in the Attic," is the gracefully told story of abolitionist John Brown, variously called a terrorist, a freedom fighter or an insurgent for his role in moving the country toward the abyss of the Civil War.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War'
by Tony Horwitz
Henry Holt, 384 pp., $29
Write about John Brown and you confront the march of time. Do you spell the town Harper's Ferry (then) or Harpers Ferry (now)? Do you situate the town, apostrophe or no apostrophe, in Virginia (then) or West Virginia (now)?
More important, what do you call John Brown? Is he a terrorist (then, to many; now, to some) or a freedom fighter (then, to some; now, to many)? Was he fanatical or prescient, crazy or uncompromisingly principled?
In "Midnight Rising," when the time comes to label Brown and his fellow raiders, Tony Horwitz settles upon the word insurgent — and the label seems just right, as does Horwitz's book as a whole.
Chronicling Brown's daring (and doomed) raid on a federal armory in the fall of 1859 to seize weapons for the anti-slavery cause — 18 months before the Civil War's inception — Horwitz opens with a provocative parallel:
"Viewed through the lens of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Qaeda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still grappling with the consequences."
From there, the book becomes a graceful narrative, ever engaging, with the reader allowed to connect Brown and his contemporaries to conflicts that continue to our day.
Brown, a man willing to sacrifice all in order to bring down slavery, was, in many ways, a blunt instrument. But his life and mission were steeped in complication. Some juxtapositions — say, violence versus civil disobedience — seem universal and timeless. But others, more particular to Brown, drive the book.
The same man who showed unbounded individual courage exacted a devastating and relentless sacrifice from his family. Brown's acts of chivalry (he allowed a Harpers Ferry hostage to go and eat breakfast with his family) are coupled with the utter cruelty of his attacks on slavery supporters. His small band pulled men from homes and hacked them with swords, severing arms, hands and fingers.
On the level of battle, Brown was a hopeless strategist, miscalculating position, support and avenues of escape. On the level of war, Brown proved a genius, anticipating how his personal bravery could galvanize the North and trigger fear in the South.
One of Horwitz's previous books, "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War," remains, a dozen years later, a must read. It's also an ideal companion to "Midnight Rising," which takes readers back to the original confederates, from Robert E. Lee to Stonewall Jackson to John Wilkes Booth. All figure in Brown's story, as do such notables from the other side of the divide as Frederick Douglass.
"Midnight Rising" rolls through a series of indelible scenes: Brown debating strategy with Douglass in a Pennsylvania quarry; Brown, mid-battle, carrying a sword that belonged to George Washington; Brown, captured and wounded, telling a senator from Virginia: "I think I did right, and that others will do right who interfere with you at any time, and all times."
But it's the way that people saw Brown — then, and now — that may linger most with readers, showing how quick the march of time, how fast the fire from Brown's spark.
Extolling Brown's stand for human dignity in the face of unjust edict, Henry David Thoreau called him "the most American of us all." In 1860, in the brief passage of time between Brown's raid and the shots fired at Fort Sumter, Thoreau wrote:
"They all called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?"
Ken Armstrong: email@example.com. A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.
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