Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
by Tony Horwitz
Henry Holt (2011), Hardcover, 384 pages
Tony Horwitz delivers yet another fine history. Though not iconic like Confederates in the Attic, this solid narrative gives us a detailed account of John Brown’s early life, the origins of his fervent abolitionism, his time spent fighting on the free-soil side in Bleeding Kansas (though some of what he did would today be considered no better than leading death squads), his planning and execution of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, his trial and execution, and the aftermath thereof.
What stands out here is the fact that while Brown made extensive preparations for the raid and put everything in place to foment a serious slave uprising, his actions didn’t match his preparations. Also, almost everyone who either went on the raid or knew of it knew that it was doomed to failure, and some of them (including, notably, Frederick Douglass) tried to dissuade him from mounting it. So given all that, questions remain as to whether he was really out to free slaves himself, strike an unexpected blow that would inspire sympathy in the North and galvanize it into action against slavery, or provoke the South into a reaction that would force the North to act against it. Horwitz goes into all of those possibilities in detail and shows us how the Brown raid especially accomplished the third of those possible objectives. Even though the raid itself failed to free anyone, it caused an explosion of anger in the South and gave center stage to secessionists, who insisted that the North was out to destroy slavery even as Abraham Lincoln stated that he wasn’t. In effect, it caused events to spiral out of the North’s control, dooming to failure the appeasers of the slave power.
Overall, this is a really good read about the life and times of the man who became the best-known martyr to the abolitionist cause.