On December 2, 1859, abolitionist John Brown stood over a trapdoor, his face shrouded by a white hood, a noose draped around his neck. His execution was delayed ten minutes as his prison escort took up position on the field, joining the other troops serving as a buttress against the 2,000 people gathered to watch Brown hang. Six weeks earlier, on October 16, 1859, Brown and a guerrilla force numbering eighteen had besieged the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intent on launching an uprising that would topple slavery. Thirty-two hours after the assault began, ten of Brown’s men and five townspeople lay dead. Depending upon which side of the slavery question you were on, the man about to hang was either a liberator or a terrorist.
With his new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Tony Horowitz unpacks the philosophy, politics, and circumstances that led Brown to Harpers Ferry. Horowitz, known for his first-person accounts of encountering Confederates in the Attic and tracing American history before the Mayflower, opts for the third person this time around. The choice suits the task he’s set for himself. Midnight Rising is a fast-paced narrative that immerses the reader in Brown’s world, a place where bloodshed and sacrifice were encouraged in pursuit of righting a moral wrong.
The mechanics of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry have been examined in detail by historians, and Horowitz admirably covers that familiar ground. What sets his book apart is the attention he pays to the company Brown kept: his beleaguered wife, who bore him thirteen children, was stepmother to seven more, and endured deprivation while he pursued his personal war; the men who trusted him so completely that they followed him to their deaths; and the financial backers, known as the Secret Six, who supported Brown’s zeal, only to recoil when confronted with its consequences.
Horowitz also shows how Brown’s hasty trial and stoic approach to death helped to incite more open conflict over slavery. Abolitionists who initially rejected Brown’s methods were won over by his conduct — wounded in the raid, Brown rested on a pallet throughout his trial, rising to answer questions when called upon — and his rhetoric. Though he was a flat public speaker, Brown’s words took on a majestic aura when printed in Northern newspapers. In six short weeks, an act of violence that had invited only horror and derision became a springboard for activism, turning Brown into a martyr. Slavery marched to the forefront of American politics; in sixteen months, the war would begin.