Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz

"Men, get your arms,"the Captain said. 
"We will proceed to the Ferry."
Opening to the prologue of

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the 

Raid that Sparked the Civil War.

by Tony Horwitz

In 1859 a small group of men, white and black some of them former slaves, set in motion a series of events that culminated in the Civil War.  

That's one way to look at it, anyway.

In the radio interviews Tony Horwitz did last year for his latest book, Midnight Rising, he made the claim that the raid on Hapers Ferry, Virginia led by John Brown could be seen as the first battle in America's Civil War.  An interesting proposition, I thought.  

While his book is a very good read, it's much more of a straightforward account of John Brown's later life and the raid on Harpers Ferry than it is an argument in favor of a new interpretation of those events.  You'll gain a much deeper understanding of these men and of the consequences of the raid on Harpers Ferry from reading Midnight Rising, but Mr. Horwitz does not go as far in print as I recall him going in his radio interviews.  He does make the case that the period of America's Civil War can be seen as book-ended by two violent events, the raid at Harpers Ferry and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the days following the close of the war, but he does not argue that John Brown started the Civil War as I was expecting him to do. 

It's become a standard practice in non-fiction to divide a history text into three parts, before the event, the event and after the event.  Mr. Horwitz follows this form in Midnight Rising.  John Brown's life before the raid on Harpers Ferry is not what will draws most readers to his story, but it is interesting.  John Brown was an extremist in defense of liberty, as Senator Barry Goldwater famously once put it.  His early life included participation in the struggle known as "Bloody Kansas" where he most likely got actual blood on his hands.  A hardscrabble farmer, he married several times, buried many children and raised many more.  A staunch abolitionist, he stood out as extreme for his belief that blacks were the equals of whites--they were welcome at his dinner table as his intellectual equals, something no other substantial abolitionist of his day believed.   But even with that in mind, he does not strike one as a heroic character until the raid on Harpers Ferry.  

Even the raid revealed his own flaws as much as it did his strengths.  The raid was badly planned, badly executed, a disaster.  No one, northerner let alone southerner, approved or supported the raid once word of it spread.  It wasn't until John Brown's trial began that public opinion began to create the folk hero celebrated in "John Brown's Body" which became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  

Reading Midnight Rising, I began to suspect that the trial was the point, not the raid itself.  John Brown predicted this in a letter he wrote in 1851, almost ten years earlier:

"Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery.  The trial for life of one bold and to some extent successful man, for defending his rights in good earnest, would arouse more sympathy throughout the nation that the accumulated wrongs and suffering of more than three millions of our submissive colored population."  

His own trial surely proved him right on this point.  That John Brown survived the raid on Harpers Ferry is a near miracle as  Mr. Horwitz's detailed account of what happened makes very clear.  The story was a media sensation by the end of the day.  People throughout the country hungered for information, for any detail or rumor they could find.  His trial was closely followed throughout the north and the south, one growing increasingly fearful for their homes and property, the other increasingly ashamed at their own lack of bravery, their own inability to do much more than politely object to what they considered a great moral wrong.

Mr. Howritz explains that while John Brown was not much of an orator, his words worked wonderfully well in print, moving the reading public much more than they ever did those who could hear his courtroom defense.  His words to the court after sentencing are particularly moving:

"...Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proven, had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

"This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the new Testament.  That teaches me that all things 'whatsoever I would men should do to me I should do ever so to them.' It teaches me, further, to 'remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.'  I endeavored to act up to these instructions.

"I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was no wrong but right.  Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!"

This is John Brown speaking off-the-cuff.  Apparently, he did not know that he would be given the chance to speak in court the day he was sentenced.  None of the officers of the court paid much attention to him.  The court reporter did not bother to enter his speech into the court transcripts.  It was only the newspaper reporters in the audience who bothered to write it down.  In the end, this speech would awaken an anti-slavery movement as well as a pro-slavery south.  These were fighting words.  The fight would soon follow.

Which is as close as Mr. Horwitz comes to saying out-right that Harpers Ferry was the first battle in the Civil War.  While this is not the conclusion I came to after reading Midnight's Rising it is clear to me that this was a moment when the country appeared to recognize that something had to be done, and that whatever was done, a fight was probably coming.

A fight certainly did.


Jim Randolph said...

Classic, well-written C.B. review that makes me think.


Lisa May said...

I appreciated Horwitz's focus on the human cost of the raid - the men who joined Brown, the families they left behind, and the townspeople (black and white) who died with them in the raid. I had not realized just how badly planned & carried out the raid was - nor how its biggest impact came in that time between Brown's trial and execution.

Sam Sattler said...

Great review, James, and a new book to be added to my TBR list. I have never had much of a positive opinion regarding Brown and his raid (or his Bloody Kansas escapades) and I doubt that this will change my opinion of the man or his "achievement," but it's definitely a must-read book for me. Frankly, I always thought he was insane but charismatic enough to find like-minded people to follow him, especially his own sons.

I visited the site of the raid a few years ago (as I recall, the building has been relocated several hundred feet, however) and benefitted from the experience, I think. It's always good to walk on the same ground and think about what happened there and those who came before us...but I just can't see this man as any kind of hero. Maybe that's my own Southern bias rearing its ugly head, I admit.

C.B. James said...

Jim, Thanks. The best history books are the ones that make you think, if you ask me. This one did provide some food for thought, but not as much as his other books have done.

Lisa May, I found all of that interesting. I was expecting more about the raid's place in American history, though.

Sam, I think your opinion of John Brown is very close to the way Mr. Horwitz portray's him. I do wonder just how much of the hero/villain divide depends on one's point of view. I would have liked a chapter or two on this questions and on John Brown's legacy. But, I do think it's a book you would find interesting.

Bybee said...

I agree with Sam's comment.

Carin Siegfried said...

I have loved all of Mr. Horwitz's history books and this one is on my shelf too. I am very much looking forward to it, more so now, thanks! The only times I have ever thought on John Brown post-high school is when rereading the Little House books. The Reverend Brown who marries Laura and Almanzo is John Brown's cousin!