Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Midnight Rising

By Tony Horwitz

John Brown is an historical enigma.  Is he a hero or terrorist, a saint or a murderer, a traitor or a patriot?  Was he sane or insane, moral or amoral?  Did his actions justify his means?  It’s been nearly 153 years since his infamous raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and the riddle of John Brown’s appropriate place in history has yet to be fully solved, and probably never will be, for any study of the life of John Brown is a study in contradictions.

Tony Horwitz, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of a half dozen books including “Confederates in the Attic” and “A Voyage Long and Strange” tackles the life of abolitionist John Brown in his latest tome, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War.”

The narrative of “Midnight Rising” follows John Brown’s life chronologically.  He briefly touches on Brown's strict Calvinist upbringing, then moves on to "Bleeding Kansas," the development of his plot to raid Harper's Ferry, the raid itself, and finally his execution.

The Brown family is a very large part of the story as well, and the Mr. Horwitz details Brown’s two marriages which produced a total of twenty children, nine of whom died during childhood.  Mr. Horwitz does not however go into great detail about the often tempestuous relationships between the children and their father.  Many of his children participated either directly or indirectly in the events in Kansas (including the Pottawatomie Massacre) and the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  If there is one great tragedy in the life of John Brown, it is the sacrifice and destruction of his family in the fight for his cause.

John Brown parted ways with abolitionists of his day, many of whom were staunch pacifists.  Brown believed slavery was a state of war and must be combated accordingly; that words could not destroy it, but bold action could.

Mr. Horwitz details Brown’s actions in Kansas and the Pottawatomie Massacre, and highlights his connections with many of the literary and abolitionists in the east, some of whom became known as the “Secret Six” who financed what was to become the raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  Among the notables that Brown rubbed elbows with where Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass.  One of the “Secret Six” was Samuel Gridley Howe whose wife, Julia Ward Howe would go on to rewrite the lyrics to “John Brown’s Body” and transform it into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“Midnight Rising” methodically follows John Brown’s planning of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, and, in a nearly hour by hour account, the failure in its execution.  Detailing where, when and how members of Brown’s raiding party were wounded, killed and captured, as well as the casualties among the town’s defenders.

After his capture by United States Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart, John Brown was placed on trial.  Mr. Horwitz clearly demonstrates Brown's steadfast courage and the power of his words ultimately triumphed, and did more to forward his abolitionist cause than his violent and bloody actions.

Brown was of course convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death.  He was executed by hanging on December 2, 1859.  Among those who witnessed his execution was Thomas Jonathan Jackson, then an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute who would win the famous sobriquet, “Stonewall,” at the First Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War which would break out eighteen months later.  Also in attendance that day was John Wilkes Booth, who would go on to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

“Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War,” ultimately does not dwell on John Brown’s place in American History, but rather Mr. Horwitz tells the story of the his life in a well researched and easily read, linear narrative, and thus leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.

ISBN 978-0805091533, Henry Holt and Co., © 2011, Hardcover, 384 pages, Maps, Photographs, Illustrations, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $29.00.  Click HERE to purchase.

The book is also available in an audio version.  You may listen to a clip of it HERE. ISBN 978-1427213167, Macmillan Audio, Unabridged, Audio Run Time: 10:00 hours, $39.99.  Click HERE to purchase the audio version.


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