A View of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights.
On December 2, 1859, John Brown, a 59 year old abolitionist, was hung at the gallows in Charlestown, Virginia. Just a few weeks prior, Brown and a band of abolitionists had led a daring and ill fated raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, attempting to seize the Federal arsenal there and secure weapons to arms slaves in a massive insurrection which would spread throughout the South. Such a daring plan, infused with Christian theology and a radical hatred of slavery, has made John Brown one of the most famous crusaders in American history. Brown lives on in American memory through songs, poems, portraits, sculptures, memorials, and books.
The engine house which became John Brown's fort during his Harpers Ferry Raid
The latest of these books is Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. Most will be familiar with Horwitz from his outstanding work on the presence of the Civil War in the modern South, Confederates in the Attack. In Midnight Rising, Horwitz has seemingly taken a new direction, moving from a journalistic view of the past to more traditional historical writing. While the focus of Horwitz’s book is different from his previous works, his writing remains quite similar. Just as Confederates in the Attack was a fascinating read, Midnight Rising keeps the reader consistently engaged from the first page to the last. While some historians view journalists writing history with skepticism, often times it takes one with the writing ability of a non-academic historian to write history in an interesting and deliverable format. Horwitz’s narration of Brown’s dramatic raid at Harpers Ferry places one in the midst of the action at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in October 1859.
An obelisk marking the original site of John Brown's fort, looking toward its current location, less than 100 yards away.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight Rising, I found Horwitz’s discussion of the differences between John Brown and Abraham Lincoln to be an unfortunate flaw to his otherwise fine work. In 1859, like many Republicans, Lincoln distanced himself from Brown, denouncing the Harpers Ferry Raid as poorly guided violence that did little to help the political, moral, and social problems facing the country. When discussing the two, Horwitz notes that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and Lincoln’s assassination served as “bookends to the great national bloodletting over slavery” (280). Horwitz’s characterization of the two men draws a stark contrast between their views: “in death, the reluctant emancipator was joined to the abolitionist he had distanced himself from six years before” (280).
This comparison is a small part of the book’s conclusion, yet it speaks to much larger questions about the two men and their achievements. While John Brown’s cause was no doubt admirable, his story serves as a lesson on how to affect political change. Taking up arms and starting an insurrection to achieve a political goal leads to bloodshed in the streets and further entrenching one’s opposition. Horwitz and many others are right; Brown’s actions sparked outrage in the South, contributing to the already smoldering fire that would soon erupt into Civil War. However, once that war began, the question of slavery was far from being answered. The many twists and turns along the way made abolition anything but a guaranteed result of the conflict. It took the statesmanship of Lincoln to turn emancipation from a possibility to a reality. Lincoln tried combating slavery through rhetoric, politics, and the law. He did not choose the path of violence and war. However, once the war had begun, Lincoln's statesmanship accomplished what the sword of John Brown could not. While Horwitz and many others may paint Lincoln as the “reluctant emancipator,” it was the prairie lawyer from Illinois, not the militant crusader of Kansas, who effectively brought about the end of slavery in America. Chipping away at Lincoln’s achievements to praise John Brown does little to help the reputation of either. Rather, it is best for us to let each stand on his own, understanding each man for what he accomplished. While Brown was an admirable crusader who failed to properly and prudently pursue his goals, Lincoln was a true statesman, using politics and rhetoric to deftly navigate the treacherous slavery issue during the nation’s “fiery trial.”
One aspect of Midnight Rising that I did like was Horwitz’s emphasis on Brown’s Christian beliefs. While the laws of the nation permitted slavery, John Brown firmly believed that such an egregious moral sin could not be tolerated under God’s law, and he was thus required to fight against it. Thus, Brown killed slave owners out of a sense of Divine retribution. Christianity’s crucial place in John Brown’s fight against slavery is representative of most 19th century social reformers. From abolitionists to the temperance movement, the 19th century was filled with individuals seeking to remake American society in God’s image, curing it of all its evils. Certainly, not all went to the lengths of John Brown to accomplish their goals. One should also note that while many Northern abolitionists used the Bible in their fight against slavery, just as many Southern slave owners claimed that God was on their side of the matter. These differing views regarding God’s judgment on slavery lay at the heart of the burgeoning conflict between the North and the South.
Overall, Midnight Rising is quite good, and certainly worth reading. It is a well written narrative of a thrilling event in our nation’s history. Horwitz brings John Brown to life, taking the reader on a journey through Brown’s long crusade against slavery, finally and firmly placing him in the middle of Harpers Ferry during the raid of October 16, 1859. What occurred on that fateful October night was far more than a band of crusaders trying to capture weapons; it represented the nation beginning to tear itself apart. The violence that occurred in the streets of Harpers Ferry soon spilled out across the nation. Without understanding John Brown’s story in all of its tragedy, meaning, and detail, it is difficult to truly understand the road to Civil War.