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The folly at Harper's Ferry
John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
350 pp. Picador
Reviewed by Jack Shakely
In the years leading up to the Civil War, photography was still in its infancy, and John Brown was anything but camera-shy. He thought of himself as Moses, and in his many photographs in Midnight Rising, looked the part.
With the slate-blue eyes of a predator wolf, Brown had the piercing visage of a prophet, a madman, or a murderer. In Tony Horwitz's fascinating historical biography, John Brown is revealed to have been all three.
Tony Horwitz is the noted journalist and author of Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes, among others. Midnight Rising is his first foray into historical nonfiction, and in a barrage of facts and a beautiful turn of phrase, Horwitz leaves John Brown's reputation a-mouldering with the rest of him.
There is very little to commend the loony failure that was John Brown. He was a neglectful husband. He put his children in harm's way. He was astonishingly bad at business, losing his money and the money of everybody who trusted him time and again. His biggest failure was exporting wool to England, a coals-to-Newcastle misadventure that left him so broke he didn't have the price of a postage stamp to write his partner that they were bankrupt.
Brown was very good at two things, however. He may have been a bad husband, but on his periodic visits home, a busy one. He fathered thirteen children (some who would prove themselves as mentally unstable as he was) and he seemed to have a gift of fund raising among the rich abolitionists who decried slavery but wouldn't leave the comfort of their clubs to do anything about it. Brown wrapped himself in Bible verse and made it clear that he was willing to become the tip of the abolitionists' spear.
Unlike his sanity, there was no doubting Brown's sincerity. Believing himself appointed by God to wage war on slavery, he was, according to Horwitz, "exceptional in practicing what he preached. Brown took blacks into his home and stayed at theirs; recruited them into his army; and communicated his egalitarian and tough-minded ethos to all those under his command."
This earned him grudging respect from leading black thinkers at the time--people like Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Charles Langston--respect that Brown characteristically mistook for love. Brown believed that all it would take would be one decisive victory "and the colored people would come in a mass" to join him.
Proving himself as incompetent in war as he had been in business, now-"Captain" Brown chose the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia as the site of this decisive victory. Brown's men, including his own son, pled that this would be a suicide mission, but the zealot would not be dissuaded.
Incredibly, Brown's "army" consisted of 21 men, and within 48 hours every single one of them had been killed or captured. Horwitz turns this section of the book into Greek tragedy, introducing us to hopeful, and hopelessly unprepared young men, writing love notes home just before being torn apart by bullets, swords and in one instance, devoured by dogs.
Like any master storyteller, Horwitz saves the best for last. "But the manifest implausibility of his scheme," Horwitz writes of Brown's failure, "strongly suggests that he had a second plan."
The badly wounded, defiant, and preternaturally courteous John Brown finally found the role he'd been groomed for, and something Northern abolitionists had been seeking--a martyr. Convicted of treason and murder, Brown prepared himself for the gallows by writing dozens of letters, speeches and dispatches that the Northern press gobbled up. People who only months before had proclaimed Brown a lunatic, people like Fredrick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were now extolling his virtues. Thoreau, who saw in Brown something of his own anti-government views, wrote "He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist." Outside of an insane asylum, Thoreau was probably right.
Horwitz' book is full of delightful and surprising sidebars, including the facts that the Federal army officers who recaptured the Harper's Ferry arsenal from Brown were none other than JEB Stuart and Robert E. Lee, who two years later would capture it themselves for the Confederacy, and that one of the Virginia militiamen present at Brown's surrender was a young actor named John Wilkes Booth.
In Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz has written a biography stranger than fiction about a man who may have been one of the strangest "heroes" in American history. It's a whale of a read.