Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War [first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, 11/01/11]

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

by Tony Horwitz

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John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry on October 17, 1859, is often cited as a catalyst for the Civil War that began two years later. Brown himself is usually portrayed as an abolitionist zealot who, alone among anti-slavery proponents, buttressed his rhetoric with lethal force. In Midnight Rising, Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic) confirms these broad strokes of history’s brush while raising questions about the raid.

Brown’s commitment to abolition was absolute and longstanding; he masterminded many of the attacks on “Border Ruffians” who had massed in Kansas to sway the legislature to create the next slave state. Afterward, Brown kept in close contact with wealthy Northern abolitionists, raising money to buy arms and meticulously preparing for every contingency that might arise during the raid. In spite of this, it failed spectacularly. Why didn’t Brown detain the train running through Harper Valley that night, or use the knife-tipped spears he’d commissioned to arm newly freed slaves who would join him? Why did he delay the critical steps he’d planned and so lose all the advantages of surprise? Horowitz’s engaging analysis infuses John Brown with a surprising naïveté, perhaps even a confused loss of focus, that spurs a fall from master tactician to clumsy blunderer evocative of Greek tragedy.Midnight Rising adds an unexpected layer of complexity to this smoldering period in American history. –Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoa

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