Midway through Tony Horwitz’s 1998 bestseller Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, the author paid a brief visit to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of John Brown’s famous October 1859 raid. Most of the buildings in this “tourist trap” were already closed when he arrived late in the day, yet he still took a brief stroll through the streets near the federal arsenal. Before he continued on his road trip, Horwitz stopped to press his face up to the window of a wax museum that promised to portray the “Life Story of John Brown Youth to Gallows.” Undoubtedly, many readers of Confederates in the Attic, familiar with Horwitz’s other works, eagerly awaited the occasion for this master storyteller to revisit the scene at Harpers Ferry and explore, in his unique and very personal way, the life and memory of John Brown.
However, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, apart from the prologue, represents a different approach. Horwitz notes, in this case, [End Page 530] that walking in history’s footsteps is never the same as actually being there. Regarding the Harpers Ferry raid and its participants, the author would rather strive to get “inside their heads,” analyze the raiders’ complicated motivations, and link the event to the Civil War that followed. In short, Midnight Rising is a work more of straight history and less of participant observation than what Horwitz’s readers might expect.
John Brown was born into a pious Calvinist family in 1800, and Horwitz traces his transition to adulthood in a nation not much older than he was. Though the early growing pains of the United States thoroughly entangled the nation with slavery, by age twelve, young Brown however had dedicated himself to an eternal war with the institution. In his early thirties, he espoused the pacifism of Garrisonian abolitionism, but as anti-abolitionist violence escalated later in the decade, Brown began to demonstrate the growing militancy that would come to define his own brand of antislavery. By the 1840s, despite domestic heartbreak and financial disaster, he had foretold his Samson-like martyrdom in the cause of freedom.
After discussing Brown’s fury over the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, Horwitz follows Brown, his sons, and a handful of other devotees to Kansas Territory. There, the author offers a compelling picture of the mature abolitionist: calculating, motivated, and relentless in his crusade to crush slavery. After Osawatomie, Brown’s reputation and devoted following grew, and Horwitz ably keeps up with his hurried pace, both in the planning of a decisive strike against slavery and the cross-country travels necessary to drum up support.
The well-known story of the Harpers Ferry raid vividly comes to life in Horwitz’s telling. From the false starts and setbacks preceding the October 1859 action, to the play-by-play account of the assault on the federal arsenal, and the unraveling of Brown’s scheme, the author maintains a sense of immediacy that keeps pages turning, and readers on the edges of their seats, even scholars who know the story by heart. The author also does a commendable job of humanizing the dozens of historical actors who made up Brown’s supporting cast. Though many historians offer but a brief backstory for the men directly involved, Horwitz’s skill as a writer allows him to create truly three-dimensional characters. Moreover, he extends this rich treatment far beyond the eighteen men who followed Brown “to the Ferry” or the “Secret Six” backers. Mothers and fathers, wives and sweethearts, believers and doubters—all of these and more come to life.
Without a doubt, Horwitz is an engaging writer. However, one questions the need for an account of such a well-known and often-analyzed story that offers very little that is new to scholars. Indeed, the niche Horwitz hoped to fill is already occupied...