- Reading the SesquicentennialNew Directions in the Popular History of the Civil War
2011, the sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the Civil War, initiated an outpouring of books about the war that is likely to continue for the next four years, each of which will surely be greeted by its own commemorative volumes. My favorite book of 2011 was The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (Library of America). This collection of primary documents—letters, speeches, sermons, diary entries, and so on—brings alive 1861 in its chaotic immediacy. This volume reminds us that history in real time, as it’s happening, has a raggedness and an unpredictability that are lost when its fragments are assembled into a narrative or marshaled under a strong thesis. Still, we all know that zippy narratives and thesis-driven prose are far more palatable than a collage of antiquated texts of varying literary quality. It has long been the role of popular histories to make complex subjects understandable to the average reader—or at least to history buffs. The test of an effective popular history is one that can be both readable and original. These days, originality can be most often found in books that analyze a familiar topic from a fresh angle or reinterpret it by bringing to bear previously unexplored contexts.
On the originality score, one of the most promoted books of the year, Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (Henry Holt)—plugged in newspaper ads, serialized on Bloomberg View, and made the subject of a PBS Newshour segment—comes up way short. In his prologue, Horwitz tells us that he wants to put the abolitionist warrior John Brown back into his own time and consider him apart from today’s terrorists. A worthy goal, but one that has been already achieved, in spades, by the cumulative scholarship presented in several previous books, dating as far back as Stephen B. Oates’s 1970 biography of Brown, To Purge This Land with Blood, and Richard Owen Boyer’s The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History (1973) and renewed in the first decade of the twenty-first century with Merrill D. Peterson’s John [End Page 421] Brown: The Legend Revisited, Louis A. DeCaro Jr.’s “Fire From the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown, Evan Carton’s Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, Franny Nudelman’s John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, writings by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, Robert E. McGlone’s John Brown’s War against Slavery, the ongoing research of Jean Libby and the Allies of Freedom, and my John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.1
This huge amount of interest in Brown represents a tidal shift away from the time when he was banished to the outer limits of American history. Over the years, the reception of John Brown has been a roller-coaster ride. During the Civil War, Brown attained almost mythic stature among the Union troops, who tramped South singing “John Brown’s Body.” The North’s veneration of Brown continued through the period immediately following the war, which saw the publication of Franklin Sanborn’s hagiographic The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia (1885), followed by Oswald Garrison Villard’s more measured John Brown, 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910).2
Respect for Brown never completely died out, especially among African Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois’s concise, laudatory biography (1909) reflected his conviction that no white person in American history came nearly as close as Brown to identifying with blacks—a notion that a number of African Americans have since echoed.3 In general, however, Brown’s reputation plummeted during the 1890–1955 period. A number of Jim Crow-era historians relegated John Brown to the loony fringe of American history. This treatment reached its nadir in H. Peebles Wilson’s John Brown: Soldier of Fortune (1913) and James C. Malin’s John...