John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
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John Brown was born with the nineteenth century and didn’t launch his attack on Virginia until he was nearly sixty. But almost from birth, he was marked in ways that would set him on the long road to rebellion at Harpers Ferry.
Brown was named for his grandfather, a Connecticut farmer and Revolutionary War officer who marched off to fight the British in 1776. Captain John Brown died of dysentery a few weeks later, in a New York barn, leaving behind a pregnant widow and ten children. One of them was five-year-old Owen, who later wrote: “for want of help we lost our Crops and then our Cattle and so became poor.”
Owen was forced “to live abroad” with neighbors and nearby relations, and went to work young, farming in summer and making shoes in winter. As a teenager he found religion and met a minister’s daughter, Ruth Mills, pious and frugal like himself. Soon after their marriage, Ruth gave birth to “a very thrifty forward Child,” a son who died before turning two. The Browns moved to a clapboard saltbox in the stony hills of Torrington, Connecticut, and had another son. “In 1800, May 9th John was born,” Owen wrote, “nothing very uncommon.”
A portrait of Owen Brown in later years depicts a thin-lipped, hawk- beaked man with penetrating eyes: an antique version of his famous son. Owen also bestowed on John his austere Calvinism, a faith ever vigilant against sin and undue attachment to the things of this world. In his late seventies, after rising from childhood penury to become a prosperous landowner and respected civic leader—he was known in Ohio as Squire Brown—Owen wrote a brief autobiography for his family. It began: “my life has been of but little worth mostly filled up with vanity.”
John Brown also wrote a short autobiography, in his case for a young admirer. Two years before the uprising at Harpers Ferry, while seeking money and guns for his campaign, he dined at the home of George Luther Stearns, a wealthy Massachusetts industrialist. Stearns’s twelve-year-old son, Henry, was inspired by Brown’s antislavery fervor and donated his pocket money (thirty cents) to the cause. In return— and after some prodding from Stearns Senior—Brown wrote Henry a long letter describing his own youth in the early 1800s.
The letter was didactic in tone, doubtless intended to impress Henry’s wealthy father as much as the boy himself. But it was nonetheless a telling account, delivered in the direct, emphatic, and grammatically irregular voice that distinguishes so much of Brown’s speech and writing.
Excerpted from MIDNIGHT RISING: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz. Published in October by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Tony Horwitz. All rights reserved.
Review by William C. Davis
He ought rightly to be known as America’s first modern terrorist. Underdogs historically resort to unconventional means to achieve their ends, being too weak in numbers and resources to confront their foes face-to-face. John Brown and the 19 men who followed him into Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on October 16, 1859, were hardly a match for hundreds of thousands of slave-owners, or five million whites in the slave states, the great majority of whom were avowedly in favor of slavery. Brown’s fevered brain may have housed a host of psychoses, but he was not stupid. He knew that his pitiful little band could accomplish nothing by themselves. Their act, however, might light the flame of rebellion among blacks and sympathetic whites to wash slavery out of America for good. A generation earlier Thomas Jefferson compared the rise of sectional agitation over slavery to “a fire bell in the night.” At Harpers Ferry, John Brown expected to ring that bell.
The Brown raid and its aftermath has been the subject of several studies over the l52 years since the raiders crossed the Potomac into the unsuspecting little town. Surely the best to date is Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, and readers will not be surprised that it comes from the sure hand of Tony Horwitz. His Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War became an instant classic when it appeared in 1999, and is still perhaps the best look we have at the continuing culture of the Civil War today. Working on that book put him in the company of some very unusual people and Midnight Rising has done the same.
Few men of his time were more extraordinary than John Brown. Like most fanatics he seems to have been a man of, at best, average intelligence, and perhaps less than average. He had a lifetime history of failure at almost everything he tried except siring children. His businesses failed, his farms did not prosper and his first wife died of too much child-bearing. History often reveals such men as ideal candidates for extremism, wanting only the one “big idea” to fuel their fanatic potential. For Brown that would be the abolition of slavery, an idea that took hold in him when he was still a boy, and which eventually propelled him to murder and atrocity in Kansas, and ultimately to Harpers Ferry.
Midnight Rising goes far beyond presenting just an account—the best yet—of Brown’s raid and the aftermath. It is as well an eloquent look at the mind of a singular man, and how his one mad act ignited a flame of paranoia that fed on years of accumulated fears and resentments to propel South Carolina to attempt to leave the Union just a year and three weeks after Brown’s execution. It is not an accident that Virginia, whose Civil War Sesquicentennial observance has led all others, did not begin its commemoration in 2011, the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of war. It began, rather, in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid.
Hardcover Book : 384 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company ( October 25, 2011 )
Item #: 13-434824
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 0.96inches
Product Weight: 19.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)