Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
by Tony Horwitz
List Price: $29.00 Hardback: 384 Pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publish Date: October 25, 2011
Review by Bruce L. Brager.
Defining Success and Failure: John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry
At night, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, can be a world class spooky place. The tiny town sits in a triangle of land, a valley surrounded on all sides by hills, at the point where the Shenandoah River flows north into the Potomac River. Across the Potomac is Maryland, most dramatically represented by Maryland Heights, almost literarily looming over the town. Just a few hundred years to the east is the border of Virginia. To the south and west is West Virginia.
Harpers Ferry was part of Virginia before the American Civil War, before the creation of the state of West Virginia. Militarily it was in an odd situation. Before the war, one of the two major Federal armories was in Harpers Ferry, taking advantage of the ready source of water for hydropower. The war took care of the armory rather quickly. The Federals tried to burn; the Confederate took what did not burn.
Harpers Ferry was very strategically located. From the town, a military force could control traffic on much of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. It could control the C and O Canal, just north of the Potomac. It could also control the B and O Railroad, which ran through the town. But the town would be impossible to defend if you lost control of the heights encircling the town. The usual practice of the side holding the town was to evacuate its forces when an enemy army approached. In October 1862, a few days before the Battle of Antietam, an incompetent Federal commander did not. Stonewall Jackson and his men forced the surrender of 13,000 Federal troops, the second largest surrender ever by the United States Army – second only to Bataan in World War II Two.
At its height, Harpers Ferry had a population of about 3,000. Now fewer than 300 live in town. And it remains a very spooky place. Some years ago, a friend and I were attending a ghost tour. Harpers Ferry, where maybe 100 people died violently, has more ghost stores than Gettysburg, where nearly 8,000 died violently the three days of the battle.
We could see the light flashes from distant lightening and hear thunder – I think. You could almost wonder if it was distant artillery. Of course, the occasional sound of a commercial jet flying overheard did not help the effect. But I still liked the thunder and lightning, as long as they kept their distance.
Harpers Ferry must have been very spooky indeed, the night of October 16, 1859, when a group of less than 20 men, under the command of an older man, a bearded mystic convinced that God was actively on his side, moved quietly down the road just under Maryland Heights, crossed through the covered railroad bridge into town, seized hostages and the Federal armory. The raiders would eventually be forced to take shelter in a small firehouse, where 36 hours or so after they arrived, a group of U.S. Marines, under Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lt. Jeb Stuart, forced their way in and killed or captured all the raiders. The seven raiders captured, including their leader John Brown, would be hanged by Virginia authorities in the next few months.
There are some basics for a book review essay to get out of the way. This is a well written book
-- the proverbial good read. The book begins by following the raiders into town then flashes back to the background of the men involved. What, for example, was John Brown doing at Harpers Ferry? The book makes clear he did not wake up one morning and decide to attack the Federal government. It brings things back to the raid, and then to what happened to those involved and the raid’s aftermath.
However, the facts of the raid are known. Horwitz goes further than just telling the story. He raises some interesting moral, and military, issues which have not been sufficiently brought out. In the first few pages he raises a disturbing moral issue with John Brown and his raiders. On page three, Horwitz writes that “Viewed through the lens of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Qaeda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still dealing with the consequences.”
Horwitz does not directly mention the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” issue. But in the course of the book it clearly comes out that whatever Brown’s methods, he was fighting for the rights of all men, not just whites, and the end to the horrible system of people owning other people. Quibble with his methods, but not his goal.
The general historical evaluation of Brown is that his methods were faulty in their planning and execution, resulting in a bloody failure and disaster for those involved. The raid is considered a failure; but one which touched off a war. The raid caused public opinion in the South to switch from seeing a Yankee desire to destroy their way of life, to seeing a Yankee desire to literally destroy Southern lives. Didn’t Brown, with the then-alleged, since documented, support of notable Northerners, call for a violent slave uprising? But the raid failed, and one can say civil war still might have been avoided by more competent national political leadership.
But did the raid fail?
On the way to his execution, December 2, 1859, John Brown left a famous note. The first line read “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.” This has been interpreted to be a thought Brown had while in prison awaiting death. He thought the raid would have a positive effect toward ending slavery – as it did – but that the actual plan had failed.
Horwitz thinks the case can be made that Brown never thought the raid would work; he sought martyrdom to aid his cause of human freedom. Brown was capable of creating and carrying out effective plans. He helped murder five slavery supporters in Kansas, and got away clean. A few years later he led a successful effort to rescue slaves in Missouri and get them to freedom in the North. But at Harpers Ferry he did not even try his full plan. When the raid was clearly not working, rather than withdrawing his men to try again, which might have been possible, he seemed to just sit in the firehouse where he had taken shelter and await capture. When the marines broke in, Brown did not resist. It was too late to get away, but “suicide by marine” was probably still possible. But escape, even to fight again, or death at the end of a Marine bayonet, would have made Brown just a footnote to history.
As early as 1858, a year and half before the raid, Brown wrote an associate that “I expect to effect a mighty conquest, even though it be like the last victory of Samson.” (quoted page 139.) Brown seemed to have been in the process of changing from a fighter to one who sought to publically die for his cause. He realized that the pulpit of a public trial, and being able to communicate with the outside world for the few weeks of life he had left, would accomplish a lot more than anything he did militarily.
We can also surmise that Brown realized that quirks in the Southern character of the time would play right into his hands. Southern fear of slave revolt called for terrible vengeance against anyone trying to provoke such a revolt. This is why the government of Virginia never seriously considered commuting Brown’s sentence to life, on the grounds of insanity. But Southern courtesy also called for a public trial, and for allowing the condemned man to communicate with the outside world.
The advantage of writing history is that the plot and the characters are already there. The writer just has to do the facts justice. But the writer also has to make it exciting, to keep up the suspense even while the ending is known. Tony Horwitz has done this
-- creating a book worth reading. But he also manages to raise some issues this reviewer has never before encountered. It is not possible to know what was in a man’s mind. But Horwitz make a strong case that John Brown more and more leaned to the idea that his cause would be better served by noble failure than bloody success. He wanted to end slavery. Six years after his raid and death at the end of a rope, slavery in the United States was ended.
Copyright © 2012 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 03/11/2012.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.