Reading: Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

My parents introduced me to Tony Horwitz about a decade or so ago when they gave me a paperback copy of his “Confederates in the Attic” for my birthday.  That copy is long since gone – I made the mistake of lending it to a rather cute lady friend who never returned it.  A few years ago I picked up a new copy at Borders and just a month ago or so picked up a signed hardcover I found at the Chevy Chase DC Library folio sale.

“Midnight Rising” was a belateMidnight_Risingd Christmas gift.  My Mom mentioned how it is hard to gift books to me (last time I counted I was well over 1400), and I reminded her that not that long ago we’d been discussing Tony Hortwitz & I mentioned that I was interested to read his new book.  This conversation happened on Tuesday, Christmas Day.  When I got home from work on Wednesday the book had arrived via Amazon (my parents became Prime members, but even so, that’s some fast shipping).

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War” (2011) chronicles the life of John Brown, the militant abolitionist, and his warfare on “the peculiar institution” of slavery which culminated in leading a force of armed blacks and whites on a raid of Harpers Ferry, a federal armory in what was then Virginia (and what is now West Virginia).

Horwitz is the author of now four books (I’ve read all but “Blue Latitudes,” but never fear: there is a copy on one of my bookshelves) but this is the first that is entirely set in the past.  Both “Confederates” and “A Voyage Long and Strange” intercut between Tony’s present exploration of the past with that very past.  It’s very effective in “Confederates” (a must read if you’re a Civil War or U.S. history buff) but I found it less than wonderful in “A Voyage.”  In “Midnight Rising” it would be laughable to attempt.  This is not a cheery book, it’s dark and fucking depressing.  One of the raiders Brown brought with him to Harpers Ferry was a freed slave named Dangerfield Newby who had collected $700 to buy his wife and children, still slaves, into freedom, only to be informed by their owner that he was raising their price.  Planning on liberating them by force, Newby accompanied Brown and … well, let’s just say this isn’t the stuff sweet heart-warming Lifetime movies are made of.

I didn’t know a lot about John Brown before I read this.  I knew the basics: John Brown was a white guy who disliked slavery and who raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an effort to start a slave insurrection.  I knew that future Confederate General Robert Lee commanded a force of U.S. Marines who defeated Brown and his men, and that Brown was subsequently hanged.

There’s a lot more to the story than that.  Horwitz discusses Southern fears about a slave rebellion and also the horror to which they viewed the lionization of Brown in the North after his death — and a hint that, despite the grand plans he had for fermenting a war of liberation (including free black communities in the mountains with their own armies to defend against whites), perhaps it was all just a red herring and Brown had no plans other than to use his own death to plunge the country into a war which he believed would end slavery.

And he succeeded.

I have sometimes asked myself if John Brown was an American terrorist.  Having read “Midnight Rising,” I think I can answer that.  Yes, he was.  But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also an American hero.

Sort of interesting post-script: when asked by a reporter if white people could join the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X said no, but added an exception: “If John Brown were still alive, we might accept him.”


I was contacted by a representative from Macmillan Audio, who asked me to include a clip from the audiobook, narrated by Dan Oreskes, to this post.  The clip runs about 10 minutes and is available here.