Review: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War

Tony Horwitz has picked a remarkable subject for this history.  His claim that Brown’s tactically laughable attempt to mount a series of slave insurrections in 1859 was strategically brilliant is well taken.  The raid both galvanized abolitionists in the North and convinced the South that Northern public opinion was widely united against them.  Horwitz goes into detail because while many Americans know of the attack, few know any details.  It is fascinating to understand how one lone fanatic catalyzed the largest and most violent social change in American history.

Horwitz does not quite make the situation understandable, but he does lay out Brown’s history and actions clearly.  Brown is a largely unremarkable 19th Century American who is monomaniacal about abolition.  Though driven to act, his limitations as a marginal leader and planner prevent him from forming a directly feasible plan.  Furthermore, even the infeasible plan is pretty poorly executed.  Yet the history of secession and abolition run through the raid.

He also shows that the times were on abolition’s side. In another time, Brown’s raid might have been taken by the South as proof of that abolitionists were a violent fringe group without support or skills and by the North as evidence that abolitionists were unhinged radicals whose methods were unconscionable.  Brown’s powerful, theatrical martyrdom steers the reaction away from those possibilities.  While Brown is clearly not someone who can plan an insurgency, he can die operatically for a principle, and that makes all the difference in his legacy.  So does the overall shape of national opinion at the time.

Outside of the introduction, Horwitz does not tie Brown’s legacy to recent martyrs.  McVeigh, the 9/11 terrorists, and many others who have launched doomed attacks to further their beliefs have been largely unsuccessful in impelling events toward what they believe to be righteous. I’d like to hope that is because those people were misguided fanatics; but that’s how many would have characterized Brown in 1845. There are evidently times when bold and doomed violence changes the world – sometimes for the better.  While Brown’s story does not in itself tell when those times are or why it is so, it captures a clear case to study.

This is an interesting, well told history that makes you think.  Strongly recommended.

Comments are closed.