stealthily, with guns, pikes, gunpowder and torches, abolitionist John Brown's band of 18 men managed to seize control of the massive U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., just before midnight on Sunday, Oct. 16, 1859. Their objective? To foment a local slave uprising that would eventually spread to liberate every slave in the South.
This outrageous attack, led by a man who has been labeled both a madman and a saint over the years, brought into glaring focus the wide gulf between the pro- and anti-slavery factions of this nation at that time. More profoundly, it also ignited the Civil War.
That attack is the subject of Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. Author Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker and is the bestselling author of Confederates in the Attic, A Voyage Long and Strange and Blue Latitudes. In Midnight Rising, he not only gives us an action-packed adventure story, but also provides detailed historical background and vivid character portraits of the principals involved.
Of the magnetic, wild insurrectionist John Brown, who had described himself as arrogant, domineering and full of self-certitude, Horwitz writes that he was brought up in the harsh Calvinist faith, which held that slavery was "a breach of divine law (that) would bring down God's wrath upon the land." Horwitz goes on to inform us of Brown's endless failed business ventures and of his murderous anti-slavery forays at Pottawatomie Creek, Kan., in 1856 and in Missouri in 1858.
His moral fervor in full sway, Brown subsequently set his sights on the huge federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He eventually enlisted the members for his team, including two of his sons, a teenage daughter, a former slave desperate to free his wife from bondage, a poet who would act as a spy, and various discontented idealists, writes Horwitz.
The "Secret Six," a covert group of "northern magnates and prominent Harvard men," provided financial backing, while leading thinkers and activists of the time such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Henry David Thoreau provided moral support.
Horwitz informs us that after spending the entire summer of 1859 concealed in a Maryland farmhouse 5 miles from Harpers Ferry, Brown's group was ready to make its move. The 18 raiders reached Harpers Ferry just before midnight on Oct. 16. Within minutes, they cut telegraph lines and took control of the rail lines, the river bridges, the U.S. arsenal and the gigantic industrial complex where the federal government's newest weapons were manufactured. The raiders also took hostages.
As the drama unfolded the first casualty was Heyward Shepherd, a free black baggage master shot through the back and killed at the railway depot.
Pandemonium broke out; wild gun battles ensued as the townspeople realized their desperate situation. Horwitz is excellent at providing the blow-by-blow details. He recounts how 23-year-old raider Steward Taylor was shot at the engine house door: "He suffered very much and begged us to kill him," wrote his comrade Edwin Coppoc.
The author also describes the horrific death of raider William Leeman, who, pursued by townspeople down a Potomac embankment, stopped on a large rock, raised his hands and cried "Don't shoot!" Horwitz writes, "One of the men approached the rock, raised his gun, and shot Leeman in the face."
But the author also describes the lighter details of the drama, such as Brown's allowing hostage Armistead Ball, the armory's master machinist, to go home, escorted by two guards, "to tell his family that he was safe, and to eat breakfast."
The violent endgame came on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 18, as 90 federal Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee (yes, that one) and Lt. J.E.B. Stuart attacked the engine house where the raiders and their hostages were barricaded. One Marine was killed, one wounded. Four raiders were killed, and John Brown was severely slashed in the neck with a Marine's sword and stabbed. Horwitz chronicles in detail how Brown was tried and then hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.
In the entire Harpers Ferry raid, 10 raiders were killed, and five men were killed by the raiders. No slaves revolted.
Assiduously researched using archival sources, Horwitz's riveting tale is on sound factual footing. And he does a wonderful job of bringing to life the fascinating, messianic leader who, on the way to the gallows, would incite a nation toward civil war with these prophetic words, written as he left his cell for execution: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood."
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.