In this book the author tells the tale of the daring insurrection that put America on the path to bloody war. Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, this work portrays Brown's uprising revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale." This book travels antebellum America to deliver both a historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided, a time that still resonates in ours.
Most Americans probably have a vague idea of Brown’s raid but what Horwitz does is bring it to life. After relating Brown’s personal history and the fundamental beliefs that make him such a vocal opponent of slavery, we hear about the run-up to the raid. Brown’s biggest difficulties are securing funding and acquiring the men who will make up his army. After producing a new “constitution,” he has to settle for a much smaller army than that which he was seeking. A mere twenty men join him at a farmhouse just outside Harper’s Ferry in October, 1859 and more than one of them think the Captain’s plan for taking the arsenal has holes in it. For one thing, he’s counting on the slaves who live in the area to join him in the raid, to provide the extra strength that he’s lacking from his small band of men. But the slaves know absolutely nothing about the invasion.
Although Brown developed a fairly decent number of benefactors, both financial and intellectual, including Frederick Douglass, most of them could see the flaws in his plan, flaws that eventually led to the killing or capturing and, eventually, execution of most of the raiders.
The last part of the book looked at the result of the raid and identified it as the start of the Civil War, usurping the designation usually reserved for Fort Sumter. While awaiting execution, Brown held court in his jail cell to many important visitors, and word spread like wildfire among the anti-slavery Northerners that a hero had attempted to put an end to slavery by freeing the slaves in Virginia. This set the stage for the hordes of people anxious to honor him as his coffin made its way home to the upstate NY farm where his wife lived:
“The slow transit of Brown’s body from Virginia afforded a further opportunity for northern adoration.. The day after the execution, Mary Brown boarded a train in Harper’s Ferry and escorted her husband’s coffin to Philadelphia, where the crowd awaiting the funeral train was so large that the mayor feared a riot.” (Page 260)
Horwitz leads us to the explanation of how the Harper’s Ferry raid came to be thought of as the real start of the Civil War by revealing the statements of men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, among others, who admired John Brown. Even the Quakers, who never condone violence, respected Brown. His legend continued to grow in the years following the war.
I fully appreciate this well-researched book, exposing, as it does, a time in our country’s history that we can take no pride in. Highly recommended.
Horwitz's account of John Brown and his famous raid on United States armory at Harper's Ferry is detailed but not overwhelmingly so. The character of the enigmatic man, John Brown, comes alive through excerpts of his own writing and that of contemporaries who knew him.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first, we learn basics of his upbringing by a sternly religious abolitionist father; his failed business dealings as a young man (presaging how lack of financial common sense would plague his anti-slavery work); and his increasingly radical abolitionist views. We follow him as attempts a utopian project in upstate New York, battles in Bleeding Kansas, and lays the foundation for his audacious attempt at insurrection.
The second section focuses on the final months of preparation and the actual raid on Harper's Ferry. We see Brown again struggling with the "business" end of his endeavors. Organizational issues, dissension among his men, and the struggle to avoid detection are key parts of the drama leading up to the raid. Quite interesting to me were the roles of his daughter Annie and daughter-in-law Martha in keeping his endeavors hidden from prying eyes. Of course, the raid itself is the centerpiece, and Horwitz provides plenty of interesting detail here.
The final section details the aftermath of Brown's raid: the interrogations, trials, executions, and impact on public opinion. This was actually my favorite section of the book, because Horwitz skillfully made me more fully appreciate the of impact Brown's supposedly "insane" act upon events, shortly thereafter, which significantly shaped the United States. Horwitz examines the turning tide of opinion regarding Brown in the North, and how it impacted Southern actions. Horwitz also briefly follows some figures on both sides of the events -- and even the town of Harper's Ferry itself -- into the Civil War and beyond. And he examines the question: what, really, was John Brown's plan all along? Did what he said about his plan match his actions? What was he thinking? While acknowledging that we can never really know the man's mind for sure -- beyond his desire to strike a blow against slavery -- Horwitz offers insights about how Brown's self-identification with certain Biblical figures may have figured into his thoughts.
Midnight Rising was an interesting, insightful book that I enjoyed reading and heartily recommend.
The earlier chapters are really a biography of Brown.While his earlier life is interesting, the years that led up to the raid--the planning, the recruiting, the search for funds--is so exactingly and minutely described that it is utterly boring. Do I care if I know the 26 2/3 fake identities that Brown used during this time? Frankly, no.
And that’s the trouble with Horwitz’s book--he buried the story in excruciating--and ultimately boring--detail. And, I might add, a book for which the reader may not be prepared given the title. As one who reads extensively in Civil War literature of all kinds, I was expecting pretty much a military history, with some information about the lead-up to the raid and its aftermath. I was NOT expecting what the book really is--a biography of John Brown. And I can see why he had to pad it out in that was--there is simply not enough in the 36 hour raid to justify an entire book, despite the relentless detail that Horwitz pours into it.
Also, the title leads someone not familiar with the political and social history of the 10 years previous to the outbreak of war that somehow Brown’s raid set off the Civil War. Not true. The raid occurred in October of 1859 and the war itself did not start until April, 1961. There was no single event that can be said to have “sparked’ the Civil War. There were many contributing factors: the Kansas Nebraska Act being one of the main ones. Pennsylvania’s most worthless political son, President James Buchanan, being another. In reality, the fighting started after Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to aid in the collecting of duties and imposts in what he and the North regarded as Union territory and which the South claimed. Trumpeting “invasion”, the South formed armies and the war was on.
To me, Horwitz does not make a convincing case. Yes, Brown’s raid was an important event. If Horwitz wants to cast it as some sort of “last straw” in terms of secession sentiment in the South, he’d be better off. Even then, his case wouldn’t be that solid, since South Carolina had been calling for secession before that and there were plenty of fire-eaters in the South, Edwin Ruffin among them, who were urging secession long before Brown’s raid.
I’m not sure that 2 1/2 stars isn't be too generous.
However, much of his training as a newspaper reporter and neutral observer still shows through, in that he merely states what people said or did, without much insight or interpretation. Although John Brown showed many actions to invoke terror, especially with his murder and dismemberment of opponents during the Kansas actions, Tony Horwitz steadfastly refuses to consider him a terrorist, or further exlore this charge, which is unusual after the events of 9/11.
Any reflections on the psychology of John Brown are also avoided in this book, even though he apparently quotes from other unattributed authors, who did. Perhaps the authors are both quoting from the same historical resource, although the footnotes in the reviewed pre-publication galley proof are not clear on this. (The book also lacks an index, which is needed with so many names and places mentioned.)
Yet John Brown also showed magical and fantastical thinking in his actions and writings, which led to poor planning and an even worse execution of his plans. These grandiose plans also are not explored to any great depth- they are only reported. An account of how John Brown carelessly left papers in the open, giving the names and accounts of his supporters, especially the “Secret Six” Northern abolitionists who supplied him with money, arms and support, is investigated, but then the account is suddenly dropped as the author goes on to another subject.
Also, John Brown made no move to pack up the military arms captured at Harpers Ferry and either store them in armed redoubts nearby or distribute them to escaping slaves he wanted to enlist. Again, an interesting line of inquiry is opened by the author, but not sufficiently investigated or interpreted.
In spite of these omissions, I enjoyed the book a great deal. Mr. Horwitz tells again the ever-dramatic story leading up to the raid, and the divisions that split our nation into North and South, as well as East and West. The overview of Bleeding Kansas and the earlier conflict in the book was not in-depth or profound, but is nevertheless adequate to explain some of the passion and anger that led to massacres and atrocities on both sides.
The account of the raid itself is well paced, and easily told. There is little new here in this book, although the story has many areas of interest and many sidelines that can easily distract the reader and the author.
The story of the capture John Brown and his men and their trial and their execution were also interesting. Several flips in American jurisprudence were shown in the trial. For example, The Dred Scott Decision of the Supreme Court found that blacks had no rights that need to be protected by the state. This meant that the charges of treason against the surviving black members of raid had to be dropped by the prosecution, since they could not betray a state of which they could not have citizenship.
There is also an interesting account of the change from initial horror about the raid in the North, to increasing admiration and support as John Brown’s hanging came nearer and nearer, and then how, after his death, he was made into a martyr and symbol for the abolitionist parties.
All in all, it is a good read. And I suppose like all good history books, it forms questions more than it gives answers. These questions turn the readers to other sources to satisfy their curiosity and knowledge of this amazing chapter in American history. And that is always a good thing.
That's one way to look at it, anyway.
In the radio interviews Tony Horwitz did last year for his latest book, Midnight Rising, he made the claim that the raid on Hapers Ferry, Virginia led by John Brown could be seen as the first battle in America's Civil War. An interesting proposition, I thought.
While his book is a very good read, it's much more of a straightforward account of John Brown's later life and the raid on Harpers Ferry than it is an argument in favor of a new interpretation of those events. You'll gain a much deeper understanding of these men and of the consequences of the raid on Harpers Ferry from reading Midnight Rising, but Mr. Horwitz does not go as far in print as I recall him going in his radio interviews. He does make the case that the period of America's Civil War can be seen as book-ended by two violent events, the raid at Harpers Ferry and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the days following the close of the war, but he does not argue that John Brown started the Civil War as I was expecting him to do.
It's become a standard practice in non-fiction to divide a history text into three parts, before the event, the event and after the event. Mr. Horwitz follows this form in Midnight Rising. John Brown's life before the raid on Harpers Ferry is not what will draws most readers to his story, but it is interesting. John Brown was an extremist in defense of liberty, as Senator Barry Goldwater famously once put it. His early life included participation in the struggle known as "Bloody Kansas" where he most likely got actual blood on his hands. A hardscrabble farmer, he married several times, buried many children and raised many more. A staunch abolitionist, he stood out as extreme for his belief that blacks were the equals of whites--they were welcome at his dinner table as his intellectual equals, something no other substantial abolitionist of his day believed. But even with that in mind, he does not strike one as a heroic character until the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Even the raid revealed his own flaws as much as it did his strengths. The raid was badly planned, badly executed, a disaster. No one, northerner let alone southerner, approved or supported the raid once word of it spread. It wasn't until John Brown's trial began that public opinion began to create the folk hero celebrated in "John Brown's Body" which became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Reading Midnight Rising, I began to suspect that the trial was the point, not the raid itself. John Brown predicted this in a letter he wrote in 1851, almost ten years earlier:
"Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. The trial for life of one bold and to some extent successful man, for defending his rights in good earnest, would arouse more sympathy throughout the nation that the accumulated wrongs and suffering of more than three millions of our submissive colored population."
His own trial surely proved him right on this point. That John Brown survived the raid on Harpers Ferry is a near miracle as Mr. Horwitz's detailed account of what happened makes very clear. The story was a media sensation by the end of the day. People throughout the country hungered for information, for any detail or rumor they could find. His trial was closely followed throughout the north and the south, one growing increasingly fearful for their homes and property, the other increasingly ashamed at their own lack of bravery, their own inability to do much more than politely object to what they considered a great moral wrong.
Mr. Howritz explains that while John Brown was not much of an orator, his words worked wonderfully well in print, moving the reading public much more than they ever did those who could hear his courtroom defense. His words to the court after sentencing are particularly moving:
"...Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proven, had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
"This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the new Testament. That teaches me that all things 'whatsoever I would men should do to me I should do ever so to them.' It teaches me, further, to 'remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.' I endeavored to act up to these instructions.
"I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was no wrong but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!"
This is John Brown speaking off-the-cuff. Apparently, he did not know that he would be given the chance to speak in court the day he was sentenced. None of the officers of the court paid much attention to him. The court reporter did not bother to enter his speech into the court transcripts. It was only the newspaper reporters in the audience who bothered to write it down. In the end, this speech would awaken an anti-slavery movement as well as a pro-slavery south. These were fighting words. The fight would soon follow.
Which is as close as Mr. Horwitz comes to saying out-right that Harpers Ferry was the first battle in the Civil War. While this is not the conclusion I came to after reading Midnight's Rising it is clear to me that this was a moment when the country appeared to recognize that something had to be done, and that whatever was done, a fight was probably coming.
“I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”
And as Horwitz points out, “Whether or not his military plan succeeded, Brown believed his strike [at Harpers Ferry] would shock the nation and shake down the pillars of slavery. And he was fully prepared to perish amid the rubble of a sinful society he had so long sought to destroy.”
Because there were so many complicated factors leading up to the attack on Harpers Ferry, Horwitz cannot tell John Brown’s story without also explaining the events that influenced Brown, such as the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which requires an explanation of the Compromise of 1850, which in turn necessitates an explanation of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, and so on. This part of the book is rather dry, as it is delivered without any analytical fanfare.
The pacing picks up when the actual raid on Harpers Ferry begins, and in particular, when Horwitz recounts the astounding aftereffects of the raid on the American public. While today, Brown’s raid is looked at as a small point on the causation vector leading to the Civil War, Horwitz makes a convincing argument that in fact, as Frederick Douglass contended, it was Harpers Ferry rather than Fort Sumter, that was “the true start of the nation’s great conflict.”
As Horwitz argues, the whole event might just have simmered and died, had it not been for the “beatification” of Brown in the North, which horrified Southerners and convinced them that “The North, at heart, was abolitionist, and its leaders could not be trusted to uphold the constitutional protections afforded slavery.”
Horwitz offers many striking examples of strong reaction in the country to Brown’s hanging, from Northerners who were outraged and saw Brown as a martyr, to Southern “fire-eaters” who were ecstatic that this could be the catalyst to stir the South to arms. As the abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote, “History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harpers Ferry…John Brown has loosened the roots of the slave system; it only breathes - it does not live – hereafter.”
Perhaps most important is the effect Brown had on Lincoln, who at first was dismissive of Brown’s actions. Later, however, Lincoln came to hold views so close to Brown’s that his second inaugural sounds much like the climax the extemporaneous speech given by Brown in the court that condemned him to death:
“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!”
Compare that to Lincoln’s language in his second inaugural address:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
And of course, Lincoln and Brown shared more than their feelings about slavery: Horwitz does not miss the fact that John Wilkes Booth traveled to see Brown hang; he writes that “Harpers Ferry and Lincoln’s assassination became bookends to the great national bloodletting over slavery.”
Evaluation: This book is not as “fun” as others by Horwitz, but deals with a critical time in America’s history. Further, it does so from the perspective of ordinary citizens in the country instead of elected officials who usually form the basis of what we know about the events leading up to the Civil War. These ordinary citizens made a huge difference, and the lessons we can take from them are manifold.
In summation: I probably shouldn't have been reading this on the train because of the noises/faces I ended up making, but it was totally and utterly worth it. Excellent read, but it's going to rip you right to shreds and Horwitz's works give the worst book hangovers ever.
All the same, I enjoyed the read and found the history lesson very interesting, particularly the last quarter of the book.
My interest in selecting the book was the role of a religious fanatic, John Brown, and his impact on our history. I say religious fanatic because ,using his religious principles, he decided that was adequate justification to use force to overturn slavery. And while I don't think there is much argument today that slavery was a vile institution that needed to be abolished, I do believe that in is his day, he was viewed as a terrorist, by both the North and the South. Even Abraham Lincoln denounced Brown initially before later deciding that his principles, abolition even if it meant war, was worthy.
Fast forward to this day in time. We seem to have equally strong concerns being voiced about the Constitution. Brown believed, as I do, that it was flawed for it's allowing for the institution of slavery, and as the book clearly shows, he was willing to die for his cause to change it. And he did of course, pursuant to the very rules set out by the Constitution he challenged . Though the jury pool was a stacked deck, he indeed received a trial.
Many amendments have since been made that corrected for some of the evils and shortcomings of that otherwise great document. What appears now is a sort of reversal; many now claim that freedom, the foundation of our Constitution, is under severe attack, and is at great risk of it's ultimate demise.
Read books authored by Senator Jim DeMint or Judge Andrew Napalitiono, among many others and you cannot avoid their message...Freedom is in grave trouble. Only recently our Congress enacted the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which includes authorization for the POTUS to have U.S. citizens picked-up by the military and hauled off to prison indefinitely, based on mere suspicion...all in the interest of US security (Sec 1021). Like slavery, this is CLEARLY contrary to Constitutional principles. Unlike slavery, this law which denies Habeas Corpus as well as a trial by jury, directly violates the Constitution. And it is brought to you by our law-makers, the so-called protectors of the Constitution.
The rule of law effectively denied John Brown any venue for resolving what he knew was wrong. It likewise seems to me that this same rule of law effectively is denying citizens a peaceful means for ensuring that the spirit of the Constitution is upheld. Can our freedoms truly be protected peacefully?
It may be that our solution is a reincarnation of a John Brown. I realize that's not conventional thinking, just as it was unconventional for a John Brown to feel the need to resort to violence for seeking a remedy to the slavery issue. Yet, the rule of law today seems as toothless as it was back when John Brown made his decision to end slavery, or die trying. It isn't working, the new NDAA law clearly proves that, and yet Americans are still asleep today as they were when slavery was the law.
But Slavery was solved, after John Brown was executed...and 600,000 lives were lost before it was over.
What price this time?
Midnight Rising is a true story about a man who trusted his own principles more that his government. He was right to believe that. And, he paid with his life, compliments of that government.
The author provides information on the early life of Brown that helped form his ideas of right and wrong and contributed to his abolitionist views. Brown was like a moral policeman and felt a compulsion to punish actions that he considered wrong. Brown went to Kansas and was a participant in the “border war” between Kansas and Missouri over the question of slave state or free state for Kansas.
When Brown started planning for the raid, he received some support from some abolitionists that are called the “Secret Six.” Still, Brown was never able to acquire the number of men he hoped to have as active participants in the raid. His plans seemed to be overly optimistic and not well thought out. Horwitz asks some interesting questions regarding what Brown’s plans really were. Brown seemed to believe that even is his attack on Harpers Ferry was not successful, that it would still have a positive affect on the country and eventually lead to the elimination of slavery.
After covering Brown’s early life and the attack, Horwitz also covers the trial of Brown and his stoic acceptance of his ultimate punishment. It is interesting reading about some of Brown’s defenders and the reactions in the country. Horwitz completes the book with a look at the other surviving participants in the raid, whether they escaped or were also brought to trial and hanged.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about this piece of our country’s history.
The author does a wonderful job of tracing Brown's early roots, his fights in bloody Kansas and his ability to bring disparate groups together in support of the anti-slavery movement. Brown went further in his actions to free slaves then even the most ardent abolitionists of his time and his actions shook the Nation to its core.
- John Brown 1859
On a misty Sunday night, in mid-October, 1859, a rag-tag group of men, made up of whites and blacks, seized the armory at Harper’s Ferry, with the intention of causing a major slave revolt. This band was led by a fiery abolitionist named John Brown. His mission failed but it helped spark the bloodiest war in American history.
This story covers Brown’s puritanical upbringing, his hatred of slavery and his various schemes to deliver a blow to the South’s most beloved institution.
The author covers the subject with ease and authority. He also succeeds in portraying Brown, not as a crazed fanatic, but as a principled, deeply religious man.
An added bonus for me, was seeing several southern military figures, make an appearance here, after the raid, like Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.
This is a very good read and one I highly recommend.
Drawing heavily on first-person accounts and preserved correspondence, Horwitz reconstructs the audacious and bizarre adventure from the months of secret planning and preparations for the roughly 20 men involved, through the desperate 48 hours of the raid itself, and the subsequent six weeks when those involved were tried and executed. What emerges is a baffling tale of a charismatic zealot whose scattered military strategy defies reasonable explanation, but whose demeanor at the climax of the raid and through his trial, imprisonment, and execution galvanized opinions in North and South.
The raid itself, as Horwitz makes clear, was poorly conceived and executed, achieving no discernible objective -- no slaves were freed, no weapons were captured, and almost no one involved in the raiding party escaped arrest and execution. Indeed, there is an implicit question underlying much of the narrative: was Brown a brilliant rabble-rouser who devised the perfect scheme to arouse feelings about slavery or was he a charismatic fighter whose abilities never matched up to his grandiose notion of himself? Horwitz himself seems torn as to which is more likely.
Regardless of Brown's plan or any deep-held goals of agitation, there is no denying that the rushed trial and execution of Brown by the state of Virginia, and Brown's noble response throughout, significantly increased the meaning of the raid. The emotional attention paid turned Brown, who could easily have been dismissed as a violent madman, into a brilliant devil for most southerners and ultimately a martyr for a surprising number of northerners.
Horwitz shares this story efficiently for a broad audience. He is a sympathetic author to the many actors in the historical drama, refraining from any judgmental tone, which is rather refreshing given the proclivities of many historians to be much more partisan regarding John Brown.
This is not just another retelling of the already well-known events of October 16-18, 1859, instead, it is an in-depth but very readable account. Horwitz writes not only of the raid, which would make John Brown hero and martyr to some and rebel and villain to others, but also of his life leading up to it.
Midnight Rising's pre-raid portion examines Brown's early and family life, his participation in the Bleeding Kansas Border War, his trips to the North to solicit funds from Northern abolitionists for his Kansas operations and the raid at Harper's Ferry, the formation of the Secret Six, and his final preparations for the raid.
Midnight Rising also covers John Brown's trial and final days prior to his execution.
It also briefly explores the effect of Brown's raid on that great American conflict, the Civil War.
I greatly enjoyed reading Midnight Rising and I learned some things I didn't know before, which is always a good thing.
For instance, John Brown had plans to set up a new Government, complete with a Provisional Constitution (previously drafted by a group which included himself and a number of free blacks living in Canada), over whatever territory he managed to hold with the weapons he intended to get from the Harper's Ferry arsenal and the slaves he believed would rise up and join his cause.
As a Southerner, I was disappointed with Horwitz's comparison of Brown's Provisional Constitution and the Confederate Provisional Constitution as similar. Brown's was an act of rebellion by a few private persons, while the Confederacy's was the act of the elected representatives of the people of several States.
Overall, I liked this book and have given it a rating of 4.5/5.
Brown grew up poor, one of many children, and he stayed poor while fathering a large number of children himself. He was not successful in anything he tried, mostly farming. He was deeply religious. and believed he was doing God's work in opposing slavery. When the battle over slavery was being waged so bloodily in Kansas, he and some of his sons fought on the anti-slavery side and in one raid he and his crew murdered several pro-slavery men.
Horwitz tells the story of the raid on Harper's Ferry in detail, including the months of preparation which included raising money from a few wealthy abolitionists and recruiting men. He never did manage to recruit as many as he thought he needed, nor raise enough money, but he went ahead with the plan. He believed that by raiding the Federal Armory at Harper's Ferry he could arm slaves who would rise against their masters and begin the war that wound end slavery. His plan was hopelessly unrealistic and poorly done. He didn't have much of an exit strategy. In the end, it failed dismally, resulting in a few casualties to civilians, and the death of many of his small band, including two of his sons. He was captured. and in the few months before his death impressed many in the North with his courage and burning words on the evils of slavery.
Would the war have happened without John Brown's raid? Probably. But it was one of the major precipitating factors among other things such as the Fugitive Slave Act, the fight in Kansas and Missouri, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Dred Scott decision, etc. Horwitz raises the intriguing possibility that perhaps the raid was so poorly planned because Brown recognized that a martyr to the cause of abolition would increase abolitionist sentiment in the North.
Horwitz tells the story in a nice style that never gets in the way of the story. In the end, Brown's story makes me think uncomfortably of those who murder abortion doctors. I view slavery as the worst evil perpetrated by humans, but do not view abortion as murder. Yet I can see a similarity in those persuaded God commands them to murder to stop a great evil.
I recommend the book to those interested in a good story, or the history of the U.S. Civil War, or both.