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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011 A Library Journal Top Ten Best Books of 2011 A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011 Bestselling author Tony Horwitz tells the electrifying 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 A New York Times Notable Book for 2011 A Library Journal Top Ten Best Books of 2011 A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011 Bestselling author Tony Horwitz tells the electrifying 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, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, 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 dashing 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." Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates in ours.


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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011 A Library Journal Top Ten Best Books of 2011 A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011 Bestselling author Tony Horwitz tells the electrifying 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 A New York Times Notable Book for 2011 A Library Journal Top Ten Best Books of 2011 A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011 Bestselling author Tony Horwitz tells the electrifying 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, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, 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 dashing 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." Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates in ours.

30 review for Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    “Once on the [gallows] platform, [John] Brown obligingly positioned himself beneath the hanging rope. Facing south and a little east, toward the Shenandoah River, he had a commanding view of the crowded field, the rolling farmland beyond, and the gentle arc of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Born in the hard, stony hills of northwestern Connecticut, he would cast his last gaze at the fertile valley of Virginia. And his final company on the gallows would be, not the black children and slave mother he’d “Once on the [gallows] platform, [John] Brown obligingly positioned himself beneath the hanging rope. Facing south and a little east, toward the Shenandoah River, he had a commanding view of the crowded field, the rolling farmland beyond, and the gentle arc of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Born in the hard, stony hills of northwestern Connecticut, he would cast his last gaze at the fertile valley of Virginia. And his final company on the gallows would be, not the black children and slave mother he’d hoped for, but the portly, top-hatted sheriff…and the jailer and slave dealer, John Avis. Brown raised his pinioned arms to shake their hands, and then the two men tied his ankles, pulled a white hood over his head, and adjusted the noose around his neck. Avis asked Brown to step forward, onto the trap door…” - Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War “Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth today?” - W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown Today, John Brown – the wizened man with the beard of an Old Testament prophet, and the personality to match – is mostly remembered, if at all, as a footnote in the vast historiography of the American Civil War. Today, he is just another marker on a timeline that includes the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, Dredd Scott v. Sandford, and Bleeding Kansas (where Brown first entered the public stage, in murderous fashion). Today, John Brown’s bracing moral clarity – and his lethally precipitate actions – are lost in a fog of euphemisms such as “state’s rights.” But that is today. In his own time, his contemporaries recognized what he had done and what he meant. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry in 1859 “did more to shake the foundations of slavery than any single thing that ever happened in America.” Frederick Douglass, who knew Brown personally and disagreed with his plans, stated that: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.” Herman Melville wrote a poem in which he called John Brown, quite simply, “[t]he meteor of the war.” Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising is an attempt to recapture that John Brown, the John Brown who took it upon himself to nudge destiny along. As characters go, he is tough to beat: the man who led a rag-tag group of idealists and adventurers in a harebrained scheme to steal weapons from the U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry, arm escaped slaves, and start a war; the man who went to Kansas and murdered pro-slave settlers in cold blood; the man who was not just an abolitionist, but a believer in equality; the man of whom Frederick Douglass once said: “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him;” the man who went to the gallows without flinching, his final written statement a prophecy: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Despite the exceptional raw materials for his book, the early going of Midnight Rising is unexpectedly slow. At 290 pages of text, this is a short book, and I never thought about quitting. Yet it surprised me how uninvolved I felt, even at the halfway point. The problem is that this is not a typical Tony Horwitz book. Horwitz made his reputation (a sterling, Pulitzer Prize-winning reputation) writing what I call Historical Road Trips. He would choose a topic (the Civil War, Columbus, Captain Cook) and then hit the road (or the water), traveling to the locales himself, talking to local historians, researchers, and enthusiasts. He then produced books that combined the wit and charm of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation with impeccable reportage and deep insight. (A sad side note: Horwitz recently died, quite suddenly, at the age of sixty. Undoubtedly, he had many more stories to tell. The tragedy, as always: Life is too short; the library is too large). Instead of taking that route here, Horwitz decides to present Midnight Rising as a straight history (with the exception of a brief, first-person prologue). The result is a semi-inert retelling of Brown’s early life, his bad business dealings, his growing radicalism, and his shadowy ties to the Secret Six (wealthy northerners who financed his escapades). I’m not saying this was terrible, by any means, but it fell far below my expectations from Horwitz, and did nothing to separate itself from Evan Carton’s Patriotic Treason. Then comes the raid itself, which is delivered with novelistic detail, narrative coherence, and gripping style. Helped along by a great map of the area, Horwitz delivers the full, bloody, brutal raid, from the accidental shooting of a free black man by Brown’s men (an inauspicious way to begin their crusade), to the slaughter of escaping raiders as they floundered helplessly in the Potomac River, to their final capture in an engine house, by Marines commanded by some feller named Robert Lee, who would have a role to play in the war to come. It is the fullest, best account of Brown’s misbegotten action I have ever read. Midnight Rising reaches a high peak at this point, and it is natural that there is a comedown as Horwitz deals with the judicial aftermath. Still, his recreation of the gunfight at the corner of Potomac and Shenandoah is worth the cover price. That said, I can’t help but wish that Horwitz had given Midnight Rising his usual treatment. This is a topic that calls out for an on-the-ground exploration. I would have loved to have had Horwitz ask Americans – both white and black – what John Brown means to them, or if they recognized the name at all. Because to me, the question of what John Brown symbolizes today is fascinating. Personally, I see in him a rebuke to the notion that the Civil War was ever about anything other than slavery. And his actions – in his willingness to hang from the neck until dead (the New York Tribune said he strangled, jerked, and quivered for five minutes) – serve as a counterpoint to the idea that Americans in the mid-19th century were entirely ignorant of the possibility that slavery was immoral. The proposition of slavery's evil was out there, whether it was believed or not. John Brown put it there, on the front page of every newspaper in the country. And yet, John Brown can also be reckoned a terrorist and a murderer. He took judgment into his own hands. He was the jury and the executioner. Of course, he would say he had right on his side, that he had righteousness. He would say that he had God looking over his shoulder. Yet we today, in the Age of Terror, know all too well how many crimes have been committed in the name of God. Unfortunately, in writing a traditional narrative history, Horwitz misses the opportunity to have engaged this discussion in his own inimitable style. That opportunity is now gone forever. Still, we are left with something worthwhile. A book that serves to remind those who know of John Brown of his importance, and a book that serves to introduce John Brown to those who do not.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mara

    Let me begin by saying that John Brown's mission to end slavery was noble (that's right, I'm taking a stance against slavery – controversial, I know). However, author Tony Horwitz' treatment of the John Brown story offers a more complicated narrative that begs questions that have been easy enough to dismiss in hindsight (especially since the beatification of Brown is passed down through such a catchy tune). The task at hand for Horowitz was, in many ways, similar to that confronted by Eric Meta Let me begin by saying that John Brown's mission to end slavery was noble (that's right, I'm taking a stance against slavery – controversial, I know). However, author Tony Horwitz' treatment of the John Brown story offers a more complicated narrative that begs questions that have been easy enough to dismiss in hindsight (especially since the beatification of Brown is passed down through such a catchy tune). The task at hand for Horowitz was, in many ways, similar to that confronted by Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy (which I, by coincidence, read a few weeks back). Bonhoeffer (who was killed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler) and Brown were both men who sought to oppose institutions that most of us agree were completely amoral. However, as Horwitz described in a PBS interview, the means by which these acts occurred is not something we, as a society, typically sanction. Religious fundamentalism? The right of the individual to oppose their government? All these issues are still troubling and relevant. And that's why I think Brown is still with us. He — he worries us. What do we do with this homegrown American terrorist? Here's where the Bonhoeffer parallel ends, and where John Brown starts raising quite a few red flags for this reader. At the very least, the image of John Brown as the ultimate abolitionist, without whom we might never have gotten around to freeing the slaves, began to feel naïve. A twice married man (though not at the same time), John Brown had twenty children (though eight died while they were very young). A die-hard Calvinist and abolitionist, morals were not something to be taken lightly in the Brown household. Just look at the happy faces of his second wife, Mary Ann, and daughters Annie and Sarah (I'm kidding- I know the photography of the era involved a lot of holding still). Brown comes across as kind of fanatical by nature. Though I try to avoid condemnation by association, it was interesting to me that John Wilkes Booth (an eyewitness to John Brown's execution, and volunteer in the militia that raided Harper's Ferry) was reported to respect Brown's methods (though, obviously, not his mission). Brown seemed more Fred Phelps than Abe Lincoln, but one can only guess at who Brown would have been at another time in another place. This was an interesting read that I would certainly recommend, but it left me feeling a bit inarticulate vis-à-vis my feelings on Old John Brown.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Well, light summer reading this is not, but if you're looking for an affecting portrait of John Brown, this is the book for you. Even if you don't think you want that kind of book you might want to give this one a go. Tony Horwitz is a masterful writer and his straightforward style is perfect for this story. I found myself near tears upon several occasions while reading this book, and that is in part because Horwitz knows how to tell it. His background as a journalist keeps him from getting flow Well, light summer reading this is not, but if you're looking for an affecting portrait of John Brown, this is the book for you. Even if you don't think you want that kind of book you might want to give this one a go. Tony Horwitz is a masterful writer and his straightforward style is perfect for this story. I found myself near tears upon several occasions while reading this book, and that is in part because Horwitz knows how to tell it. His background as a journalist keeps him from getting flowery or boring, and my historian husband says that the book also holds water, history wise. Upon finishing this book I'm left thinking about whether or not John Brown was insane. Lots of people speculated, still do, that he was. Is it because he put his convictions above everything, and I do mean everything, else? It's simultaneously admirable and sad that he and his family endured a life of poverty and sorrow, because he refused to compromise or stay silent in the face of slavery. His final raid on Harpers Ferry didn't prove successful, but Horwitz argues that it was the catalyst for The Civil War, so ultimately it accomplished his goal. His intensity and willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything, sounds terrifying. Frederick Douglass thought he was a crack pot, even William Lloyd Garrison, who was famous for not equivocating on the issue of slavery, was dubious. But was he crazy, or was he just the most committed abolitionist ever, and right to boot?

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kate Lawrence

    Having grown up in eastern Kansas, I've been fascinated by John Brown ever since I saw, as a school child, the stunning mural of him in the Kansas State Capitol building. (The painting is "Tragic Prelude" by Kansas artist John Steuart Curry.) When I learned that Horwitz, one of my favorite historians, had taken up Brown's story, I knew I had to read it, and what better time than on the anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid Oct. 16? Horwitz does thorough and impeccable research, gives his readers Having grown up in eastern Kansas, I've been fascinated by John Brown ever since I saw, as a school child, the stunning mural of him in the Kansas State Capitol building. (The painting is "Tragic Prelude" by Kansas artist John Steuart Curry.) When I learned that Horwitz, one of my favorite historians, had taken up Brown's story, I knew I had to read it, and what better time than on the anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid Oct. 16? Horwitz does thorough and impeccable research, gives his readers the necessary background, and then relates events simply and clearly. One of many facts I hadn't known was that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most eminent intellectual of the period, considered Brown's brief 600 word speech at his sentencing to be one of the finest in America's history. Emerson wrote that it and the Gettysburg Address were "the two best specimens of eloquence we have had in this country." Regarding Brown, who can fail to be moved by someone who lays his life on the line to oppose injustice when all odds are against him? And who later, refusing friends' attempts to rescue him from jail as he awaited execution, chose martyrdom as the most effective blow he could strike against slavery? Whether or not one agrees with his tactics, he stands as a towering figure speaking truth to power at a critical point in American history, and as a source of inspiration in the ongoing struggle of oppressed peoples for freedom.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    ******************** John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds ******************** John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Marie

    Well-written, just dry IMO.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Evan Leach

    ”In firing his gun, John Brown has merely told what time of day it is. It is high noon, thank god.” – William Lloyd Garrison John Brown and his famous Harper’s Ferry raid were two major catalysts of the American Civil War. A fervent abolitionist, Brown believed he was appointed by God to help end the institution of slavery. But unlike other abolitionists of his day, Brown rejected the pacifist approach and turned to violence to achieve his aims. He became a national name during the Kansas skirmis ”In firing his gun, John Brown has merely told what time of day it is. It is high noon, thank god.” – William Lloyd Garrison John Brown and his famous Harper’s Ferry raid were two major catalysts of the American Civil War. A fervent abolitionist, Brown believed he was appointed by God to help end the institution of slavery. But unlike other abolitionists of his day, Brown rejected the pacifist approach and turned to violence to achieve his aims. He became a national name during the Kansas skirmishes of the late 1850s (“Bleeding Kansas”). When southern agitants threatened free-state sympathizers with violence, Brown responded in kind, brutally slaying five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Massacre and raising a small militia to combat pro-slavery forces harassing northerners. But Brown had higher goals in mind. In 1859, Brown led a group of 21 men into Virginia on a daring raid. The group captured the federal armory at Harpers Ferry with only a little difficulty, but things quickly fell apart. Brown’s mission was ostensibly to inspire a slave uprising, but he and his band did little to inform the slave population and incite rebellion. Instead, they holed up in the armory with their hostages, exchanging fire with the townspeople for three days until the U.S. Army (led by Robert E. Lee, of all people) arrived and stormed the armory. Brown and his surviving men would all hang. Less than two years later, the Confederate states seceded and the Civil War began. At first glance, Brown’s raid was a complete failure. The raid was pretty much doomed from the outset and freed zero slaves. Many people, north and south, thought Brown was a total madman. But this book makes a good case that Brown was not crazy, but a fanatic in the full sense of the term. Brown was a deeply religious man, single-minded and obstinate, completely obsessed with ending slavery in the U.S. The Harpers Ferry raid, which was a national sensation, was one of the last two straws (along with the election of Abraham Lincoln) that broke the South’s back and led to secession. After the Harpers Ferry raid, and the very different receptions it received north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, it became crystal clear that the slavery question could only be resolved one way. As Brown himself said on the day of his execution, ““I John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” The interesting question is if Brown realized how inflammatory the raid would prove to be. Horowitz makes the argument that Brown (who had no problem whatsoever of becoming a martyr) probably knew the raid was tactically flawed from the start, but the aftermath would push the slavery compromise to the breaking point. If that’s true, Brown was certainly correct. History would prove to be on John Brown and the other abolitionists’ side. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for the snarling slaveholders that opposed Brown. But John Brown was far from perfect, and this book also explores his dark side. In Kansas, Brown and his men hacked pro-slavery settlers to death with broadswords. He led a number of his sons, relatives, and neighbors to death on the Harpers Ferry attack and his other raids, and put his abolitionist crusade above his long-suffering (and often virtually abandoned) wife. All in all, this was an interesting, well-written account of John Brown’s life and the famous raid that launched the Civil War. 3.5 stars, recommended.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Stacie C

    Years before the South seceded from the Union, John Brown attempted to hold Harper’s Ferry in the slave state of Virginia. What did he want from the raid? He wanted to spark a revolution and the war to come. He wanted to arm the slaves in that town, empty the armory and begin making his way down South freeing the slaves. John Brown was an abolitionist who completely believed that slaves should be free and that the institution of slavery should not exist. Brown was willing to take lives and die Years before the South seceded from the Union, John Brown attempted to hold Harper’s Ferry in the slave state of Virginia. What did he want from the raid? He wanted to spark a revolution and the war to come. He wanted to arm the slaves in that town, empty the armory and begin making his way down South freeing the slaves. John Brown was an abolitionist who completely believed that slaves should be free and that the institution of slavery should not exist. Brown was willing to take lives and die for the cause as was evident on October 16, 1859 and through the thirty six hours that followed. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War is the story of John Brown. Divided into three parts, Horwitz takes his time dissecting the life of Brown looking at his upbringing and belief system, the raid itself and the aftermath. This book was very well rounded and showed a very in-depth look at a man who had a passion for ending slavery. It is brutal, honest and straightforward with its delivery. Horwitz provides fact along with quotes from not only Brown himself, but those that surrounded him, fought against him, family members and politicians. This was extremely well developed, well executed and powerful. I chose this book because I wanted to educate myself on what happened the night of the raid and the days that followed. This offered so much more than just a look at what happened that night. I don’t if anyone can ever truly understand Brown but there was something so amazing about his conviction and his need to free the slaves. He was determined and he committed heinous acts in his quest to end slavery but he was convinced of his calling and he died for it. That’s what made this book so extraordinary. It did a great job in highlighting these aspects of Brown’s life and his need to make a difference. I enjoyed learning about him, and the events that led to that fateful night in October of 1859. Knowing that the events at Harper’s Ferry would make the country ripe for a Civil War made it even more interesting. Horwitz did a great job extending the story. If you are interested in the events that lead up to the Civil War then this is definitely a book I can recommend. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    "Midnight Rising" sheds some light on a historical footnote that many people no longer know much, if anything, about. As someone who loves reading about the Civil War period in American history I was familiar with the generalized versions of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry Virginia in 1859, but Mr. Horwitz's engaging and well researched account give that incident a much wider significance for the modern reader. This text offers an excellent accounting of the political atmosphere in America pr "Midnight Rising" sheds some light on a historical footnote that many people no longer know much, if anything, about. As someone who loves reading about the Civil War period in American history I was familiar with the generalized versions of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry Virginia in 1859, but Mr. Horwitz's engaging and well researched account give that incident a much wider significance for the modern reader. This text offers an excellent accounting of the political atmosphere in America prior to 1859, especially in how it relates to the question of slavery. Horwitz displays a talent for making what could be a dry history tale into the most relevant political lessons. He also does a lively and detailed job showing how John Brown lived and developed as a rabid abolitionist as destiny propelled him to his fate at Harper's Ferry. Most of the information included in this part of the book I knew nothing, or very little, about. The book is also strengthened by the inclusion of numerous photographs and illustrations that enhance the text, and put faces to the many names and characters that people the story. Most of them, with a few exceptions, have been lost to general history and are unfamiliar to us. Mr. Horwtiz makes them real, and more importantly, relevant! Tony Horwitz is best known for writing books that combine history with modern travelogues, and interweaving the tales together. It is a formula that he utilizes quite well, however "Midnight Rising" does not follow that pattern, and many readers seemed disappointed by this shift in Horwitz's focus. I am not among them. This book is a work of popular history, much like the books of Erik Larson, and I hope Mr. Horwitz continues writing in this tradition, as he is quite skilled at it. The book flags a little after the execution of Brown and some of his men, and gets a little redundant. Almost as if the author did not know how to conclude the text. It is still interesting; it just drops in quality from the first ¾ of the text. However, the book ends on a strong note with a poem by Langston Hughes, who in a remarkable coincidence was linked to one of Brown's raiders. Whether John Brown was insane, a domestic terrorist, or a firebrand and avenging angel is left to the reader to decide. Horwtiz stays remarkably neutral in the text (which is a good thing) and the book does a wonderful job showing how full circle the net of history is when Horwitz details how many events that converged in Harper's Ferry in 1859 came back around to that place, or some of its people, in the decades following. The ironies abound and "Midnight Rising" is compelling and thoughtful history!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jack

    This is well done, and it's interesting to see Horwitz write a straight-up historical narrative. People expecting a lot of material on historical memory ala Confederates in the Attic will be disappointed. The structure and pacing are good and for the most part Horwitz provides the right amount of context on issues and places for a popular history. I don't know, however, that I really understand John Brown's personality better for having read it. Except for near the end, when Horwitz makes a good This is well done, and it's interesting to see Horwitz write a straight-up historical narrative. People expecting a lot of material on historical memory ala Confederates in the Attic will be disappointed. The structure and pacing are good and for the most part Horwitz provides the right amount of context on issues and places for a popular history. I don't know, however, that I really understand John Brown's personality better for having read it. Except for near the end, when Horwitz makes a good case that Brown knew the Harper's Ferry raid would fail, the book focuses more on actions than character when it comes to brown. Several of his supporters come through more vividly, which raises the interesting probability that Brown just never betrayed himself much, even in letters to his family (it's also nice to get a bigger sense of Brown's army as a movement, the kind of people it attracted.) The last chapter, when Horwitz talks about the coming of the civil war, is excellent, but given his past work that should hardly be surprising. Horwitz also strikes me as a Brown apologist in this. It's a position with which I sympathize, but it can also minimize some important questions. My understanding of the massacre Brown and his people committed in Kansas, for example, it that it was a terrorist act in the literal sense of the word; Brown sought to kill pro-slavery whites in a manner horrible enough to scare other pro-slavery whites into rethinking or subduing their political position. Horwitz situates Brown's actions amid similar acts – both organized and vigilante, fair fights and attacks on unarmed civilians – committed by proslavery factions against antislavery ones during "Bloody Kansas." The frequency of violence, however, contextualizes the moral quandaries here; it doesn't negate them. What do we, here today, make of someone whose tactics seem inexcusable, except that he mobilized them against possibly the greatest national shame in US history (the systematic genocide of Native Americans being the other possible contender)? That's exactly the kind of place where I'd expect Horwitz's journalistic approaches from past books to let him thrive, but oh well. Horwitz does give his readers enough for people to approach these questions for themselves, even if he does seem to plant himself in the Brown as visionary than crackpot camp. In all, a good exercise in historical story telling.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    Want to know about John Brown? This is the book. I read it in shifts so that's why it took as long as it did. But having been to Harper's Ferry...and living in Northeast Kansas...I still didn't know the John Brown story like Horwitz tells it. Want to know about John Brown? This is the book. I read it in shifts so that's why it took as long as it did. But having been to Harper's Ferry...and living in Northeast Kansas...I still didn't know the John Brown story like Horwitz tells it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Amber Spencer

    3.5 I enjoyed what I learned - the book was a just a little dry.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    Where is the John Brown biopic that we deserve? I think it's best found in this telling, which goes deep into his background, motivations, flaws and strengths with unflinching honesty. So deep, that sometimes in the lead-up and wind-down from the cataclysmic attack, it gets a little dry, but the faithfulness to detail is appropriate. There is nothing more American than the concept of blood redemption, so it's worth exploring this with eyes wide open, lest the wrong people get the wrong lessons. Where is the John Brown biopic that we deserve? I think it's best found in this telling, which goes deep into his background, motivations, flaws and strengths with unflinching honesty. So deep, that sometimes in the lead-up and wind-down from the cataclysmic attack, it gets a little dry, but the faithfulness to detail is appropriate. There is nothing more American than the concept of blood redemption, so it's worth exploring this with eyes wide open, lest the wrong people get the wrong lessons. But to me, as flawed as he was, Brown did the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and that clarity of purpose kicked off the reckoning that left us better. The work isn't done, but without Brown, it's possible we never started.

  14. 4 out of 5

    John Lamb

    What a fascinating story.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kristy Miller

    In modern history textbooks, John Brown's Raid merits a few scant paragraphs. This seems to downplay the impact of the event, which was a direct contributor to the Civil War. Pulitzer winning journalist Tony Horwitz takes on this historical event in his second foray into the Civil War. Unlike Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, this is a straight history book, and so lacks the humorous and thought provoking personal views of the author, but it is an excellent boo In modern history textbooks, John Brown's Raid merits a few scant paragraphs. This seems to downplay the impact of the event, which was a direct contributor to the Civil War. Pulitzer winning journalist Tony Horwitz takes on this historical event in his second foray into the Civil War. Unlike Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, this is a straight history book, and so lacks the humorous and thought provoking personal views of the author, but it is an excellent book in its own right. (Confederates in the attic was one of my favorites from last year.) Horwitz spends the first third of the book giving us a short biography of John Brown, his family, his deep spiritual beliefs and how he came to support violent action on behalf of abolition, and his actions in Kansas during the fight to determine its status as a slavery or free state. The next section covers his preparations for the Harper's Ferry raid, and a breakdown of the event itself. Finally, Horwitz covers Brown's trial, the trials of his men, their executions, and the impact of the whole affair. John Brown's life and death inspired letters and poetry by Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He counted many other literary and philosophical thinkers of the time as his friends and acquaintances. A song, John Brown's Body, was composed, and became a marching song for the North in the coming Civil War. His trial was one of the first breaking news events of the country, and was followed by communities across the country. His coffin was followed from Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) to his home in Elba, New York, and pieces of his hanging rope and coffin were taken as relics. In the south, John Brown's raid was used to raise support for succession. And one witness to Brown's hanging used it as inspiration for his own violet act on behalf of the south; John Wilkes Booth. John Brown was neither a saint nor a devil. Horwitz has compiled a well researched, fair, and thought provoking analysis of a man and his actions; a man who, in all fairness, was a terrorist. Obviously Brown was on the morally right side, against slavery and for abolition. He was much more progressive than most other abolitionists at the time, as he believed and actually acted as though blacks were his equals. But few things in life are as morally clear cut as slavery. The book perfectly encapsulates the saying that one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. It poses uncomfortable questions about religious fervor and extremism, and violent action on what is believed to be morally right. In his introduction Horwitz alludes to 9/11 terrorists, who believed that they were attacking a morally corrupt country. Personally, I thought of the constant conflict in Israel and Palestine, and of people who attack women's health clinics and doctors. At what point in society is violence justified to right a wrong? Can violence inspired by religion ever be justified in a pluralistic society? I love when books raise such thought provoking questions.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jay

    Reading “Midnight Rising” is like being shown how your favorite uncle was actually a mass murderer in his younger days. It’s that kind of jarring. Here, the subject is John Brown, whose body lies a-moldering in the grave, as you recall. Having not really thought about John Brown, my conception was that he was an abolitionist prior to the Civil War that lead an armed raid that helped start the war. I think that’s a reasonable synopsis of the synopsis we were taught in our 10th grade US history bo Reading “Midnight Rising” is like being shown how your favorite uncle was actually a mass murderer in his younger days. It’s that kind of jarring. Here, the subject is John Brown, whose body lies a-moldering in the grave, as you recall. Having not really thought about John Brown, my conception was that he was an abolitionist prior to the Civil War that lead an armed raid that helped start the war. I think that’s a reasonable synopsis of the synopsis we were taught in our 10th grade US history books. Tony Horwitz examines the abolitionist’s actions with post 9/11 eyes, and while he doesn’t point out similarities, he lays out the story and the analysis of Brown’s actions so that you understand that Brown was what we now call a home-grown terrorist. And he was successful at what he really wanted to accomplish. The book goes through Brown’s life, including details from his parents’ lives, and through his youth and adulthood. Horwitz provides a good amount of detail on his early life, including his time in Kansas prior to the taking of Harpers Ferry. I found the planning and execution of the Harpers Ferry raid, though, to be the most interesting part of the story. Horwitz presents the raid as it happens, then comes back around to show how Brown’s strategic thinking was flawed. Time and again, you see Brown’s failings during this action. And when the action completes, Horwitz analyzes what Brown said and what Brown actually did to show that his intent wasn't the taking and the freeing of the slaves, it was to create the spark that propelled the country toward war. But that might be to give Brown too much credit – there was a lot of luck in getting to the outcome he ended up with, and he frankly seemed somewhat crazed, especially to have involved his children to the extent that he did. Interesting was the role of Robert E. Lee as the soldier in charge of quelling the rebellion. His response, which is likely the best response to terrorist activities, is to downplay the incident in his reports back to his superiors while crushing what amounted to a small and not-well-thought-out insurrection. Of all the players in the story of Harpers Ferry, Lee appears to be the one with an eye to maintaining the Union. How things changed. Also interesting in this story is how the people describe the captured and killed raiders working with Brown. For a few of the soldiers, Horwitz recounts how people noted they were extremely physically fit. You are left with the thought that some of Brown’s team would be portrayed with wrestlers turned actors in a modern movie of the event. I don’t recall reading about people in the 1800s commenting on a man’s physique, and I always stereotyped a man of the 1800s being an emaciated soldier. I need to adjust. There were other types of men involved in the raid, some weak-willed, some dashing, and Horwitz describes their differences so completely that I got the feel of an “Oceans 11” type of group. Who has the movie rights here, and what are they waiting for?

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dana

    John Brown-American hero or one of our first home grown terrorist? Perhaps the greatest quandary in American history is how we approach the story of John Brown. Convinced that the United States was being consumed by the sin of slavery, Brown decided to do something. He gave lectures, he helped slaves escape from the South, but ultimately he realized that nothing seemed to be working. As slavery began to spread westward into Missouri and Kansas in the late 1850’s, Brown felt that only violence co John Brown-American hero or one of our first home grown terrorist? Perhaps the greatest quandary in American history is how we approach the story of John Brown. Convinced that the United States was being consumed by the sin of slavery, Brown decided to do something. He gave lectures, he helped slaves escape from the South, but ultimately he realized that nothing seemed to be working. As slavery began to spread westward into Missouri and Kansas in the late 1850’s, Brown felt that only violence could bring about the end of slavery. If it took the death of innocent people, then so be it. From “Bleeding Kansas” to the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Brown and his meager group of followers (mostly his own family) terrorized the country and helped to precipitate the great American Civil War. Told in a straight forward, chronological manner, the story of Brown is fascinating. Author Tony Horwitz doesn’t seem to make any straight forward moral choices in determining whether Brown was right or wrong in his actions. He takes great pains to point out the destruction of Brown’s own family-many of his sons were killed or scarred emotionally for life. One son died, leaving a 17 year old pregnant widow who died only a month after the birth of her stillborn child. Brown and his family suffered much in their desire to end slavery. But, many were killed in his raids, who had nothing to do with slavery, or perhaps only tangentially involved. Even at Harper’s Ferry, those killed by Brown’s group had little to do with the practice of slavery. The killing themselves were more accidental then premeditated. Very quickly, Brown was caught (by troops serving under Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart no less) and brought to a speedy trial. Going to the gallows, Brown felt that by sacrificing his life, he was ultimately giving America the chance to repent of the sin of slavery and if violence was needed to end it, then so be it. The moral choices discussed in this book are extremely difficult. Brown was right, slavery was a sin upon America and all its citizens. Is it right to merely stand by and watch an atrocity or do you have a moral imperative to do something? Could slavery have been abolished without the Civil War? Without resorting to violence? These questions are difficult and perhaps no one answer can be given. But the story is an important one in American history and Tony Horwitz has done an excellent job with a complicated subject.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    This is just a great book about a fascinating period in American history. What struck me as I read was how different the country was in 1859 (total lack of national security state, for one), as well as how similar it was (the everpresence of white supremacy). This is a page turner for sure - a brief overview of John Brown's background, his self-ascribed messianic mission, and then a blow-by-blow account of the raid on Harper's Ferry, as well as its aftermath and impact upon kick-starting the Civ This is just a great book about a fascinating period in American history. What struck me as I read was how different the country was in 1859 (total lack of national security state, for one), as well as how similar it was (the everpresence of white supremacy). This is a page turner for sure - a brief overview of John Brown's background, his self-ascribed messianic mission, and then a blow-by-blow account of the raid on Harper's Ferry, as well as its aftermath and impact upon kick-starting the Civil War. I think one important takeaway for me, that the author might not agree with, is that John Brown's actions did at best mixed results when it comes to immediately furthering the cause of abolition. Most of the North, even the abolitionists, condemned the raid on Harper's Ferry and viewed it as foolish and dangerous. Some eventually came to his defense, however, through the highly politicized trial and then his execution. John Brown wanted to be a martyr, and he achieved that aim, and in doing so, he eventually brought the glow of righteousness to the abolitionist cause. But only in failure and death. We can only wonder how he would have been viewed if the raid had succeeded in initiating a large-scale slave revolt. On the other hand, what is inarguable is that Brown's actions spoke directly to the worst fears of the secessionists in the South, and inflamed their fury to the point that secession was almost inevitable. So in that sense, Brown really did ignite the Civil War. But it's important to remember that the North was not taking up John Brown's abolitionist cause when they took up arms. They were fighting primarily to prevent the South from escaping the Union. It was the Confederacy that was fighting for utopian visions of a new nation, free from the North's industrial mode of production, and free to exploit black people as much as they damn well pleased. Was the South wrong? Yes. But that doesn't mean that the North, or even Lincoln, had moral aims in mind. And this book does a great deal to shed light on that as well.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tedward

    Having lived in Ohio for my entire life I've come to appreciate the states roots in the Civil War. I knew who John Brown was and could tell you that his raid on Harpers Ferry was what helped cause the Civil War, and also vaguely mention that he had killed some pro-slavery border ruffians in Kansas. But I had no idea that he was from Cleveland or that the city and Case Western Reserve played a role in his life and his plans to lead a slave revolt in the South. Horowitz writes in a narrative manne Having lived in Ohio for my entire life I've come to appreciate the states roots in the Civil War. I knew who John Brown was and could tell you that his raid on Harpers Ferry was what helped cause the Civil War, and also vaguely mention that he had killed some pro-slavery border ruffians in Kansas. But I had no idea that he was from Cleveland or that the city and Case Western Reserve played a role in his life and his plans to lead a slave revolt in the South. Horowitz writes in a narrative manner which makes it feel more like reading a novel than a historical text. He detail Browns early life, his sympathies for African Americans, his fiery evangelical Christianity, and how he was one of the few people who not only believed in abolition of slavery but full equality for blacks. His actions galvanized Southern fire eaters to motion towards secession and northern abolitionists to switch from peaceful protests to militant abolition.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Kennedy

    "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood." John Brown was a fascinating man, and he truly was the catalyst for civil war in America. Tension had been brewing for decades, but Brown's series of rabid anti-slavery attacks and raids between 1854-1859, culminating with his raid on Harpers Ferry, were ultimately the tipping point. Horwitz does a fantastic job showing how Brown was at the center of it all, from the events in the ye "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood." John Brown was a fascinating man, and he truly was the catalyst for civil war in America. Tension had been brewing for decades, but Brown's series of rabid anti-slavery attacks and raids between 1854-1859, culminating with his raid on Harpers Ferry, were ultimately the tipping point. Horwitz does a fantastic job showing how Brown was at the center of it all, from the events in the years leading up to Harpers Ferry to the aftermath of his capture and hanging.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    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.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    Thoreau's essay "In Defense of Capt. John Brown" is one of my favorite political essays. I've been looking for a good historical account of JB's life, and this one sounds like it might fit the bill, though if anyone has other recs, I'd be happy to receive them. Thoreau's essay "In Defense of Capt. John Brown" is one of my favorite political essays. I've been looking for a good historical account of JB's life, and this one sounds like it might fit the bill, though if anyone has other recs, I'd be happy to receive them.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Robert Melnyk

    Excellent book on a subject that I had certainly heard about, but did not really know a lot about it other than the fact that John Brown had led a raid on Harpers Ferry. Horwitz does a good job of explaining the details. Who was John Brown? What was his history and what drove him to organize and lead such an attack that certainly seemed doomed from the start? Brown's intent was to capture the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry, free the slaves in the area, and start an uprising of slaves in the south. Excellent book on a subject that I had certainly heard about, but did not really know a lot about it other than the fact that John Brown had led a raid on Harpers Ferry. Horwitz does a good job of explaining the details. Who was John Brown? What was his history and what drove him to organize and lead such an attack that certainly seemed doomed from the start? Brown's intent was to capture the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry, free the slaves in the area, and start an uprising of slaves in the south. Interestingly, the U.S. forces that defended the armory at Harpers Ferry and defeated John Brown and his band of insurgents was led by Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Thomas Jonathan Jackson (soon to be known as "Stonewall"). All three of these men would soon be generals in the Confederacy fighting against the Union. While the official start of the Civil War was the firing on Fort Sumter, it seems the Civil War was perhaps actually started by John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Karl Jorgenson

    A thorough (bordering on belabored) examination of John Brown's life and the events that led up to the raid on Harper's Ferry. I found the subject matter fascinating; John Brown's behavior is enigmatic, explainable only by mental illness, megalomania, or a kind of idiot-savant compulsion. Okay, slavery is evil and should be stopped. But who concludes that random murders of non-abolitionists will lead to freedom? Brown, that's who. Brown perhaps should be remembered as the unluckiest amateur soldi A thorough (bordering on belabored) examination of John Brown's life and the events that led up to the raid on Harper's Ferry. I found the subject matter fascinating; John Brown's behavior is enigmatic, explainable only by mental illness, megalomania, or a kind of idiot-savant compulsion. Okay, slavery is evil and should be stopped. But who concludes that random murders of non-abolitionists will lead to freedom? Brown, that's who. Brown perhaps should be remembered as the unluckiest amateur soldier in history. During his seizure of the U.S. armory at Harper's Ferry, the closest U.S. military officers sent to dislodge Brown were Colonel Robert E. Lee and lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Not that Brown could have succeeded under other circumstances; the townspeople were well on their way to killing Brown and his underlings before the army even arrived.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mark Miano

    I picked up this book during a long weekend trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Like the characters in all of Tony Horwitz’s books, John Brown and his followers come alive on the page. The only deviation between this book and his others is that Horwitz stays in the past, instead of jumping between past and present. While I missed having Horwitz as a character, himself, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about John Brown. No longer do I think Brown was just a crazy man hellbent on ending sl I picked up this book during a long weekend trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Like the characters in all of Tony Horwitz’s books, John Brown and his followers come alive on the page. The only deviation between this book and his others is that Horwitz stays in the past, instead of jumping between past and present. While I missed having Horwitz as a character, himself, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about John Brown. No longer do I think Brown was just a crazy man hellbent on ending slavery through any means necessary, particularly violence. While his mission was “crazy” because it was doomed to fail, his sacrifice to this reader is praiseworthy and still inspiring.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I knew about John Brown and the raid at Harper's Ferry and that he had been a long term abolitionist but really had no idea of his engagement in the Kansas-Missouri Border wars and also didn't realize that Robert E Lee led the troops that captured him at Harper's Ferry. The book is a great fleshing out of John Brown's life and also a bit eye opening when you think of his commitment to his cause on one hand (a number of his children died with him in Kanas and at Harper's Ferry) and then the sheer I knew about John Brown and the raid at Harper's Ferry and that he had been a long term abolitionist but really had no idea of his engagement in the Kansas-Missouri Border wars and also didn't realize that Robert E Lee led the troops that captured him at Harper's Ferry. The book is a great fleshing out of John Brown's life and also a bit eye opening when you think of his commitment to his cause on one hand (a number of his children died with him in Kanas and at Harper's Ferry) and then the sheer puzzlement of how poorly planned his raid was on the other. I'm a big fan of Tony Horwitz work and this is a very fine example of this research and ability to make history lively and interesting.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ernie

    I didn't really know much about Harper's Ferry before reading this, and I find the author's conclusions to be incredibly interesting and thought-provoking. Reading histories like this does well to remind that there was never a mythical time when America got along and politics was civil and platonic. I feel like the entirety of John Brown's life is summed up by what Frederick Douglass said after the dust from the Civil War had settled and the blood had seeped into the ground: "I could live for th I didn't really know much about Harper's Ferry before reading this, and I find the author's conclusions to be incredibly interesting and thought-provoking. Reading histories like this does well to remind that there was never a mythical time when America got along and politics was civil and platonic. I feel like the entirety of John Brown's life is summed up by what Frederick Douglass said after the dust from the Civil War had settled and the blood had seeped into the ground: "I could live for the slave, but [Brown] could die for him."

  28. 4 out of 5

    Laura Perry

    I started this book before the insurrection at the Capitol and thought of the doomed but righteous cause of John Brown’s raid in sharp contrast to the motivations of those who desecrated our capitol, some of whom were waiving Confederate flags. The book goes into the history of the rebellion in 1859 that preceded the establishment of the confederacy and may have hastened the succession of the South and the Civil War. Though I recall footnotes on Harper’s Ferry from history class I had never real I started this book before the insurrection at the Capitol and thought of the doomed but righteous cause of John Brown’s raid in sharp contrast to the motivations of those who desecrated our capitol, some of whom were waiving Confederate flags. The book goes into the history of the rebellion in 1859 that preceded the establishment of the confederacy and may have hastened the succession of the South and the Civil War. Though I recall footnotes on Harper’s Ferry from history class I had never really thought about the militant abolitionists. It saddens me that generations later we are still struggling to ensure that all men are created equal.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Newfell

    Very good biography of John Brown. Lots of detail about the raid on Harper's Ferry, which has been overlooked in recent times as a seminal event in the Civil War. This attack was really the start, and prescient of the bloody war to follow. Very good biography of John Brown. Lots of detail about the raid on Harper's Ferry, which has been overlooked in recent times as a seminal event in the Civil War. This attack was really the start, and prescient of the bloody war to follow.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    An excellent history of John Brown and the significance of his raid on American history, especially in regards to the Civil War. Horowitz is an excellent author that brings the people and their stories to the readers in a gripping manner. This isn't dry history. It's alive and will grasp your attention with a thirst for more. An excellent history of John Brown and the significance of his raid on American history, especially in regards to the Civil War. Horowitz is an excellent author that brings the people and their stories to the readers in a gripping manner. This isn't dry history. It's alive and will grasp your attention with a thirst for more.

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