History in Review
John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
Reviewed by Boris Segel - November 20, 2012
On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a raid against the Federal Armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. His intention was to seize the weapons housed there, and arm local slaves so that they could then march south to free their brethren. The raid was a dismal failure. Brown was captured as were most of his men. For his crimes, Brown was hung. Yet the legacy of the raid lives on to this day, in large measure because the raid on Harper's Ferry marked the first salvo in what was to become known as the American Civil War...
John Brown (1800–1859) is an iconic figure in American history. To some he was a terrorist, and to others a freedom fighter. Many historians mark John Brown's raid on the U.S. Federal Armory at Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859 as the beginning of the American Civil War. This is because the raid so inflamed passions on both sides of the pro-slavery / anti-slavery issues that it acted as the kindling for the fire that was to lead to an all-out civil war.
In Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Tony Horwitz provides a gripping and compelling overview of the raid, the events leading up to it, the man who led it, and its repercussions for Brown, his compatriots, and the nation as a whole. In recounting his pivotal moment in American history, Horwitz provides a concise overview of Brown's life and the events that led to him becoming a staunch abolitionist who championed the use of violence when so many of his fellow abolitionists were pacifists. Horwitz also recounts how Brown's involvement in the anti-slavery movement brought him to the attention of other like-minded individuals, and how, and why, so many dispirited people joined his cause and marched with him against the armory in what was, then, Virginia.
In addition to providing a through introduction to the John Brown and his militant actions to end slavery, Horwitz also examines the state of American politics and public sentiment about the issues surrounding slavery, both before and after the raid on Harper's Ferry. Horwitz details why so many Southerner's mistakenly believed that Brown's actions were indicative of the entire abolitionist movement. He shows how this belief further advanced separatist sentiments in the South, and how it contributed to the start of the American Civil War.
Reading Midnight Rising will not only give you insights into the mind-set of the men and women who carried out the raid, but also how the raid affected people throughout the country. In addition, history aside, this book is a real page turner that will keep you up well into the night trying to finish it in one sitting. In short, this is an action-packed story that will engage readers of every ilk, even those who don't ordinarily like to read popular histories. Horwitz's easygoing narrative style ably captures the larger than life figures that predominated this story, and his synthesis of historical facts, cultural insights, and biographical sketches of the varied players, makes this book accessible to both general readers and historians.
The book is filled with enough facts to give you a solid understanding of the events and people under consideration, without getting bogged down with minutiae or mind-numbing details. For those who are desirous of delving deeper into this intriguing subject, you'll find Horwitz's copious endnotes and select bibliography are an excellent place to begin a more detailed study of the raid. Well researched, and well written, I highly recommend Midnight Rising to anyone with an interest in American history, the history of slavery, or who are simply looking to read a ripping good yarn that just happened to be true!
Slave Insurrections in the United States 1800-1865, by Joseph Cephas Carroll.
Offers a systematic study of some of the most significant slave insurrections that occurred from 1526 onward with a particular emphasis on the period from 1800-1865. He also explores the effectiveness of these revolts and the impact that they had, both economically and psychologically, on the slave owners.
Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War, by Marc Egnal.
An energetic analysis of the role that economics played in the lead-up to the American Civil War, a role that was so important that, Egnal theorizes, it was the primary cause of the war.
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