Thursday, November 17, 2011

New and Noteworthy---John Brown Is In Everybody's Attic

Midnight Rising: John Brown And The Raid That Sparked The Civil War, Tony Horwitz, Henry Holt/MacMillian Publishing, 383 pages, 55 illustration, 4 maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, $29.00. Unabridged Audiobook with Author Interview, $39.95.

In the 1998, the very funny and popular Confederates In The Attic, Tony Horwitz gained a degree of notoriety for pursuing Civil War reenactors. What does the the American Civil War mean to men who dress in blue or gray wool, to children in classrooms and to pickup drivers who fly Confederate flags from their truck beds? In Midnight Rising Horwitz pursues the historic Civil War character of John Brown, an individual who used terror to confront terrorism.

W.E.B. DuBois, a noted African-American historian, looked back on the historiography concerning John Brown's life, his murders, his kidnappings, his armed insurrection and his execution for treason against the state of Virginia. He noted that many historians concluded that Brown was insane and an impractical, if not a stupid, terrorist. What makes Brown impossible to understand, the historian noted, is also what makes Brown understandable to blacks. Brown was willing to risk his life and was willing to die to set African-Americans free from slavery. For John Brown, slavery was a war against blacks and it was a war that started along time before Brown himself was born.

Since the 1980s John Brown has become understandable. Stephen Oates' To Purge This Land With Blood and David S. Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights have reignited interest in Brown's life of violence. Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising: John Brown And The Raid That Sparked The Civil War describes John Brown as expanding his sense of self from childhood through his execution and his death. Indeed, Horwitz finds suspense in Brown's wrestling, and at times failing, to become a successful family man, a prosperous businessman, an industrious community member and an accepted authority in a faith community.

John Brown cannot be understood without the context of America from 1800 to 1860, an era when multiple American revolutions were happening: political, industrial, transportation, religious, agricultural and economic. Brown was caught up in them all. Horwitz concisely acknowledges the state of the Union during these decades and recognizes the national trends that are causing havoc in Brown's life. He moved through New England and made friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Frederick Douglass, a man who stole himself from slavery, counted John Brown as a friend. Several abolitionists throughout the North contributed to Brown chosen cause and efforts. His friends included several of the wealthiest men of the era. But, there were also bankers who dealt with his business failures.

In the early 1850s with nothing to inherit due to Brown's financial failings in the domestic international wool markets, his children moved to Kansas for a fresh start. In June 1855 John Brown, at the urging of his sons, travelled to Kansas in order to participate in Kansas' civil war. By early 1856 the city of Lawrence had been burned and its abolitionist citizens were left dead in its streets. On May 24 Brown and his sons travelled to nearby Pottawatomie Creek and late at night he directed the murder of five pro slavery settlers.

During January 1857, In an effort to aid the antislavery fight in Kansas, Franklin Sanborn, secretary of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, introduced Brown to influential abolitionists in the Boston area. These acquaintances constituted themselves as the "Secret Six" who would fund Brown's lawlessness. By January 1858 Brown, with his sons and others rode into Missouri and attacked two homesteads, confiscated horses and wagons and stole eleven of the farmers' slaves. Brown and the raiders traveled eighty-two days, covered over a thousand miles, and to delivered the slaves to freedom in Canada. Within the next year, Brown would conceive a plan to steal and move Virginia's slaves into the Appalachian Mountains and then northward.

On July 3 1859 John Brown rented a farmhouse a few miles outside of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A member of his party began to reconnoiter the U.S. arsenal at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. During August, Brown and Frederick Douglass gathered together for a clandestine meeting at a rock quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Brown tried to convince Douglass to join him in a raid to Harpers Ferry and its environs. Douglass told Brown that the place was 'a perfect steel trap' and refused to become an accomplice.

On October 16 Brown with his raiders seized the armory at Harpers Ferry, removed slaves from nearby plantations and remained long enough to be trapped in the fire engine house. By October 18 he fell into the hands of the U.S. Army. The politicos in Washington D.C. also sensed a trap for themselves and turned Brown and the surviving raiders over to Virginia authorities. On November 2 a Virginia jury after a week of trial and forty-five minutes of deliberation declared John Brown guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection.

During the morning of December 2 John Brown wrote the following message: 'I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think, vainly flattered myself, that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.' Brown was hanged that day and a year later, South Carolina was in the midst of seceding from the Union.

Much like the December 2 note, Horwitz shows Brown evolving into the role of a public martyr. Smoothly written, well paced and at times dramatic, Horwitz takes Brown seriously as a man who wrestles with his own failures and the failures of his nation. The author does not over dramatize the story. The characters around Brown are unique and engaging without a writer's help. Thankfully Horowitz avoids bringing forth into his John Brown story such currents events as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Such remarks have marred the Emory Thomas’ Dogs of War and have already dated Louis P. Masur's A Concise History of the Civil War.

Readers of David Reynolds’ John Brown and Stephen Oates' To Purge This Land With Blood are encouraged to return to Horwitz’s John Brown. Like Reynolds and Oates, Horwitz offers an engaging, multi-dimensional and compelling biography of a puzzling character who makes trouble for nearly all readers. Those familiar with Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic will find a character who would not have believed that the Civil War started on April 12 1861, but had started many decades before.

Bottom Image Source: Harpers Ferry Historical Association

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