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

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9780312429263: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

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
Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown launched a surprise raid on the slaveholding South. Leading a biracial band of militant idealists, he seized the massive armory at Harpers Ferry, freed and armed slaves, and vowed to liberate every bondsman in America.
Brown's daring strike sparked a savage street fight and a counterattack by U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee. The bloodshed and court drama that followed also shocked a divided nation and propelled it toward civil war. Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising brings Brown and his uprising vividly to life and charts America's descent into explosive conflict. The result is a taut and indispensable history of a man and a time that still resonate in our own.

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About the Author:

Tony Horwitz is the bestselling author of Midnight Rising, A Voyage Long and Strange, Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad Without a Map. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. He lives in Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

October 16, 1859

"Men, get on your arms," the Captain said. "We will proceed to the Ferry."

It was eight at night, an autumn Sunday, silent and dark in the Maryland hills. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the log house and the men loaded it with pikes, tools, torches, and gunpowder. The Captain put on the battered cap he'd worn in Bleeding Kansas. Then he climbed on the wagon and the men marched behind, down a dirt lane, past a snake-rail fence, onto the road to Harpers Ferry.

There were eighteen men, not counting the Captain. Almost all were in their twenties and had written farewell letters to family and lovers. Five of them were black, including a fugitive slave and a freedman whose wife and children were still in bondage. Two others were the Captain's sons. All had been formally inducted at the secluded log house as soldiers in the Provisional Army of the United States.

Their commander was fifty-nine, a sinewy man with gunmetal eyes and a white beard he'd grown to conceal his identity. He was wanted by state and federal authorities; President Buchanan had put a price on his head. While living underground, the Captain had drafted a constitution and a "Declaration of Liberty" for the revolutionary government that tonight's action would found.

" ‘When in the course of Human events, it becomes necessary' for an oppressed People to Rise, and assert their Natural Rights," the declaration began. If the opening sounded familiar, the close was not. "We will obtain these rights or die in the struggle," the document stated, before concluding: "Hung be the Heavens in Scarlet."

The road ran below a mountain ridge, through woods and rolling farmland. The mid-October night was cool and drizzly and dark, perfect weather for a surprise attack. There was no one else abroad and no sound, just the creak of the wagon's wooden wheels and the clop of hooves. Steam rose from the horse's flanks; behind the Captain's wagon the men marched in pairs, solemn and speechless, as if in a funeral cortège. Their orders were to make no noise and to conceal their rifles beneath gray shawls. Anyone they encountered was to be detained.

After three miles, the road descended steeply to the wide, swift Potomac River. On the far bank glowed the gas lamps of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a factory town and the gateway to the largest slave state in the country. Two of the men crept ahead; soon they would cut the telegraph lines linking Harpers Ferry to the outside world. Two other men, hard veterans of Kansas, slipped onto the covered bridge over the Potomac and seized the night watchman who trolled back and forth with a lantern.

The Captain followed in his wagon, leading the others across the bridge. It was an hour before midnight when they emerged on the Virginia shore and entered the business district of Harpers Ferry. The wagon clattered across pavement, past a rail depot, a hotel, saloons, and shops, and up to the front gate of the U.S. armory. Behind its high wrought-iron fence stretched a massive industrial complex where the nation's newest weapons were manufactured.

"Open the gate!" one of the men shouted at a night guard within the armory fence. The watchman refused. Two of the men grabbed hold of him through the fence and pressed guns to his chest. Another man forced the gate's lock with a crowbar. Then the Captain rode into the armory yard and took the watchman prisoner.

"I came here from Kansas," he announced to his captive. "This is a slave state. I want to free all the Negroes in this state. I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood."

On october 16, 2009, I retraced the Captain's march with other pilgrims who had gathered for the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of John Brown's famous raid on Harpers Ferry. The night was appropriately cold and wet, and we followed a horse-drawn wagon through a landscape that has changed remarkably little since 1859. Brown's log hideout in Maryland still stands, as does the armory building in Harpers Ferry that became his headquarters and "fort." Though we didn't carry guns or wear nineteenth-century attire, I experienced a little of the time-travel high that Civil War reenactors call a "period rush."

But walking in the footsteps of history isn't the same as being there. I could tread where Brown's men did, glimpse some of what they saw, but the place I wanted to be was inside their heads. What led them to launch a brazen assault on their own government and countrymen? Why were millions of other Americans willing to kill and die in the civil war that followed? How did one event connect to the other?

My son's ninth-grade American history textbook offers little more insight than mine did in the 1970s. Harpers Ferry merits six paragraphs—a speed bump for students racing ahead to Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address. Recent history also provides a simplistic guide at best. Viewed through the lens of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Qaeda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still grappling with the consequences.

But John Brown wasn't a charismatic foreigner crusading from half a world away. He descended from Puritans and Revolutionary soldiers and believed he was fulfilling their struggle for freedom. Nor was he an alienated loner in the mold of recent homegrown terrorists such as Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. Brown plotted while raising an enormous family; he also drew support from leading thinkers and activists of his day, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau. The covert group that funneled him money and guns, the so-called Secret Six, was composed of northern magnates and prominent Harvard men, two of them ministers.

Those who followed Brown into battle represented a cross section of mid-nineteenth-century America. In Kansas and, later, Virginia, he was joined by farm laborers, factory workers, tradesmen, teachers, an immigrant Jewish shopkeeper, a free black schooled at Oberlin, and two young women who acted as lookouts and camouflage at his hideout near Harpers Ferry. These foot soldiers often bristled at his leadership and rejected his orthodox Calvinism. Most who went with him to Harpers Ferry regarded themselves as nonbelieving "infidels."

Yet follow him they did, swearing allegiance to his revolutionary government and marching into Virginia to found a new order. Within two years, entire armies would cross the Potomac, and this obscured the magnitude of what happened in 1859. The street violence at Harpers Ferry came to seem almost quaint by comparison with the industrial-scale slaughter at Antietam and Gettysburg. In time, the uprising became known as John Brown's Raid, a minor-sounding affair, like one man's act of banditry.

But no one saw it that way at the time. A month after the attack, under the headline "HOW WOULD IT FIGURE IN HISTORY," a Baltimore newspaper listed the many labels given to the recent violence in Virginia. The most common were "Insurrection," "Rebellion," "Uprising," and "Invasion." Further down the list appeared "War," "Treason," and "Crusade." There were twenty-six terms in all. "Raid" was not among them.

The united states in the late 1850s was a divided but peaceful country, with a standing army of only fifteen thousand men and a booming cotton trade that fed northern mills and accounted for three-quarters of the country's exports. Acts of political violence were rare. No president had yet been assassinated; the hundred thousand guns at Harpers Ferry were virtually unguarded. And the long-simmering conflict over slavery played out principally in Washington, where Southerners had held sway for most of the nation's history.

Though many Americans hated slavery, very few sought its abolition, or expected the institution to disappear anytime soon. "I do not suppose that in the most peaceful way ultimate extinction would occur in less than a hundred years at the least," Abraham Lincoln said in 1858. He advocated resettling free blacks in Africa and pledged to leave slavery alone in the states where it existed.

Harpers Ferry helped propel Lincoln into the White House, where he would ultimately fulfill Brown's mission. The midnight rising in Virginia also embroiled a host of future Confederates. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart led troops against Brown; Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson guarded the abolitionist. So did John Wilkes Booth, who loathed Brown but took inspiration from his daring act of violence. Meanwhile, in Congress, Jefferson Davis cited the attack as grounds for Southerners to leave the Union, "even if it rushes us into a sea of blood." Harpers Ferry wasn't simply a prelude to secession and civil war. In many respects, it was a dress rehearsal.

This was true not only for participants but for the millions of Americans who followed the events from afar, through telegraphic dispatches that made Harpers Ferry one of the first breaking news stories in the nation. The debate and division stirred by the crisis unsettled decades of compromise and prevarication. On the subject of John Brown, there was no middle ground. North and South, citizens picked sides and braced for conflict that now seemed inevitable.

William Lloyd Garrison, America's leading abolitionist in the decades before the Civil War, had for thirty years waged an often lonely crusade to mobilize the moral force of the nation against slavery. As an ardent pacifist, he condemned Brown's violent act. But the passions and ruptures laid bare by Harpers Ferry compelled him to reconsider.

"In firing his gun, he has merely told us what time of day it is," Garrison said of Brown. "It is high noon, thank God!"

 

PART ONE

The Road to Harpers Ferry

He was a stone, A stone eroded to a cutting edge By obstinacy, failure and cold prayers.<...

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