One hundred and 52 years ago this month, a 59-year-old man named John Brown who may or may not have been a lunatic led an almost unbelievably improbable attack on the U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry, at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. An intelligent but rootless man who had wandered innumerable times between the Northeast and Midwest, Brown believed that he had been put on earth to lead America’s slaves to freedom. After considering any number of ways in which to initiate that process, he fixed on Harpers Ferry — which was then still in Virginia, as West Virginia was not created until 1863, when Union loyalists broke away from Virginia — because he believed that an attack there would inspire slaves in Northern Virginia to rise against their masters.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Though Brown and his army of two dozen did indeed surprise the guards at the armory on the night of Oct. 16, 1859, and seize control of it, their triumph was exceptionally short-lived, the slave rebellion never materialized, and only a few of them lived to tell the tale. As Tony Horwitz writes in this vivid retelling of the twice-told tale, what Brown “called ‘the great work of my life’ had just ended in abject failure. Instead of a months-long campaign reaching across the South, his attack had withered in thirty-two hours, a stone’s throw inside Virginia. The climactic battle lasted five minutes, with the insurrectionists’ brick citadel breached and its commander beaten to the floor with a parade-ground sword.”

Horwitz believes, though, that the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was right when he wrote to a friend: “His raid into Virginia looks utterly lacking in common sense — a desperate self-sacrifice for the purpose of giving an earthquake shock to the slave system, and thus hastening the day for a universal catastrophe.” Brown “had told Frederick Douglass . . . [that] he thought ‘something startling’ was just what the nation needed,” and Harpers Ferry delivered it. Undoubtedly the Civil War would have occurred if Brown had never left Kansas, and his attack at Harpers Ferry “failed in military terms, but it had clearly evoked the deepest terror of white Virginians — that slaves would rise up and slaughter them, just as Nat Turner’s band had done in 1831.” As one Virginia farmer said of his neighbors: “They are panic stricken & fear their own shadows.”

The raid’s reverberations were felt across the South and the North: “Nationally, Harpers Ferry and its aftermath had exposed a gaping crevasse; nothing now seemed capable of bridging it. The ‘knell of the Union’ that Jefferson had first heard forty years earlier, during the debate over Missouri, could no longer be hushed.” The nation was irrevocably divided. If on the one hand Brown’s raid had spread fear through the white South and a determination to defend slavery at all costs, its end — with Brown’s conviction and hanging — gave the North a martyr, celebrated first in the song “John Brown’s Body,” with its striking opening line (“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave”), and then, using the same melody-, Julia Ward Howe’s even more striking “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which never mentions Brown but was inspired by him, and inspired the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers who marched to and sang it.

Horwitz, an exceptionally skilled and accomplished journalist — his best, and best known, book is “Confederates in the Attic” (1998) — here turns his hand to pure history with admirable results. “Midnight Rising” is smoothly written, thoroughly researched, places Brown within the context of his time and place, and treats him sensitively but scarcely adoringly. Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown moved with his family to Ohio when he was 5 and grew up very much under the influence of his father, a man of rigid Calvinistic beliefs who passed them on to his son along with a passionate hatred of slavery. Though John wrote that “he felt the first stirrings of his “ ‘Eternal war with Slavery’ at age twelve, when he saw a slave boy beaten with iron shovels,” there was more: “his burning hatred of racial oppression had another source. Like so much else in his life, it reflected the influence of his father.”

‘Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War’ by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt & Co.)

Over the years Brown worked sporadically at various jobs, lived in many places and fathered many children, but the older he got the more consumed he was by slavery. Frederick Douglass, who saw him in the winter of 1847-48, came away with a strong impression of him: “Though a white gentleman,” he wrote, Brown “is in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” This passion took him to the territory of Kansas, then violently divided as pro- and anti-slavery forces fought to admit “Bloody Kansas” to the Union as a slave or free state. He and his sons were in many violent encounters there, making him “a hero to abolitionists and slavery’s great scourge.” Any doubts he may have had about his life’s mission — considering that his dominant traits were “arrogance, self-certitude, a domineering manner,” he probably had none — were washed away by Kansas. He left it determined to carry out that mission.

A journalist who encountered him in Kansas wrote that he “is a strange, resolute, repulsive, iron-willed inexorable old man” with “a fiery nature and a cold temper, and a cool head — a volcano beneath a covering of snow.” He was capable of kindness, and his words, both written and extemporaneous, were often eloquent, but the specter of madness always was there. A Chicago newspaper called him “mad as a March hare,” he was often called “excitable” or “monomaniac,” and sympathizers in Kansas wondered about his sanity. Horwitz writes:

“Brown’s own writing also spoke to his violent mood swings; he oscillated between periods of giddy, frantic activity and sloughs of despond that left him almost paralyzed. To modern eyes, this might suggest manic depression. So would Brown’s recurrent grandiosity. . . . But diagnosing mental illness at a distance of a century and a half is a dubious exercise. Even if Brown gave signs of bipolar tendencies, there’s no evidence he had hallucinations or other symptoms so severe that he could have been considered legally insane — in the parlance of Virginia’s antebellum code, ‘an idiot, lunatic, non compos, or deranged.’ ”

Brown himself “wanted no part of an insanity defense” in the kangaroo court that quickly sped him to the gallows, and while awaiting execution he displayed calmness, courage and an almost cheerful resignation to what awaited him. In his last days he wrote feverishly, “aiming round after round of correspondence at friends, family, and supporters, clearly intending to hit a broader audience.” On the morning of his execution he handed a jail guard a note that can be read as his last testament: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.”

He was right of course. To this day the purging continues, metaphorically if not literally. The war he saw coming and openly thirsted for cannot be traced directly to him, as it had many sources, but he certainly was an important one. Without sentimentalizing him, Tony Horwitz has given him his due.

Jonathan Yardley


John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Henry Holt. 365 pp. $29