15 October 2012

Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz

Posted by Callan Bentley

A couple of weeks ago, I was killing time down in Front Royal, and I spent a pleasant hour in the Royal Oak Bookshop. I saw a used paperback copy of Tony Horwitz’s classic Confederates in the Attic there, and bought it, thinking I could give it away to a friend or visitor who didn’t know anything about Civil War history. As I was checking out, the proprietress pointed out that they also carried Horwitz’s latest volume, Midnight Rising. Aware that he was coming to speak at the Samuels Public Library in town, I bought a copy of that too. I missed Horwitz’s talk at the library as it turned out, but I’ve been enjoying the book, and last Thursday night, in a spell of insomnia induced by a Baxter feeding, I finished it.

First off, if you’re familiar with Horwitz’s other fine works, you should be aware that this book is different. Unlike the madcap zaniness that characterizes works like Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, or Baghdad Without a Map, Horwitz’s modern-day adventures play almost no role in Midnight Rising. It’s a straight-up history book, presented soberly and cleanly.

Second, let me state unequivocally that I love the cover art of the paperback edition: John Brown presented à la the classic Shepard Fairey Obama icon. (Make your own!) Well done, designer LeeAnn Falciani!

John Brown is like Obama, a singular figure at the cusp of American race relations, a man who inspired worship and hate in a way that is strongly reminiscent of the bipolar way Americans perceive our 44th president. Unlike Obama, however, John Brown was a terrorist. He saw killing people as morally permissible to serve the greater good. This utilitarian philosophy was rooted in Calvinist traditions, and manifested itself in a rough life for the protagonist and those lives he touched. The topic of Midnight Rising is an extraordinary one: Brown’s personality and background history, and the preparations, execution, and aftermath of the raid he led on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Horwitz reveals Brown’s free-thinking interpretation of the Biblical “golden rule,” his association with New England intellectuals, his domestic austerity (partly due to temperament and partly due to his hideous mismanagement of household finances), and his early days pushing the boundaries of abolitionist activism in Kansas.

With a posse of abolitionist whites and blacks, Brown attacked Harpers Ferry in the middle of the night, October 16, 1859. As blood began to be spilled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, where the eastern Valley and Ridge province meets the western Blue Ridge, Brown’s raid elicited a major backlash among the slave-holding residents of Harpers Ferry and their sympathetic neighbors. His poorly-thought-through “plan” resulted almost immediately in his being surrounded, and his men killed one after another. A final rush of U.S. troops (led by Robert E. Lee) on his redoubt led to more death, plenty of wounding, and the capture of Brown and several insurrectionist survivors. Once in custody and in court, Brown’s eloquent, painfully simple indictment of slavery inflamed abolitionist consternation, and set in motion odes aplenty by northern sympathizers, and retrenchment among southern slavers. A move by Virginia’s governor Henry Wise put Brown’s trial on the fast track, and he was hanged before the year was out, thus martyring him for the cause. (I found it curious that the executioners specifically took pains to avoid making a single potentially-hallowed spot where Brown’s followers might mourn him: they set up the gallows in an unnamed field and took it down the same day – kind of like how U.S. troops deliberately dumped Osama bin Laden’s body at sea.) The spark lit by Brown thus smoldered, until it flared anew with the secession of seven southern states a year and a half later, and then the military attack on Fort Sumter, and then, of course, the Civil War was on.

If Brown were to have pulled his stunt today, I reckon that we would ship him off to Guantanamo in a heartbeat. His actions may have been morally motivated, but his willingness to physically attack the U.S. government and end the lives of Harpers Ferry civilians is morally questionable (at the very least). Yet Horwitz makes the case that the raid Brown led was the event that precipitated the Civil War, and thus the end of slavery in the United States of America. As such, Brown’s brutal actions have led to what is surely the modern world would consider a utilitarian “good.” Paradoxical characters like this make for good book fodder – they are contradictory and complex, and their biographies given the modern reader much to consider.

One small tangent: Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a tune you would certainly recognize if you heard it (especially if you’ve viewed Ken Burns’ excellent documentary The Civil War). A snippet:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

This song is a re-lyricization of an earlier piece, “John Brown’s Body,” but what struck me was not that Brown’s righteous attack could be musical inspiration for Union troops during the Civil War (like troops in wars throughout history, they appreciated being reassured that God was on their side), but how powerful and enduring a song resulted, and also that it was the source of the title for one of the finest novels in the American literary tradition. John Brown paved the way for John Steinbeck and Barack Obama both! But how much do any of us really know about this seminal figure? Read Horwitz’s book to find out.

Harpers Ferry is about an hour up the Blue Ridge front from my home. I need to get back up there soon, both to examine its geology and to think about these historical actions, performed the same year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, and their far reaching effects.