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

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

by November 8, 2017

A Fearless Leader: John Brown was born in Connecticut and raised by a father who was passionately anti-slavery. He was 59 years old when he led his raid on Harpers Ferry.

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.

— John Brown’s last words, written on a note handed to a guard just before his hanging

The author of Confederates in the Attic returns to the Civil War era to tell the gripping drama of a man and a mission that changed the course of history.

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry ruptured the union between North and South. Yet few Americans know the true story of the militant idealists who invaded Virginia before the Civil War. Now, Midnight Rising paints Brown’s uprising in vivid color, capturing a nation on the brink of explosive conflict.

Unlike most abolitionists, Brown was prepared to shed blood in the cause of freedom. After fighting against slavery in Bleeding Kansas, he secured money and guns from clandestine backers called the Secret Six, and convened a guerilla band that included three of his sons, his teenaged daughter, a former slave desperate to free his wife from bondage, and a dashing poet who acted as a spy inside Virginia. Then, late one autumn night in 1859, Brown marched from his mountain hideout into Harpers Ferry, seizing the town’s federal armory and vowing to liberate every slave in the South.

[arve url=”https://www.history.com/embed/21128142″ align=”right” title=”John Brown’s Last Speech (3 min) TV-PG” /]

The bloody fight at Harpers Ferry prompted a counterattack by U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee and shocked an already divided nation. While Southerners branded the raid an act of treason and terror, Brown’s bravery and eloquence made him a hero to many Northerners. The crisis also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown’s dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure the president once labeled “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.”

In this riveting book, Tony Horwitz probes the troubled soul of Brown, the desperate passion of his followers, and the spirit of a sundered nation. The result is both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a fiery time that still resonates in our own.

MIDNIGHT RISING: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

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.

Non-fiction. By Tony Horwitz. 2011. 384 pages.
Time Periods: Civil War Era: 1850 – 1864, 19th Century
Reading Levels: Adult, High School

[arve url=”https://youtu.be/xeqgm6oP5VE” align=”center” /]

About the Presenter: Dennis Burnside, a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan and a Lansing, Michigan resident for thirty years, is a co-founder and co-director of the X Foundation. He was instrumental in the efforts to have Lansing’s historic Main Street renamed Malcolm X Street in 2010.

Additional videos:

NPR: The Harpers Ferry ‘Rising’ That Hastened Civil War

On the evening of Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men down the road to Harpers Ferry in what is today West Virginia. The plan was to take the town’s federal armory and, ultimately, ignite a nationwide uprising against slavery.

[arve url=”https://www.npr.org/player/embed/141564113/141613821″ /]

About the Author: 

Tony is a native of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. As a newspaper reporter he spent a decade overseas, mainly covering conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans for The Wall Street Journal. Returning to the U.S., he won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and wrote for The New Yorker before becoming a full-time author.

His books include the national and New York Times bestsellers, Confederates in the AtticBlue LatitudesBaghdad Without a Map and A Voyage Long and Strange. His latest book, Midnight Rising, was named a New York Times Notable Book; one of the year’s ten best books by Library Journal; and won the William Henry Seward Award for Excellence in Civil War Biography.

Tony has also been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and a history columnist for Smithsonian magazine. He is currently the president of the Society of American Historians. Tony lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts with his wife Geraldine Brooks, their sons Nathaniel and Bizu, three dogs and three alpacas.

Author Tony Horwitz

Comments About the Book:

A hard-driving narrative of one of America’s most troubling figures… Horwitz describes the disaster in riveting terms… It’s impossible to read this fine book without thinking about modern-day Browns.” Kevin Boyle, The New York Times Book Review (a New York Times Notable Book, 2011)

“Horwitz’s skills are a good match for this enormously compelling character, and his well-paced narrative incorporates masterful sketches of Brown’s family, foot soldiers, financial backers, admirers and prosecutors… The result is both page-turning and heartbreaking–a book to engage mind and soul.” The Boston Globe

“Horwitz, an exceptionally skilled and accomplished journalist, 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.” The Washington Post(Best of 2011, Notable Work of Nonfiction)

Midnight Rising is a richly detailed and engaging history… Horwitz’s moment-by-moment account of the doomed raid unfolds with such immediacy that he reintroduces suspense to a story we all know from textbooks.” The San Francisco Chronicle

“Horwitz describes guerrilla action and the run-up to war with a deadline writer’s immediacy… A brilliant researcher, he integrates diverse sources into a cogent adventure.” The Washington Times

“What do you call John Brown? Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? … Tony Horwitz settles upon the word insurgent — and the label seems just right, as does Horwitz’s book as a whole… Midnight Rising rolls through a series of indelible scenes… The book becomes a graceful narrative, ever engaging, with the reader allowed to connect Brown and his contemporaries to conflicts that continue to our day.” Seattle Times

“In captivating detail, Horwitz animates the wild-eyed, long-bearded crusader . . . Make no mistake, the infamous October 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry by John Brown and his 18 men was the stone that began the avalanche that became the Civil Wars.”The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A beautifully crafted, richly detailed, and riveting narrative of a pivotal episode in American history . . . Midnight Rising is at its best reconstructing the lives (and deaths) of the relatively anonymous conspirators – especially the African-Americans.” The Florida Courier

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  1. #1 Adam K. Beyah 10 November, 2017, 13:54

    Interesting article on one of my favorite historical Caucasians.

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