In the radio interviews Tony Horwitz did last year for his latest book, Midnight Rising, he made the claim that the raid on Hapers Ferry, Virginia led by John Brown could be seen as the first battle in America’s Civil War. An interesting proposition, I thought.
While his book is a very good read, it’s much more of a straightforward account of John Brown’s later life and the raid on Harpers Ferry than it is an argument in favor of a new interpretation of those events. You’ll gain a much deeper understanding of these men and of the consequences of the raid on Harpers Ferry from reading Midnight Rising, but Mr. Horwitz does not go as far in print as I recall him going in his radio interviews. He does make the case that the period of America’s Civil War can be seen as book-ended by two violent events, the raid at Harpers Ferry and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the days following the close of the war, but he does not argue that John Brown started the Civil War as I was expecting him to do.
It’s become a standard practice in non-fiction to divide a history text into three parts, before the event, the event and after the event. Mr. Horwitz follows this form in Midnight Rising. John Brown’s life before the raid on Harpers Ferry is not what will draws most readers to his story, but it is interesting. John Brown was an extremist in defense of liberty, as Senator Barry Goldwater famously once put it. His early life included participation in the struggle known as “Bloody Kansas” where he most likely got actual blood on his hands. A hardscrabble farmer, he married several times, buried many children and raised many more. A staunch abolitionist, he stood out as extreme for his belief that blacks were the equals of whites–they were welcome at his dinner table as his intellectual equals, something no other substantial abolitionist of his day believed. But even with that in mind, he does not strike one as a heroic character until the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Even the raid revealed his own flaws as much as it did his strengths. The raid was badly planned, badly executed, a disaster. No one, northerner let alone southerner, approved or supported the raid once word of it spread. It wasn’t until John Brown’s trial began that public opinion began to create the folk hero celebrated in “John Brown’s Body” which became “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Reading Midnight Rising, I began to suspect that the trial was the point, not the raid itself. John Brown predicted this in a letter he wrote in 1851, almost ten years earlier:
His own trial surely proved him right on this point. That John Brown survived the raid on Harpers Ferry is a near miracle as Mr. Horwitz’s detailed account of what happened makes very clear. The story was a media sensation by the end of the day. People throughout the country hungered for information, for any detail or rumor they could find. His trial was closely followed throughout the north and the south, one growing increasingly fearful for their homes and property, the other increasingly ashamed at their own lack of bravery, their own inability to do much more than politely object to what they considered a great moral wrong.
Mr. Howritz explains that while John Brown was not much of an orator, his words worked wonderfully well in print, moving the reading public much more than they ever did those who could hear his courtroom defense. His words to the court after sentencing are particularly moving:
“…Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proven, had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
“This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the new Testament. That teaches me that all things ‘whatsoever I would men should do to me I should do ever so to them.’ It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to these instructions.
“I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was no wrong but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!”
This is John Brown speaking off-the-cuff. Apparently, he did not know that he would be given the chance to speak in court the day he was sentenced. None of the officers of the court paid much attention to him. The court reporter did not bother to enter his speech into the court transcripts. It was only the newspaper reporters in the audience who bothered to write it down. In the end, this speech would awaken an anti-slavery movement as well as a pro-slavery south. These were fighting words. The fight would soon follow.
Which is as close as Mr. Horwitz comes to saying out-right that Harpers Ferry was the first battle in the Civil War. While this is not the conclusion I came to after reading Midnight’s Rising it is clear to me that this was a moment when the country appeared to recognize that something had to be done, and that whatever was done, a fight was probably coming.