Book Review
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Did John Brown Bring About the American Civil War?

By Reviewed by John French

"Midnight Rising"

By Tony Horwitz

Henry Holt, $29

'Midnight Rising" by Tony Horwitz is subtitled "John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." Before reading the book, I considered this claim an exaggeration. Now I am not so sure. Even though the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, remained 18 months distant, the reverberations of Brown's "raid" on Harper's Ferry, now Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, seem to have echoed through that time.

Without Harper's Ferry, would America have suffered a civil war? Very likely. With Harper's Ferry, Horwitz makes it seem inevitable.

"Midnight Rising" is a real education. The first volume of Shelby Foote's treatise on the Civil War and its antecedents runs more than 800 pages and devotes only two paragraphs to John Brown's misadventure at Harper's Ferry. The impression conveyed is that he and a few followers were isolated cranks. Horwitz makes it clear that they enjoyed substantial support in the North.

First, a bit of background. The critical issue, of course, was slavery (although the South contended it was states' rights). The culprit was King Cotton. Even though slavery was safeguarded by the U.S. Constitution, it seemed to be on the wane as the tobacco-growing soil of the South became exhausted. But the cotton gin, the steamboat and the textile mill transformed cotton from a minor crop into a huge and highly profitable segment of the national economy. Slave labor permitted southern planters to reap the reward without dirtying their hands.

Against this was the moral question. One need not look farther than the Declaration of Independence, which declared as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. And then there were the outrages committed against slaves. Brown himself dated his hatred of slavery to the age of 12 when he saw a slave boy beaten with iron shovels.

Initially it appeared that John Brown would pursue a career in agriculture and business. He seemed to have good ideas and the ability to attract able partners. But he could not manage money and he possessed a quality known as "fixedness." Once he settled upon a course of action he could not be swayed from it even when circumstances demonstrated its unsuitability. Carried to extremes, "fixedness" repeatedly doomed Brown's ventures.

Born in Connecticut and raised in Ohio, John Brown was brought up a Calvinist. From an early age, human depravity and the avoidance of sin were very much on his mind. At age 20, he married, in his own words and idiosyncratic punctuation, "a remarkably plain; but industrious & economical girl; of excellent character; earnest piety; & practical common sense." With this wife and another whom he married after her death, Brown fathered 20 children. But life was hard. Nine of Brown's children died before the age of 10.

Meanwhile, slavery flourished and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 threatened to expand it to the West. Slavers appeared likely to control the new territory, where five of Brown's sons had already settled. Brown went to an abolitionist convention to raise money and then headed for Kansas to join the fray.

By the time Brown reached Kansas, it was vocally pro-slavery. One editor warned, "We will continue to tar, feather, drown, lynch and hang every white-livered abolitionist who dares to pollute our soil." Undeterred, Brown and his men armed themselves and engaged in nonviolent confrontations with Southerners that earned them a reputation for militancy.

By this time, mid-1856, Brown conceived of himself as a latter-day Gideon. He had to take action that would make a statement. With his approval, men loyal to him launched night attacks against poor Southerners who owned no slaves but sympathized with slavery. Not only were the defenseless slain, their bodies were mutilated. John Brown had become a certifiable American terrorist.

These awful exploits brought men and money to Brown's cause but they did not satisfy him because they were not part of his grand plan. True to his nature, he had become "fixed" on the idea of fomenting a slave rebellion and exodus to the mountains of Virginia. To the surprise and distress of many of his 21 young recruits, he moved to launch an assault on the national arsenal at Harper's Ferry. This was, of course, treason but, in Brown's mind, the federal government had to be replaced anyway if slavery was to be abolished.

Demonstrably incompetent at business, Brown now proved incompetent at war. Entering Harper's Ferry at midnight on Oct. 16, 1859, he first set about to round up hostages to use as the need arose. In this, he succeeded, gathering several of the town's leading citizens. Ultimately, however, no use was made of these people.

Brown understood that the topography of the area consisted of hills and rivers, making bridges vital to movement. At first he occupied the most important of these but soon moved his men to exposed buildings of little strategic value.

Brown intended his foray to be a peaceful undertaking aimed at inducing slaves to desert their masters. For this reason, he made no effort to prevent the townsfolk from sending out word of his little force's invasion. Not surprisingly, help for the white residents began to arrive from nearby communities.

Brown also expected the operation to proceed without violence. When people on both sides began to shoot and kill each other, he protested that this was not his intention.

I realize that much of what I have written in the last few paragraphs sounds crazy. That is because it is. Brown's ego and "fixedness" gave him a view of the world that was delusional.

He was not alone. When word of the attack reached dispatchers sending trains through Harper's Ferry, they dismissed the reports as exaggerated and sent more trains.

When the government in Washington finally reacted by sending a contingent of marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, the entire insurrection was put down -- by Horwitz's estimate, in five minutes.

Then something remarkable happened. At first, most people, even those who were anti-slavery, were appalled by Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry.

Then Brown was allowed to be interviewed by the press and to speak at his trial.

In the North, the tide of sentiment turned sharply in his favor.

In a plain-speaking way, Brown proved to be eloquent. His failed raid polarized the nation.

His death by hanging in December 1859 made him a martyr to the cause of abolition.

The states' secessions that started the Civil War began the next year.