John Brown’s Body: Revisiting a rebel’s raid

As America recognizes the sesquicentennial of its Civil War, John Brown and his role in sparking that war remain a mystery to many.

Ask, and you’ll likely hear an assortment of reactions toward the man. Abolitionist. Agitator. Hero. Lunatic. You could get a simple: “who’s John Brown?” Or you may hear the hymn of the infamous Union battlefield march:

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul’s marching on.
He’s done to be a solider in the army of the Lord,
His soul’s marching on.”

Brown is often a footnote in American history books, relegated to a fuzzy heliographic engraving of a crazed dissenter who staged the botched, blood-spattered raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va., in October 1859, in protest of slavery.

But read Tony Horwitz’s “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” and a fresh supposition surfaces.

In Horwitz’s fluid, engaging narrative, Brown is rebaptized a proud American, passionate humanist and suffragette of social ills. He may have been a woefully flawed, madcap anarchist, but he was fundamentally a good-hearted husband, father (to 20 children) and citizen, organically revolted by the imorality of American slavery.

The Brown of “Midnight Rising” is a self-anointed insurgent, a nineteenth-century forerunning rebel-rouser, feverishly devoted to committing suicidal violence to spark a moral crusade against injustice.

Brown didn’t die in the raid, but 16 of his men did, including two of his sons. Another died while waiting trial for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and six men, including Brown, were eventually hanged for their involvement.

In Horwitz’s account, Brown’s path to Harper’s Ferry seeded early as his Calvinist parents preachly loudly against America’s sins – slavery, foremost – while turning their Ohio home into a stop on the Underground Railroad. When he witnessed the whipping of a slave boy, young John Brown was deeply sickened. A mini abolitionist emerged.

Born in 1800, Brown by his 20s was a fledgling figurehead in the growing national debate on slavery’s abhorrence and antithesis to equality, a founding principle. By the 1830s and ‘40s, he was travelling the country speaking to noted abolitionists, including Fredrick Douglas.

Brown’s half-baked Harper’s Ferry scheme plotted a rally of mutinous soldiers – anti-slavery whites, as well as free- and runaway-slaves – to steal guns and ammunition from the federal armory and to turn those weapons on slaveholders in the South. His actions drastically altered Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy on slavery during his 1860 presidential run and ultimately led to the start of the Civil War a year later.

Reading “Midnight Rising” post-9/11, through the lens of a newly Occupied world, offers an intriguing glimpse into the mind of a civil aggressor.

Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a nimble writer. As a best-selling author of books like “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” his “Midnight Rising” is part history, part biography, but mostly fascinating to read. It’s John Brown: humanized, demystified and maybe not so lunatic after all.

As the war began to fracture of the country in 1861, Henry David Thoreau called Brown “the most American of us all.” He added, “They called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?”


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