- - Friday, December 2, 2011

By Tony Horwitz
Henry Holt and Co., $29 384 pages


A decade after reading Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic,” I have one lasting memory of hilarity at Rebel re-enactors bedding down on blankets all in a row on frozen ground (grown men on a Civil War sleepover) - along with wonder at the kinship between the Confederacy and folks who honor its memory.

Shortly after reading Mr. Horwitz's “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” I had a prevailing feeling of horror at the sectional and sectarian violence that began tearing America apart in the 1850s - along with amazement at similarities between then and now.

The venom of that antebellum time makes today’s presidential debates look like “reality television” taken to new heights of silliness. Back then, there was one issue, slavery, and it erupted in life-and-death struggles, as antagonists sought to extend bondage into new territories or abolish it everywhere. In Kansas, an editor advocated lynching settlers who favored emancipation. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a Carolinian caned a Yankee senator and beat him unconscious.

Elsewhere, a firebrand evangelist wrote a “Provisional Constitution,” urged slaves to revolt and seized a federal arsenal in order to arm them for the rebellion. That was John Brown, the zealot who inspired abolitionists throughout the North and inflamed a cabal of disciples. Driven by an unforgiving Calvinist creed, he believed that slavery was an abomination in God’s eyes; that it must be ended by the sword; that God demanded no less.

Born in 1800, Brown grew up poor, wretched and devout. It is hard to imagine a more austere man driven more harshly by a monomaniacal conviction he deemed divine. Failing as a farmer in upstate New York, he moved west to join the brawling that turned fertile plains into “Bleeding Kansas.” In directing the vigilante killings of five men in the Pottawatomie Massacre, “Brown acted as an accelerant, igniting a much broader and bloodier conflict than had flared before,” Mr. Horwitz writes.

As for Harpers Ferry in 1859, Brown’s tiny band seized the lightly guarded arsenal in a clumsy nighttime raid, then lost it in a firefight a day later. But his daring fueled abolitionist fervor, which he fanned with rhetoric at his own trial for his life weeks later: “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 millions in this slave country … I submit. So let it be done.”

Brown’s example hardened the resolve among largely pacificist abolitionists. More important, it terrified Southerners who became convinced their economy and lifeway were under mortal attack, Mr. Horwitz argues. “Once Brown lit the fuse, less with his actions than with the moral clarity of his words, Southerners were unable to extinguish it.”

In the South, “fire-eaters, emboldened by the secessionist fever that broke out after Brown’s hanging, led to a walkout at the 1860 Democratic convention.” The party split and a former Illinois congressman swept the North to win the presidency. On Christmas Eve, South Carolina began the parade of states leaving the Union, led by Jefferson Davis, whom Sam Houston called “as ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard.” In sum, Brown’s raid on Oct. 16, 1859, struck fear in Southern hearts, which turned to rebellion, which bombarded Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The rest, they say, is history.

Formerly a foreign correspondent, Mr. Horwitz describes guerrilla action and the run-up to war with a deadline writer’s immediacy. Entertainingly didactic, he unearths forgotten slurs for political scallywags of many stripes: Doughfaces are Northern politicians (especially presidents) who supported Southern interests; Pukes are “illiterate backwoodsmen with whisky-red eyes, tobacco-stained teeth and bowie knives.” Filibusters are slave owners who tried to export slavery by invading Cuba and Nicaragua and founding a brief Republic of Baja, Calif.

A brilliant researcher, he integrates diverse sources into a cogent adventure. His surprise gift may be in finding links between disparate realms. In this dynamic narrative, its energy heightened by many illustrations, Mr. Horwitz finds historical connections everywhere.

The first slave owner Brown takes prisoner is Lewis Washington, George Washington’s great-grandnephew. When Brown seizes the armory, telegraph reports spread like wildfire fears of a slave insurrection in an early case of pack journalism. (Blame the media!)

The federal troops sent to retake the arsenal are led by Robert E. Lee. A handsome actor masquerades as a militia man called up to quell the insurgency and John Wilkes Booth joins the throng when Brown is hanged. One of the few blacks who followed Brown leaves a widow who raises a grandson, and that boy becomes a bard of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.

Mr. Horwitz provocatively sketches a farfetched precedent: “A long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war.” Thus he calls John Brown’s raid an “al-Qaeda prequel” and notes, “We are still grappling with the consequences.” Think about it.

• Philip Kopper is the publisher of the Posterity Press.



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