Thursday, September 08, 2011

Book Review: "Midnight Rising"

Tony Horwitz's new book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (Henry Holt, 2011) is rather different from his previous works, in that he doesn't alternate the narrative between past and present but focuses on the historical event: John Brown's attack on the Harpers Ferry arsenal in October 1859. When I first realized this, I confess I was a little bit bummed (I liked that aspect of those earlier books), but I'm more than pleased to say that this is an excellent book, very probably the best account of the raid we're likely to get.

Horwitz offers up not only a detailed, even riveting play-by-play of the assault itself, but also several chapters on Brown's earlier life and exploits. He explores, at great depth than several other recent Brown biographers have done, the strong links between Brown and his key northern backers (as well as the widely varying reactions of those backers following the raid). And he's done a very nice job of profiling Brown's comrades-in-arms, bringing their stories into the mix in a way I've not seen done before.

My favorite part of the book were the aftermath chapters, covering the reaction to Brown's attack in the northern and southern press, by government officials at the federal and state levels, abolitionist leaders, and those who actually knew Brown and his men or supported his efforts. Horwitz has done a brilliant job of recreating how Brown's capture, trial, and execution were perceived by those actually living the events.

No matter how much you think you know about John Brown and his actions, I guarantee you'll learn something from this book, and that you'll enjoy the read. Highly recommended.

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