Saturday, October 22, 2011

Samson and the spark

Although I love American history, the Civil War seemed a sad chapter in our nation's history and never held much interest for me. So, I'm not sure why I thought Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz looked interesting. I didn't even know who John Brown was!

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil WarIn spite of the lofty language in the Declaration of Independence, all men were not equal in America. Slavery was a stain on the country's conscience and some felt it was becoming too deeply entrenched in the nation. John Brown, a poor subsistence farmer from Ohio, saw himself as a sort of noble Gideon from the Bible (Judges 7) who led Israel victoriously against its enemies, and he believed his life's mission was to begin the war that would end slavery. He turned out to be more of a Samson-figure (Judges 16): deeply flawed but with the power to provide a spark. His early efforts to make Kansas a free-state and a successful raid in Missouri to free a few slaves earned himself a somewhat fearsome reputation as "Osawatomie Brown," but the murderous violence also deeply disaffected his sons. Nonetheless, they followed him again with a small rag-tag group in a more ambitious plan.

Brown's ill-conceived raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (a slave state) in October of 1859 failed to free any slaves but his example in standing up for his convictions – even if it meant going to the gallows – inspired many in the North. It also heightened fears in the South that Northern abolitionists would forcibly take their “property” from them and provoked calls for secession. And less than two years later, the country descended into the chaos of the Civil War where over 600,000 men lost their lives.

Perhaps in an effort to present the story as neutrally as possible, Brown is portrayed as neither heroic nor even particularly likeable. And while it's a fairly easy read I found it only mildly interesting until the end of the book. Mr. Horwitz brings the story together nicely with a summary of the impact John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry had on attitudes in both the North and the South, leading to disunion and war. Brown’s willingness to sacrifice himself inspired others to confront the issue of slavery, and his words at the end of his life became far more powerful than his actions had been – his heart was in the right place even if his plans and tactics weren't – and Horwitz's conclusions regarding Brown’s motives seem reasonable. And this greater understanding of the events that led to the War was what made the book worthwhile reading for me.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine).

No comments:

Post a Comment