A crisply written but not entirely original retelling of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and historian Horwitz returns to the Civil War era (A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, 2008, etc.) and John Brown’s infamous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. The author depicts a morally upright abolitionist deeply committed to his cause but also well known for his “fixedness,” a rigid stubbornness that could be a source of strength but was equally a source of weakness. Brown rose to notoriety on the basis of his violent abolitionist crusades in Bloody Kansas, but he had larger plans in mind; he imagined his raid would set in motion slave uprisings that would allow him to command a righteous army of liberation. Grand dreams gave way to grim reality soon after he set his scheme in motion in October 1859 with a small but loyal band of white and black followers. Soon Brown’s men were overrun, and those who were not killed or who did not manage to escape faced the gallows. Among this group was Brown himself, whose hanging represented just retribution in the minds of many detractors, especially whites in the South, but served as equally apt martyrdom in the eyes of his supporters. Though the author’s archival sleuthing pays off with a rich narrative, the book is one of many on the subject to appear in recent years, most notably David S. Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist (2005). Horwitz is a fine writer, but the narrative lacks deep historical analysis.
Lucid and compelling but hardly groundbreaking.