Q&A with Tony Horwitz on Midnight Rising

Q. Tell us what inspired you to write about John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.
A. While writing Confederates in the Attic more than a decade ago, I went on a wild road trip with a hard-core reenactor—a high-speed pilgrimage he called a “Civil Wargasm.” We passed through Harpers Ferry, and I was captivated. It’s a rugged mountain town that still feels haunted by Brown and his raid in 1859. The place tugged at me over the years until I finally did some research. I’d always known that Brown’s raid was a pivotal event in the lead-up to the Civil War, but what drew me to write about it was the drama of the story and the extraordinary characters involved.
Q. You’ve included extensive details about the preparations for Brown’s raid, the fighting, and the aftermath. How did you research this time in history?
A. Brown and his cohorts left a long paper trail—letters, diaries, coded messages, and other documents that provide an intimate, almost blow-by-blow narrative of events. The raid also generated court testimony, a Senate investigation, and detailed news coverage. So there’s no shortage of primary sources. I basically lost myself in the archives for three years—in Virginia, West Virginia, Kansas, Ohio, and other states.
Q. You traveled a fair amount during your research for the book, was there a particular highlight?
A. I’m a great believer in the “archive of the feet.” I like to go to the places where history happened, walk the ground, and soak up the atmosphere. The highlight was a five-mile night march on the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the raid, from Brown’s mountain hideout in Maryland to the armory at Harpers Ferry. In company with a National Park historian and other pilgrims, I walked the exact route Brown and his raiders did, at the exact same hour, behind a horse-drawn wagon. The rolling rural landscape has changed remarkably little and the weather was perfect—cool, dark, and wet, just as it was on that October night in 1859. The experience was so vivid that I decided to start the book by describing the original march and then weaving in my own.
Q. Midnight Rising teaches readers much about Brown’s personal life and we learn that his family suffered greatly. From battles with mental illness to financial hardships to deaths of family members, what detail of Brown’s personal life surprised you the most?
A. I was struck by Brown’s resilience. Both his mother and first wife die in childbirth. He buries nine of his twenty offspring as infants or children. He goes bankrupt in his forties and almost loses everything again in his fifties. Yet Brown keeps battling back and overcoming adversity until, at the end of his life, he emerges from obscurity and becomes an American icon. It’s an astonishing life narrative.
Q. The book also sets Brown’s story in the context of his times and the long-brewing conflict over slavery. What did you learn about this history that surprised you and may surprise readers?
A. I think many Americans still have a Gone With the Wind image of the antebellum South. They conjure a romantically doomed society of white aristocrats and black slaves that was destined to be swept away. But I was struck during my research by how differently things appeared to Americans at the time. From the founding of the nation to the eve of the Civil War, the South seemed to be in the driver’s seat. Slaveholders (or their political minions) dominated the White House, the Supreme Court, and much of Congress. The nation’s laws firmly safeguarded slaveholders’ rights. And slave-grown cotton was booming—by far the nation’s largest export and an engine of its economy. The slaveholding South wasn’t an underdog region; it was brash and bullying, seeking to extend its reach not only to new Western states but to the Caribbean and Central America. One reason Brown made such a mark is that he was the rare Yankee who stood up to the “Slave Power,” not only with words but with guns, at a time when most Northerners felt impotent and dispirited.
Q. How did Brown become one of the nation’s leading antislavery warriors, even before the raid on Harpers Ferry?
A. Though Brown pledged to overthrow slavery in his thirties, he didn’t become a well-known figure until his mid-fifties, when he moved with his sons to the newly opened Kansas territory. At the time, pro-slavery and free-state settlers were battling over the territory’s future. Would it enter the Union as a free or slave state? While most abolitionists were staunch pacifists, Brown believed in taking up arms to fight for freedom. His bloody exploits in Kansas quickly won him fame and notoriety, and he later raided Missouri to free slaves from their owners at gunpoint and escorted them on a dramatic midwinter trek to freedom in Canada.
Q. Brown is the protagonist of Midnight Rising, but you write in detail about others, particularly his fellow raiders and covert financial backers. Why did you do this, and what struck you about these lesser-known players in the Harpers Ferry drama?
A. Brown wasn’t a crazed “lone gunman.” He drew support from a diverse group: rich and poor, black and white, foot soldiers and parlor radicals. These men and women weren’t cult followers; they were strong and colorful individuals. One of my favorites is John Cook, a wellborn Yankee fond of romance novels and florid poetry, who flees his staid Eastern roots to become a gunslinging abolitionist in Kansas and, later, Brown’s spy in Harpers Ferry, where he charms (and seduces) Southern women. Thomas Higginson, one of the “Secret Six” who aided Brown behind the scenes, is a Transcendentalist minister who lifts weights and mentors the poet Emily Dickinson. I felt these and many other characters give a rich flavor of mid-nineteenth-century America in all its idealism and eccentricity.
Q. You also paint vivid portraits of Brown’s Southern antagonists, including a number of renowned figures.
A. The cast on the Southern side of the Harpers Ferry story is remarkable: Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, to name only a few. Their actions and words in 1859 shed light on the fame each of them would achieve in the 1860s. Lee, for instance, behaves with great military coolness and clarity at Harpers Ferry, but as a slaveholding Virginian he fails to grasp the impact of the raid. In many ways, Harpers Ferry is a dress rehearsal of the passions and violence that will play out in the Civil War.
Q. The reader learns how the Harpers Ferry raid served as a trigger for the Civil War. Tell us how Brown’s fighting and sacrifice pushed the North and South into conflict.
A. Tensions between North and South were high in 1859, but most Americans still hoped and believed the nation could put off a reckoning with political compromise or other half measures. The raid and its aftermath exposed and widened the divide to the point where Americans felt compelled to choose sides. Northerners and Southerners began to see each other as enemies in a way they hadn’t before. The raid acted as an accelerant, feeding the flames that engulfed the nation in war eighteen months later.

Q. How did 9/11 influence your thinking about Brown and the raid?
A. The parallels between the raid and 9/11 are striking. Brown is a religious fundamentalist who hates the U.S. government and leads eighteen men in a suicide strike on a symbol of American power. The resulting terror and rage help propel the nation into war. Also, like the 9/11 plotters, the Harpers Ferry raiders were careless and indiscreet and could easily have been exposed.
But Brown was no bin Laden, who slaughtered thousands of innocents from afar. Brown put his own life on the line, he didn’t kill indiscriminately, and he treated his hostages at Harpers Ferry well. And his cause was the liberation of slaves. That being said, Brown sought to sow terror in the white South and did kill some civilians. His actions raise prickly questions about means and ends, about religion, about individual conscience, about violence. That’s one reason I find his story so riveting and worthy of continued study and debate.
Q. What have you come to admire most about Brown and those whom he fought alongside? What do you least admire?
A. I admire Brown’s unbending conviction that human bondage and racial injustice must end for America to realize its founding promise of liberty and equality. Now that I’m in my fifties, I also admire his ability to remake himself as an “old man,” as he was often called in the 1850s, when life expectancy was considerably shorter than it is today. I least admire the sacrifices he demanded of his family, who shared his antislavery fervor but suffered tremendously as a result of his crusade. Also, though I’m not a pacifist—some wars must be fought—I question Brown’s readiness to shed the blood of his own men and of some noncombatants.
Q. What are the lessons we can learn from Brown’s raid about battling inequality today?
A. Big question. One lesson, I think, is that the fight is never over and it’s never easy or popular. Every era demands courage and a willingness to buck apathy and the prevailing political tides. Another lesson, I hope, is that dramatic inequality cannot stand forever. It may take years, or decades, but ultimately people rise up, as they did in 1859 and again a century later during the civil rights era. The issues may be different today, and the context more global, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think gross inequalities won’t lead to the sort of upheavals we’ve seen in the past.
Q. If you were to meet Brown, what two questions would you ask him?
A. Wow, my dream, to be able to interrogate Brown. First, I’d ask him what exactly he intended at Harpers Ferry—a quick raid and retreat to the mountains, a full-blown slave insurrection in the South, or a dramatic self-sacrifice of the sort that actually occurred. Second, I’d love to know what he would make of America today, with a black man in the White House but with many aspects of Brown’s dream of true equality as yet unfulfilled. Would he man the barricades again?