Taking up arms against slavery

“Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War” by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt, 292 pages, $29)

“He has something of a warlike spiret,” John Brown’s father wrote of him in an 1855 letter. “I think as much as necessary for defence I will hope nothing more.”

As we know, Brown the father’s hopes were not to be, since Brown the son’s anti-slavery fervor ultimately turned violent. “Midnight Rising” chronicles John Brown’s life and path to abolitionism, and details his turn to violence in Bleeding Kansas that paved the way to the fateful raid on Harpers Ferry.

Brown’s life, starting as the 19th century began, was fairly typical of the time: struggles to make a living, strict religion, family hardships. The United States was steadily expanding but kept running up against the problem of slavery. Compromises and legislative deals did nothing to resolve the issue, but instead served only to stave off an inevitable blowup.

Comfortably removed here in the 21st century, we call Brown’s action at Harpers Ferry a “raid,” but news accounts at the time saw it as the tragic prelude to the Civil War that it was, labeling it in a variety of military terms. The act, even in failure, struck panic into the South; Brown’s hanging turned him into a martyr in the minds of abolitionists.

Horwitz’s earlier books have been a mix of travelogue and history; for example, in “A Voyage Long and Strange,” he traces the stories — and the steps — of the earliest explorers of the New World.

“Midnight Rising” is much heavier on the history than the travel — Horwitz did travel the route of the raiders on a dreary night in 2009 — but the history alone makes for compelling reading.