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John Brown's Body Revisited
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Sep 24, 2012, 13:04

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Tony Horwitz signs copies of his book at the Appomattox Regional Library after his book discussion.

Although last Wednesday was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Tony Horwitz’s first time in Hopewell, he is familiar with the general area from his experience working on his book “Confederates in the Attic.”

His work on that book took him to Olgers Store in Dinwiddie County ,where he spent a day talking to owner Jimmy Olgers.

“As soon as I met him, I realized I had somebody I wanted to sit and talk to for awhile,” Horwitz said. “He’s a great story teller.”

“It was my first time in Southside Virginia, and just the beauty of the landscape and the sense of history you have and the wonderful people you meet and he’s a perfect example,” Horwitz added, noting what struck him about the area.

Horwitz was remembering his last visit after a Wednesday night talk at the Hopewell branch of the Appomattox Library during which he discussed his newest book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War.”

The room was packed with people eager to hear about the book’s exploration of a controversial and polarizing figure from American history.

“I don’t think we often enough step back and ask how and why did this war happen in the first place,” Horwitz said, explaining why he wrote his most recent book. “How is it that Americans, who, for the most part, shared a common language and religion and culture came to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands in the 1860s?”

“I think that John Brown and his raid really are a window into that question,” he said.

In his research, conducted in archives throughout the country, Horwitz attempted to excavate beneath the popular image of Brown as a “wild-eyed, wild-haired fanatic” to learn more about the man, his ideas and the times that created and reacted to him.

Brown was plagued by financial troubles and tragedy throughout his life, losing all his money more than once and burying nine children. But he was driven, throughout his life, by strict Calvinist beliefs and a deep conviction that slavery must end.

“This is one of the things that’s most remarkable about Brown,” Horwitz said. “He has this burning passion, this unbending conviction that sustains him through his many trials. He’s descended from Puritans and Revolutionary War officers and feels that America’s founding destiny, of liberty and equality, can only be fulfilled through the destruction of slavery. And he believes it’s his God given mission to do the job and he clings to this belief for decades.”

Horwitz said that the image of Brown as an insane fanatic and the image of the South as a doomed society and underdog are both inaccurate. In fact, Brown lived most of his life as an ordinary man and the South controlled much of the nation’s wealth and political power before the war.

Brown cut his teeth in the fields of Kansas, where disputes between pro and anti slavery factions, garnered the territory the name “bleeding Kansas.” He also led a raid on Missouri, taking slaves from their masters at gun point and escorting them to their freedom in Canada.

“These kinds of acts make Brown a kind of national celebrity, admired by many in the North and hated in the white South,” Horwitz explained.

Brown began to formulate the idea of a raid on Harper’s Ferry that he hoped would lead to the wholesale destruction of the institution of slavery and went East to muster resources, impressing New England abolitionists and renting a farm house in Maryland where he spent a summer holed up with his supporters, plotting the raid he launched on Oct. 16, 1859.

Brown’s uprising was quelled by U.S. Marines under the command of then Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Jeb Stuart.

Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth also arrived on scene, while Jefferson Davis led the charge to investigate the insurrection and bring the perpetrators to justice.

“Harper’s Ferry is really like a casting call for the Confederacy 18 months before the Civil War,” Horwitz said. “It’s just sort of remarkable the figures who get drawn into the story.”

Abraham Lincoln was one of them.

Horwitz said he doesn’t think Lincoln would have been elected president had it not been for Brown’s raid. Lincoln’s abolitionist views were much more mild than Brown’s, and the two were very different in temperament, Horwitz said, but Lincoln brought about Brown’s dream with the Emancipation Proclamation.

“These two figures who really begin as opponents come together in the end, and both pay the price,” Horwitz said. “John Brown’s raid and Lincoln’s assassination are really the bookends of our long, national bloodletting.”

Horwitz said he tried to incorporate suspense into the realm of historical writing, where the plot is already determined, by asking readers to confront the troubling historical figure of John Brown and consider their feelings regarding his actions.

“This is a very polarizing man,” he said.

Horwitz said he also wanted to use Brown to examine how the nation became so polarized, since Southern “fire-eaters” were equally extreme in their secessionist views.

One of those fire-eaters was Edmund Ruffin, whose plantation stood off what is now Rt. 10 in Prince George County, a short drive from the library where Horwitz spoke.

“Edmund Ruffin makes a sort of important appearance in the John Brown story,” Horwitz said, speaking after his presentation.

He said Ruffin went to Harper’s Ferry while Brown was being tried and held and was present at his execution. He took one of the pikes Brown had intended to give to the slaves he hoped to free and showed it throughout the South to stir secessionist fury.

“He actually welcomes John Brown’s raid because, as he puts it, he hopes it will ‘stir the sluggish blood of the South.’ In a way I think of him and Brown as counterpoints, two sides of the same coin. They’re not young, they’re both these kind of wild looking guys who are extremists on opposite sides of this issue, and agitators who want to bring on this great conflict, so I think in that sense they’re an interesting mirror of each other.”

After his presentation on the book and its themes and a half hour question and answer session, Horwitz signed copies of his books and talked with audience members.

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