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The Author Speaks

Tony Horwitz on John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

'Midnight Rising' brings the abolitionist to life

Q. What parallels does Brown have with modern-day terrorists?

A. Today, "terrorism" brings to mind the modern era and the mass slaughter of innocents. Brown used terrorist tactics in that he sought to strike fear in the minds of slaveholders. He wanted to show them that Northerners would push and fight to free slaves, and that the slaves themselves might rise up against their masters.

Q. You write that this act galvanized the nation in a way that decades-long peaceful abolition campaigns had not. How so?

A. Brown was the right man for that moment. He was the catalyst that helped spark the Civil War. We can argue about whether it was necessary for more than 600,000 Americans to die for slavery to end, but I think he saw the future and he hastened it.

Q. There is some argument that Brown knew his mission was doomed before launching it. After so much primary research, what do you think?

A. He recognized that his quixotic mission might well fail — he equally prepared for triumph and for being shot. Rather miraculously, he survived the raid, and then ironically, having failed, a month later he really triumphed through the power of his word and his courage facing death. His communications from prison really galvanized the North.

Q. What was his message?

A. Brown's writing and speeches have a plainspoken, direct moral argument. He states clearly that slavery is a sin, and that it is not a sin to try and overthrow it. And if that's a crime, then he is prepared to give his life for the cause of freedom.

Q. This was a revolutionary statement?

A. Many Northerners at the time opposed slavery but were tolerating it, hoping to get yet another congressional compromise to sort of kick the problem down the road. Brown was saying, "No. The problem is here. The problem we need to face is now, and there is right and there's wrong. Pick which side you're on."

Q. You say that you love the story of John Brown's teen daughter. Why?

A. Annie Brown doesn't get much attention in traditional historical analysis on Brown. Here she is, a teen farm girl who is suddenly dropped into this great drama. She is sharing a secret mission with a band of romantic young men, holed up in the mountains of Maryland, in the months before the raid. I love her heart and her insight into this band of appealing, idealistic young men. Her writing takes us there in a way that no one else's does.

Q. How do you pick your book subjects?

A. Some book ideas just float through the window and hit you out of the blue. Others grow for years. This one had been sitting around in the back of my mind ever since I wrote Confederates in the Attic years ago. It's a piece of Civil War history that has been poorly understood. It touches on the broad question of why the Civil War happened. Despite the tens of thousands of books on the war, I think we still have a lot to learn about what drove Americans to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands. Harpers Ferry is essentially a preview of that.

Next: Writing process changes with age. >>

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