Midnight Rising John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

Tony Horwitz




Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, few Americans know the true story of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. In recounting Brown's uprising, Midnight Rising  reveals a country on the brink of explosive conflict.

Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale."

Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates today.


Praise for Midnight Rising

"A hard-driving narrative of one of America’s most troubling figures . . . Horwitz describes the disaster in riveting terms . . . It’s impossible to read this fine book without thinking about modern-day Browns."—Kevin Boyle, The New York Times Book Review

"Horwitz, an exceptionally skilled and accomplished journalist, here turns his hand to pure history with admirable results. Midnight Rising is smoothly written, thoroughly researched, places Brown within the context of his time and place, and treats him sensitively but scarcely adoringly."—The Washington Post  

"Horwitz’s skills are a good match for this enormously compelling character, and his well-paced narrative incorporates masterful sketches of Brown’s family, foot soldiers, financial backers, admirers and prosecutors . . . The result is both page-turning and heartbreaking—a book to engage mind and soul."—The Boston Globe

"Horwitz's moment-by-moment account of the doomed raid unfolds with such immediacy that he reintroduces suspense to a story we all know from textbooks . . . Midnight Rising is a richly detailed and engaging history. Horwitz expertly culls letters, diaries, and documents to let his idiosyncratic, highly articulate nineteenth-century cast of characters speak for themselves."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Horwitz's novelistic style and character development will appeal to a wide audience. Brown's raid was one of the critical factors leading an already-fractured nation to the brink of the Civil War, and Midnight Rising serves a noble purpose in reinterpreting this story for modern audiences."—The Post and Courier (Charleston) 

"Horwitz describes guerrilla action and the run-up to war with a deadline writer’s immediacy . . . A brilliant researcher, he integrates diverse sources into a cogent adventure."—The Washington Times

"What do you call John Brown? Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? . . . Tony Horwitz settles upon the word insurgent—and the label seems just right, as does Horwitz’s book as a whole . . . Midnight Rising rolls through a series of indelible scenes . . . The book becomes a graceful narrative, ever engaging, with the reader allowed to connect Brown and his contemporaries to conflicts that continue to our day."—The Seattle Times

"In captivating detail, Horwitz animates the wild-eyed, long-bearded crusader . . . Make no mistake, the infamous October 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry by John Brown and his 18 men was the stone that began the avalanche that became the Civil War."—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A brave and highly successful attempt to revive the legend of Brown's martyrdom for the 21st century reader . . . Horwitz's vivid writing style . . . makes for a superb historical narrative."—Buffalo News

"A beautifully crafted, richly detailed, and riveting narrative of a pivotal episode in American history . . . Midnight Rising is at its best reconstructing the lives (and deaths) of the relatively anonymous conspirators—especially the African-Americans."—The Florida Courier

"Horwitz has done an outstanding job re-creating the historical drama of the midnight raid at Harpers Ferry and, more importantly, taking readers inside the monomaniacal, Ahab-like mind of John Brown, a man so committed to his cause that even death couldn't halt him."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Horwitz’s description of the little band of idealists and adventurers who signed on for Brown’s offensive—including five black men and two of Brown’s own sons—is both fascinating and touching. His careful recreation of the bloody events of October 16, 1859, the day of Brown’s disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry, is both suspenseful and heart wrenching."—The Christian Science Monitor 

"In Midnight Rising, [Horwitz] not only gives us an action-packed adventure story, but also provides detailed historical background and vivid character portraits of the principals involved . . . Assiduously researched using archival sources, Horwitz's riveting tale is on sound factual footing. And he does a wonderful job of bringing to life the fascinating, messianic leader who, on the way to the gallows, would incite a nation toward civil war."—St. Petersburg Times

"Compelling reading."—The Wichita Eagle

"The lively narrative focuses on the 1859 attack on an armory in Harpers Ferry, W.Va, by Brown and his ragtag followers—the event credited with lighting the fuse on the deadliest conflict in U.S. history."—San Jose Mercury News

"A groundbreaking study of the Harper’s Ferry raid that makes a number of fascinating points: Brown was not a madman or a fanatic, he knew his death would serve as a moral lightning rod, and the fallout from his actions has echoed for generations."—The Oregonian (Portland) 

"Superb and amply researched . . . [Horwitz] renders with empathy and insight the lives of the individuals Brown touched, whether they were family members, victims, or the idealistic raiders who followed him to Harpers Ferry . . . Brown’s raiders thus appear more human, poignant, and fallible and the whole venture more noble, futile, benighted, heroic, and sadder than heretofore."—American Scholar

"There’s a brilliance to this book that put me in mind of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, only Horwitz’s Midnight Rising is set deeper in America’s dark past. With stunning, vivid detail, he has captured the sheer drama and tragedy of John Brown and that bloody raid at Harpers Ferry that helped propel America toward civil war."—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts 

"Tony Horwitz's gifts as a vivid narrator of dramatic events are on full display in this story of John Brown's wars in Kansas and his climactic Harpers Ferry raid in 1859. Brown's family and the men who joined him in these fights against slavery receive a more fully rounded treatment than in any other account. Of special note is the discussion of Brown's self-conscious emulation of Samson by pulling down the temple of bondage and dying a martyr in its ruins."—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom 

"Midnight Rising is a deeply compelling work, richly researched and elegantly written. The events surrounding the raid on Harpers Ferry—and the complex character of John Brown himself—come vividly to life in Tony Horwitz’s irresistibly readable account."—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello 

"With his customary blend of rich archival research, on-location color, and lyrical prose, Tony Horwitz has delivered a John Brown book for our time. Part biography, part historical narrative, Midnight Rising is a riveting re-creation of the Harpers Ferry raid, told with an unblinking sense of Brown's tragic place in American history. Writing with enveloping detail and a storyteller's verve, Horwitz shows why Brown was—and still is—so troubling and important to our culture."—David W. Blight, author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era 

"Tony Horwitz knows how to tell a story, and here his considerable gifts as a writer bring John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry alive in a style that is just as electric as its subject."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and First Family 

"Beautifully written and sparkling with fresh insights, Midnight Rising resurrects the multiple faces of John Brown: avenging angel or murderous terrorist; slavery's nemesis or deluded fanatic; abolitionist hero or subversive insurrectionist. In this thrilling, magnificent and essential book, Tony Horwitz shows how one man and a single event set the nation on a doomed course where the crimes of a guilty land could only be purged by blood."—James L. Swanson, author of Manhunt and Bloody Crimes 

"Horwitz’s potent prose delivers the facts of this bellwether incident in riveting fashion . . . It is an absorbing portrait of the often frustrated but passionately driven firebrand who successfully convinced a country of the shame of slavery and, to the South’s great regret, earned martyr status in the aftermath of his execution. Brown qualifies as America’s first important post-revolution terrorist . . . Horwitz brings events to life with almost cinematic clarity, and for American history and Civil War aficionados, Midnight Rising is required reading."—Bookpage

"Lucid and compelling . . . The author’s archival sleuthing pays off with a rich narrative."—Kirkus Reviews

"Gripping, disturbing and heartbreaking . . . Horwitz brings all his gifts of character building and storytelling to Brown’s rise and self-promotion . . . Horwitz’s Brown did not die in vain. By recalling the drama that fired the imagination and fears of Brown’s time, Midnight Rising calls readers to account for complacency about social injustices today. This is a book for our time."—Library Journal (starred review)

"[Horwitz’s] vivid biographical portrait of Brown gives us an American original: a failed businessman and harsh Calvinist with a soft spot for the oppressed and a murderous animus against oppressors . . . Brown’s raiders—a motley crew of his sons and various idealists, adventurers, freedmen, and fugitive slaves—come alive as a romantic, appealing bunch; their agonizing deaths give Horwitz’s excellent narrative of the raid and shootout a deep pathos."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


October 16, 1859

"Men, get on your arms," the Captain said. "We will proceed to the Ferry."

It was eight at night, an autumn Sunday, silent and dark in the Maryland hills. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the log house and the men loaded it with pikes, tools, torches, and gunpowder. The Captain put on the battered cap he'd worn in Bleeding Kansas. Then he climbed on the wagon and the men marched behind, down a dirt lane, past a snake-rail fence, onto the road to Harpers Ferry.

There were eighteen men, not counting the Captain. Almost all were in their twenties

Read the full excerpt



  • Trailer For Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

    Bestselling author Tony Horwitz tells the electrifying tale of the daring insurrection that put America on the path to bloody war.

  • Tony Horwitz Reads From Midnight Rising

    Tony Horwitz Reads From Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.

  • Tony Horwitz Interviewed on PBS Newshour

    Tony Horwitz discusses Midnight Rising on PBS Newshour

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  • Tony Horwitz

  • Tony Horwitz is the bestselling author of Midnight Rising, A Voyage Long and Strange, Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad Without a Map. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. He lives in Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons.

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    Tony Horwitz



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