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'Midnight Rising' brings to life the madman with a righteous cause

It was an unseasonably bitter Oct. 16, 1859, when a small band of armed raiders crossed the railroad bridge over the Potomac River from Maryland unmolested, and stole into a frontier hamlet in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains named Harpers Ferry.

It was Sunday night and a cold rain -- almost ice -- was said to be blowing horizontally into the faces of the ragtag raiders.

The town's two main streets were deserted and most of the town's nearly 3,000 inhabitants were asleep, except for a dozen or so men in the saloon below the recently spiffed-up Wager House Hotel. There was little of note in this rough industrial outpost except the federal armory and arsenal, which contained nearly half of the U.S. government's stockpiled small arms and ammunition.

The leader of the paramilitary force obsessed with capturing the town was a New Englander with a price on his head -- a reward offered by President James Buchanan himself -- for kidnapping at least five pro-slavery landholders from their homes on the Kansas-Missouri border, and having them butchered and left for their families to find in the morning.

His name was John Brown. To disguise his true identity, he called himself Mr. Smith in Virginia. A contemporary described him as "a strange, resolute, iron-willed inexorable old man." Tonight, he preferred to be called Capt. Brown. It was the biggest night of his life.

Brown led a force of 21 men. Two of them stayed behind in the Maryland farmhouse headquarters because they were in no condition to fight, and a third was sent on a mission and never rejoined his comrades. That left 17 fighting men. Yet within 24 hours, news reports from Washington to Boston put Brown's "army" at up to 700, with maybe another 2,000 crossing the wilderness from the west to join him.

So you see, wildly exaggerated news reports did not begin with the invention of cable TV news. Traditional news junkies at the time probably blamed those dang, new-fangled telegraph lines.

Brown's men took the federal arsenal, which on Sunday nights was guarded only by an aged night watchman and a padlocked gate. They also captured a few dozen townsmen, including one of Harpers Ferry's leading citizens and its largest slaveholder. Being Sunday night, most of the slaves had the day off and were not home.

That was significant because although Brown hadn't managed to spread the word among the slave population, his purpose was to free the slaves of Northern Virginia and precipitate a slave rebellion. The marauders managed to kill a man -- a free black man -- the first victim of their raid. Later they killed the town's popular mayor.

The hoped-for slave uprising never materialized, but a flood of citizen militia from nearby towns, many reinforced with liquor, descended upon Harpers Ferry to rid what was then the State of Virginia of those Yankee troublemakers.

Within 36 hours, Brown's raiders were holed up in the small brick federal armory engine house.

Blocking their escape were sharpshooters from the surrounding towns, 90 U.S. Marines rushed in from nearby Washington, and 2,000 spectators, including newspaper and magazine reporters. The federal force was commanded by a young Southern colonel named Robert E. Lee. And an actor named John Wilkes Booth was among the spectators.

A long standoff fell apart when the obstinate Brown talked his men out of surrendering, and refused to free his hostages without safe passage to Maryland. A swift assault was launched and Brown was captured alive so he could be tried and hanged before Christmas.

For Brown, years of planning with a small group of militant abolitionists -- a few of them well-heeled -- resulted in a 32-hour assault on a few hundred square yards of Virginia soil, and a five-minute climactic battle in which he was beaten nearly unconscious with a sword handle.

Ten raiders were killed, including two of Brown's sons and a son-in-law, and seven were captured.

A hundred-and-fifty years later, Brown's raid generally is relegated to an asterisk in American history, but in one of history's strange twists, Brown, the lunatic perennial loser, became a martyr and a legend once the State of Virginia put him to death on the scaffold.

Author Tony Horwitz has made a brave and highly successful attempt to revive the legend of Brown's martyrdom for the 21st century reader.

He has done a tremendous amount of research into primary documents, much of them handwritten letters stuffed away in forgotten corners of museums and libraries. In some, the spelling and grammar are so bad they demand deciphering. He also had reams of trial records, congressional hearing records and contemporary newspaper accounts to pore over.

All this work, fully annotated, plus Horwitz's vivid writing style, makes for a superb historical narrative, even if at times his premise is stretched to the breaking point.

Horwitz, or his publicists, would have you believe that Brown's raid "divided the nation and plunged it toward bloody war."

Maybe. But other historians have made the case that Brown, a deeply disturbed religious fanatic who harbored a death wish, merely provided one of those convenient symbols that take on meaning well beyond their true significance.

Was the nation already deeply divided? Would South Carolina have seceded from the Union without Brown? Would slavery have ended in this country? Would Abraham Lincoln have been elected and eventually issued his Emancipation Proclamation without Brown's failed raid at Harpers Ferry?

Probably yes to all of the above.

But none of that detracts from the thrilling tale of one man's lame attempt to end an institution and a way of life that he clearly recognized as evil beyond description.

Author Horwitz has brought to life this delusional old man, with all his faults and foibles. And in restoring flesh and blood to Brown's bones, Horwitz had raised this tragic character to something beyond an asterisk, something beyond a paragraph in modern history books.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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

By Tony Horwitz

Henry Holt

365 pages, $29