SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
On an autumn night, 152 years ago, the abolitionist John Brown said, it's time.
TONY HORWITZ: (Reading) Oct. 16th 1859: Men get on your arms, the captain said, we will proceed to the ferry. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the log house and the men loaded it with pikes, tools, torches and gunpowder. The captain climbed on the wagon and 18 men marched behind down a dirt lane, past a snake-rail fence, onto the road to Harper's Ferry.
SIMON: And with that, John Brown and the men he had gathered to him opened the raid they hoped would ignite an uprising against slavery in the United States. The raid failed. Or did it? Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, has written a new book about John Brown, "Midnight Rising." He took us to the old Kennedy Farmhouse just outside of Harpers Ferry, where John Brown and his co-conspirators pretended to be farmers while they planned the raid they hoped would change history.
HORWITZ: The Kennedy Farm is where Brown gathers his weapons and guerilla fighters in the summer before the raid. This is really tense, sweaty lead-up to the action. And he assembles this remarkable band of 21 men; farmers, factory workers, fugitive slaves, three of his sons and even his own teenaged and daughter-in-law who'd come here to act as housekeepers and lookouts.
SIMON: It was important to Brown that fugitive slaves and freed blacks be part of this group too.
HORWITZ: Yeah. Unlike many abolitionists who had a certain condescension towards blacks - they wanted to free them, but really felt they were too docile to fight for their own freedom - Brown didn't believe that at all. He felt it was both necessary and a moral imperative that blacks fight alongside whites for their freedom. So of his band of 21 men, five of them are black. They're a very interesting crew.
SIMON: This group that you describe here in this house...
SIMON: ...in 1859, what was there about John Brown that would lead people to - well, I think it's fair to say, you know, they were going to undertake an enterprise in which they'd risk their lives?
HORWITZ: John Brown had this tremendous charisma, this draw, on people. One, a Boston hostess; Brown goes to her house to try and get her husband to give money. Writes about his moral magnetism. He had this ability to stir people's conscience. He was also a striking physical character. The Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott calls him the manliest man I ever met. His has this power over people, this unbending conviction.
SIMON: Tony Horwitz says that John Brown hoped the raid would be a spark that would set off conflagration that would burn slavery out of the soul of the United States.
HORWITZ: Brown wanted not only to attempt to free slaves in Virginia but really to shock the nation. Here you had a U.S. armory, a symbol of American power, and he wanted to do something dramatic to really wake the country up. So I think attacking Harpers Ferry was as much for its shock value as for its logistical value to him in terms of his campaign.
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HORWITZ: We are midway across the Potomac River which Brown crossed. It was a cold, wet, dark night. They seized the guard on the bridge and snuck across; 19 men with a wagon and caught Harpers Ferry entirely by surprise. And by controlling this bridge and the bridge over the Shenandoah, they had essentially choked off this town. So for a brief period, Brown really controlled Harpers Ferry and its 100,000 guns.
SIMON: In some ways did the Civil War begin here?
HORWITZ: I think you could argue that the Civil War begins here rather than at Fort Sumter or Manassas because up tilt this point at the time of Brown's raid, the nation is divided but people still think maybe we can compromise and prevaricate and somehow put off this reckoning over the division in our country and the division over slavery. But after Brown's raid that's really impossible. You've had northerners and southerners her killing each other over slavery. It really exposes and greatly widens the divide between North and South. And I think after this point there is no going back.
SIMON: John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry set off no uprising and came to an end after just 32 hours in a small brick engine house that still stands today.
HORWITZ: He's trapped in here with his remaining men, with his 10 remaining hostages, and with about five slaves that he's liberated from nearby plantations. And you have a howling mob outside, screaming and firing potshots. You have the U.S. Marines preparing for their morning attack. And here he is, one of his son's lying dead, a 20-year-old son. Another who's been shot in the gut and is dying and crying out for his comrades to put him out of his misery.
It's a horrible scene. We're in a stable essentially. It's the size of what today would be a two-car garage and you have 25 or so terrified men in here who can't even see out because the windows are so high. They can't open the doors. They'll get shot. Waiting for the attack that they know is likely to come.
Brown refused to surrender. And they actually batter in these doors and they come rushing in with their guns and sabers. They kill several of Brown's men. And one of them manages to beat Brown to the floor with a saber, and miraculously he doesn't die.
If he had, this story might've been very different. It might've been a kind of odd little episode. It's really in defeat that Brown triumphs.
SIMON: John Brown went on trial the next week, charged with treason, first-degree murder and inciting insurrection. When he was given the chance to address the court, he made no excuses and did not plea for his life.
If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, he said, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done. And on December 2nd, 1859, it was. John Brown was hanged.
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SIMON: If you stand on the bridge over the Potomac today, you can look down on Harper's Ferry with its mix of history and funnel cake shops. Tony Horwitz says that John Brown continues to incite people because his life, as well as his words, raised persisting questions.
The uprising he tried to set off never flared. The war he always thought would be the price of slavery began just 16 months later. Did John Brown fire the first shots? Tony Horwitz:
HORWITZ: John Brown really touches many of the hot buttons in our history and culture - violence, race, religious fundamentalism, the right of the individual to defy their government. These are eternal questions. Do ends ever justify the means? Was he right to use violence here to try and end slavery?
I don't think there are easy answers to this. He's a prickling figure. He's that stone in the shoe of our history that forces us to keep asking these questions. And that's part of what I find so fascinating about him.
SIMON: Tony Horwitz with us in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. His new book is "Midnight Rising."
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SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from "Midnight Rising" on our website at NPR.org.
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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.