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Tony Horwitz explored the lingering reverberations of the war in modern America in his 1998 book Confederates in the Attic. In his most recent publication, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, Horwitz reaches back to 1859 in a gripping, blow-by-blow account of John Brown’s radical war on slavery, exploring the surprising backstory of one of America’s most controversial figures.

What did he do at Harpers Ferry?

Brown leads a night march in October 1859 to Harpers Ferry and initially seizes its federal armory, takes control of the town, frees a small number of slaves from surrounding plantations and takes about 40 prominent whites hostage. But his success is short-lived. Virginians very quickly mobilize and bottle up Brown until federal troops under Robert E. Lee arrive and storm Brown’s position after about 32 hours. Most of Brown’s men are killed and captured.

Is John Brown relevant today?

He is relevant because he raises eternal questions about whether the ends justify the means, whether violence is ever justified in the cause of freedom and whether individuals have the right to defy their own government and laws. In a troubled time when government seems incapable of bridging a nation’s divide or dealing effectively with crises, change bubbles up from the extremes. That happened in 1850s, and to some degree it’s happening today with Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

Who was Brown before the raid at Harpers Ferry?

Kansas is where he first emerges as public figure and violent abolitionist. He goes there in 1855 with only 60 cents and quickly joins the fight over whether Kansas will join the Union as a free or slave state. His action ignites a broader and more savage fight than there was before. He is an accelerant. He sparks kindling that’s already there, much as he will do with his attack on Harpers Ferry.

Do you think John Brown was a terrorist?

From the Southern viewpoint, he was viewed as what today we would call a terrorist. I’m not sure when that term comes into common usage. He sought to sow terror in Kansas and Virginia. But I think it’s wrong to liken him to terrorists today who kill indiscriminately and often for murky reasons. He had a clear program and target: the destruction of slavery. He didn’t kill indiscriminately. Compared to more recent terrorist acts, the actual bloodshed was minor. That’s not to dismiss the fact that he did shed blood.

Tell us about the Secret Six, who supported Brown.

They were a fascinating group that shared his radical belief that slavery must be met with force. Otherwise they were very unlike him. Their religious views were Unitarian and Transcendentalist; Brown was a conservative Calvinist. They were well-educated men of means, while Brown was largely self-educated and struggled financially. They made common cause and used each other. Brown was deft at stirring the conscience of wealthy abolitionists and getting them to give money and guns to his cause. They saw him as a human battering ram who would potentially splinter slavery and bring on the great conflict they thought was necessary. They wanted to do so without putting themselves at risk. What they didn’t bargain for was that they were quickly implicated when Brown’s raid failed. A number fled to Canada, and one checked himself into an insane asylum. They were armchair radicals who were not prepared to suffer for their convictions. The exception was Thomas W. Higginson, whose support remained staunch. He later led black soldiers in the war. He stood up while others claimed ignorance of Brown’s plans.

What was the source of Brown’s religious and political convictions?

Brown is of Puritan and Revolutionary War descent. Both his grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War, and he sees himself as fulfilling their struggle for liberty and equality. America at this stage is still a young, experimental country, and many Americans, not just Brown, feel passionate about making it work. He constantly echoes the Revolutionary generation in his writing and in the symbolism of his attack when he seizes the great-grandnephew of George Washington as the first hostage.

You paint a picture of Brown as a master of PR.

Brown was resilient and adaptable. He was skilled at using the new media of that era—the telegraph, the newspaper and newswires. He used media in Kansas and afterward to make himself a celebrity to many in the North. Later he turned his time in prison and court into an extended press conference.

Do you think that Brown was insane?

Melville wrote a poem that refers to “weird John Brown”; he sensed an Ahab quality—an obsessive figure whose white whale is the destruction of slavery, and who will take everyone down with him if necessary. I don’t think he was insane in a clinical or legal sense. He knew exactly what he was doing. His plans were grandiose, but he was not delusional. Questioning his sanity, then and now, serves as a way to dismiss and marginalize him. Casting him as a crazed lone gunman, he’s less troubling. It’s more important and perhaps difficult to recognize that he was a very American figure: fundamentalist, violent, passionate, not someone we can simply put on the fringes and forget. At times his behavior seems manic, and he had periods of depression. But many important figures have been mentally ill. Lincoln, for example, was severely depressed.

What surprised you about Brown?

That he had such a long and somewhat conventional career as a businessman and family man. His career as a radical abolitionist took off in his mid-50s. He had the capacity to remake himself and take on the great moral issue of his day despite his bankruptcy and the death of many of his 20 children. He was characteristic of the era: an American on the make and a striving family man. We think we’re living in the midst of tremendous technological change, but nothing today compares to what Brown lived through. He was born in a preindustrial society, he moved by oxcart from Connecticut to Ohio. By middle age he was traversing the nation by train, sending messages by telegraph and invading a federal armory.

What place that you’ve visited best evokes Brown?

Harpers Ferry. It’s a wonderfully haunted place. But I also loved the Kennedy Farm, five miles from Harpers Ferry, where Brown and his men plotted in the summer and fall of 1859. This unlikely biracial band of young men and two women prepared for the attack there and rather indiscreetly wrote dozens of letters to family and lovers. The farm, which is little visited, still stands on a back road.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times.