Book Review by ACWRT (UK) member Keith Steiner
Author: Tony Horwitz
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, LLC: 2011: 365 pages: Illustrated.
“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood” December 2nd 1859
The above hand-written testament of John Brown, delivered on the morning of his execution, features in the final section of Tony Horwitz’s exceptional narrative of the events of the John Brown raid on the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
What transpired in the aftermath of the John Brown testament is the matter of our collective fascination and, as such, there may be a temptation to resist a presumed long tramp through the passage of events with which we might believe ourselves thoroughly familiar. However, at the conclusion of Tony Horwitz’s scintillating and closely researched narrative I felt fulfilled at having taken such a journey.
Most will have an appreciation of the generality of the circumstance, but Horwitz goes much, much further into the chronology of the events and their significance. The role of Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart in the unfolding chaotic chapter of events at Harpers Ferry is particularly intriguing, as was the presence of the actor John Wilkes Booth and of Major Thomas J. Jackson at the execution of John Brown. These individuals are, in themselves, the living epitaph of the enduring struggle to come.
The stories of the civil war are still being written and Tony Horwitz makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the circumstances of the war. He collects the many loose threads of events and skilfully weaves a compelling account. His is not just the narrative of the tragedy of one man’s fanatic passion but a deeply researched overview of the context of such an historic passage. His skill as an author brings to bloody life an important historic episode which typically passes as preamble or footnote. Although some might be checked by the claim articulated in the book subtitle I would encourage readers to step into a past vividly and assuredly brought to life by the skill and diligence of this fine author.