Bestselling historian Tony Horwitz has carved out a niche connecting the past and present. In "Confederates in the Attic," he not only explored the Civil War but also entertainingly described the lives of latter-day Civil War re-enactors. In "A Voyage Long and Strange," Horwitz detailed Spain's exploration of the Americas before 1620, retracing what was left behind, from museums to old buildings to historical theme parks.

In "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War," Horwitz takes a different tack, into straight historical narrative, painting a revealing profile of Brown as an extremist fueled by Old Testament fervor. Brown led a failed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., which he had hoped would spark a Southern slave revolt. Brown was ultimately captured by federal troops, led by Robert E. Lee, and was executed for treason.

As Horwitz's impressively researched account shows, Brown was a Bible-pounding Calvinist firebrand. When he decided to attack slavery in the 1850s, first in Kansas and then at Harpers Ferry, he consciously viewed himself as a biblical Gideon leading a small vanguard to assault evil. In his letters and speeches, his language is uncompromising about the sin of slavery and the need to purge it with blood. Abraham Lincoln would later embrace this same biblical language, Horwitz writes.

While most abolitionists were pacifists, Brown was a "shoot-to-kill" abolitionist. In 1850s Kansas, where a civil war broke out between pro- and anti-slavery settlers, Brown used tactics of terror (he might have called it Old Testament-style justice) to intimidate pro-slavery militants. In one infamous example, which Horwitz describes in gruesome detail, Brown and his sons raided three houses in a single night, took out the adult male occupants and massacred them with swords and axes. Brown's dream was to spark an armed slave rebellion, as slave Nat Turner had tried to do (and failed) in 1831.

Horwitz meticulously re-creates Brown's plans for raiding Harpers Ferry, site of a federal arsenal. In the end, the raid failed because of Brown's tactical mistakes after he'd seized the arsenal. As Horwitz explains it, "Brown proceeded to linger for no discernible reason, until he was surrounded and massively outgunned." Horwitz convincingly suggests that Brown probably wanted a suicide mission.

After his execution, Brown would live on as a symbol. While Southerners and many Northerners viewed Brown as a crazed fanatic, many Northern intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, would commemorate him as a Jesus-like savior willing to die for justice. Brown's raid hardened the national divide months before the Civil War. Horwitz has done an outstanding job re-creating the historical drama of the midnight raid at Harpers Ferry and, more important, 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.

  • Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.