John Brown remains polarizing figure

Tuesday marks the 148th anniversary of John Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry. Bob O'Connor, left, who wrote a book about the raid, talks with Steve Hanson who portrayed Brown during commemoration activities this weekend at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

HARPERS FERRY -- On Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown and 21 men captured several hostages and took control of an armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry.

The raiders' goal was to start an insurrection to force an end to slavery. Townspeople and local militiamen trapped the raiders in the armory's fire engine house on Oct. 17.

A day later, a detachment of U.S. Marines, commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, stormed the building after Brown refused to surrender. Brown and several raiders were captured and later tried and hanged.

Brown's actions prompted both outrage and praise in 1859 and he remains a controversial figure today, said Bob O'Connor, who has written a book about Brown's raid and will speak Saturday at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick.

"Here we are 140 years later, still having problems figuring out if John Brown was a good guy or a bad guy," O'Connor said.

Melinda Day, lead park ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said Brown is considered a martyr and a hero as well as a criminal and a terrorist.

Regardless of how he is viewed, Brown polarized America regarding slavery, she said. The raid and the national election a year later drove the country toward civil war.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offered programs this weekend to help modern residents appreciate the significance of Brown's raid.

Among the activities, re-enactors with Sykes' Regulars and the United States Marine Corps Historical Company depicted Brown's raid and capture, as well as a funeral service for two men killed by the raiders.

"We're teaching history," said Steve Hanson, an Ellicott City resident who portrayed Brown. "It's like watching TV, only you're watching real people."

The re-enactors hope their presentation inspires their viewers, particularly children, to learn about events that shaped the course the nation took.

History is often brushed over, said Larry McGrane, who portrayed one of Brown's raiders.

"We want to pique kids' interest; they need to know where they come from," he said.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Williams, director of the United States Marine Corps Historical Company, said the choices people made in the past determine how people live today.

History is made by people, he said. And today's citizens are making choices that will influence the lives of future generations.

The trap

When the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is commemorated, the first events are expected to be held in Harpers Ferry because Brown's raid essentially fired the first shots of the war, O'Connor said.

He spent more than two years researching before writing his historical novel about the raid titled "The Perfect Steel Trap."

The title is taken from something abolitionist Frederick Douglass told Brown before the raid, O'Connor said.

Douglass advised Brown that the government would likely send federal troops to protect the armory and Brown would end up trapped in Harpers Ferry.

On Saturday, O'Connor plans to address the contributions of black residents in the raid and discuss how Brown hoped to end slavery.

More black residents participated or assisted before and after the raid than many people realize, O'Connor said.

Five of Brown's raiders were black. Two were killed during the raid; two others were captured and hanged. The fifth -- Osborne Anderson -- escaped and wrote a book about the experience that refutes much of what is taught in modern history books, O'Connor said.

O'Connor's presentation coincides with a traveling exhibit on the abolition of slavery displayed in the C. Burr Artz Public Library through October. Maryland abolished slavery in October 1864. The exhibit was developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

If you go

  • What: Author Bob OConnor will discuss his book, "The Perfect Steel Trap, which highlights John Browns raid in 1859
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: C. Burr Artz Public Library, 110 E. Patrick St., Frederick

During October, the library also is displaying a traveling exhibit on the abolition of slavery.

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