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"John Brown's Holy War" on PBS 

Fight to the Death

Holy martyr or vicious madman?

The question isn't really answered in "John Brown's Holy War," airing Monday, Feb. 28, at 9 p.m. on PBS-TV's "American Experience." Although the 90-minute program's point of view is that he was more the former, there's still much room for disagreement.

A Connecticut native raised in Ohio, Brown was a passionate abolitionist. In 1837 he vowed, "Here before God ... I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." Brutal violence was the way he chose to achieve his goal.

In October 1859, he took his crusade into the South and attacked the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry to seize its guns. With him were 21 men — fugitive slaves, college students, free blacks and three of his own sons.

The first man Brown's party killed — because he tried to warn an incoming passenger train — was a free black man.

Soon, eight of Brown's men were dead or dying, five others were cut off and two had escaped. Brown refused to surrender, even when surrounded by U.S. Marines under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee's command.

Only days after his capture, Brown was sentenced to death by a jury that deliberated only 45 minutes.

There may still be disagreement about Brown's status as martyr or madman, but, woefully, it's not in evidence in the PBS treatment of his
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