The Massacre of Lawrence, Kansas

August 21, 1863 (Friday)

William Quantrill
William Quantrill

They came without warning through the already sweltering dawn, screaming down a ridge into the streets of Lawrence, Kansas. William Clarke Quantrill, Confederate Partisan Ranger had targeted the town as the hotbed of Unionist Abolitionists in the region. Specifically, he was there to kill Jim Lane, leader of the free-state Jayhawkers, and in many ways his counterpart. Generally, however, they were there to murder, plunder, and gut Lawrence. And they began immediately.

Actually, they began the night before, riding along crooked roads, murdering their guides and various farmers as they went. But come the dawn, the true letting began.

Their first victim in the town was an abolitionist minister, who they shot to death. Their next, who survived, was a woman they kidnapped. Through the morning, they forced her to lead them to various houses where men on their “death list” were staying.

When Quantrill and his rangers reached the center of town, they divided. A company went east, and other west. Still another was sent to the hills above to act as lookouts. Quantrill knew that the Federal presence in town was slight, but that warning of his movements would certainly stir the pot. Sooner more probable than later, the Yankees would be upon him.

In the town were two small units of enlisted Federals. Quantrill’s men were led to the camp of twenty-one new recruits from the 14th Kansas. They stormed through the unsuspecting camp, trampling to death seventeen, and wounding five. Close by, they tried to do the same to the camp of the 2nd Colored Regiment, but they troops, who had yet to be armed, saw what was coming and ran for their lives.

Quantrill's Partisans raiding Lawrence.
Quantrill’s Partisans raiding Lawrence.

It was then that the wholesale murder began. As Quantrill and many of his men raged down the main street, others took to parallel streets, screaming curses and shooting any man they saw. They rode firing indiscriminately into windows, until they came to the Eldridge House, a hotel formerly known as the Free State Hotel. The firing stopped and for a moment, they stood still, as if before the gates of a fort, contemplating whether they should besiege or storm.

From one of the windows, they saw a man waving a white piece of paper – and impromptu flag of capitulation. “What is your object in coming to Lawrence?” asked Alexander Banks, the Federal provost marshal of Kansas. “Plunder,” lied Quantrill. Banks officially surrendered the hotel, but asked for mercy and protection. Quantrill surprisingly agreed. He placed guards upon them and ordered them be taken to a hotel where he staying while living in Lawrence before the war.

But in his “plunder,” he had only just began. “Kill!” he reportedly screamed to his men. “Kill and you will make no mistake! Lawrence should be thoroughly cleansed, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill!” As they dispersed, Quantrill ordered the occupants to leave the hotel and for it to be put to the torch. They were rounded up like sheep, terrified and panicked. One of the rangers fired into the crowd, killing one before Quantrill ordered him to stop.


At another hotel surrounded by the rangers, fourteen of the men were marched out after being told that they could surrender. When their valuables were taken from them, the gunmen opened, killed twelve and wounded the remaining two.

William Quantrill retired to his former home and had a fine breakfast while his men did his bidding and their own. There was little, if any resistance as they burned and murdered their way through the streets. Many of the citizens believed at first that Quantrill was only in town to kill Yankees and black people, and so stuck around feeling more or less secure. Soon, however, they understood that the carnage was, for the most part, indiscriminate – though the women were “unharmed.”

While the raiders did not kill or rape women, it could hardly be said that they were not victims to the massacre. They were forced to witness the slaughter of the sons, brothers and fathers, and in some cases were forced to lead the insatiable rangers to more of the same. They were forced to watch their homes burn, their possessions destroyed or stolen, their town obliterated. Quantrill may not have physically harmed women, but the scars were no less real.

The ruins of the Free State Hotel
The ruins of the Free State Hotel

One woman who witnessed the brutal murder of her husband at the hands of the raiders attempted to drag his body from their now-burning house. The men, however, forbade her to do it. When she tried to take her husband’s framed picture off the wall, they forbade this as well. She went into understandable hysterics, refusing to leave her dead husband’s side. Finally, after threats of death, she and he two children left the house, only to watch the flames consume it. She could see her husband’s body through the opened door, but so could the rangers. One of whom dismounted walked up to the engulfed structure, slipped off the dead man’s boots, swapping them for his own, remounted and rode away.

An elderly couple was encountered and the wife begged the rangers to leave them be – they were old, she said, and wouldn’t live long anyway. Disregarding the wife’s pleas, the rangers chased the old man around the yard, firing at him as they went.

The person who topped Quantrill’s death list, Jim Lane, was indeed in Lawrence on the morning of the massacre. Hearing what was about, he fled to a nearby cornfield. Unable to find Lane, Quantrill burned his home to the ground, as Lane’s wife stood by and the killing swirled around her.

Lawrence gutted.
Lawrence gutted.

The men who died, and even the men who fled, were not cowards. Quantrill had the town wholly under his control, quickly flattening whatever little resistance was summonsed. In Quantrill’s mind, however, all the men were cowards. The ladies, however, were a difference story. According to his own accounting, “the ladies of Lawrence were brave and plucky.”

Many of the towns people agreed. By one of their recollections:

“The ladies were wonderfully brave and efficient that morning. Some of them, by their shrewdness and suavity, turned raiders from their purpose when they came to their houses. Sometimes they outwitted them, and at other times they boldly confronted and resisted them. In scores of cases they put the fires out as soon as those who kindled them left the house. In some cases they defiantly followed the raiders around, and extinguished the flames as they were kindled.”

Other women understood that they would not be killed, and used it to their advantage by hiding their fellow citizens in basement and guarding the door. When a ranger would demand at gunpoint to be let in, they could call the bluff. One lady learned that if she got the rangers talking, she “could get at what little humanity was left in them.”

Federals enacting revenge against Quantrill upon the citizens of northern Missouri.
Federals enacting revenge against Quantrill upon the citizens of northern Missouri.

Around 9am, the four hours of despoliation came to an end. Perhaps one of their lookouts saw the dust of coming Federals, or perhaps it was just time to make their egress. Within minutes they were gone, leaving a gutted and scorched shell of a town in their passing. At least 100 homes were burned, and a hundred more were damaged. The business district was blackened and smoldering. Between 150 and 200 men and boys were murdered, with scores more wounded.

After Quantrill and his men left Lawrence, they were sporadically pursued by Federals, Jim Lane at the lead. Though they hurried the rangers along, their numbers were never enough to even bring on a fight. The next morning, the Confederate Partisans were back in Missouri. Over the ensuing week, the Federal pursuers followed, and though they couldn’t find Quantrill or his officers, they burned houses of “sympathizers” and murdered a professed 100 of his rangers. And thus, the border war continued.1

  1. Sources: Civil War Kansas by Albert Castel; Quantrill and the Border Wars by William Elsey Connelley; The Devil Knows How to Ride by Edward Leslie; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert Kerby; Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre by Thomas Goodrich; A History of Lawrence, Kansas by Richard Cordle. []
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The Massacre of Lawrence, Kansas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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