August 20, 1863 (Thursday)
William Clarke Quantrill had been a school teacher prior to the war. Born in Ohio, by the age of sixteen, he was guiding students in Illinois and Indiana. In his twentieth year, however, he decided on a new vocation, and became a farmer in Kansas, but soon gave that up to join a United States Army expedition to Utah as a teamster. The following year was spent panning for gold near Pike’s Peak. When that did not pan out, he returned to Kansas and began teaching once more.
Though sounding like a fairly innocent and typical way to spend ones late teens and early twenties, Quantrill was anything but innocent and typical. All through his grade school years, he was beaten, even publicly, by his father, who died by the time young William began to teach. Being the head of the house, he had to find ways to make ends meet. Teaching obviously wouldn’t cut it, so he began planning schemes. Perhaps he could get land in Texas, sell it and buy a farm in Illinois – he even had a buyer in mind to take the Texas land. When nothing could come of that a rumor sprung up that he killed a man, possibly in cold blood. He went into hiding for awhile and came up a new man in Indiana, a teacher once again. Soon, however, he mysteriously turned up at his mother’s house in Ohio.
His stay with his mother was short lived, and she helped him “escape” the state, leaving a pile of unpaid bills behind him. To Kansas he went, and before the year was out, he tried to convince his mother to sell the family farm so he could buy one of his own – though had admitted that it was already claimed by two of his friends, who had actually paid his way into Kansas.
During all of this, Quantrill was often accused of stealing and various petty crimes, and soon he was on the road again, joining up with the Utah Expedition. Prior to the trip west, he had been a Northerner. Perhaps he wasn’t an abolitionist, but he had come out in support of Jim Lane and against the pro-slavery crowd in Kansas. Now, however, being in the company of many Southern teamsters, Quantrill saw the light and the error of his Northern ways. Several of the teamsters became his lifelong friends and would join him in the coming war.
While in Utah, he tried his hand at teaching once more, but decided to be a gold miner instead. A harsh fever overtook him, however, and he spent some time in a Mormon hospital. At first he found the Latter Day Saints to be an industrious people who stuck to their morals. By the time he was ready to leave Utah, they fell out of favor with him. “They are a very ignorant set of people generally and generally great rogues and rascals thinking nothing to be too bad to do to a gentile as they call us,” he wrote to his mother, “I must say that the gentiles are generally the same way.”
Then, for some reason or another, he disappeared, only to show up in Lawrence, Kanasas in the summer of 1859. He admitted that he had been through some “hard and scaly times,” but would say little more of his trip to Pike’s Peak. In Lawrence, he once again took up teaching. Over the past five years of travel, he had tried to make money doing anything he could, but had nothing to show for it.
For a time, he was settled and able to think more clearly about his beliefs. His thinking from two years prior he rejected. Jim Lane was a scoundrel and John Brown “should have been hung years ago, indeed hanging was too good for him.” He had heard about all the wrongs committed by the pro-slavery people, but now he knew the truth, now he knew all the facts. The summer of 1860 was the last his mother (or anyone from his former life) would hear from him again. He was now a new man. He was Quantrill.
Much of his time was now spent making money as a border ruffian. He would capture escaped slaves and return them to their masters at highly inflated costs. To add to his coffers, he became a horse and cattle thief. Often these adventures turned to pitched battles. During at least one, Quantrill was accused again of the cold blooded murder of a wounded prisoner.
After the war started, he became a full blown guerrilla leader. It wasn’t long before even the Confederates in Missouri were trying to distance themselves from Quantrill’s atrocities. In August of 1862, however, he made amends and was accepted officially into Confederate service as a Captain. Over that winter, he traveled to Richmond to try and convince Jefferson Davis to give him a colonelship. Things didn’t go so well for him, but it was no matter. Captain Quantrill simply referred to himself as Col. Quantrill and went about his business.
Over the course of the early and middle war, Quantrill gathered hundreds of troopers. Though officially a Confederate unit, they were mostly unofficial Partisan Rangers – privateers of the land. He had attracted such folk as “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Cole Younger, as well as Frank and Jesse James.
Through the summer of 1863, his Rangers raided through Kansas seemingly at will and usually on the spur of the moment. But by August, he had something greater in mind. His next move would take planning and time.
On August 10th, he called together his men, and set his focus upon Lawrence, Kansas. The home of the abolitionist Jim Lane (as well as Quantrill’s home for a time), Lawrence was the capital of the Free State Movement. To Kansas it was as symbolic as Charleston. It was a day-long affair, as Quantrill tried to convince his officers that Lawrence was ripe. From scouts, they learned that only a small detachment of white and black Union troops were in the town. He was convinced that vast Yankee stores were within the town, but more importantly, “Lawrence is the great hotbed of abolitionism in Kansas,” he told his men, “and we can get more revenge and more money there than anywhere else in the state.” Soon, all were in agreement.
By the 18th, Quantrill’s band, which consisted of 150 of his best men, broke camp. After riding to the Kansas border from Missouri, he stopped and explained to his men the plan. “This is a hazardous ride, and there is a chance we will all be annihilated,” he warned. “Any man who feels he is not equal to the task can quit, and no one will call him a coward.” A few wandered off, to be sure, but nearly all remained.
Through the night they rode, crossing the Grand River, where they picked up new recruits from Missouri, and scores of farmers soon after. In all, his followers numbered 450. Their path was crooked and deceptive, but convinced farmers along their paths to show them the way. It was to be Lawrence, Kansas by dawn.
When one of the farmers recognized Quantrill, he (the farmer) would be immediately murdered. If the farmer happened to be German, he would also be murdered. If their guide turned out to be an abolitionist, he was murdered as well. In a stretch of ten miles, eight men were killed.
Just before dawn, Quantrill and his men arrived before Lawrence. As the sun peeked over the horizon, the men could see how large of a town was below them. They had expected to take it at night, while the 2,000 residents were sleeping. During the day, it would be a wholly different matter. Some wanted to call it off. “You can do as you please,” Quantrill told them. “I am going to Lawrence.”1
- Sources: 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; Civil War Kansas by Albert Castel. [↩]