Account of William C. Quantrill's 1863 Raid on Lawrence, Kansas
First published separately in 1863, 1895, and 1903
A survivor details a bloody massacre of civilians
"[The guerrillas'] horses scarcely seemed to touch the ground, and the riders sat upon them with bodies erect and arms perfectly free with revolvers on full cock, shooting at every house and man they passed, and yelling like demons at every bound."
During the American Civil War, organized bands of Confederate fighters known as guerrillas were an important factor in the struggle for control of Missouri, Kansas, western Virginia, and other regions in question. These guerrillas—also known in the North as bushwhackers and in the South as rangers—launched repeated raids against Union supply lines, outposts, and patrols on behalf of the Confederacy. Bands of pro-Union guerrillas known as "jayhawkers" also formed in some of these areas, but they were smaller in number and size, and they did not have nearly the same impact as their Confederate counterparts.
Bands of Confederate guerrillas formed almost as soon as the war began. These early units consisted primarily of farmers and other local men who joined together in order to fight or harass Union forces operating in the region where they lived. The guerrilla companies had loose ties to the Confederate Army. The Confederate War Department encouraged and provided aid to guerrilla leaders from the war's outset. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress authorized the formation of ranger companies that were supposed to operate under the direction of the South's military commanders. In many cases, though, these guerrilla companies functioned with little supervision.
As Confederate guerrilla bands formed in Missouri, Arkansas, and other regions impacted by the war, ranger leaders found that it was easy to recruit members. Many Southerners joined the guerrilla groups because it gave them an opportunity to defend their home counties or states without leaving their farms or families. Other men were attracted to the guerrilla bands because most of them did not require members to obey many military rules and regulations. Still others joined guerrilla groups because of their glamorous wartime image in the South. Finally, outlaws were attracted to the bands because it gave them opportunities to enrich themselves by stealing from guerrilla targets.
Bands of Confederate guerrillas operated in regions that tended to be friendly to their cause. Pro-Confederacy civilians (people who are not part of the army, including women and children) often helped the guerrillas by providing food, clothing, weapons, and information about Union troop movements. Union attempts to stop the "bushwhackers" sometimes included harsh treatment of people and villages suspected of helping the guerrillas. As a result, Union efforts to stamp out the bushwhackers often had the unintended effect of increasing support for the Confederate guerrillas in rural towns and country farmhouses.
As the war progressed, a number of the Confederate guerrilla bands proved to be very effective in harassing the North's armies and supply lines. Daring raids on Union wagon trains, camps, and towns disrupted many Federal campaigns and forced Union commanders to divert (turn aside) large numbers of troops to capture the rangers. In some states, like Missouri, the warfare between Confederate ranger companies and Union forces ordered to stop them became extremely vicious. Innocent civilians sometimes got caught in the struggle between the two factions.
The most feared and respected of the Confederate guerrilla commanders was undoubtedly John Singleton Mosby (1833–1916). His band, known as Mosby's Rangers, struck repeatedly against Union forces throughout northern Virginia from 1863 through 1865. Led by their brilliant and courageous leader, Mosby's Rangers stole Union supplies, destroyed Union communication lines, and attacked Union patrols with deadly effectiveness. After each strike, Mosby's Rangers disappeared into the countryside, escaping from their frustrated pursuers. Mosby and his men were so effective in their campaigns against Federal troops that the northern Virginia region acquired the nickname of "Mosby's Confederacy."
But Mosby's band of guerrillas was unusual in several respects. The unit benefitted not only from Mosby's strategic brilliance, but also from his insistence on discipline. Unlike other bands of bushwhackers, Mosby's men wore Confederate uniforms and behaved much more like a regular army unit. By contrast, many other guerrilla groups became primarily known for drunkenness and senseless violence as the war progressed.
By 1863, the growing lawlessness of some guerrilla bands led a number of Southern leaders to question their value to the Confederate cause. These critics argued that the guerrilla bands drained men away from the shrinking Confederate Army. They also claimed that growing reports of vicious guerrilla attacks on pro-Union civilians and murders of surrendering soldiers were increasing Northern determination to punish the South. Finally, they claimed that some guerrilla actions were so immoral (ethically wrong or evil) that they were making the entire Confederacy look bad.
One of the most notorious of the Confederate guerrilla outfits was the band led by William C. Quantrill (1837–1865). Before the war, Quantrill had been a Kansas outlawnamed Charley Hart. After the Civil War began, he changed his name and organized a guerrilla group in Missouri. On some occasions, Quantrill's raiders provided a great deal of help to the Confederate cause. His fierce rangers, many of whom were superb marksmen and riders, conducted numerous successful raids on Union positions. They also led a successful rebel drive to run Union troops out of Independence, Missouri, in August 1862.
But Quantrill's band of bushwhackers also attracted large numbers of thieves and deserters (men who left the army illegally before their term of service ended) from the regular Confederate Army. Aided by murderous lieutenants like George Todd and "Bloody Bill" Anderson, Quantrill built a renegade (outlaw) force that became known for its ruthlessness and thieving ways. In fact, by 1863 Quantrill's band included "some of the most psychopathic killers in American history," wrote historian James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. Not all of Quantrill's men were coldblooded murderers. Some members of his band remained primarily interested in striking against the Union forces that were invading their homeland. As the Civil War progressed, however, Quantrill and many of his followers seemed more interested in robbing people for their own personal gain and "killing for the sake of killing," as one Union officer said.
In mid-1863, Quantrill made plans to attack Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence had long been a center of pro-Union and abolitionist (a person who fought to end slavery and oppression) activity. The city served as a major stopping point on the Underground Railroad (a secret organization devoted to helping slaves escape from the South and gain freedom in the North) and an important recruiting center for Union troops. It also was home to a large antislavery population that had fought hard to prevent supporters of slavery from legalizing the practice in Kansas. All of these factors made Lawrence an unpopular city among Confederates. But Quantrill also had a personal reason for targeting the city for violence. Before the war even started, he had been forced to flee from the Lawrence area after a warrant was issued for his arrest for theft and other crimes.
On the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill and a force of approximately 450 raiders charged into Lawrence. Normally, Lawrence was fairly well protected by Union forces. But poor military decisions had made the city practically defenseless, and Quantrill's raiders encountered little resistance from the unprepared townspeople. Over the next several hours, Quantrill and his men roamed through the town, murdering nearly every man or male youth whom they found. Historians estimate that between 150 and 200 men—young and old—were murdered by Quantrill's band. Many of these victims were shot in front of their wives and children. Quantrill's raiders also set fire to the community's business district and burned more than one hundred homes to the ground. After terrorizing the men, women, and children of Lawrence for several hours, Quantrill's bushwhackers finally rode out of town, their saddle bags bulging with loot stolen from ransacked homes and shops. They left behind a ruined city and dozens of stunned and grieving families.
One survivor of the attack—a minister named Richard Cordley—wrote three different accounts of the massacre at Lawrence, Kansas. The first of these accounts, "The Lawrence Massacre," was published in The Congregational Record in September and October of 1863. Years later, Cordley wrote two books (A History of Lawrence, Kansas, Lawrence Journal Press, 1895; and Pioneer Days in Kansas, Pilgrim Press, 1903) in which he offered additional details on Quantrill's bloody raid. In 1996, historian Edward E. Leslie blended excerpts from all three accounts in his book The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. The following excerpt is taken from Leslie's book.
Things to remember while reading Richard Cordley's account of the massacre at Lawrence, Kansas:
- The destruction in Lawrence would probably have been even worse were it not for the courage of the women in the town. "The ladies were wonderfully brave and efficient that morning," Cordley noted. "Some of them, by their shrewdness and suavity [gracious social manner], 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." Even the murderous Quantrill was impressed with their courage. After the massacre, he described the women of Lawrence as "brave and plucky."
- Some Confederate guerrilla units only targeted Union troops or people whom they knew were aiding the Federal cause. Mosby's Rangers, for example, stole horses, guns, food, and other supplies during their missions, but they did so in order to hurt the enemy rather than to enrich themselves. But as Cordley explains, Quantrill's guerrillas and many other bands of bushwhackers used the war as an excuse to murder and steal for personal gain.
- Many of the men who were shot by Quantrill's raiders were unarmed. Several others were burned to death when their homes and shops were set on fire with them inside. Quantrill actively encouraged this horrible violence. He told his men to "kill every man big enough to carry a gun."
Cordley's Account of Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence
The horsemanship of the guerrillas was perfect. They rode with that ease and abandon which are acquired only by a life spent in the saddle amid desperate scenes. Their horses scarcely seemed to touch the ground, and the riders sat upon them with bodies erect and arms perfectly free with revolvers on full cock, shooting at every house and man they passed, and yelling like demons at every bound. On each side of this stream of fire . . . were men falling dead and wounded, and women and children, running and screaming—some trying to escape from danger and some rushing to the side of their murdered friends. . . .
[Cordley escaped from the town with his wife and child. After Quantrill's raiders left, Cordley returned to see how badly Lawrence had been damaged.] The buildings on Massachusetts street were all burned except one, and that had been ransacked and robbed, and two boys lay dead upon the floor. The fires were still glowing in the cellars. The brick and stone walls were still standing bare and blackened. The cellars between looked like great caverns with furnaces glowing in the depths. The dead lay all along the street, some of them so charred that they could not be recognized, and could scarcely be taken up. Here and there among the embers could be seen the bones of those who had perished in the buildings and been consumed where they fell. . . . The sickening odor of burning flesh was oppressive. . . . Around one corner lay seventeen bodies. Back of a livery stable on Henry street lay five bodies piled in a heap. The undermost man of these was alive, and had lain under the dead for four hours, and so saved himself from a fatal shot. He was severely wounded but recovered. Going over the town [I] saw the dead everywhere, on the sidewalks, in the streets, among the weeds in the gardens, and in the few remaining homes. The women were going about carrying water to the wounded, and covering the dead with sheets. To protect the wounded from the burning sun, they sometimes spread an umbrella over them, and sometimes made a canopy with a sheet or a shawl. Now and then [I] came across a group, a mother and her children watching their dead besides the ashes of their home. A little later there could be seen a woman sitting among the ashes of a building holding in her hands a blackened skull, fondling it and kissing it, and crying piteously over it. It was the skull of her husband, who was burned with the building. But there was not much weeping and not much wailing. It was too deep and serious for tears or lamentations. All addressed themselves to the sad work that had to be done.
No one realized the extent of the disaster until it was over. Every man was so isolated by the presence of the raiders in every part of the town, that each knew only what he saw. . . . Besides the buildings on the business street, about one hundred houses had been burned, and probably as many more had been set on fire and saved by the heroic exertions of the women. Most of the houses not burned were robbed. . . . So many had been killed that every man we met on the street seemed to come from the dead. The first salutation was: "Why, are you alive?" The embers were still red, the fires were still burning, as we began to gather the dead and wounded from among the ruins. . . .
[The survivors then hurried to build coffins in order to bury their loved ones.] Many carpenters were killed, and most of the living had lost their tools. But they rallied nobly, and worked night and day, making pine and walnut boxes, fastening them together with the burnt nails gathered from the ruins of the stores. It sounded harsh to the ears of friends to have the lid nailed over the bodies of their loved ones; but it was the best that could be done.
What happened next . . .
The slaughter in Lawrence, Kansas, shocked and outraged communities all across the North. "Quantrill's massacre at Lawrence is almost enough to curdle the blood with horror," stated the New York Times. "We find it impossible to believe that men who have ever borne the name of Americans can have been transformed into such fiends [people who are inhumanely cruel]." In the aftermath of the attack, most Northerners viewed all Confederate guerrillas as depraved (morally corrupt) outlaws with no regard for human life. The Union Army, meanwhile, ordered the entire civilian population of four western Missouri counties to leave their homes. This strategy aimed to take away sources of aid for the guerrillas, but mostly it just caused misery for uprooted families—both pro-Union and pro-Confederacy—who were forced to build new lives for themselves elsewhere.
The massacre at Lawrence also horrified many Southerners. Confederate general Henry E. McCulloch was Quantrill's military superior, but he expressed uncertainty about his authority over Quantrill and horror over the raid on Lawrence. "I do not know what his military status is," Mc-Culloch wrote. "I do not know as much about his mode of warfare as others seem to know; but, from all I can learn, it is but little, if at all, removed from that of the wildest savage. . . . We cannot, as a Christian people, sanction [approve] a savage, inhuman warfare, in which men are to be shot down like dogs, after throwing down their arms and holding up their hands supplicating [begging] for mercy."
But although some Confederate political and military leaders argued that the guerrillas were doing more harm than good, others defended their value. General Edmund Kirby Smith (1824–1893), for example, stated that Quantrill's raiders were "bold, fearless men . . . composed, I understand, in a measure of the very best class of Missourians. . . . [They] have waged a war of no quarter [mercy] whenever they have come in contact with the enemy."
In the months following the Lawrence massacre, however, support for the guerrillas faded as some of the bands became little more than murderous outlaw gangs. They terrorized civilian populations throughout Missouri in particular, even though Federal authorities repeatedly tried to stop them. By the spring of 1864, the entire state seemed to be filled with violent guerrilla groups. "The very air seems charged with blood and death," reported one newspaper. "East of us, west of us, north of us, south of us, comes the same harrowing [distressing] story. Pandemonium [wild uproar or chaos] itself seems to have broken loose, and robbery, murder and rapine [forcible seizure of another person's property], and death run riot over the country."
Quantrill, meanwhile, was unable to retain command of his band. During the last part of 1863 and the first months of 1864, some members of Quantrill's band quit in disgust over the massacre and other cold-blooded murders. These men had joined the company in order to fight the Union army, not to rob and murder defenseless civilians and terrorize families. As these men left, they were replaced by thieves and deserters who preferred the leadership of Quantrill's lieutenants. In the spring of 1864, Quantrill left the company after losing a power struggle with George Todd. He later formed another guerrilla group in Kentucky. Guerrilla groups in Missouri led by Todd and "Bloody Bill" Anderson, meanwhile, continued to use the war as an excuse to engage in widespread torture and murder.
Confederate guerrilla groups continued to operate through 1864 and the first half of 1865, but they became less effective during this time. As Northern victories piled up during this period, bands of rangers experienced the same drop in morale that affected regular Confederate soldiers. In addition, Union forces became more successful in tracking down many of the guerrilla leaders. Quantrill was among the bushwhackers who finally fell to Federal pursuers. Paralyzed by a Union bullet in May 1865, he died in prison a month later.
The Civil War finally ended in April 1865, after Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) surrendered to Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885). Bands of guerrillas continued to roam through Missouri and other border states for the next several weeks, robbing stores and stagecoaches and killing pro-Union civilians. But several bushwhackers were killed in clashes with Federal soldiers and armed townspeople, and the groups began to realize that their days were numbered. Hundreds of guerrillas surrendered under a Union policy that guaranteed immunity (protection) from military charges but not from civil charges (charges brought by civilian legal authorities). Other guerrillas fled for Texas or Mexico, carrying faint hopes of establishing a new Confederacy. A few raiders turned to bank robbery and other criminal acts to support themselves. As the last of the bushwhackers fadedaway, the people of Kansas, Missouri, and other regions were finally able to begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.
Did you know . . .
- Many states sent men to fight on behalf of the Union, but Kansas contributed a greater percentage of its male population than any other state. This high level of volunteerism is usually attributed to the state's strong abolitionist beliefs.
- Quantrill's band of raiders included a number of men who later became famous outlaws in the American West. The Younger brothers—Cole (1844–1916), Bob (1853–1889), and Jim (1848–1902)—first became known around the country during their time as members of Quantrill's gang, and both Jesse James (1847–1882) and his brother Frank (1844–1915) rode with Quantrill at one time or another.
- Only one member of Quantrill's band of raiders was ever put on trial for the terrible massacre in Lawrence, Kansas. George M. Maddox was one of several guerrillas who had been identified by the town's survivors. In February 1866, he was captured and transported to the Lawrence jail to stand trial. Authorities agreed that Maddox would never be able to get a fair trial in Lawrence, so they moved the trial to Ottawa, Kansas. Despite eyewitness testimony about Maddox's involvement in the massacre, the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before announcing a verdict of not guilty. Most historians agree that the members of the jury were almost certainly bribed by friends of Maddox. In any case, dozens of Lawrence citizens sitting in the courtroom erupted in anger when they heard the verdict. Some of these citizens vowed to kill Maddox themselves. But Maddox slipped out of the courthouse's back door and galloped away with his wife before anyone could stop him.
- In the years following the Civil War, men who had been members of Quantrill's gang scattered all over the country. In September 1898, however, surviving members of Quantrill's raiders gathered in Blue Springs, Missouri, for a reunion. An estimated five hundred people attended the gathering, including thirty-five former guerrillas. Over the next several years, the reunion became an annual event that featured picnics, dancing, and sentimental speeches. These gatherings finally faded away as surviving members died of old age. Only five ex-guerrillas attended the last reunion, held in 1929. The last surviving member of Quantrill's raiders, Frank Smith, died on March 3, 1932.
For Further Reading
Brownlee, Richard S. Gray Ghost of the Confederacy: Guerrilla Warfare in the West, 1861–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958.
Goodrich, Thomas. Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991.
Leslie, Edward E. The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. New York: Random House, 1996. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Schultz, Duane. Quantrill's War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.