William Quantrill and the Lawrence Massacre

William Clarke Quantrill came to Kansas as a young man in 1858. Two years later he acheived a measure of notoriety by engineering a scheme with four free-state men to liberate the slaves of a Missouri farmer; however, Quantrill warned the farmer before the raid occurred, and three of the Kansas men were killed in the ambush. Quantrill adapted well to the ruthless chaos that Civil War brought to the Southwest, and until 1864 was the most popular and powerful leader of the various bands of Border Ruffians that pillaged the area. While he and the men who followed him had more in common with the Confederate than the Union cause, they were by no means enlisted soldiers. They terrorized the Kansas countryside almost entirely for profit: to rob the citizens and loot the towns. In addition, the innumerable atrocities committed on both sides made the guerilla armies convenient vehicles to carry out personal vengeance. The sack of Lawrence in 1863 by Quantrill's Bushwackers is one occasion in which revenge and avarice produced a bloodbath.

Prior to this attack the pro-slavery farmers of Missouri had been continuously antagonized by the marrauding forces of Jim Lane and "Doc" Jennison's Jayhawkers; due to their obvious position as abolitionist headquarters in Kansas, the citizens of Lawerence were frequently sent into hysterics when rumors of an attack from Missouri gained creedence. Nevertheless, security around the city was usually lax, and on August 21 the populace was jarred awake by the sounds of Quantrill's men invading the town. After a swift and bloody assault, the Ruffians had the town secured. Once their military objective was out of the way, they eagerly proceeded to loot and burn as many houses as they could. They cleaned out all the banks, and the taverns were drained of whiskey. While they killed no women or children, they shot every man they saw. The death toll numbered 150 men, whose burned and mangled corpses littered the streets of Lawrence when Quantrill's men rode away, just a few hours after they had came.

Although the raid was indeed a crushing blow to the Free State community in Kansas, it failed in one of its goals of executing prominent Lawerence residents such as Charles Robinson and the hated Jim Lane. The Bushwhackers destroyed a great deal of property, but did not take much with them to Missouri. The Federal troops in the area, who blatantly allowed Quantrill take over 400 men into the heart of Kansas, further demonstrated their incompetence by failing to make an organized pursuit of them as they left.

The Reverend H.D. Fisher was one of the men who narrowly escaped the murderous attack, and his account of the slaughter in Gun and the Gospel reflects the justifiable outrage of a witness and survivor. Quantrill's raid stands out in history as being not only one of the more gruesome events of the Civil War, but also the climax of the border conflict between Missouri and Kansas.


The primary source of this article: A Frontier State at War: Kansas, 1861-1865, by Albert Castel. Cornell UP, 1958.
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