We Southerners have our heroes, Lee, Jackson, Hampton, Longstreet, Hood, Pettigrew, and the list goes on. But few of us look to the likes of William Quantrill as hero material, most likely due to his fighting tactics not being in line with with “gentlemanly” warfare. He is generally denigrated for his planning and execution of the raid on Lawrence, Kansas. I say that Quantrill is very much the Southern hero and deserves a place, in our history, alongside the aforementioned men.
To understand Quantrill and his perceived viciousness, one must look to what caused this young man, this teacher/book salesman/farmer, to turn into one of the fiercest, and most respected among his men, guerilla warrior.
Quantrill came of age in the late 1850’s up through 1860 when John Brown was committing his acts of violence in the name of abolishing slavery. He wrote to his mother on January 26, 1860, “They all sympathize for old J. Brown, who should have been hung years ago, indeed hanging was too good for him. May I never see a more contemptible people than those who sympathize for him. A murderer and a robber, made a martyr of, just think of it.” Unfortunately, Quantrill was soon to meet such a “contemptible people.”
Quantrill, raised as an abolitionist, became disillusioned when he and William Gregg, one of his earliest followers, were on a wagon train headed for Pikes Peak. Along with them was was an unnamed “negro boy.” Quantrill and his group were attacked by Union Col. James Montgomery’s Jayhawkers while camped on the Kaw River. Gregg tells us that his brother was killed, the “negro boy” was taken along with the wagon, and that he had been shot and left for dead. Quantrill also was wounded in this attack. Gregg states that “Montgomery’s band was known to get one hundred dollars for every negro caught” and that the blacks were taken to New Orleans, and sold.
Quantrill began to plan his revenge and for several months, rode as a Jayhawker, to learn the name of each one who attacked his camp on the Kaw River. One by one, each one of those Jayhawkers mysteriously ended up with a bullet to their head. From this moment on, Quantrill became a leader and began gathering his army. He trained them how to ride horses, how to shoot, how to travel light, how to fight and how to get away and back to safety. Quantrill eventually was given rank as a Confederate officer by the Confederate leadership in Richmond.
Quantrill’s actions are too numerous to mention here, but he is best known, and hated by those uninformed, for his raid on Lawrence, Kansas. In order to understand Lawrence, one must look to what caused Quantrill and his men to commit to such a raid. The cause was, the acts of the other side. The brutality of the Union, and especially Jayhawkers, against Missourians was horrendous, such acts equaling those of Sherman and his March to the Sea. Suspected Southern sympathizers were being murdered and their homes plundered by Jayhawkers, mostly operating out of Lawrence. One example of such brutality would be 13 year old John Fox, shot and killed by the Federals while his mother and sister held him, pleading for his life. His crime was that he had fed his brother, one of Quantrill’s men. Federals murdered 14 year old James Nicholson because his brother was a Confederate soldier under CSA General Sterling Price’s command. During these Jayhawker raids, women were tortured, and sometimes raped, their men often executed on their doorsteps, in front of the wives and children.
But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, was the collapse of the “jail,” the Thomas Building, in Lawrence. Imprisoned in this jail, on the top floor, were eleven women and young girls, their only crime being, they were related to Quantrill’s men. While imprisoned there, the Union guards sabotaged the supports to this building, causing it to implode upon itself. Of the 11 women imprisoned, 5 were killed, including “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s sister, Josephine. (Anderson was riding with Quantrill at the time.) Josephine, buried in the debris, could be heard calling for help to “take the bricks off her head.” Eventually her cries stopped. Little Martha Anderson, also “Bloody Bill’s” sister, tried to escape out a window. She lived, but her legs were horribly crushed.
Before executing his plan on Lawrence, Quantrill met with all his top aids to get a vote on whether to raid or not.. All voted for the raid. Anderson’s words were, “Lawrence or hell but with one proviso, that we kill every male thing.” So on August 21st, 1863, Quantrill and his 300-400 man army set out on Lawrence Kansas to exact revenge for the deaths of those Southern women, and for the Jayhawker atrocities against Missourians, in general. Union sympathetic authors have told us that Quantrill ordered all men in Lawrence killed. Newspapers in the North reported women and children killed as well. This is simply not true. Quantrill gave specific orders not to molest any women or children, but to kill every man wearing a Union uniform. Those men, not fighting with the Federals, were spared.
Systematically, with lists of names, Quantrill’s men set out to destroy the Jayhawker stronghold. In four hours, it was complete. By the end of the raid, most of Lawrence’s buildings were on fire and 120 of Quantrill’s enemies lay dead. Quantrill lost about 40 men in the raid. By comparison, the Union raid on Osceola Missouri, led by Union officer James H. Lane, was four times more destructive than the Lawrence raid.
Quantrill continued fighting the Union Jayhawkers and soldiers wherever he could find them in defense of his native state, and especially his county. He was shot in battle and died on June 6, 1865. He was only 27 years old.
Many of Quantrill’s men established new pursuits in well respected careers. One became a doctor in Johnson County, Missouri. Some went into law enforcement, some into political careers, and some, went on to a career of crime, robbing banks and trains, i.e., Frank and Jesse James, and the Younger brothers. But for many years those men gathered for reunions, each telling stories of their days with Quantrill, their most prized possession being the button with Quantrill’s picture they proudly wore on their lapels.
So, was William Quantrill a hero? Maybe not to those he fought, but to the South, and especially to Missouri, he most definitely was.