Edward E. Leslie's new book on the man who burned Lawrence in 1863 boasts objectivity and new material.
William Clarke Quantrill. Is there a more controversial name in Lawrence's popular memory?
A debate among scholars as well as saloon slickers has been raging ever since Quantrill led a band of 450 Confederate plunderers in an infamous raid on Lawrence Aug. 21, 1863, killing approximately 200 men and teen-age boys. Was this prince of Confederate guerrilla warfare a psychopath or a reasonable response to the brutality of the war in which he was caught?
Edward E. Leslie's new book "The Devil Knows How to Ride" attempts to set the skewed historical record straight about the infamous guerrilla.
"Unlike many of the other biographers, I have no axe to grind," Leslie said, explaining that his bias does not lie in some dogmatic Free or Slave State loyalty. "As far as I know I had no relatives in the Civil War." His book also presents new information about Quantrill's relations with Kentucky guerrillas.
At noon Thursday, Leslie will be available for questions and book signings at the Kansas University Bookstore, second floor of the Kansas Union. There he may shed more light on the man whose bones have been scattered across several museums, some fraternity rituals and at least three different cemeteries.
So then, what motivates someone to write something new about Quantrill? Leslie said that goes back to his former neighbor, James Huberty. Huberty had been wait-listed from a mental clinic in San Ysidro Calif., where he had sought refuge upon hearing voices in his head in July 1984. The next day, Huberty took an Uzi into a McDonald's and shot 41 people. Later, Leslie heard people in his Ohio town discussing Huberty and other notorious kings of carnage, including William Clarke Quantrill.
And there began Leslie's book.
Leslie said that there have been some 10 books written on Quantrill, but almost all of them have been by Missourians and Kansans: that is, by authors still firmly entrenched in Free State/Slave State biased accounts.
For example, Kansan Harmon Breeson hated Quantrill.
"He spread stories that Quantrill tortured animals -- but he was the only source," Leslie said. "But that's where people get that he was deranged."
Quantrill's alleged derangement is just what Leslie takes to task, though he emphasizes that he doesn't "seek to defend or excuse Lawrence." What is strange for Leslie is that there is great evidence that Quantrill was in many ways a great gentleman.
"At the beginning of the war, Quantrill caught a Confederate horse thief and returned all the horses, some of which even belonged to Unionists," Leslie said.
Leslie added that even when Quantrill approached the nadir of his guerrilla escapades, Lawrence, he stopped his band and ordered his men to leave all women and children alone.
Even so, what's honorable about gunning down some 200 mostly unarmed men and teen-age boys? Here Leslie, while reiterating he doesn't defend Quantrill, points to Quantrill as a product of his times.
Early in the Civil War, "Federal Military Commanders in Missouri outlawed all guerrillas and issued edicts to summarily execute any such perpetrator," Leslie said. Quantrill had friends who were executed by such edicts, and in response he and his men became increasingly brutal in 1863.
Perhaps most curious about Quantrill is his origins in a Northern abolitionist family. Leslie's explanation for Quantrill's conversion to Southern views is the influence his company had on him during his impressionable late-teen years.
"What I think happened," Leslie hypothesized, "is that before the war he went out to Utah in a U.S. Army expedition to suppress the Mormons. Most of his unit were Southern sympathizers."
Leslie draws that conclusion because of a letter, clearly Free State in tone, Quantrill sent to his family prior to the Utah expedition. The first letter after the Utah expedition was sympathetic to the Southern position. In addition, many of his comrades in Utah would return to the Missouri-Kentucky-Kansas area as border ruffians, which is precisely what Quantrill became upon leaving Utah.