The five men helped themselves to Sophia Bissell's belongings. Then they pistol-whipped her older brother and set the family's house and barn on fire.
"I cannot begin to tell you all that was said and done," Bissell wrote in a letter to a cousin, offering an eye-witness account of William Quantrill's murderous raid on Lawrence in 1863.
Before riding off, Bissell wrote, the raiders paused long enough to tip their hats and bid her, her sister and their 70-year-old mother a good morning.
The anniversary of Quantrill's Raid, a signature event in Lawrence history, is Aug. 21. So it seems appropriate that Bissell's letter is one of two by raid survivors published in their entirety for the first time in the latest issue of the Kansas State Historical Society's quarterly magazine, "Kansas History, A Journal of the Central Plains."
The second letter is by Sidney Clarke, then an up-and-coming abolitionist state legislator. He watched the pillaging from a nearby cornfield.
"From where I lay concealed : I could see into the streets," he wrote, "God forbid that it should ever be my lot again to witness entirely defenseless, such barbarities as were perpetrated for three long hours by these heartless wretches."
Quantrill and his pro-slavery raiders killed more than 150 unarmed men and boys. As many as 185 homes were torched. The city's business district was destroyed.
The letters are the subject of a Kansas History article by Fred Six, a Lawrence resident and a retired Kansas Supreme Court justice.
Six, an amateur historian, said he spent many hours deciphering and transcribing copies of the hand-written letters.
"The Bissell letter had the better handwriting," he said. "I had to use a magnifying glass on the Clarke letter, several times."
Six said he was taken aback by Bissell's account of the fiendish raiders tipping their hats and saying good morning.
- Raid letters finally see print (08-06-05)
- Watkins Musuem planning commemoration events of raid (08-06-05)
- Heritage designation would help tell story (08-06-05)
- 6News video: New accounts of Quantrill's raid come to light (08-02-05)
- Eyewitness reports of Quantrill's Raid (.pdf)
- More about Lawrence's history
"There's a certain odd, chivalrous mystique to that," Six said.
"They're interesting," Kansas History editor Virgil Dean said of the letters. "There's not a lot in them that's new or surprising, but they help us further flesh out the tragic story of the Lawrence massacre."
Six and Dean agreed that Clarke's letter included some embellishments aimed at putting abolitionist leader Jim Lane in a more favorable light than he deserved.
"He has Lane fleeing the scene in a 'shower of bullets' and later leading a group that killed about 20 of the raiders," Dean said. "But the record is pretty clear that Lane reached the cornfield undetected, and that the Lane-led pursuit didn't generate much contact."
Clarke's letter, Dean said, was intended for several unnamed friends.
"He had a self-serving eye on his audience," he said. "At times you get the impression he wrote what he thought may have happened and then, other times, what he wanted to think happened."
In contrast, Bissell's letter was intended for her cousin.
"It's much more straightforward," Dean said.
"That's one of the nice things about women's writing back then. It was so rarely public that the authors rarely concerned themselves with the public's reaction," said Barbara Brackman, a freelance historian based in Lawrence. "So what you tend to get is a more accurate reflection of what people were thinking."
The original letters are not part of the Kansas State Historical Society collection.
The Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma provided a copy of the Clark letter; the Chicago Historical Society provided the Bissell letter.
Copies of the Summer 2005 issue of Kansas History magazine are available at The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St.