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Archive for Saturday, August 6, 2005

Raid letters finally see print

As Quantrill anniversary nears, magazine features eyewitness accounts

August 6, 2005

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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.

Former Kansas Supreme Court Justice Fred Six holds a copy of Kansas History magazine in which Six edited letters and reports from the 1863 raid of Lawrence by William Quantrill.

Former Kansas Supreme Court Justice Fred Six holds a copy of Kansas History magazine in which Six edited letters and reports from the 1863 raid of Lawrence by William Quantrill.

"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.

"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.

Don McIntyre portrays - at a re-enactment - Bill Anderson, a Missourian who joined Quantrill's army to avenge the death of his father.

Don McIntyre portrays - at a re-enactment - Bill Anderson, a Missourian who joined Quantrill's army to avenge the death of his father.

"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.

Comments

Shardwurm 9 years, 6 months ago

Don McIntyre:

Thanks for your interest in history.

Anderson was 24 at the time of the raid and I don't think he dressed like Glen Campbell.

Good effort though.

zzgoeb 9 years, 5 months ago

Shadwurm,

Have you done much interpretive history? Ever really researched a person, their writings, life events? It takes great dedication and time. I am also sure that Don wouldn't be involved with the local re-enacters if he couldn't pass muster as an historian. I spent 15 weeks researching one "real" character, and that was for a brief 15 minute presentation. Not an easy task.

Don obviously isn't 24, a fact he can't alter. As for the clothing, actually the coat is fairly accurate I believe.

As for your glib comments, they might read well on some blog, but don't seem appropriate in this venue.

Shardwurm 9 years, 5 months ago

I know more about Quantrill and his raid than most around here. I don't do 'interpretive history.' I do accuracy. You should try it some time.

As for your criticism I'll take it. But I thought the Glen Campbell reference was not only funny but appropriate.

zzgoeb 9 years, 5 months ago

Shadwurm,

No discussion of what you or I know, but WHO Bill Anderson was...have you heard Don "speak" as Anderson? Kansas has a wonderful community of scholars and ordinary folks that research local history and people and then try to bring those alive. This is so someone who "knows" something might learn more, or see a new perspective of that history.

Sounds like you may not understand or appreciate what interps is doing for the "average" person and their understanding and apprecation of history.

Glib can include "funny"...but usually becomes churlish.

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