Archive for Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A human side?

Why should we care whether William Quantrill had an unpleasant relationship with his mother?

August 20, 2008


It is difficult to believe we need a book purporting to show the "human side" of William Quantrill, who led the devastating 1863 raid on Lawrence. Who really cares, except perhaps devotees of the Confederacy, who still are inclined to consider this murderer a hero. The author of the novel "I, Quantrill" says the fictionalized story is designed to remind readers that the raid leader was just a man, not a demon.

It might be hard to sell that view to the families of the 180 men and boys killed by Quantrill's raiders, who burned and looted everything they could in Lawrence. The 244-page book notes that Quantrill died in 1865 in Kentucky after being shot by Union supporters. Most of us familiar with the depth and scope of the atrocities committed in that 1863 slaughter are inclined to hope he suffered.

Why waste time trying to generate sympathy for Quantrill's outlawry and bloodlust by suggesting they were at least partially a byproduct of a strained relationship with his mother. How did Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Attila the Hun get along with their mothers?

In the violent days of border wars involving Kansas and Missouri, raids took countless lives, and Kansans known as jayhawkers engaged in their share of murder and mayhem. Fortunately such activities have been transformed into less sanguinary athletic and commercial rivalries in this day and age.

As for the heroic status of Quantrill among Missourians (some of whom still contend he did only what was necessary), well into the 1900s the Lawrence raiders and their families held annual gatherings to "celebrate" what happened here in 1863. That is a "human side" we should understand and appreciate? For them it was "a war between the states," which is designed to sound more humane. It was never that pretty.

Jonathan Earle, a Civil War historian and author at Kansas University, doesn't hesitate to declare that despite any kind and commendable deeds Quantrill may have done along the way, the man's reputation is "unrehabilitatable" - if not in parts of Missouri, certainly throughout this region of Kansas.

"I, Quantrill" by Max McCoy is regarded as a fictional effort, which seems to put into perspective any efforts to depict William Quantrill as having a "human side." The bottom line is that he was in many ways a monster who deserves no sympathy for the life he led.


Baille 9 years, 10 months ago

Why should we care about what some editorial writer thinks about anything?The book on Quantrill has the same type of scholarly value as books on Alexander the Great (or Terrible, depending on which side of the wall you sat), William Wallace, General Sherman, Genghis Khan, Lao Tzu, and on and on and on. Heroes and villains are defined by the victors and the victims. I am sure that the Cheyenne look upon the Sand Creek Massacre as something akin to Quantrill's raid, and yet would anyone argue that a fact-based, objective view of what led to our soldiers committing that massacre would have no value? What about in the cyclical nature of such things, e.g. the years of violence at Pine Ridge reservation that was encouraged by the FBI and our federal and state government? Does Matthiesson's book have no value because it looks at the Peltier case objectively?Books such as these have value. What made people of historical significance tick gives us insight into the human condition. Scholarly books about these people, historical accounts: these things work together to educate us about our past. They help us move past the black and white worldview born of understandably emotional reactions to horrific events and people who have done very bad things and look at the whys and wherefores.What is sad is the continued insistence on painting history as a narrative made up of heroes and villains rather than a complex interplay between a variety of forces, interest groups, and external forces.

canyon_wren 9 years, 10 months ago

I agree! The sophists in our society today are bent on minimizing the good qualities of our past heroes (Lincoln, et al.) and excusing the bad ones of our villains. Nothing seems to escape their determination to reduce everything in our past to some wishy-washy interpretation. It's so sad!

Paul Decelles 9 years, 10 months ago

Maybe the editor is uncomfortable with the notion that "decent" people are capable of really despicable acts.

Reaper2K 9 years, 10 months ago

The world is not so black-and-white as some would believe. While it is easy to vilify those who have done evil deeds, it is important to remember that many such men and women do so thinking only of the good that they can accomplish. The goal of a novel like I, Quantrill is not to excuse such behavior, but to understand it. This is why we study history and why many people are fascinated by the lives of both the heroes and the villains.

JayCat_67 9 years, 10 months ago

Coming soon to a book store near you, "I, Bin Laden"...

mom_of_three 9 years, 10 months ago

Oh, I was going to stay out of this discussion, but I can't. I have to disagree. In this case, the ends do justify the means. If people who wanted to end slavery didn't do anything (i.e. John Brown, anti-slavery societies, Harriet Tubman, etc), then slavery would have taken longer to extinguish. I don't have to like the methods, but I have to respect that people took a stand.

lawrencian 9 years, 10 months ago

Every person is "human" -- and even as a Lawrence native, I don't think that Quantrill rates being compared to Hitler, Stalin or Attila the Hun!

Kat Christian 9 years, 10 months ago

I see no point in wasting time humanizing any person who commits such horrible and devastating crimes against humanity. I see this happening too often in our society today - humanizing evil and criticizing good. It is what it is -evil is evil no matter what. Society is suffering from this ping-ponging back and forth trying to decide which way to be. I just don't want to believe we can turn evil into something positive. There is nothing positive about evil doers. Let evil and evil doers sink into the depths of where it came from and let us focus on the good of mankind instead of trying to condemn it or compete with it. Just "Let It Be"

cato_the_elder 9 years, 10 months ago

Outstanding editorial. Great job, J-W editorial staff.

Sandra Willis 9 years, 10 months ago

He is dead - as far as I can see, anything written that depicts him as other than a bad man must be related to him.

Quigly 9 years, 10 months ago

It didn't matter what side of the fence you were on. I can't even believe a con artists like him got into the same sentence as William Wallace and the others. Who are you? Even then the people knew he was a pompous con artist. The only thing he cared about was the General's uniform he worked so hard to get. You cannot even compare him with anyone famous. I can 5 Red Legs that were complete and utter psychopaths that were smarter than Quantrill. Not to mention Senator Lane. There was a reason he was buried in an unmarked grave. What a waste of time and effort when they could have done something about a dozen of the Raiders who are worthy of a book. Yet still this opportunistic, self-righteous, con artists gets books left and right. I am going to write a book now." George Bush, Genius of the Century"

Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 9 years, 10 months ago

All of your liberals would say, he was just misunderstood. Thank you, Lynn

Commenting has been disabled for this item.