Hundreds of Lawrencians mingled, celebrated their community and listened to the Lawrence City Band play in South Park Sunday night, much like residents did 150 years ago on August 20, 1863, the night before about 200 men were slaughtered in William Quantrill’s bloody raid on the town.
While the gathering was joyous, with upbeat music and free ice cream provided by the city, it also was a somber occasion. Community members came out not only for a night with neighbors, but also to honor those who perished and to show gratitude for the survivors who turned tragedy into prosperity.
Mourning the massacre
Steve Segebrecht and his wife, Lynn, went to the ceremony to take in the community event and pay respects. Segebrecht said the event was a moving reminder of the lives lost.
“It’s quite an occasion. Those souls who perished 150 years ago are glad we are out here tonight,” Segebrecht said. “The fact that the city lasted through it all and the town’s survival serves as redemption against the raiders.”
The ceremony began with the national anthem, as attendees rose to their feet and sang along with the City Band. Then, after opening remarks by Watkins Museum of History Director Steve Nowak, Mayor Michael Dever spoke to the crowd about what Lawrence’s history means today.
“The memory of the strength, renewal and continuing spirit of our citizens 150 years ago strikes a chord still, today,” Dever said. “This is what we do as a community: We come together to fight for what’s right and move on.”
Dever said that while most community events commemorate happier times, Lawrence is special because it strives to remember even the horrors that mar the past.
“Life in history is full of events we choose to forget,” Dever said. “Not Lawrence, not this town. Tonight we honor the victims and the survivors’ accomplishments afterward.”
To honor those lost, the names of those who died in the raid were read, and a hush settled over the crowd. Many attendees were visibly moved by the somber address, bowing their heads in reverence or standing as 123 names were read. Segebrecht said the poignant ceremony helped make attendees aware of the reality of the gruesome event.
“People talk about terrorism today, but there was terrorism back then, too,” Segebrecht said. “There was terrorism right here in Lawrence.”
Third-grade teacher Anne Bailey attended the commemoration after encouraging her students to attend. Bailey, who teaches Lawrence history to her students, said remembering events like the raid helps to make sure history does not repeat itself.
“It is important to pass these stories on so it doesn’t happen again,” Bailey said. “Lawrence is unique in that it has such a rich history. A lot of towns don’t have that.”
Rising from the ashes
But the commemoration was more than about remembering the massacre. It was also about celebrating the strength of Lawrence and its growth into the bustling city it is today.
During his speech at the ceremony, Jonathan Earle, author and associate professor of history at Kansas University, spoke about the legacy those men and their families passed on to Lawrence.
“It is fitting and it is good to commemorate such a tragic event,” Earle said. “It is better still to commemorate what happened next. Citizens came together to rebuild — not just to survive, but to thrive.”
Sunday’s event was the culmination of a weekend filled with Quantrill anniversary commemorations. Also on Sunday, members of the Lecompton Historical Society got together to explain their town’s experience with the massacre and its role as the birthplace of the Civil War.
Paul Bahnmaier, president of the Lecompton Historical Society and Tim Rues, site administrator at Constitutional Hall in Lecompton, dressed in Civil War-era attire and presented their town’s history to a group of 30 on the top floor of the Territorial Capital Museum on Sunday afternoon.
“Our goal is to help the nation understand the role Douglas County had in the war,” Bahnmaier said. “They don’t realize.”
Rues talked about the three Lecompton stonemasons killed during Quantrill’s Raid. James O’Neil and brothers Fredrick and William Klaus were building the Kansas River bridge in Lawrence on the morning of the massacre.
After the presentation in the museum, part of the group went around to two other historical sites: the Territorial Democratic Headquarters, a small stone building that was used as a gathering spot for the Democratic Party in the 1850s, and Constitutional Hall, where the Kansas Territorial Government convened to draft a pro-slavery constitution in 1857.
“We’re eager to learn more,” said Debra Callahan, a Lawrence resident who attended the presentation with her husband. “We live here, so we ought to know.”
Quantrill-related events will continue. On Wednesday, the actual anniversary of the raid, several dozen area residents will rise before dawn to “re-enact” the event by posting on Twitter. Individuals will take on the roles of both Lawrence residents and raiders, and tweet their actions as if they are happening in real time. Follow the re-enactment at the hashtag #QR1863.