At the time of Quantrill’s Raid, the country was in the midst of a civil war — which was reflected in the national media coverage of the massacre in Lawrence.
Northern news outlets portrayed it as an unthinkable tragedy committed by a gang of heartless thugs, while Southern newspapers painted it as retribution for earlier acts of brutality by the Jayhawkers.
“Horrible atrocities!” “The affair the most fiendish of the war!” “Parents shot down with their children clinging about them!” read some of the headlines in the Boston Sunday Herald two days after the raid.
“No other such instance of wanton brutality has occurred during the American war,” reported Harper’s Weekly, which ran an illustration of the burned remains of downtown Lawrence.
Much of the nation’s media at that time was located in the Northeast, so many of the newspaper clippings that survive to this day are from that region. Because of where the publications were located, the slant is sympathetic to Lawrence. The Philadelphia Times called the city the “Plymouth Rock of Kansas,” a town populated by “staunch, industrious and intelligent people from the New England states.”
People from that part of the country were particularly invested in what happened in Lawrence because many knew or were related to the area’s settlers, who had come from New England. They would check victim lists printed in the newspaper to see if any were family members.
The national media had actually been interested in the goings-on in Lawrence and in Kansas long before the massacre of 1863.
“Because of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska bill and the opening of Kansas territory (for settlement) … national reporters were here from the get-go,” said Lawrence historian Katie Armitage.
That included Lemuel Fillmore, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, who lived in Lawrence and was killed in Quantrill’s Raid.
Many of the early articles about the massacre relied on wire reports that came from the Leavenworth Conservative newspaper.
“We have seen battlefields and scenes of carnage and bloodshed, but have never witnessed a spectacle so horrible as that seen among the soldering ruins at Lawrence,” wrote the Conservative’s reporter, Leavenworth Mayor D.R. Anthony.
“No fighting — no resistance: but cold-blooded murder was there.”
The wire reports, which described the raid as an act of “cowardly barbarism,” were even featured in newspapers located in hostile territory, such as the St. Louis Missouri Democrat.
But while the Leavenworth paper’s loyalties may have been with the Free Staters, its reporting a few paragraphs later showed how different a time it truly was: “We below give a list of seventy-six killed, and several wounded. … The list is all white men. A few negroes were killed but we did not get their names.”
In the South, the media often described Quantrill as an officially sanctioned military leader rather than what he was: the head of a gang of ragtag guerrillas. A lithograph that once hung in the clerk’s office in a Confederate courtroom in Richmond, Va., featured his portrait surrounded by the words, “Col. William Quantrell (sic). Confederate war hero.”
“Quantrill was portrayed as heroic in Southern newspapers: avenging the Jayhawkers’ sacking of Osceola, Mo., and the collapse of the women’s jail in Kansas City,” said Jonathan Earle, a history professor at Kansas University. “Confederate papers viewed (the raid) as an honorable, retributive act of violence, a settling of scores.”
In his 1867 book, “Shelby and His Men; or, the War in the West,” Confederate journalist John Newman Edwards, who founded the Kansas City Times, described the raid in almost fawning terms: “About daylight on the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill, with three hundred men, dashed into the streets of Lawrence, Kansas. Flame and bullet, waste and pillage, terror and despair, were everywhere. Two hundred were killed. Death was a monarch, and men bowed down and worshiped him. Blood ran in rivulets. The guerrillas were unerring shots with revolvers, and excellent horsemen.”
“After killing every male inhabitant who remained in Lawrence, after burning the houses in the town and those directly around it,” he wrote, “Quantrill very quietly withdrew his men into Missouri and rested there, followed, however, at a safe distance, by General Lane, who made terrible threats, but miserable fulfillments.”
Quantrill’s Raid even garnered international media attention. The German-language Solinger Kreis-Intelligenzblatt, for instance, used it to get in digs at the U.S. and some rival European nations. The newspaper wrote that the raid “sheds a new, harsh light on the character of the noble ‘nation’ — a nation whose establishment ‘cultivated England’ and ‘highly-civilized France’ nourish so eagerly.’”