For Chris Nelson, Quantrill’s Raid is no longer about words in a history book. It is about hastily scrawled names on the pages of his family’s Bible.
Nelson’s great-great-great- great-grandfather ripped the pages containing the family tree from the Bible on Aug. 21, 1863. He gave the pages to his wife and children to take with them as they went to hide in the woods. He went to deposit himself at the bottom of his farm’s well, hoping Quantrill and his raiders wouldn’t think to look there.
It is not entirely clear why he didn’t give his family the entire Bible. Maybe he thought he would have a need for it.
For Cheryl Harrod, the raid is about a jacket. It had 13 bullet holes in its back and was worn by her great-great-grandfather on that day.
For Pat Kehde, it often is about a trip to the Lawrence Public Library. Her great-grandfather was shot and killed on the spot right across from the library’s home at Seventh and Vermont streets.
Soon, on Wednesday, it will be 150 years since that day. A long time, but not long enough for it to stop being personal. If you had an ancestor who was involved in the raid, this series of commemorations taking place in Lawrence may feel a little different. You’re likely to have your own 150th commemoration ceremony, complete with family memories and a few questions of “what-if?”
But for the rest of us, there will be plenty of words to hear from stages, concerts, lectures and such. That’s well and good, Kehde said. But if we’re going to talk about that day, she hopes we use a few words that cut right to the point.
“I’m glad people are interested in this piece of history, but I think it has become too easy, too simple to shy away from talking about the brutality of it, the viciousness of it,” Kehde said. “It wasn’t a raid. It was a massacre.”
Let’s not hide from the brutality today.
Here’s some back-of-the-envelope macabre for you. Historical records from the time list Lawrence’s population in 1863 at 1,645 people. Assume half of them were male. Some were children certainly, and some of the male population already had left to fight in the war. So, Kehde, who did this figuring, believes a fair estimate of the number of adult males in the city that day is about 700.
Quantrill and his ruffians killed approximately 185 men and boys, or about a quarter of the entire adult male population in the city. In today’s terms, a killing of 25 percent of Lawrence’s male population 15 and older would be about 9,300 deaths.
“It was a catastrophic loss,” Kehde said.
Aug. 21, 1863, was a lot of things, but it wasn’t back-of-the-envelope. They were all real people.
Ralph Dix, ironically, was a skilled gunsmith. He worked in the Colt firearms factory before moving to Lawrence and opening a blacksmith shop near where the library’s parking lot is today.
Dix didn’t have a Colt on him that day. As hard as it may be to believe, perhaps he didn’t think he needed one. A black man who worked at his shop came running up the street at dawn warning of the raiding party. Dix’s shop and home were just a few yards away from a deep, woody ravine that ran through what is now Watson Park. The ravine ended up being one of the better hiding places in the city, but Dix never went there.
“Ralph couldn’t comprehend that gang mentality,” Kehde said of her great-grandfather. “He couldn’t get that killing frenzy thing in his mind.”
By the time Dix, who was probably one of the least political residents in the city, realized there was no reasoning with these Missourians, it was too late. He managed to get to a nearby boarding house. Ruffians surrounded it, though. They told him and the other men inside that if they surrendered they would live.
“Or some lie like that,” Kehde says now.
Jetta Dix didn’t believe it. She clutched and clutched onto her husband, forever convinced the ruffians wouldn’t fire while she was still attached. Then in the commotion, she tripped on a stone and lost her grasp. They killed Ralph about where the empty building that used to house Local Burger stands today.
George Gerrard was just trying to make some money in hard times. The crop on his Willow Springs farm was poor, so he had taken to working at a foundry in Lawrence, and he lived in a Lawrence boarding house during the week.
When the early-morning raid commenced, Gerrard had gotten his jacket on. The ruffians put 13 bullets in it and him as he tried to crawl over a fence to safety. The body and the jacket were recovered by his brother-in-law. The jacket hung in a Gerrard home for decades until a fire took it.
“They wanted to remember,” Harrod said of her ancestors.
Quantrill never did find Carvel Donovan in the bottom of his well. But Nelson said he sometimes wonders what his great-great-great-great-grandfather must have heard and thought while he hid in the bottom of a deep hole.
“It couldn’t have been a great place,” Nelson said. “If you’re found, there is really nothing you can do at that point.”
Donovan emerged from the well to see his wife and four kids again, but don’t tell me he wasn’t a victim of the raid.
Somewhere, John McCorkle was in Lawrence that day too. But he didn’t hide. He was a raider, an “unflinchingly violent” one, accounts would later describe.
Here recently, Kris Adair’s grandmother handed Kris a book. It was McCorkle’s autobiography. Her grandmother thought Kris ought to know something about one of her distant cousins.
It shouldn’t be shocking that somebody somewhere is related to an outlaw. But this outlaw likely wouldn’t be too pleased that his cousin is a proud resident of Lawrence. He probably would be even less pleased to learn that Kris Adair serves the community as a Lawrence school board member.
On Wednesday, Adair will be participating in a unique Twitter event where she and dozens of others will “re-enact” the raid by tweeting the events of the day as if they are happening in real time.
“I think,” Adair said, “it is going to be more emotional than I thought.”
Cheryl Harrod says what is surely on other people’s minds by now.
“There’s a reason why most of the history books read that William Quantrill was a murderer,” she says.
In 150 years, that hasn’t changed. Other aspects have. No sane person has a debate over the morality of slavery anymore, and despite the occasional bluster, no one is really considering seceding from the Union.
How much else has changed in the relationship between western Missouri and eastern Kansas is debatable. Let’s not overreach here: It is not a war or anything like it. But . . .
“I want to think of myself as a holistic person and well-educated,” Harrod said. “But there is that little, deep, dark place where you want to forgive — and you do — but it is hard to forget.”
Of course, there is — or was — the whole athletic rivalry thing: The Border War between the Jayhawks and the Tigers. I can attest all types of emotions come out there.
Kehde finds it interesting. Some of the same things said now are the same things said then. KU fans should think of the term Snob Hill. Missouri fans probably should think about jokes with a punchline of a car (or wagon) on blocks in the front yard.
“I’ve read a lot of quotes from raiders who wanted to damage Lawrence not just because of slavery, but also because Lawrence was rich, it was educated, it was snooty,” she said.
I admit that I love those jokes about cars on blocks, but the whole Jayhawk versus Tiger thing rings a little hollow with me after spending a week talking to people about men shot in the back and wives clutching their husbands for dear life.
I’ve also spent a lot of the week wondering whether Quantrill’s Raid will sound a little hollow 50 years from now.
Surely, Lawrence will never forget the raid. But will it be less personal 50 years from now? History does fade.
Maybe in another half century it will be high time for this Missouri-Kansas hullabaloo to die down. Or, maybe, it should always be a bit personal for Lawrence. Maybe for Missouri too. The Free State raid on Osceola, Mo., was bad, unbecoming of the cause Jim Lane and other Jayhawkers fought for.
If it is personal, it seems to me, it is less likely to be forgotten. And there are things that shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I go back again and again that slavery really was the cause of the Civil War,” Kehde said. “You know what? Lawrence was snooty. They were wealthy. They were more educated. But do you know what else they were? They were right. Their moral compass was better when it came to slavery. We were right.”
That’s worth remembering.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.