Quantrill’s legacy differs on each side of border
A war that rages still ...
One hundred and forty-two years ago today, William C. Quantrill and his band of more than 300 Missouri ruffians rode into Lawrence, murdered most of the menfolk and set fire to all but a few homes and businesses.
In a span of three hours, 85 women were widowed, and 250 children lost their fathers.
For Lawrencians – then and now – Quantrill personified evil.
“In and around 1863, certainly, if you lived in Lawrence, you lived in fear of Quantrill. He was the devil incarnate,” said Virgil Dean, editor of Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains and director for publications for the Kansas State Historical Society.
“A lot of people still feel that way,” said Dean, who lives in Lawrence.
Not so in Missouri. Then or now.
“Quantrill was a savior to a lot of people,” said Donald R. Hale, president of the William C. Quantrill Society. “He stood up for Missourians. He kept the Jayhawkers – people like Jim Lane and Charles Jennison – from riding roughshod in Missouri.”
Hale, 74, said Kansans are quick to forget that on Sept. 25, 1861, Lane-led free staters wreaked Quantrill-like havoc on Osceola, Mo.
“They literally destroyed the town. They set fire to every building,” said Richard Sunderwirth, an Osceola native. “They didn’t kill everybody, but they had a mock trial, and they ended up executing nine men in the town square.
“When they left,” Sunderwirth said, “Osceola was in ruins – and, really, it’s never recovered. So around here, people tend to think there was some justification to Quantrill’s going into Lawrence because what Lane did in Osceola was completely unjustified.”
In 1863, Lane was living in Lawrence. He escaped Quantrill’s early morning wrath by hiding in a cornfield that covered what are now the 700 and 800 blocks of Illinois and Alabama streets.
“I don’t think Quantrill was as bad as he’s been portrayed,” said Rose Mary Lankford, author of the 400-page “Encyclopedia of Quantrill’s Guerrillas.”
“When I give speeches, I like to ask people to look at what (Union) Gen. (William Tecumseh) Sherman did. He burned towns, he killed people, and he’s a hero,” Lankford said. “So if the South had won the war, would Quantrill be the hero and Sherman be the villain?”
Kansans also tend to overlook that eight days before Quantrill’s men rode into Lawrence, four women arrested in Leavenworth and jailed in Kansas City for being Southern sympathizers had died after the building they were in collapsed.
Among them were infamous bushwhacker “Bloody” Bill Anderson’s sister and a cousin of future outlaw Cole Younger.
Younger and Anderson both took part in the raid on Lawrence.
“For a a lot of Quantrill’s men,” Lankford said, “revenge was a factor.”
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In Lawrence, the notion that Quantrill was a “savior” or that the gunning down of 200 men was somehow justified rings hollow.
“There were raids on both sides, that’s true,” said Lawrence historian Katie Armitage. “But nothing that went on in Missouri matched the slaughter of unarmed people in Lawrence.”
Fred Six, a Lawrence historian and a former justice on the Kansas Supreme Court, compared the Missourians’ rationalizations to “Civil War societies in the South” that continue to pledge blind allegiance to the Confederacy.
“I’m not surprised,” Six said. “One tends to embellish military history in keeping with where one is from.”
Six’s view of Quantrill: “A petty thief who blossomed into a brigand – a brigand in the full sense of the word.”
But Edward E. Leslie, author of “The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders,” said Quantrill’s legacy is neither all-good nor all-bad.
The true villain, he said, was – and is – guerrilla warfare.
“Nothing justifies the (Lawrence) raid,” he said, “and I think it’s a mistake to try to justify anything that goes on in a guerrilla war, which, by its very nature, is unusually brutal and degenerative.
“I’m not a fan of drawing historical parallels, but I just saw in the news that in Iraq, some Iraqi children were blown up for taking candy from Americans,” he said. “So here we have Iraqis – guerrillas, essentially – killing Iraqi children. This is what happens in a guerrilla war: On both sides, the brutality becomes increasingly cruel, increasingly senseless.”
In Quantrill’s defense, Leslie said there’s reason to believe the Lawrence raid’s brutality was more than he intended.
“He took more than 400 into Lawrence,” Leslie said, “but less than 100 belonged to his band. So along the way, he had collected this rag-tag force of guerrilla bands and civilians intent on revenge and plunder. Once the massacre began, he couldn’t control them.”
Many of the ruffians, he said, were soon drunk.
“There was a large quantity of liquor in Lawrence – a lot of saloons, a lot of beer and whiskey, and homemade wine made from berries,” Leslie said.
According to eye-witness accounts, Quantrill apologized to several Lawrencians during the raid, admitting he had lost control of the situation.
“And no one said they saw Quantrill actually kill someone in Lawrence,” Leslie said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean he didn’t. It just means, if he did, no one saw him.”
¢ Lawrence was an “auctioneering center,” Leslie said, that openly sold “plunder taken in Missouri,” a fact that angered many raiders whose families’ farms had been looted by Lane’s troops.
¢ In August 1863, Quantrill was 26 years old. His band, Leslie said, “was made up almost entirely of teenagers,” adding, “We all know what happens when teenagers get together without adult supervision.”
¢ Among the raiders, the Kansas City jail’s collapse and women’s deaths stirred a hornet’s nest.
“It was a definitely a factor (in the raid’s brutality),” Leslie said. “The guerrillas believed the collapse had been engineered to kill the women.”
Some of the victims, he said, were young girls.
Still, Leslie said, Quantrill was hardly blameless.
“He led the raid. He thought of himself as a Confederate officer,” he said. “So he has to be held responsible.”
And there’s plenty of evidence, he said, that Quantrill could be a cold-blooded opportunist who wasn’t above using politics to cover his atrocities.
“I’ll put it this way,” Leslie said, “you wouldn’t want him to marry your sister.”
Charlie Harris, a Wichita lawyer who has studied Quantrill and whose great-great-great-aunt was one of the women killed in jail collapse, wasn’t as kind in his assessment.
“Quantrill was a psychopath,” Harris said. “He was a manipulator, he found a niche wherever he went. There are accounts of him, when he was living in Lawrence, stealing slaves and then taking them back to Missouri and selling them.
“And on one of these raids, he set up the four men he was with. All four were killed,” Harris said.
Harris and Leslie agreed that even by guerrilla-war standards, the Lawrence raid was heinous.
“After Lawrence, the best of Quantrill’s men left him. They were so appalled,” Leslie said. “Cole Younger left for California. He’d had enough.”
For several years, Lawrence historian and history teacher Paul Stuewe has monitored the debate over Quantrill’s legacy.
“It’s hard to find too many redeeming qualities in Mr. Quantrill,” he said.
But the debate, he said, clearly underscores the importance of history.
“It’s like I tell my students, ‘history matters,'” said Stuewe, who left Lawrence High School earlier this year for a teaching position at Blue Valley West High School.
“These are feelings that have been handed down from generation to generation. They define us, they tell us who we are,” he said.
“Unfortunately, perception sometimes takes precedence over reality.”
Hale, of The Quantrill Society, also has grown accustomed to the debate.
“The war is still going on,” he said. “We may not be killing each other – Kansans and Missourians – but the war is still going on.”