Lawrencians weren’t ‘innocent victims,’ group dedicated to infamous killer William Quantrill will argue at symposium

photo by: Nick Krug

In this file photo, a marker on the 900 block of New Hampshire Street shows where unarmed men were shot during Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence on Aug. 21, 1863.

A local symposium exploring the history of the Border War between Kansas and Missouri, which includes the signature event in Lawrence’s history, will bring a historian discussing the perspective of the Missouri side of the conflict, said Jim Ogle, executive director of the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

Freedom’s Frontier and the Douglas County Historical Society will host the “Disorder at the Border” symposium on Aug. 17 at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St. The event will include guest historian Chris Edwards from the William Clarke Quantrill Society, a group based in Missouri dedicated to the history of Quantrill and the Missouri side of the Civil War.

“They are focusing on the lives of Quantrill, his men and his supporters and the resulting historical record,” Ogle told the Journal-World recently. “Many of them come from that background and live in that area and their ancestors are from that area.”

Edwards describes the Quantrill Society as an organization that wants to research and educate on the broader view of the Border War and Bleeding Kansas. The society has about 200 members, he said.

When the federal government established the Freedom’s Frontier, which is a nationally registered heritage area in the U.S. National Park Service, one of its missions was to work with people from both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border to help bridge the gap caused by the Border War, Ogle said. When the Quantrill Society reached out to him about holding a symposium, Ogle said he thought it was a good opportunity to do just that.

“We who live in Kansas like to mock and make fun of the people in Missouri, and Missourians likewise to Kansans, but added to that, there are legitimate frustrations and concerns that have existed over the decades from people who have lived on either side of this border,” Ogle said. “We think it’s good for people of both sides to get together to share experiences and talk about them.”

Ogle said the Freedom’s Frontier group had conducted symposiums in the past, but the 2019 event would be the first time the two groups would work together to share the history of the Border War. The groups may hold a similar symposium in Missouri in the future, he said.

Image courtesy of, Kansas State Historical Society. “The Lawrence Massacre,” black and white illustration of Quantrill’s raid that appeared in the Sept. 5, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly magazine. Artist unknown.

The Quantrill perspective

In Lawrence, Quantrill is regarded as the community’s greatest villain for leading a group of Confederate guerrillas to Lawrence on Aug. 21, 1863, and killing more than 150 people and burning down much of the city, according to the Kansas Historical Society.

While the symposium will explore different aspects of the Border War, Edwards said he and another Quantrill Society speaker would present historic sources that suggest the Lawrence residents killed during the raid were not the innocents they are believed to be.

“I’m going to talk about some of the testimonies that are just not consistent, and I think my research shows a different kind of event that happened,” he said. “My research shows that a lot of the information, or the popular interpretation, is perhaps not the best representation of the raid.”

Edwards said his decades-long research showed that various testimony from people who experienced the raid didn’t “match up correctly.” Some examples of conflicting testimony include sources showing two survivors mentioning Lawrence having “defensive fortifications” at the time of the raid and the Lawrence community having a “well-drilled militia” and various weaponry.

He said some people “who want to become victims” will argue the Lawrence community did not have any Union soldiers in town. He also said some testimony argued the raid was “indiscriminate killing” of Lawrence residents but that his research showed that Quantrill’s group was attacking specific men affiliated with the Union Army.

“I know that the popular version is that Lawrence wants to say they were innocent victims,” he said. “But I really don’t see it that way.”

However, according to the KU Libraries exhibit on the raid, Quantrill and his men began the attack at dawn, surprising the community, and killed men and boys who were unarmed. Additionally, most of the community’s businesses and residential neighborhoods were burned to the ground.

Edwards said he was able to believe the testimonies because several conflicting accounts existed and it was a matter of whom the researcher wants to believe. He said researchers can “cherry pick” testimonies that make the event look worse than it was. He said he thought it was time to let the other side have a say.

When asked if he supported the idea that the attack on Lawrence was justified, Edwards said he was not an advocate for what occurred but a messenger of what his sources suggested was the truth.

“It’s not what I think; it’s what these people say,” he said. “That’s why I encourage people to do some research and decide for themselves.”

However, the Quantrill Society’s website suggests support for Missouri’s Confederate soldiers.

On the front page of the website, the group raises funds through the sale of shirts making light of Quantrill’s Raid. The gray shirts include a quote from Quantrill saying that Lawrence is “A nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.” The accompanying text explaining the fundraiser says “Anyone who has heard of Quantrill has heard of his ‘visit’ to Lawrence.”

When asked about the shirts, Edwards said he had nothing to do with them and he personally did not own one.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

This screenshot of the William Clarke Quantrill Society’s website shows the organization selling a shirt making light of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence. The raid resulted in teh killing of more than 150 Lawrence residents and burned down much of the community on Aug. 21, 1863.

Additionally, under the website’s “Facts and Questions” page, the Quantrill Society answers the question “Why have historians treated Quantrill’s band so unkindly?”

“One must always remember history is written by the winner,” the website says. “Missouri was truly a divided state. In this instance, many of Quantrill’s followers, or their families, had suffered great injustices from overzealous Union men.

“Many times men were accused of rebel leanings by neighbors. Though the accusations were untrue, their homes were burned or they were expelled from the county with no recourse. At this point they would became rebels if they weren’t before,” the website added.

Community outcry?

Edwards’ presentation may end up offending some Lawrence residents, specifically descendants of the raid’s victims.

In the lead-up to the the 150th anniversary in 2013, some descendants spoke to the Journal-World about how they felt the event was still personal. Pat Kehde, whose great-grandfather was shot and killed across the street from the Lawrence Public Library’s home at Seventh and Vermont streets, said that as time passed people could forget how brutal the attack was.

“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 at the time. “It wasn’t a raid. It was a massacre.”

Cheryl Harrod, who owns a jacket with 13 bullet holes in its back that was worn by her great-great-grandfather on that day, said in 2013 that she was able to forgive, but never to forget what occurred.

“There’s a reason why most of the history books read that William Quantrill was a murderer,” she said at the time.

Kehde told the Journal-World she knew the sacking of Lawrence occurred for several reasons. Along with Lawrence’s Free State advocacy, it was also known to Missourians as a wealthy, educated and snooty town, she said. But at the end of the day, the main reason Lawrence was attacked was because it was advocating for the end of slavery.

“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.”

The Journal-World reached out to both Harrod and Kehde to get their opinions on the Quantrill Society coming to Lawrence in August, but did not receive a response prior to publication.

Ogle said he would not be surprised if Lawrence residents were offended that a group named after Quantrill and focused on Confederate history would speak in town.

“I have not heard from anyone yet, but I fully expect some people to bring that up,” he said. “I can fully appreciate anyone who continues to live in Lawrence and their ancestors lost their lives in the raid, obviously this is a sensitive subject. But at the same time, we don’t have an opportunity to establish common ground if we don’t find ways to come together.”

Edwards said he wouldn’t be surprised either, but he doesn’t intend to dwell on possibly angry reactions to his presentation.

“I’m just interested in the truth,” he said. “If the truth bothers them or if some sort of revision of the accepted story bothers them, that’s their problem, not mine.”

Contact Dylan Lysen

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