Nov 242012

Born in Ohio, William Clarke Quantrill (July 31, 1837-June 6, 1865) failed as a school teacher, and drifted into Lawrence, Kansas, a pro-abolitionist center. Since he rode with both the abolitionist Jayhawkers and the pro-slavery Border Ruffians, while claiming to be spying on the other side, neither side fully trusted him. After betraying five idealistic abolitionists on a raid to liberate slaves in Missouri he became a hero but barely escaped a lynching in Lawrence. The American Civil War (1865-1865) started soon after and Missouri came under Union control, so Quantrill became a guerrilla, and was leading his own guerrilla band by late December 1861, attracting numerous recruits including Cole Younger and Frank and Jesse James. Although he was the alpha guerrilla in Missouri during 1862, the men had divided into smaller bands led by his former lieutenants George Todd, Dave Pool, Bill Anderson and Younger by the spring of 1863. The accidental death of several female relatives of guerrillas while in Union custody was used to persuade all of the guerrilla leaders to combine for a raid against Lawrence on August 21, 1863. The massacre of 185 unarmed men and boys triggered a massive manhunt by Union forces, so Quantrill led his remaining followers to Kentucky in search of easier pickings. However, Quantrill was captured on May 10, and he died in a Union hospital on June 6, 1865.

Early Life

William Quantrill’s father had a troubled early life, and almost killed a man who caught him stealing public funds, but he calmed down when he became principal of the local school in Canal Dover, Ohio. As a result, Quantrill received enough education to start teaching when he was sixteen. When his father died the following year he became a traveling school teacher who drifted from town to town, never really making much money. Tired of struggling with poverty, he went with several other men to Kansas Territory in 1857 in search of cheap land, but he had trouble adjusting to the exhausting labor of clearing land. Although he had been grubstaked by his partners as a favor to his mother, he was unwilling to do his share of the work, and eventually left, although he had to be forced to return their oxen, which he had stolen. Quantrill tried operating his own claim the following year, but after he was caught stealing from his neighbors, he left to serve as a teamster with the army under the name Charley Hart. He continued to drift from job to job for the next couple of years while gradually developing a bad reputation.

Quantrill arrived in Lawrence, the second largest town in Kansas and a center of pro-abolitionist settlers, in the spring of 1860, when he was 23 years old. Although the situation had calmed down since the Missouri-Kansas Troubles (1854-1857), when hundreds of people had died during the struggle over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state, it was still far from peaceful. Using his Charley Hart alias, he began to hang out with violent thugs who raided both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border for profit. Quantrill even betrayed his acquaintances, telling the farmers who had stolen their livestock, but his stories were not believed by everyone who rode with him and it became harder to find people who were willing to work with him. At the same time, the sheriff of Lawrence became increasingly suspicious of him, and in the late fall of 1860, he finally found witnesses who had seen Quantrill help burn a house down to force out a runaway slave, who was then returned to his owner, so a warrant was sworn out for his arrest. Aside from thieving, he had been riding with both the abolitionist Jayhawkers and the pro-slavery Border Ruffians while claiming to be spying on the other side, so neither side fully trusted him, and since the warrant meant that he had to leave Lawrence, he had to pick a side.

Fortunately, five idealistic but naïve abolitionists wanted help for a raid deep in Missouri. Quantrill persuaded them to attack a slave owner who lived near the border even though an experienced Jayhawker urged them not to trust him. This was good advice since he betrayed them to the owners of the slaves. Two of the abolitionists were killed and Quantrill himself finished off a wounded survivor to prevent him from informing on him. Two members of the party escaped and made their way back to Lawrence but it was unlikely that they would risk returning to Missouri to blow his new cover. People in Missouri thought he was a hero, and he created a story about how abolitionists had murdered his brother, but he had tracked them down and killed them one by one. Tired of telling the same story throughout the long, cold winter, he finally went back to Kansas in March 1861 but he was arrested by a group of Jayhawkers led by the man who had warned the abolitionists. Given the warrant that still existed in Lawrence, Quantrill’s future was grim but a larger group of Border Ruffians arrived and forced the local judge to release him, although he was warned to stay out of Kansas for a while before his enemies tried to arrest him again.

American Civil War

With Kansas off-limits and the terrifying prospect of having to earn a living waiting for him in Missouri, the situation looked bleak for Quantrill but the Civil War started nine days later. He had little interest in joining the Confederate army, so he lived for a while in the Cherokee Nation, where he became familiar with their guerrilla techniques. When his Cherokee acquaintances joined the Confederate army he went along as a camp follower, but he quickly became disillusioned with the death and destruction that is so common in war, and he left in October 1861. Returning to Missouri, Quantrill became involved in the posses that pursued Jayhawker raiding parties. By late December, he was leading his own band because he was a good fighter, relatively educated, pretended to have proper military experience and spent many hours planning raids.

Quantrill initially followed a basic code where captured soldiers were released if they gave their parole but after Major General Halleck issued an order on March 13, 1862 that all guerrillas were to be executed he started doing the same. Despite his careful planning, Quantrill’s band was taken by surprise three times in April 1862 but his men stayed with him because he had remained calm and led them out of each trap. Eventually, he learned that it was vital to post sentries and he was rarely caught napping again. At the same time, his raids became more effective and he ambushed numerous small units of Union soldiers or detachments sent to escort the mail. Participation in the capture of Independence, Missouri, which had a garrison of three hundred soldiers, earned him the rank of captain and recognition of his band as an official partisan company. However, an official military hierarchy held little attraction because he preferred to operate on his own without any rules, so he found a convenient excuse to avoid a large scale battle five days later. After carrying out several other raids, including sacking the small town of Olathe on September 6, he led roughly 150 men to spend the winter in Arkansas. Believing that he actually was a great commander he traveled to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, seeking promotion to colonel but he was ignored by the military elite.

When the guerrillas resumed operations in Missouri in the spring, the men had divided into smaller bands led by his former lieutenants George Todd, Dave Pool, Bill Anderson and Cole Younger, while he was only nominally in command. Their lack of cooperation made the raids almost impossible to predict but instead of rejoicing in the success of his subordinates, Quantrill became depressed that he was no longer the center of attention and spent most of his time with his fifteen-year-old mistress, Kate King.

Raid on Lawrence

When the building housing seventeen Missouri women who had been arrested as Confederate spies collapsed in Lawrence on August 14, 1863, killing five and badly wounding the rest, Quantrill knew that he had an opportunity to regain the spotlight. All of the guerrilla leaders had already been persuaded to launch a massive raid against Lawrence even though it was deep in Kansas and a recently constructed series of outposts along the Missouri-Kansas border meant that it would be almost impossible to cross the border undetected. Since several of the dead women were related to leading guerrillas such as Younger and Anderson, the raid was driven by a thirst for revenge. However, the reluctance of a timid commander of an outpost to even follow the four hundred and fifty guerrillas and recently recruited Confederate soldiers led by Quantrill and Anderson meant that they were able to take Lawrence by surprise at dawn on August 18. Furthermore, the militia’s weapons were stored in an armory and the mayor had forbidden anyone to carry weapons within city limits so the town was virtually defenceless. The token garrison of raw recruits was easily slaughtered and the raiders then rode through the town killing any male old enough to hold a gun. The town was looted and then torched. When the guerrillas rode out four hours later, 185 men and boys were lying dead on the ground.

Poor coordination by local militia and Union forces in the area enabled most of the guerrillas to escape back to Missouri, although roughly a hundred men were killed because they could not keep up or their horses broke down. Many other innocent men were killed, since neither the Kansan militian nor Union soldiers wasted much time with finding evidence, so any man with a new shirt, new horse or a suspicious face was killed on the spot. However, the fallout from the raid meant that Missouri was filled with Union forces hunting the guerrillas, therefore carrying out any further raids was out of the question.

On October 1, Quantrill led four hundred guerrillas to Texas, making a detour to slaughter a force of a hundred Union cavalry that was escorting a general to a new post. He proved unable or unwilling to restrain his men’s drunken rampages at Sherman, Texas, where they were wintering. As the number of innocent civilians killed while trying to protect their possessions or family grew, Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, commander of the area, tried to arrest Quantrill on March 30, 1864. However, he escaped and McCulloch was unwilling to force an open confrontation with his followers.

Actually, Quantrill’s control over his men was slipping. Anderson led his band away following a quarrel over whether he should marry before the war ended, and John Jarrette, Bill Gregg and Pool left to join regular Confederate units because the decision to divide the loot from Lawrence among the raiders rather than the people of Missouri proved that Qunatrill was simply a thief, not a real patriot. Shortly after the remaining raiders returned to Missouri, George Todd took leadership of the remaining guerrillas after publicly humiliating Quantrill. Refusing to serve as a follower in the band he had formed, Quantrill stopped raiding until he agreed to help distract Union forces in preparation for General Sterling Price’s invasion of Missouri. Unfortunately, Todd and Anderson insisted on attacking well-defended Fayette on September 24 over his objections, and they received their greatest defeat in the war.


By October it had become clear that Price’s had invasion failed, so Quantrill led the thirty men still willing to follow him to Kentucky in search of easier pickings. However, most of his men were killed or captured during February and March, because the Union military forces in Kentucky were more experienced at dealing with guerrillas. Quantrill was hunted down and captured on May 10 by Captain Edwin Terrill, a Yankee guerrilla, who had been assigned to eliminate him. Terrill had been given carte blanche to ensure the success of his hunt, and he adopted unorthodox methods, such as robbing Union supporters to prove his Southern sympathizers, although many contemporaries accused him of simply using his authority as a cover for unrepentant looting. Regardless, he was dismissed immediately after bringing in Quantrill.

Quantrill died in a Union hospital on June 6, 1864.

Related Movies:

Dark Command (1940)

Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne
Bob Seton, a Texas cowboy, beats out local schoolteacher Will Cantrell (William Quantrill) for the job of marshall of Lawrence shortly before the Civil War starts. The bitter Cantrell forms a band of lawless guerrillas that rampage through Kansas until Seton learns that they plan to attack Lawrence. (full review)

Kansas Raiders (1950)

Directed by Ray Enright, starring Audie Murphy and Brian Donlevy
Jesse James joins Quantrill’s band to seek revenge for his parents’ deaths but eventually becomes disillusioned by the constant killing of civilians. (full review)

Quantrills RaidersQuantrill’s Raiders (1958)

Directed by Edward Bernds, starring Steve Cochran and Leo Gordon
Quantrill’s guerrilla band is assigned to destroy an arsenal at Lawrence, Kansas but a Confederate officer learns that he is motivated more by revenge. (full review)

Young Jesse James (1960)

Directed by William F. Claxton, starring Ray Stricklyn and Robert Dix
After their father is killed and their mother badly wounded by Union troops, the James brothers join Quantrill’s guerrillas.

Ride With The Devil (1999)

Directed by Ang Lee, starring Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich
A young Missouri man joins the Bushwhackers, irregular guerrillas loyal to the South, but as he sees his friends die, he gradually tires of the killing and savagery. (full review)

Further Reading:

Quantrill’s War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill 1837-1865-Duane Schultz, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Schultz has produced a well-written, detailed book about Quantrill that shows how he became a savage raider and explains how the chaotic times enabled him to transform himself from a petty outlaw to the leader of a large band of bushwhackers. Almost a third of the book is devoted to the reasons behind the raid on Lawrence, the raid itself and the pursuit of the guerrillas afterwards, which is fitting since the raid is what made Quantrill famous or rather infamous. Schultz succeeds in walking the delicate line between being too gruesome and presenting the horror of the raid through the eyes of the witnesses. Relating the huge number of firsthand experiences makes you understand how thorough the raiders were in their determination to kill any male old enough to carry a gun. While the focus of the book is naturally Quantrill, the author also presents the exploits of the other leading members of Quantrill’s guerrillas, especially Bloody Bill Anderson, George Todd and Cole Younger, showing both the difficulty of leading so many violently inclined men and how Quantrill gradually lost his position as leader of the group.

The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and his Confederate Raiders-Edward E. Leslie, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Leslie’s description of his first sight of Quantrill’s skull is morbidly hilarious. He provides a solid summary of Bleeding Kansas, the vicious war in Kansas that predated the Civil War, to show the environment that shaped Quantrill and his followers. Leslie has clearly performed an impressive amount of research but the book suffers from a slight lack of organization. The background of Quantrill’s family members is explored in some detail, partially because the adventures of a group of rogues make for an interesting story and possibly to explain their influence on Quantrill’s later actions. Leslie does a good job at showing how difficult it is to find reliable information about Quantrill’s earlier years because the people who knew him at the time were either harsh critics or staunch supporters. The author gives a good overview of the civil war within Missouri as pro and anti-union supporters struggled for control of the state. Furthermore, he examines the other guerrilla leaders, Confederate general Sterling Price’s failed invasion of Missouri and the increasing savagery that developed after Quantrill lost control, including gang-rapes. The concluding chapter deals with the efforts of Quantrill’s mother to find her son’s body and the final journey of his skull, which was used for a period of time as part of a fraternity initiation.