The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Civil War 150th

September 3, 2011

William Quantrill’s legacy remains mixed 150 years after Civil War

In the spring of 1881 — the American Civil War had been over for 16 years — a newspaper editor from Dover, Ohio, wrote an open letter to Joplin residents, asking them to tell their stories about William Clarke Quantrill.

W.W. Scott had known Quantrill as a boy in Ohio, and explained that he was undertaking a biography at the behest of Quantrill’s mother. Scott never explained outright why he turned to Joplin, although it was known that some of the men who rode with Quantrill — and perhaps a good many who rode in pursuit of him — lived in and frequented the booming mining town.

Pleading his case in the Joplin Daily Herald, Scott not only wanted details from those who knew Quantrill, but also laid out the few facts known about his early years.

“There was nothing about him to indicate his subsequent career,” Scott wrote to the Joplin Daily Herald, describing the Quantrill he knew as an intelligent, even-tempered person.

In fact, there was little that would indicate that Quantrill, a former school teacher whose sympathies tilted to the North at one point, would evolve into the man who led the slaughter of civilians at Lawrence, Kan., whose own men would massacre Union soldiers at Baxter Springs, Kan., and who terrorized much of the region throughout the war.

Scott was grasping at the mystery that even today baffles historians: How did Quantrill become — in the words of one historian — “the bloodiest man in American history?”


James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians, has written that the warfare along the Kansas-Missouri border produced a degree of terrorism on both sides that was unmatched anywhere else during the Civil War.

Quantrill and his riders were victims of that terrorism, and the reason it escalated to its unparalleled level.

That Quantrill made a name fighting for the South is ironic since he was not a Southerner. He came from Ohio, and in fact, after moving to Kansas, he initially championed the Free-State cause. As late as 1858, he even called the radical Republican senator and abolitionist James Lane “as good a man as we have.”

Five years later, in his raid on Lawrence, it was that same Lane that Quantrill hunted more than any other man.

Somewhere along the way — this is the part that baffled Scott — something altered Quantrill, transformed and hardened him. He began blaming Free-Staters for the trouble on the Kansas-Missouri border, trouble that would soon spread across the country.

Edward Leslie, author of “The Devil Knows How to Ride,” the most recent full-scale Quantrill biography, believes Quantrill’s view changed after he joined an expedition to Utah as a teamster on the eve of the Civil War. On that journey, Quantrill fell in with “rough Southerners” who may have converted him to their point of view.

But Leslie doesn’t see Quantrill as a psychopath in the vein of men such as Bloody Bill Anderson, another Civil War guerrilla who operated in Missouri.

“He (Quantrill) was a normal human being. He may have had a disposition toward anti-social behavior. I think he was a normal human being who got caught up in a really brutal war. It brought out the worst in him and the worst parts of his personality.”

The fact that otherwise ordinary young men — farmers, teachers and merchants who grew up within the Christian tradition — became the kind of men who burned a town, killed nearly every older male occupant and slaughtered soldiers who had surrendered, isn’t unique to the Civil War.

It’s part of every war, argues historian Michael Fellowman, author of “Inside War, the Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War.” Fellman is professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and has written extensively about both the Civil War and terrorism.

Fellman notes that others at the time, including Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) also remarked on the transformation of men they had known, men who were “uncommonly sweet and gentle” in 1861 but who had become “remorseless” killers by war’s end.

Just as much of a mystery is how quickly that transformation was undone after the war, with many of these bushwhackers and Jayhawkers returning to farms, raising corn and children and attending Sunday services, Fellman noted.

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