By Andy Ostmeyer
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.
Although never part of the regular army, Quantrill and his men actually saw themselves as soldiers in the Southern cause, said Leslie. They were in fact “Partisan Rangers,” he said, referring to a branch of military service that was created by and endorsed by the Confederate States of America, which has a record of Quantrill’s service and which also paid him, he noted.
The Union never recognized this group, however, and instead viewed them as outlaws, and there even came a point later in the war when the Union executed captured rangers. In fact, some of the men who rode with Quantrill had prices on their head as high as $100,000.
By the summer of 1863, fighting had raged along the frontier border for nearly eight years, with both sides ratcheting up the level of atrocities.
Lane led 1,000 men into Osceola, a wealthy Missouri port town along the Osage River in late 1861, burning and looting much of the place after his men busted open 150 kegs of liquor found there. Lane himself personally made off with a piano, silk dresses, gold and more.
“I found all through Western Missouri a deadly horror entertained toward Lane,” a New York newspaper correspondent wrote about that time. “Everywhere he has been he carried the knife and torch with him, and has left a track marked with charred ruins and blood.”
In 1862, Quantrill’s men rode into Lamar and tried to shoot up a federal garrison that had retreated to the courthouse. In 30 minutes, the men shot up the town and even attempted to bring up artillery to blast apart the courthouse, but failed, and left with two men dead.
And so it went on both sides, up and down the border, with events large and small.
“The accumulation of back and forth atrocities had created a climate of real viciousness,” Leslie said, adding that for many on both sides, this was a personal war.
“The people who fought over there, many of them knew one another. It’s one thing to burn the house and crop field of a stranger, it’s another to burn the house and crop field of people you know and who know you. It engenders a special brutality.”
While there was brutality enough to go around for both sides, one thing set Quantrill and his men apart from other bushwhackers and Jayhawkers who roamed through western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Having grown up on horseback, having learned to shoot early, with intimate knowledge of the country, Quantrill’s men excelled at guerrilla warfare.
Historian Albert Castel called Quantrill’s men the “most formidable bunch of revolver fighters the West ever knew.”
Pat Kehde does not see Quantrill and his men as soldiers, but rather as terrorists.
“There was an element of terror in what they did, striking out at civilians,” she said, adding: “I am a descendant of a man who at 30 years old was killed in cold blood, if not by Quantrill then by the men he led to Lawrence.”
Kehde still lives in Lawrence, Kan., where her great-grandparents, Jetta and Ralph Dix, were rousted out of their house on Aug. 21, 1863, by the raiders. Quantrill’s orders were unambiguous: “Kill every male and burn every house,” according to McPherson.
Jetta clung to her husband, but in a second it was over. She stumbled upon rocks, her grip slipping away from her husband as she fell. He was immediately shot in the back. Ralph’s brother, Steve, also was shot to death that day, as were some of their employees.
While such events may seem long ago, there are people still alive today who crossed paths with victims of that attack. Kehde came close.
Jetta and Ralph’s daughter, Belle, was a young child at the time of the Lawrence massacre. Kehde was born in 1940, just five years after her grandmother, the aforementioned Belle, died. Their lives nearly intersected.
Ralph was a blacksmith who came to Kansas to make his fortune when the frontier opened, but he wasn’t political, and his name wasn’t on lists carried by the raiders who were looking for Free-State leaders such as Lane. Yet Ralph died anyway.
“I have not found any evidence he came as an abolitionist,” Kehde said.
“I don’t see them as soldiers,” she added, when asked about Quantrill. True soldiers, she said, would have joined the Confederate armies. That’s not what these men did.
“I see them as looters and robbers, rabble. They had a cause, and that cause was they hated Free-Staters in Lawrence.”
Quantrill and his men killed nearly 200 men and boys that day, according to Lawrence historian Katie Armitage. They burned 185 homes and businesses.
“The Lawrence raid cannot be justified. They just slaughtered men and boys as young as 12,” Armitage said.
Asked about those who romanticize Quantrill and his riders, Kehde minced no words: “They are dead wrong.”
Historian Albert Castel has written that while the raid on Lawrence must be seen as the culmination of nearly 10 years of border warfare ushered along by men on both sides, it also ranks as “the most atrocious single event of the entire Civil War.”
Lawrence was to be the most infamous of Quantrill’s actions, but not his high point.
With the hunt on for them, and winter approaching, Quantrill and his men slipped south, where they chanced upon a small Union post near present-day Baxter Springs, Kan.
Quantrill split his men, taking command on some and assigning other groups to his top lieutenants. They would encircle the resting Union camp. Quantrill meanwhile would swing his men around to attack the fort from the far side. In the process of doing so, however, he became disoriented in the woods and stalled.
Although surprised, the Union men who took shelter in that post, named Fort Blair, managed to hold back the rest of their attackers with the aid of a mountain howitzer, their lone piece of artillery.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Quantrill, Union Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt was simultaneously leading a wagon train transporting personal items from his former headquarters at Fort Scott, Kan., to his new headquarters at Fort Smith, Ark. As he approached Fort Blair, Blunt was unaware of the attack.
It was at that moment that Quantrill and his men observed Blunt’s command. Multiple accounts say Quantrill’s men were wearing Union blue uniforms, and Blunt believed they were federal soldiers from the post sent to welcome him. At almost point-blank range, Quantrill’s guerrillas opened fire and charged.
Dozens of Union soldiers were killed in the initial volley. Blunt and Maj. Henry Curtis, the son of Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, the hero of Pea Ridge, tried to rally the troops, but unsuccessful tried to flee. Curtis was thrown from his horse, and according to Leslie, was shot after surrendering. Blunt made good his escape as his horse jumped a ravine and he clung to his mount’s neck “like a monkey on a stick” until out of range, according to eyewitness accounts.
All 14 members of the Union band were killed, as were dozens of other Union soldiers captured after the attack. Many where found with holes in their head, shot execution style.
Quantrill got drunk afterward — the only time his men ever saw him do so — and bragged that he had done something larger Southern armies had not: Whip the much-hated Blunt.
Even now, the deaths of the 103 Union soldiers is still remembered as the Baxter Springs Massacre.
‘Shot down like dogs’
Toward the end of the war, Quantrill set upon a new plan, one that would far surpass any notoriety his actions on the border had already brought him. He would ride to Washington to attempt to assassinate no less a Union figure than President Abraham Lincoln himself. But before he and a small band got that far, the deed was done by John Wilkes Booth. Just a few weeks later, Quantrill was wounded in a skirmish with federal soldiers in Kentucky.
He died June 6, 1865, both celebrated and reviled.
A former Southern commander, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, called Quantrill and his riders “bold, fearless men ... They are composed, I understand, in a measure of the very best class of Missourians.”
But others would not abide such veneration.
Brig. Gen. Henry McCulloch, a Confederate commander whose own brother, Benjamin McCulloch, fought at Wilson’s Creek and died at Pea Ridge, offered another take.
“I do not know as much about his mode of warfare as others seem to know; but, from all I can learn, it is but little, if at all, removed from that of the wildest savage, so much so that I cannot for a moment believe that our government can sanction it ... We cannot, as a Christian people, sanction a savage, inhumane warfare, in which men are to be shot down like dogs.”
This narrative was reconstructed using a number of sources, including: “The Devil Knows How to Ride,” by Edward Leslie, and “Inside War,” by Michael Fellman, and interviews with those authors; as well as the books “Civil War on the Western Border,” by Jay Monaghan; “Black Flag,” by Thomas Goodrich; “Battle Cry of Freedom,” by James McPherson; “William Clarke Quantrill, His Life and Times,” by Albert Castel; and “Three Years with Quantrill, a True Story told by his Scout, John McCorkle,” by O.S. Barton.