BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Baxter Springs residents are dusting off the frequently overlooked story of the massacre of almost 100 Union soldiers by William Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas in 1863.
It’s time for the event to get more attention in history books, said local historian Larry O’Neal, who hopes bringing the battle to life through a three-day encampment and hands-on activities later this year will restore the massacre to its proper place in history.
“As a lifelong resident, it bothers me that it is missing,” he said, referring to history’s treatment of the battle.
O’Neal is helping to coordinate an observation in October for the 150th anniversary of the battle, and he expects it could draw as many as 10,000 visitors. Organizing for the event and others related to it has begun.
The battle wasn’t intentional, but rather the result of a chance meeting between Union soldiers and Quantrill’s guerrillas.
Union Maj. Gen. James Blunt and his wagon train of about 100 soldiers and supplies were headed south from Fort Scott to relocate their headquarters at Fort Smith, Ark. They were following a well-used military road that roughly followed modern-day U.S. Highway 69.
Quantrill and his approximately 300 men, who became infamous for their burning and killing spree in August of that year in Lawrence, were headed south to Texas for the winter when they came upon Fort Blair, near modern-day Baxter Springs. The fort had been in existence only a few months.
“It was a strategic location, because it was a day and a half from Fort Scott and two days from Fort Gibson, Okla.,” O’Neal said. “It was a temporary structure, built near timber and water. An outpost, really.”
The primitive fort had a garrison of about 25 cavalry soldiers and 65 to 70 infantry troops. The 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry defended the fort valiantly, although its soldiers were greatly outnumbered.
“That particular group is noteworthy, too, because it — along with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry — was mustered out of Fort Scott before President Abraham Lincoln authorized the use of colored troops in the Civil War,” O’Neal said.
Quantrill divided his men to surround the Union outpost, and the guerrilla leader and his band stumbled upon Blunt and his men, who were unaware of the presence of the guerrilla force.
The men in the fort, with a lone howitzer, held back the rest of the attackers.
But Blunt’s men, caught off guard until it was too later, were slaughtered, including the band members and James O’Neill, a newspaper correspondent. Blunt himself escaped.
“Quantrill’s men executed them as they tried to surrender,” O’Neal said of the Union soldiers, “including the drummer boy, whom they set on fire.”