William Clarke Quantrill

WILLIAM CLARKE QUANTRILL (1837–1865)

William Clarke Quantrill, a Confederate guerrilla, was born in Dover, Ohio, on July 31, 1837, to Thomas Henry Quantrill, a school principal, and Caroline Clarke Quantrill. At 16, he graduated from high school and began teaching in the Dover school. Some months later, on Dec. 7, 1854, his father died of consumption, plunging the family into poverty. Wishing to “make his fortune” so he could help his mother and siblings, Quantrill journeyed to Illinois and Indiana but found employment only as a bookkeeper and a teacher. Discouraged, he returned home, taught school again, and then went to Kansas Territory, where he eked out a living. He was a keen observer of the conflict between abolitionists, Free State advocates, and Southerners over whether the territory would enter the Union as a slave or a free state; although he sympathized with the Free Staters, he did not become involved.

In the spring of 1858, Quantrill signed on as a teamster for an expedition to resupply federal troops in Utah Territory fighting the Mormons. Many of the other teamsters were Southern fanatics who had come to Kansas from the Deep South to join in the struggle. Some would become Quantrill’s lifelong friends and members of his guerrilla band. During the year he spent in their company traveling to Utah and back to Kansas, he was converted to their point of view.

Quantrill next taught school in eastern Kansas, but in the spring of 1860, dejected and poor, he gave up the dream of making his fortune in the West and decided to return to Dover. However, he first went to Lawrence where he encountered “border ruffians.” Perhaps because they were like the teamsters who had befriended him on the Utah expedition and they shared his newfound political beliefs—and knew how to get their hands on money, albeit disreputably or illegally—he joined their band. Over the next eight months, he stole livestock and participated in the returning of one runaway slave to his owner for the reward, the selling of another runaway, and an attempt to capture a number of others.

After a Douglas County grand jury indicted him on several charges, Quantrill was forced into hiding. In December 1860, he led a party of five white abolitionists to the Jackson County, Mo., farm of wealthy slave owner Morgan Walker. The abolitionists intended to liberate Walker’s slaves and steal his horses, but Quantrill surreptitiously arranged an ambush with Walker’s son, Andrew, and then led the abolitionists into it. One was killed outright; the other four escaped, but two were subsequently hunted down and killed by Quantrill, Morgan Walker, and some neighbors. In setting the treacherous “Morgan Walker ambush,” Quantrill was undoubtedly motivated by the $5,000 reward said to be offered for one of the abolitionists and may have wanted to ingratiate himself with Jackson County Southerners with whom he cast his lot.

After the war began, Quantrill joined a Confederate company of Cherokee Indians who served under Gen. Benjamin McCulloch, notably at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Quantrill subsequently enlisted as a private in Gen. Sterling Price’s army. He is said to have fought with “conspicuous daring” at the Battle of Lexington.

As Price retreated to Neosho, Quantrill returned to the Blue Springs area of Jackson County. He helped organize a Home Guard company of teenagers who sought to protect their neighborhood from raids by Kansas Jayhawkers; by the end of 1861 it had evolved into a 15-member guerrilla band with Quantrill as its leader.

As the band’s reputation grew, new recruits were drawn to it, among them Cole Younger and Frank James. At times it numbered a hundred men or more. Most recruits were teenagers, and Quantrill particularly wanted those who were single and motivated by revenge as the result of the harsh treatment meted out to themselves and their families by Jayhawkers and the federal militia. These attributes— extreme youth, lack of family responsibilities, and vengefulness—might make for reckless courage in battle, but they would seem to increase the likelihood of outrages.

In his early days as a guerrilla chieftain, Quantrill conducted himself honorably: he accepted surrenders, paroled prisoners and forbade rape. He expected that he and his men would be treated as soldiers if captured until Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Union commander of the Department of Missouri. Issuing an order outlawing “bushwhackers,” or guerrillas, the federal military began summarily executing Quantrill’s men. Quantrill immediately retaliated by killing prisoners and would later say that he felt “forced” into a “no quarter” type of warfare.

During 1862, “Quantrill’s raiders” plundered towns, skirmished with Union detachments, and waylaid the mail. Quantrill was formally commissioned as a captain under the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862, following the capture of Independence on Aug. 11, 1862, for which victory he shared the credit with Confederate colonels Upton Hays and John T. Hughes.

Quantrill’s activities during most of the summer of 1863 remain largely a mystery except for his planning of the audacious raid on Lawrence, Kan. and his ongoing involvement with a beautiful Jackson County girl, Sarah “Kate” King. (In later years she said they were married, but others claimed she was his mistress.)

On Aug, 13, a house in Kansas City that was being used by the federal military as a temporary prison for Southern girls, some of whom were relatives of Quantrill’s raiders, collapsed, killing five and seriously injuring the rest. The guerrillas’ conviction that the building had been undermined at the order of the military commander to murder the girls was one cause for the savagery of the Lawrence raid a week later. Among the others was that Lawrence was the headquarters for the Jayhawking bands that had made raids into western Missouri for years.

After snaking 40 miles inside Kansas past patrols and garrisons, Quantrill struck Lawrence at dawn on Aug. 21, leading a 450-man column: members of his own band and other guerrilla bands, Confederate army recruits, and Missouri civilians. Over the next four hours, the raiders murdered approximately 200 men and teenage boys. Nearly all were unarmed and unresisting, and often their women were pleading for their lives when the bullets struck. (On the other hand, in obedience to Quantrill’s order issued just before the raid’s commencement, no woman was raped or harmed. Quantrill killed no one and actually intervened to save some individuals.) The entire business district was burned as well as perhaps 100 houses, resulting in a property loss estimated at $2 million in Civil War–era money. The massacre is considered the greatest atrocity of the Civil War.

During the raid, Quantrill had remarked to residents of Lawrence that he had lost control of his men because so many had gotten drunk on looted liquor. Over the next six months, some of his earliest followers would become disgusted with the degeneration of the band and leave; they were generally replaced by those attracted more by the prospects of plunder and violence than by loftier motives.

On Oct. 6, while leading another amalgamated column to Texas, Quantrill routed the command of Gen. James G. Blunt, killing 98. Some who tried to surrender were murdered, and most of the wounded were dispatched.

In Sherman, Texas, during the winter of 1863– 1864, Quantrill had an increasingly difficult time controlling his followers: they got drunk and shot up the town, and robbed storekeepers and even Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Several robbery victims were murdered. On the journey back to Missouri, Quantrill was deposed at gunpoint by his lieutenant, George Todd, and left the band.

During the summer and fall of 1864, Todd and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson warred in western and central Missouri. Their escalating brutality culminated on Sept. 27 in the “Centralia massacre;” 23 unarmed soldiers were taken off a train, stripped to their underwear, shot, and then their bodies were beaten with rifle butts and sabres. Later in the day, approximately 100 recruits led by Maj. A. V. E. Johnston were routed and slaughtered, many after surrendering. Corpses were mutilated or decapitated, and at least one of the wounded was castrated.

After Todd and Anderson were killed in separate engagements, Quantrill emerged from seclusion, rallied the shattered remnant of his band, and, in December, took it south out of Missouri. The best evidence indicates he was headed for Virginia to fight under Robert E. Lee, but he became entangled in the guerrilla war being waged in north-central Kentucky. In mid-February 1865, after less than a month’s sporadic fighting, he was driven into hiding.

Gen. John M. Palmer, the federal military commander of Kentucky, hired Edwin Terrell, a disreputable Union guerrilla, to hunt down Quantrill. Terrell ambushed Quantrill and his men on May 10, 1865, near Taylorsville, ironically while they were on their way to Louisville to surrender. Quantrill, shot in the back, was paralyzed. He died on June 6, 1865, at age 27. He was buried in Louisville’s St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

In 1887, W. W. Scott, Quantrill’s boyhood friend, robbed his grave. During the next 104 years, the skull and various arm and leg bones were bartered, displayed in glass museum cases, and used in fraternity rituals. Today Quantrill’s remains are buried in three graves in three states.

Edward E. Leslie

Connelley, William E.  Papers. Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. Papers. Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Denver Public Library, Denver.
Leslie, Edward E. The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. New York: Random House, 1996.

Excerpted from Dictionary of Missouri Biography edited by Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, published by the University of Missouri Press. To order this book, please call (800) 621-2736 or online at http://press.umsystem.edu/Catalog/ProductSearch.aspx?search=Dictionary+of+Missouri+Biography.