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Photo of WIlliam Clarke QuantrillWilliam Clarke Quantrill

(1837-1865)

Leader of perhaps the most savage fighting unit in the Civil War, William Quantrill developed a style of guerrilla warfare that terrorized civilians and soldiers alike. Quantrill was born in 1837 in Ohio, but little is known of his early life. It appears that after being a schoolteacher for several years, he travelled to Utah in 1858 with an army wagon train and there made his living as a gambler, using the alias of Charles Hart. After a year, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he was again a schoolteacher from 1859 to 1860. But his past and predisposition soon caught up with him and, wanted for murder and horse theft, Quantrill fled to Missouri in late 1860.

Quantrill entered the Civil War on the Confederate side with enthusiasm. By late 1861, he was the leader of Quantrill's Raiders, a small force of no more than a dozen men who harassed Union soldiers and sympathizers along the Kansas-Missouri border and often clashed with Jayhawkers, the pro-Union guerrilla bands that reversed Quantrill's tactics by staging raids from Kansas into Missouri. Union forces soon declared him an outlaw, and the Confederacy officially made him a captain. To his supporters in Missouri, he was a dashing, free-spirited hero.

The climax of Quantrill's guerilla career came on August 21, 1863, when he led a force of 450 raiders into Lawrence, Kansas, a stronghold of pro-Union support and the home of Senator James H. Lane, whose leading role in the struggle for free-soil in Kansas had made him a public enemy to pro-slavery forces in Missouri. Lane managed to escape, racing through a cornfield in his nightshirt, but Quantrill and his men killed 183 men and boys, dragging some from their homes to murder them in front of their families, and set the torch to much of the city.

The Lawrence Massacre led to swift retribution, as Union troops forced the residents of four Missouri border counties onto the open prairie while Jayhawkers looted and burned everything they left behind. Quantrill and his raiders took part in the Confederate retaliation for this atrocity, but when Union forces drove the Confederates back, Quantrill fled to Texas. His guerrilla band broke up into several smaller units, including one headed by his vicious lieutenant, "Bloody Bill" Anderson, known for wearing a necklace of Yankee scalps into battle. Quantrill himself was eventually killed on a raid into Kentucky in 1865.

Even after his death, Quantrill and his followers remained almost folk heroes to their supporters in Missouri, and something of this celebrity later rubbed off on several ex-Raiders -- the James brothers, Frank and Jesse, and the Younger brothers, Cole and Jim -- who went on in the late 1860's to apply Quantrill's hit-and-run tactics to bank and train robbery, building on his legacy of bloodshed a mythology of the Western outlaw that remains fixed in the popular imagination.


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