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The Most Hated Man of the West : William Quantrill

Updated on October 22, 2011
Studio portrait of William Clarke Quantrill, infamous Civil War guerrilla
Studio portrait of William Clarke Quantrill, infamous Civil War guerrilla | Source
The destruction of the city of Lawrence, Kansas, and the massacre of its inhabitants by the Rebel guerrillas, August 21, 1863  - Illus. in: Harper's weekly, v. 7, no. 349 (1863 September 5), p. 564.
The destruction of the city of Lawrence, Kansas, and the massacre of its inhabitants by the Rebel guerrillas, August 21, 1863 - Illus. in: Harper's weekly, v. 7, no. 349 (1863 September 5), p. 564. | Source
James Henry Lane (1814-1866), politician and leader of the Free State Party of Kansas, full-length portrait, with gun
James Henry Lane (1814-1866), politician and leader of the Free State Party of Kansas, full-length portrait, with gun | Source

21 October 2011

The Wild West; the very name conjures up images of outlaws, six-shooters and hold-ups. Places like Dodge City, Tombstone and Ponderosa are brought to mind, as are names such as Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

One name gets lost in the legends of the Wild West. Perhaps it is because he operated not in what we think of the West but rather the Midwest. Perhaps it is because his name got lost in the shuffle. He is not the most well known, but one of the most important of names. His name is William Clarke Quantrill.

A son of the Union

William Clarke Quantrill was born in Ohio in 1837. He was the eldest son of his family, and one of only four who survived infancy. As a child, he apparently had sadistic tendencies; injuring and killing animals for pleasure. These tendencies would serve him well in his adult life.

He was educated enough to teach school, and taught in Ohio and Indiana for several years. He wrote home frequently, like a dutiful son. However, he was also restless, moving about because of brushes with the law. In 1857, he fled to Kansas to escape charges of horse theft. From there he went to Utah in 1858 with an army wagon train carrying provisions to western forts. It was on this trip that the son of staunch Unionists met southerners who espoused both slavery and state's rights. He agreed with these men and became enamored with the ideals of the South. In 1859 he moved back to Kansas and became a schoolteacher again.

Once again, his past soon caught up to him. Wanted for murder and more horse thievery, Quantrill took off for Missouri just as whispers of war were erupting across the nation. He soon enlisted in the Confederate army and after a short period of time was leading a small guerrilla force. This force would become known as Quantrill's Raiders or the Bushwackers.

The Missouri Terror of the South

The raiders started out as a small band of about a dozen men. They aggressively and actively raided and attacked Union soldiers and settlements. As the number of their attacks grew, so the number of men who filled Quantrill's ranks. While some of these men were hardened criminals, a good handful of them were young farmers and teenagers from pro-Southern areas in Missouri who were merely trying to protect their farms from Union guerillas forces.The most notable of these Union groups was the Jayhawkers, who were just as ruthless as the Raiders.

Some of the more known characters of William Quantrill's gang were William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, Frank and Jesse James, and Cole and Jim Younger.

In an effort to quash the Raiders' actions, a Union brigadier general from Kansas, Thomas Ewing Jr. issued an order that effectively made it a crime to aid a guerrilla in any way. A good number of the families of known Raiders were harassed, incarcerated or raided. Not long after the order was issued, many families of Quantrill's men were rounded up and incarcerated in Kansas City, Missouri. The vast majority were women and children, and they were housed in an old building that showed signs of being unstable. On 13 August 1863, the building collapsed, killing five women and injuring dozens of others.

When Quantrill and his men heard the news of the collapse, they were enraged. They plotted revenge for the deaths of their women. They also claimed that the building was deliberately weakened, though Union officials declared the collapse an accident. This incident would help to lead to one of the bloodiest attacks of the Civil War.

The target was Lawrence, Kansas.

A Bloody Mess

Lawrence, Kansas at the time of the Civil War had a population of about 3000. It was a stronghold of the Union and particularly of the Jayhawkers. It was also the home of Kansas Free Soil Senator and Jayhawker James H. Lane, whose outspokenness and leadership made him an enemy of the Confederacy. The town also was a refuge for escaped slaves, and a symbol of the slave-free statehood that Kansas had enjoyed. Evidence also suggests that Quantrill had lived there for a time.

Early in the morning of 21 August 1863, while the town slept, Quantrill began his reign of terror with a force of about 300 men, though some sources claim the number was as high as 450. His raiders had two instructions; to destroy the town, and to kill every man they could find. In both aspects, they seemed to have succeeded. Between 150 to 200 men and boys were killed, and a good portion of the town was burned to the ground in the attack. It was one of the worst attacks on civilians during the war.

News of the carnage spread like wildfire. The south hailed him as a hero and the North wanted retribution. Union soldiers forced the inhabitants of the Missouri counties Cass, Vernon, Bates and Jackson out onto the oopen prairie. Jayhawkers and Union soldiers plundered and burned the farms and homes of these inhabitants. This led to another conflict in Barter Springs , Kansas in which several Union soldiers were killed.

The Downfall of a Legend

Quantrill and his men were pushed into Texas, where the band splintered into several groups. Some went on to continue terrorizing Missouri and Kansas, but Quantrill decided to move east to Kentucky.

The reasons for this move are unknown to scholars, but theories abound. Kentucky has become a hotbed for lawless actions as the Civil War progressed and soldiers were needed in the push for the deep South and for the Western campaigns. Others believe Quantrill was gearing up for a push to Washington D. C. to assassinate President Lincoln. Another theory was that he expected the South to soon surrender and he wanted to surrender his band with Robert E. Lee in Virginia, hoping to get a reprieve from the certain execution he faced. Whatever the reason, he ended up in the state with his closest and most loyal of raiders in late 1864.

Wearing captured Union outfits of federal blue, Quantrill and these men assumed the identity of a nonexistent regiment, the Fourth Missouri Cavalry.After eluding capture and hoodwinking Union troops with their uniforms for several months, the guise wore off and Quantrill found himself a pursued man once more.

On 10 May 1864 he came upon the farm of James Wakefield, a sympathzier who lived neat Taylosrville, Kentucky. Quantrill took shelter in the man's barn with his men to rest. A company of Union troops, led by Union Captain Edwin Terrell, happened to discover he was in the barn and a small battle ensued. Trying to flee, Quantrill was shot in the back. Captured, he was taken to the military prison in Lousiville, Kentucky. It was at the prison where he was nursed by a Catholic priest, who baptized him and heard his numerous confessions. Following an operation on 6 June 1865, he finally succumbed to his injury. He was a mere 27 years old.

A man of contradictions, he died as violently as he lived, yet he went with peace. He was loved by his men and hated by his enemies. He defended women yet killed any man able to wield a gun. He was a student, a teacher, a farmer, a gunslinger and a leader of men. He was the North's most hated enemy, and the South's adored hero.

Reunion of the William Clarke Quantrill Band c. 1875
Reunion of the William Clarke Quantrill Band c. 1875 | Source

Works Referenced

Clinton, Catherine. Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Civil War. Fair Street Productions: New York. 1999.

Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History But Never Learned. Perennial: New York, 2003.

"James Henry Lane." New Perspectives of the West. PBS Interactive, 2001. 20 October 2011 from

Leslie, Edward E. "Quantrill's Bones." American Heritage (1995) 46.4: 53. History Reference Center. EBSCO (17 October 2011)

Petersen, Paul R. "Missouri Legends: William Quantrill: The Man, the Myth, the Soldier." Legends of America: A Travel Site for the Nostalgic and Historic Minded. 2004. 20 October 2011 from

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History. Volume 1. 5th Ed. W. W. Norton and Company: New York, 2000. 95

The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference. 2nd ed. Hyperion: New York, 2003

Shenkman, Richard and Kurt Reiger. One-Night Stands with American History: Odd, Amusing and Little-Known Incidents. Rev. Ed. Perennial: New York, 2003.

Sanders, Stuart W. "Quantrill's Last Ride." America's Civil War (1999) 12.1: 42. History Reference Center. EBSCO. (18 October 2011)

Weiser, Kathy. "Missouri Legends: William Quantrill: Renegade Leader of the Missouri Border War." Legends of America: A Travel Site for the Nostalgic and Historic Minded. 2004. 17 October 2011 from

"William Clarke Quantrill." New Perspectives of the West. PBS Interactive, 2001. 17 October 2011 from

Wood, Larry. "They Rode with Quantrill." America's Civil War. (1996) 9.5: 58. History Reference Center. EBSCO. (17 October 2011)


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