The destruction of Lawrence had no doubt been long contemplated by the rebels of the border. Ever since the war commenced rumors have been constantly reaching us of the maturing of such a purpose. Each rumor called forth efforts for defense. The people had become so accustomed to alarms as to be almost unaffected by them. At several times the prospect had been absolutely threatening. This was especially the case after the battle of Springfield, and again after the capture of Lexington by the rebels. The people had never felt more secure than for a few months preceding the raid of last August. The power of the rebellion was broken in Missouri, and the Federal force on the Border, while it could not prevent depredations by small gangs, seemed to be sufficiently vigilant to prevent the gathering of any large force. No rumors of danger had been received for several months.
Still many of the citizens did not feel that the pace was entirely safe… About the first of August…spies had been in Quantrell’s camp – had mingled freely with his men – and had learned from Quantrell’s clerk that they purposed to make a raid on Lawrence about the full of the moon, which would be three weeks before the actual raid. He [spies’ commander] told his brother to do all he could for the defense of the town, to fight them to the last, and never be taken prisoner, for Quantrell** killed all his prisoners. Lieut. Hadley showed this letter to Mayor Collamore, who at once set about the work of putting the town in a state of defense. The militia was called out, pickets detailed, the cannon got in readiness, and the country warned. Had Quantrell’s gang come according to promise, they would have been “welcomed with bloody hands to hospitable graves.” Some one asked Quantrell, when in Lawrence, why he did not come before when he said he would. He replied, “You were expecting me then – but I have caught you napping, now.”
It may be asked, why the people of Lawrence relaxed their vigilance so soon after received such authentic evidence of Quantrell’s intentions? The city and military authorities made the fatal mistake of keeping the grounds of their apprehensions a profound secret. Nobody knew the reason of the preparation. Rumors were afloat, but they could not be traced to any reliable source. Companies came in from the country, but could not ascertain why they were sent for, and went home laughing at their neighbors…
…The sense of security soon returned. Citizens were assured that Quantrell could not penetrate the military line on the border without detection. They felt sure, too, that he could not travel fifty miles through a loyal country without their being informed of the approach of danger. The people never felt more secure, and never were less prepared, than the night before the raid.
Richard Cordley, excerpt from Narrative of the Lawrence Massacre, published in autumn 1863.
**correct spelling is “Quantrill” but I’ve left Cordley’s original spelling in the source.
On August 21, 1863, several hundred Confederate-supporting partisans rode from Missouri to Lawrence, Kansas. Despite the earlier preparations described by Cordley, the local residents were taken by surprise and unprepared to resist. The raid turned into a destructive, four hour massacre in the pro-Union town as Quantrill’s men murdered at least 150 men and boys and burned much of the town before riding off and escaping.
Kansas already had a bloody history prior to the Civil War. A victim of popular sovereignty which was the idea that whoever settled the territory would determine if the state entered the union as a slave or free state partisan fighting wasn’t new in Lawrence, Kansas.
What prompted the Lawrence Massacre in 1863? Quantrill’s men claimed it was revenge for a Jayhawker raid into Missouri earlier that year (Jayhawkers were pro-Union). Others suspected it was revenge for the Kansas crack-down on pro-Southerner civilians which had resulted in the imprisonment of women; unfortunately, the jail had structural issues and collapsed, injuring many of these women and angering other pro-Confederates.
Quantrill’s Lawrence Massacre marked a low point in the border war and was a particularly violent act against civilians. In the words one Kansas citizens, “Viewed in any light, the Lawrence Raid will continue to be held, as the most infamous event of the uncivil war!” Certainly there were other uncivil acts, but the massacre, looting, and destructive nature of the raid places it on the infamous list of Civil War events.
William Quantrill had been born in Ohio in 1837, taught in Illinois, and farmed in Kansas. Prior to the Civil War, he got involved in cattle rustling and slave-catching – both “employments” had bad reputations and little respect, even in the rougher western society. During the Civil War, Quantrill organized a pro-Confederate guerrilla group in Jackson County, Missouri, and eventually received an official commission as captain from the Confederate government.
Quantrill attracted ruffians to his organization and gained a reputation for outlaw behavior. Among Quantrill’s Raiders, Cole Younger, Frank James, and Jesse James – later infamous bank robbers – had their start in unwholesome adventures.
When the Confederate government heard about the massacre, they withdrew support for this bushwhacking group. By 1864, the Raiders had split into several smaller groups. Quantrill died in 1865, during the final days of the war.
There’s an unfortunate idea that after Gettysburg and Vicksburg nothing much happened in 1863. (Seriously – we have to talk about Chickamauga!) It’s easy to overlook small, yet significant events and only focus on the main battles.
Quantrill’s Lawrence Massacre is one of those events often bypassed in the history textbooks, but it had significant shock factor and was one of the worst guerrilla raids of the war and in Kansas.