William Quantrill By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
October 1, 2012
William Quantrill was the leader of the most savage fighting unit in the Civil War. He is most famous for the guerrilla raid his soldiers did on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863. Before the raid, he told his soldiers “kill, kill. Lawrence must be cleansed, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill! Kill!” Quantrill’s renegade bunch was 450 men strong, and known for their ruthlessness. Among the fighters were Frank and Jesse James, and Cole and Jim Younger. Despite his reputation for being the most savage fighters in the Civil War, the captain and his command were more interested in robbery and murder than states rights. Born in Canal Dover, Ohio in 1837, Quantrill was educated and later became a school teacher, but little else is known about his youth. In 1858 he headed west to Utah and for a time made his living there as a gambler. An altercation with the law drove him back to the Midwest. His military career began in 1860 fighting for the North. He learned his brutal guerrilla tactics from James H. Lane, commander of the Jayhawkers, a nickname given to the antislavery men with the 7th Kansas Cavalry. These extreme soldiers burned and plundered towns sympathetic to the southern cause. Quantrill was a Jayhawker at one time, but eventually switched sides and became a Bushwacker (the equivalent of a Jayhawker for the South). He rose to the rank of captain and employed the same barbaric methods of battle as Lane. He assembled a fierce group of recruits who were ready and willing to ransack property and gun down Northern supporters. They staged numerous bloody raids, and were soon identified as “Quantrill’s Irregulars”, and the Union army declared him and his raiders to be outlaws. The assault on Lawrence, Kansas was the ultimate of Quantrill’s mercilessness occurring on August 23, 1863. With a promise to cleanse entire towns of any “Yankee lovers”, Quantrill led the men into Lawrence, Kansas and proceeded to toss men and women out of their homes and into the street. The raiders then set fire to most of the buildings. While Lawrence burned, Quantrill had breakfast, and then ordered 150 men and boys to be rounded up and killed. Quantrill and his men were retaliated on by Union troops, and driven into Texas. From there they split into two groups, Quantrill heading up one and the other by a vicious lieutenant named “Bloody” Bill Anderson. Quantrill was shortly arrested in Texas by Union General McCulloch. He managed to escape, regrouped with some of his troops, and plotted to lead a small party of men to Washington, DC to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. That plan was thwarted in Lafayette County, Missouri when Quantrill recognized the superior Union force they were up against. He then fled to Kentucky where he was shot in an ambush by Federal troops. The bullet lodged in his spine and Quantrill died at a military prison on June 6, 1865. Many historians maintain that Quantrill was the most notorious and dangerous man in America’s history. In addition to the Younger’s and the James brothers, many renegades in the Wild West perpetuated his legacy on the new frontier. Quantrill is buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Higginsville, Missouri.
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