In some respects, the Civil War began in Kansas and Missouri long before the first salvo fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Nearly seven years earlier, on May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which established procedures to expedite the formation of new territories in the Louisiana Purchase west of Missouri (namely Kansas and Nebraska). Sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the legislation attempted to sidestep the growing discord over the expansion of slavery by promoting the concept of popular sovereignty, which allowed the settlers in each territory to decide the issue. Douglas believed that implementing popular sovereignty would mend the sectional divide over the extension of slavery. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act fanned the flames. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory to influence the vote over slavery through intimidation.
When the Civil War erupted, these partisan groups morphed into paramilitary units supporting the Northern and Southern causes. Initially, the extra-military “irregulars” endeavored to support Union and Confederate regular forces in the field. Gradually, however, their goals and methods embraced lawlessness. Using guerrilla tactics, these “bushwhackers” increasingly began targeting civilians through acts motivated by revenge or avarice. Theft, cold-blooded murder, and pillaging of entire communities became hallmarks of raids in Kansas and Missouri.
William C. Quantrill
The most infamous of these units coalesced around William C. Quantrill, an erstwhile schoolteacher from Canal Dover, Ohio, who pursued an aimless life of depravity after immigrating to Kansas in 1857. When the war began, Quantrill enlisted and served as a private in Company A of the 1st Cherokee Regiment in the Confederate Army. His unit joined up with General Sterling Price‘s forces in Missouri in time to take part in the Confederate victories at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (August 10, 1861) and the First Battle of Lexington (September 12-20, 1861).
Band of Irregulars
By December 1861, Quantrill had become either disillusioned with Price’s leadership or disenchanted with army life, prompting him to desert. He began assembling a band of irregulars that used guerrilla tactics to ambush Yankee patrols and terrorize Northern sympathizers. By 1862, Quantrill’s feared band of followers, known as Quantrill’s Raiders, included infamous figures such as William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson and the James and Younger brothers who led notorious gangs of outlaws after the war.
Looting of Olathe, Kansas
As the size of Quantrill’s unit grew, his sorties expanded to include entire communities. Just after midnight on September 7, 1862, Quantrill’s force of roughly 140 men stormed Olathe, Kansas. While holding the citizenry captive, they looted the town’s businesses and homes, after killing six men.
The pillaging of Shawneetown, Kansas
The next month Quantrill’s Raiders came across a Union supply train near Shawneetown (now Shawnee), Kansas on October 17. Quietly surrounding the unsuspecting Federals, the guerrillas launched a surprise attack easily killing thirteen soldiers. Quantrill’s men then donned the uniforms of their victims and rode unmolested into Shawneetown where they murdered several citizens, pillaged and burned the community’s businesses and homes, and then rode out with seven prisoners who they later executed.
Raid on Lawrence, Kansas
Quantrill’s most notable raid occurred on August 21, 1863, as retribution for a series of events that began earlier in the year. In early August, Federal troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing began rounding up civilians who were aiding guerrillas operating within the District of the Border. Among those arrested were several female relatives and friends of Quantrill’s band. The Federals detained the women in a makeshift jail in Kansas City. On August 13, 1863, the building collapsed, killing four of the prisoners, including the sister of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson. A few days later a fifth girl died from her injuries.
In retaliation for the deaths, Quantrill orchestrated a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, home of free-state U.S. Senator James H. Lane. Quantrill loathed Lane, a noted Jayhawker who had conducted his own episodes of guerilla warfare during raids against pro-slavery civilians in Missouri earlier in the war. The deaths of nine local citizens during Sacking of Osceola, Missouri, two years previously, particularly incensed Quantrill.
During the predawn hours of August 21, 1863, roughly 450 of Quantrill’s Raiders rode into Lawrence as most of the town’s unsuspecting residents slept. After occupying the Eldridge Hotel, the marauders broke into small groups and plundered the town for the next four hours. By the time the pillagers rode out, they had burned nearly one-quarter of the town’s buildings (including all but two businesses), robbed the bank, and looted every home.
Adding to the barbarity of their deeds, the raiders murdered between 160 and 190 men and boys, many of whom were unarmed. Beyond the human toll, the Leavenworth Daily Conservative’s account of the raid two days later estimated that financial losses exceeded two million dollars (in 1863 currency). Lane, who was in town when the assault began, escaped by hiding in a nearby cornfield.
Raid on Fort Blair
A few weeks after the Lawrence Massacre, Quantrill’s Raiders headed for Texas to spend the winter. As they made their way south, Quantrill raided Fort Blair, a small federal outpost in the southeast corner of Kansas near the town of Baxter Springs. As Quantrill’s advance scouts neared the fort on October 6, 1863, they surprised a black officer and a civilian practicing their marksmanship and murdered both unsuspecting men. Quantrill then split his force and attacked Fort Blair from two directions.
At about noon, the Rebels charged the garrison’s ninety soldiers as they sat down for lunch outside of the fort. Amidst a hail of gunfire, the startled Federals fled for the safety of the fort. Once safely behind the breastworks, the outnumbered, but better-disciplined, Union soldiers stymied the guerrilla attack. After losing the element of surprise, along with about ten of his men, Quantrill suspended the assault.
Baxter Springs Massacre
Following the failed sortie against Fort Blair, Quantrill reassembled the Raiders north of the fort where he spotted a wagon train approaching. Deprived of his initial objective, the Rebel leader opted to pursue a consolation prize. Led by Major General James G. Blunt, the convoy comprised Blunt’s headquarters staff and a military band accompanied by a few cavalrymen on their way to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Concealing most of his men in a grove of nearby trees, Quantrill ordered an advance party dressed in Federal uniforms to ride forward to meet Blunt. In return, the unsuspecting Union general sent his chief scout, Captain William Tough, forward to greet the advancing party. Tough soon recognized the approaching riders as members of Quantrill’s band of miscreants and he beat a hasty retreat to warn Blunt.
Tough’s alarm came too late for Blunt to mount a defense against the guerrillas who swarmed out of the woods. In the melee that followed, many of Blunt’s men fled in terror. Quantrill’s men quickly rode down and dispatched the fleeing Yankees. The Raiders also summarily executed others as they tried to escape on foot or after they tried to surrender. The guerrillas even murdered the band members who were reportedly unarmed. When the assault concluded, Quantrill’s men had killed most of Blunt’s party. Blunt and fourteen of his men escaped death by hiding in the woods or tall prairie grass.
Casualty numbers are inexact, but by the time the action around Baxter Springs ended on October 6, roughly 100 Union soldiers and sympathizers lay dead (about six of the fort’s garrison, a few civilians, and over eighty of Blunt’s men). Estimates for the number of guerrillas killed during the Baxter Springs Massacre, although highly speculative, totaled about ten.
Upon arriving in Texas, Quantrill’s outlaws soon began targeting pro-Confederate residents of the Lone Star State. Their presence reached its nadir on March 28, 1864, when authorities arrested Quantrill for murdering a Confederate officer. Before being tried, Quantrill escaped into Indian Territory. Afterward, his outfit dispersed into splinter gangs led by George Todd and “Bloody” Bill Anderson.
Todd and Anderson’s units returned to Missouri. On September 27, 1864, they took part in the Centralia Massacre that resulted in the execution of twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers, and the ensuing Battle of Centralia that culminated with the death of another 123 Federals. Both groups soon disintegrated following the demise of their leaders. Yankees killed Todd during the first day’s fighting at the Second Battle of Independence, on October 21, 1864. federal soldiers shot Anderson from his saddle five days later (October 26, 1864) while he led a charge near Orrick, Missouri.
Quantrill eventually made his way back to Missouri where he laid low. As the Confederacy’s fortunes worsened in late 1864, Quantrill reassembled some of his Raiders and reportedly hatched a plot to travel to Washington to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If Quantrill ever seriously considered murdering President Lincoln, he discarded the plan upon reaching Kentucky where he resumed his life of crime. Lincoln was eventually assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.
On May 10, 1865, a band of Federal irregulars surrounded Quantrill and his men in a barn owned by James H. Wakefield in Spencer County, Kentucky. In the ensuing gun battle, one of the Yankees shot Quantrill in the back as he tried to flee on horseback. The Union soldiers took the paralyzed desperado to a hospital in Louisville where he died a few weeks later on June 6, 1865, at the age of twenty-seven.
Several of Quantrill’s Raiders eluded capture in Kentucky and returned to Kansas or Missouri. Following the war, authorities captured, imprisoned, and later pardoned some of Quantrill’s followers. Others continued their life of crime under the leadership of Archie Clement. After “Little Arch” died in a gunfight in 1866, the rest of his men eventually morphed into the James-Younger gang, notorious for its high-profile bank and train robberies during the 1870s.