Without any ties to the South or to slavery, he chose the Confederacy apparently because in Missouri this allowed him to attack all symbols of authority. He attracted to his gang some of the most psychopathic killers in American history.
–James McPherson on Quantrill
Leader of the most savage fighting band in the Bleeding Kansas/Missouri Border War, William Quantrill will long be known as the most ruthless bushwhacker during these turbulent times.
Born on July 31, 1837, to Thomas Henry and Caroline Cornelia (Clarke) Quantrill, the boy displayed his cruel tendencies even as a child. Purportedly, this bad seed would shoot pigs through the ears just to hear them squeal, nail snakes to trees, and tie cats’ tails together for the pure joy of watching them claw each other to death.
He wasn’t to change much as he grew older. After teaching school briefly in Ohio and Illinois he fled to Kansas in 1857 to escape a horse theft charge. His initial stay in Kansas was short-lived when he accompanied an army provision train to Utah in 1858. Along the trail to Utah, the man who had grown up in a Unionist family met numerous pro-slavery Southerners who deeply affected his beliefs. Once in Utah, he began to use the alias of Charles Hart, lived his life as a gambler and was quickly associated with a number of murders and thefts at Fort Bridger and elsewhere in the territory. Fleeing yet again, under a warrant for his arrest, he returned to Kansas.
In December 1860, he joined a group of Kansas Free-State men who were intent upon freeing the slaves of a Missouri man by the name of Morgan Walker. But Quantrill’s participation was only a ruse. As the Jayhawkers hid in the bush, Quantrill volunteered to “scout the area.” Soon, Quantrill, along with Walker, returned to ambush the four Kansas men, killing three of them.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Quantrill joined the Confederate side with enthusiasm. He fought with Confederate forces at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Oakhills, Missouri, in August 1861. This battle marked the beginning of the Civil War in Missouri, where the state would become the scene of savage and fierce fighting, primarily from guerilla warfare.
By late in the year, Quantrill became unhappy with the Confederates’ reluctance to aggressively prosecute the Union troops. As a result, the young man took it upon himself to take a more antagonistic course with his own-guerilla warfare, becoming the leader of Quantrill’s Raiders. Starting with a small force of no more than a dozen men, the pro-slavery guerrilla band began to make independent attacks upon Union camps, patrols, and settlements.
His band of marauders quickly grew to more than one hundred in 1862, with both regular pro-slavery citizens and Confederate soldiers, until he became the most powerful leader of the many bands of Border Ruffians that pillaged the area. Several famous would-be outlaws joined his ruffian group including Frank and Jesse James and the Younger Brothers. Justifying his actions for perceived wrongs done to them by Kansas Jayhawkers and the Federal Authorities, the band robbed Union mail, ambushed federal patrols, and attacked boats on the Missouri River throughout the year. Quantrill’s nature as an outlaw, murderer, and thief made him a prime candidate for the vicious attacks, where he took advantage of the pandemonium for his own use in profitable hit-and-run attacks on pro-Union sympathizers and Federal Troops alike.
On August 11, 1862, Colonel J.T. Hughes’s Confederate force, including William Quantrill, attacked Independence, Missouri at dawn. They drove through the town to the Union Army camp, capturing, killing and scattering the Yankees. During the melee, Colonel Hughes was killed, but the Confederates took Independence which led to a Confederate dominance in the Kansas City area for a short time. Quantrill’s role in the capture of Independence led to his being commissioned a captain in the Confederate Army.
On October 17, 1862, Quantrill and his band moved to attack Shawnee, Kansas. As they neared their destination, they came upon a Federal supply train, where they captured twelve unarmed men. Later these 12 drivers and Union escorts would be found dead, all but one shot in the head. Continuing on, Quantrill and his band attacked the town, killing two men and burning the settlement to the ground.
Shortly thereafter, Quantrill traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where he sought a regular command under the Confederacy Partisan Ranger Act. However, his reputation for brutality had preceded him and his request was denied.
At about the same time, the Commander of the Department of Missouri, Major General Henry W. Halleck, ordered that guerrillas such as Quantrill and his men would be treated as robbers and murderers, not normal prisoners of war.
Quantrill’s tactics became even more aggressive after this proclamation, as he no longer adhered to the principals of accepting enemy surrender.
In May, of 1863, Quantrill and his band moved closer to the Missouri-Kansas border. Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr. from Kansas, who commanded the district border, was not happy with their presence. Soon, he issued General Order Number 10, which stated that any person – man, woman or child, who was directly involved with aiding a band of guerrillas would be jailed.
The idea was, by taking away the Border Ruffians means of food and shelter; the guerillas would leave the area. Before long, women and children were rounded up and placed in a dilapidated three-story building in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Of particular interest to the Federal Troops were the known relatives of the Border Ruffians, including family members of “Bloody Bill” Anderson and the Younger Brothers.
Though signs that the building housing the women and children was unstable, such as large cracks in the walls and ceilings, and large amounts of mortar dust on the floor, the signs were ignored. On August 13, 1863, the building collapsed killing 5 women and injuring dozens of others.
Among the killed and injured in the collapse were women who were close relatives of prominent Confederate guerrillas. Those killed in the collapse, included Josephine Anderson, sister of “Bloody Bill Anderson”, Susan Crawford Vandever and Armenia Crawford Selvey, Cole Younger’s cousins, Charity McCorkle Kerr, wife to Quantrillian member Nathan Kerr, and a woman named Mrs. Wilson. Many others were injured and scarred. Caroline Younger, sister to Cole and James Younger, would die two years later as a result of her injuries. Another Anderson sister was crippled for life when both of her legs were broken in the incident.
When news of the collapse reached the families of the dead and injured, they went wild. Soon crowds began to gather around the ruins as the dead and wounded were carried off, shouting “Murder!” at the Union forces. Later, Quantrill and his men would claim that the building was deliberately weakened, giving them ammunition for the infamous attack on Lawrence that was about to come.
Early on the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill, along with his murderous force of about 400, descended on the still sleeping town of Lawrence, Kansas. Incensed by the free-state headquarters town, Quantrill set out on his revenge against the Jayhawker community.