Anthropology Friday: Outlaws of the Wild West pt 2, Quantrill

William Quantrill, 1837-1865

Whew. I have a lot of thoughts about Harry Drago’s Outlaws on Horseback: The History of the Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers Who Terrorized the Prairie Towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for Half a Century. It was a very good book, and before I get into my own thoughts on it, (don’t worry, this will all relate back to anthropology eventually) I’m going to focus on some excerpts, bolding a few bits I’d like to highlight. (As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability). Today we’re reading about Quantrill:

“There can be little question that in the long, unbroken chain of outlawry which began in the Missouri-Kansas border warfare of the late fifties and ended with the killing of Henry Starr, the last of the authentic horseback outlaws, [in 1921] … the link with the most far-reaching effect was forged by William Clarke Quantrill.

“Something must be said about Quantrill, the spectacular and fearless guerrilla leader, if only because among the men who rode with him were some who were to write their names large on the pages of American outlawry long after he was hot down by alleged “Union” guerrillas, no better than himself, at Bloomfield, Kentucky, in 1865. At the end, he had scarcely a dozen followers left, which was a far cry from the little army of approximately four hundred and fifty gaunt, bearded, hate-ridden fanatics he had led into Kansas for the sacking and burning of Lawrence in 1863.

“Many of those four hundred and fifty were dead; others had drifted away to form their own bands. But for years he had dominated their thinking, molded them to a way of life that time could not change; and they responded with a blind loyalty such as no other man ever won from them. … Among the foremost were Frank James; his cousins Cole and Jim Younger; Clell and Ed Miller, brothers; Wood and Clarence Hite, Cousins; Charlie Pitts, Bill Ryan; and after the Lawrence raid, a newcomer, the youngest of them all Jesse Woodson James. …

“Beyond doubt Quantrill welcomed the fall of Fort Sumter and the beginning of hostilities between the North and the South. His actions prove that he was quick to see that he was now presented with a golden opportunity for advancing himself and widening the scope of his operations. To scurry across the border with his freebooters to burn farmhouses, ambush an unwary group of Jim Lane’s and Jim Montgomery’s Jayhawkers or Charlie Jennison‘s Red Legs and make off with whatever was movable, meaning horses, was one thing. But for it he had no backing, other than his own might and the support of his sympathizers. Formal war was something else. By attaching himself to the Confederacy, he would be fighting for a “cause” and a very popular one in southwestern Missouri and parts of Kansas. Without losing any time, he disappeared from his haunts in Jackson County, Missouri, and next appeared in Indian Territory, where he joined up with Stand Watie‘s Irregulars, the Cherokee Mounted Rifles.

“… It is a matter of record that he fought in the battles of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, Missouri, in which he appears to have given a good account of himself. That he importuned General Sterling Price, the Confederate commander, to assist him in getting a commission as an officer is easy to believe. That Price, a good man, was not favorably impressed by Quantrill’s record is best attested by the fact that when he retread southward with his Rebel force, Quantrill slipped away and returned to Jackson County, where he reorganized his band, still small, … and began attacking small parties of Jayhawkers and Red Legs, … who had got possession of several Missouri hamlets. He became such a thorn in the side of the Union forces… that General James Totten, their commander, issued an order declaring that Quantrill and his men were in open opposition to the law and legitimate authorities of the United States, and “will be shot down by the military upon the spot where they are found perpetrating their foul acts.”

They were thus declared, officially, to be outlaws and denied all the legal processes. Death without quarter was what it meant. Totten’s order had the opposite effect of that intended. … bewhiskered, hard-faced men in butternut jeans flocked to Quantrill’s black flag. Presently he had several hundred recruits, anxious and ready to follow his leadership …

“Quantrill, on the way to the peak of his power, was still determined to win a colonel’s commission in the Amy of the Confederacy. … Certainly Quantrill had some reason to believe that as an officer of the Confederacy he would have to be treated as a prisoner of war, if captured, and that the status of his men would likewise be so affected.

“Late in 1862… Quantrill led his band into the caves and hills of friendly Bates County, where they were safe for the winter.”

EvX: Quantrill headed to Richmond to ask for a commission in the Confederate army:

“He seems to have had no difficulty in getting an interview with Secretary Seldon. From what little is known, it was a stormy one. Quantrill’s reputation had preceded him, and his truculent manner did not further hi cause. The bloodletting and barbarism, which passed for legitimate warfare with him, were, if we can believe the staff officers who were present, roundly condemned by the Secretary. With a finality that left him no hop, Quantrill’s request for a commission was denied, and he headed back to Missouri smarting with rage.

“…Somewhere along the way he seems to have convinced himself that he could bring Secretary Seldon off his high perch and down to earth with some bold, spectacular stroke… The burning and destruction of Lawrence, Kansas, was the answer. Lawrence was the focus of everything he and his followers and all Southern sympathizers in Missouri hated. …

“Lawrence was also the home of Jim Lane, who had been elected to the United States Senate with the admission of Kansas into the Union in 1861. Jim Lane, a infamous as Quantrill himself, more so in some ways, was a sadistic fanatic, condemned by his own governor and excoriated by General George B. McClellan as having done more to inure the Union cause than a full division of seasoned Confederate troops.”*

EvX: I don’t normally quote footnotes, but the one on Jim Lane is interesting:

“*Even those commentators most heavily biased in his favor have not been able to clear him of this charge. There is abundant evidence that he was a pronounced psychopath, the slave of a tortured ego that alternately filled him with a madman’s exhilaration or plunged him into the blackest depths of depression. Eventually he took his own life. In the days of his greatest prominence, he not only accepted responsibility for all of the deeds attributed to him but appropriated many in which he had not taken part, wanting, it seems, to stand alone as the Great Avenger of all the wrongs, real and fancied, that Kansas was suffering.”

Back to the story:

“Word of what was afoot was leaked to men who could be trusted. By the end of May, they began riding int Quantrill’s camp to join up. They came well armed and brought their own ammunition, but were poorly mounted… Day after day they came, until the outlaw leader had almost four hundred and fifty men ready to follow him into Kansas. …

“Summer was wearing on, but he was not ready to move on Lawrence. Instead, he led his men across the line into Indian Territory…. to raid the villages of the Upper Cherokees… A generation of Cherokees, born in t e Territory, had become as adept at stealing horses as the so-called Wild Indians of the Plains. They tried to secrete their extensive herds, but the white invaders from Missouri found them and, in the process of taking what they wanted, left a trail of dead Indians in their wake…

“Quantrill and his men had little to fear from Union reprisals. The War Department had withdrawn its troops from the posts in Texas and Indian Territory soon after the outbreak of hostilities, the announced reason being that it would be impossible to supply them…

“It was the middle of August when Quantrill and his band returned to Missouri and dispersed to various hideouts… They were superbly mounted now, which was of the greatest importance–so much was to depend on the stamina of their horses. …

Quantrill’s Raiders reunion circa 1875

“…he was ready to move at last. When black night fell, they climbed into the saddle and headed for the Kansas line. … If they ran into trouble, there would be nowhere they culd turn for support. Once on Kansas soil, every hand would be raised against them. As the crow flies, it was something less than seventy miles to Lawrence. But they had to avoid the main0traveled roads and move with what secrecy they could. …They routed a farmer out of bed and impressed him to show them the way. They became suspicious of him when he became confused, and when they learned he was a former Missourian, turned Jayhawker, they killed him on the spot.

“How often that performance was repeated that night and the following day depends on whose account you are reading…

“Quantrill had thrown out scouts ahead of the column. In the hour before dawn, they ran into Union pickets. A few shots were exchanged. … This was the moment of decision–to turn back or go on… The Rebel yell was raised, and where the going would permit, the long column broke into a trot. …

“When the vedettes raced into the lines with word that a large guerrilla force was moving on the town, all was panic, and orders were shouted to evacuate their positions at once and, without wasting time, to inform the citizens of Lawrence that they were being deserted.

“Fire-eating Senator Jim Lane, who was directly responsible for the Lawrence aid, fled no less shamelessly. … In borrowed pants, astride a farm horse, he clubbed the heavy animal into a run and disappeared int Shawnee County, leaving his wife to face the guerrillas. They did not harm her, but fired the house…

The burning of Lawrence, Kansas

“The slaughter began. Men who had never harmed Missouri went down with those who had. Boys in their teens were killed… Liquor stores were broken into. Soon the whiskey-crazed rabble put the torch to the town, howling with glee a it burned. …

“In four hours the town was thoroughly gutted, the damage in property destroyed or stolen being estimated at $2,000,000. … The number killed? [Different sources report 185, 150, and 142]. …

“Quantrill had more than made good his sworn resolve to do something spectacular. … In the wave of revulsion that swept the land, he became the fiend incarnate… Because he still labeled himself a Confederate guerrilla, the South now both condemned and repudiated him. Instead of winning the pseudo respectability that would have been his on being recognized as an officer of the Army of the Confederacy, the Lawrence holocaust had cost him his last chance. …

George Caleb Bingham’s painting of General Order No. 11. “In this famous work General Thomas Ewing is seated on a horse watching the Red Legs.”

“The infamous Order No. 11… informing the inhabitants of Cass, Bates, Jackson and the northern half of Vernon counties that they had fifteen days in which to gather up what belongings they could carry with them and evacuate the proscribed area, in which all houses, buildings and crops were to be burned, was largely responsible for the disintegration of [Quantrill’s] geurilla force. … Order No. 11 was retaliation for the Lawrence massacre…

“It was cruel, inhuman, and if Missouri soil needed further fertilizing for the crop of outlaws it was to produce, Order No. 11 provided it.

“Quantrill got out of the Burnt District with perhaps a many as fifty men and headed for Indian Territory. Riding with him for the first time was a boy just turned sixteen. His name was Jesse Woodson James

“For several months they raided back and forth across the Texas counties lying between Fort Worth and the Red… Back in Missouri and Kansas their excuse for their crimes was that they were making war on the enemies of the Confederacy. In Texas, they could not use that subterfuge… the people they were robbing, plundering and killing were stanch friends of the South. …

Presumably, Quantrill hoped to find safety in the Kentucky mountains and recruit a new following… he and his men fought a score of minor skirmishes with Federal troops and Union guerrillas and, between times, plundered and looted wherever four years of war had left anything worth stealing. But though ravaged Kentucky was by now safely in the hands of the North, diehard Southern sympathizers were to be found on every hand, and they befriended and concealed Quantrill’s ragged band on numerous occasions.

The war’s end brought no peace to Kentucky. Bands of Northern renegades, still claiming to be “Union” guerrillas, and an equal number of so-called Rebel Irregulars, alternately hunted and chased one another from farm to farm, killing and stealing with lawless abandon. … With no more than a dozen men [Quantrill] holed up at the farm of a man named Wakefield … After hiding in Wakefield’s barn for two days, they were discovered by the enemy. In the fight that followed, Quantrill fell, mortally wounded… He was not yet twenty eight.

“It is easy to understand why those old grudges were kept alive, for in the aftermath of war it was the border counties of Missouri that stood ravaged and desolate, … Once-prosperous families returning to the Burnt District found only a cemetery of fire-blackened chimneys…

“If Missouri was to become the breeding ground of outlaws and outlawry, it hardly can be doubted that the blighted, impoverished homeland to which Quantrill’s fledglings returned had something to do with it. …

Jesse James

They had to keep on the dodge, because the general amnesty given all who had worn Confederate gray did not apply to ex-guerrillas who had been officially branded outlaws. Union cavalry units (hated Kansas Volunteers) were scouring the country for them. Young Jesse and five others came in under a white flag, only to be fired on… After that there was no talk of giving themselves up. … [They were] waiting to find a leader. They found one, second to none, in Jesse Woodson James. … This was the beginning of the famous James-Younger Gang, and on February 13, 1866, the day before St. Valentine’s Day, under the lowering skies of an impending blizzard, they cracked their first bank.”

2 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Outlaws of the Wild West pt 2, Quantrill

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