Thoughts on Quantrill

Normally I like to do both the Anthropology Friday excerpts and my own thoughts at the same time, but this time I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative’s flow.

The first thing that struck me in all of this was that Quantrill had a considerable number of followers: he lead 450 men to burn and loot Lawrence, Kansas. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even in the army. We can explain Quantrill’s motivation in the burning by arguing that he was trying to earn himself a commission in the Confederate Army by proving to them that he was a good commander, but what about his followers? Surely most of them could have joined the (Confederate) army the regular way, without detouring through Kansas.

Even after the burning, when it was quite clear that Quantrill was not going to get a commission and most of his followers had left, he still had some. So did many of the other men we’ll meet in this series, from outlaw bikers to mob bosses. (And pirates as we’ve already seen.)

And while most people are not very fond of criminals, folks like Quantrill and Jesse James found plenty of “safe” places where the locals were willing to shelter them, help them, or at least look the other way and not report them to the authorities.

What was the difference, really, between Quantrill and a regular army commander? Or the guerrilla soldiers known as the Red Legs and Jayhawkers?

Although I was familiar with the phrase “Burning Kansas” from history class, I hadn’t grasped the conflict’s full depth until reading Dago’s account. I’ve never heard anyone from Kansas or Missouri speak ill of each other–whatever bad blood there was in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath seems to have worn off. In Dago’s telling, the Kansas/Missouri border was a burnt-out, lawless zone where blood feuds brought men down for decades.

And what was the difference between an outlaw like Quantrill and a conqueror like Genghis Khan? ISIS? The chief of a Yanomamo tribe? Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cúailnge?

(The Tain, if you haven’t heard of it before, is an Irish epic that revolves around the attempts by Queen Medb to steal a particular bull from another Irish king, and the efforts of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to stop her.)

After all, Quantrill, while officially an “outlaw,” had many followers–as did these other men (and woman.)

I propose a simple answer: Quantrill was an “outlaw” because the official powers-that-were declared him one. Had Quantrill been successful enough to attract enough men to his side to not only burn and loot Lawrence, but keep it, he would have been its ruler, plain and simple. Genghis Khan did little more than burn, loot, massacre, and rape, but in so doing he amassed an empire. But Genghis Khan’s enemies were probably much less well-organized and equipped than Quantrill’s–certainly they didn’t have railroads.

War is a universal feature of human society. Even chimps have wars, bashing each other’s brains out with rocks. Early humans had war; pre-agricultural tribes have war. (The horticultural Yanomamo have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.)

We moderns have this odd notion that “war” is an official thing which is officially declared by official governments (and what makes an official government? We could go in circles all day.) We believe that war has rules (or at least that it ought to): that it should be fought only by official soldiers on official battlefields, using officially approved weapons, and only targeting official targets. Anything not by the book, such as targeting women and children, using chemical weapons, hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, or fighting on behalf of a group that doesn’t issue uniforms and pay cheques, just confuses us.

But I guarantee you that Genghis Khan did not conquer one of the biggest empires in history by refusing to slaughter women and children.

Similarly, ISIS is nothing but a bunch of outlaws who’ve conquered some territory, but in their case, they have an ideology that justifies their actions and encourages other people to come join them, boosting their numbers.

While tribal, pre-agricultural life was full of war and homicide, it seems that groups rarely got too much of an advantage over each other. Rather, conflict was nearly constant–every so often a battle would break out and a few people would died. When conflicts were particularly bad, small tribes would band together against larger tribes until they balanced out (or slaughtered their enemies.) When conditions approved, tribes split up and people went their own way (until they got into conflicts with each other and the cycle repeated.) But occasionally one tribe developed (or obtained) a distinct advantage over the others: armies mounted on horseback dominated less mobile units. Armies with guns massacred people who had none. Vikings, Spaniards, and later Englishmen built boats which let them conquer large swathes of the world. Etc.

Our present state of relative peace (compared to our ancestors) is due to the fact that all of this conquering eventually led to the amalgamation of large enough states with large enough armies that we now have few enemies willing to take the risk of attacking us. We have nukes; as a result, few formal states with formal armies are willing to attack us. This state of mutual balance is–for now–holding for the developed world.

This state of peace is not guaranteed to last.

I noticed back in The Walls Tear Themselves Down that borders are ironically places of disorder. As Dago notes, criminals take advantage of borders–and stateless zones–to escape from law enforcement.

On a related note, Saul Montes-Bradley has an interesting post about Islamic terrorist groups raising money via drug trade in Latin America:

The tentacles of Jihad extend further than most people realize. …

In particular in South American countries, long the allies of Middle Eastern Fascism, terrorist organizations find support and, most grievously financing. Indeed, the second largest source of financing for Hezballat[1] is drug trafficking and smuggling between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, often under the protection of local government officials.

This feature of borders will be showing up a lot in the next few Anthropology Fridays.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Quantrill

  1. Your old post reminded me of the time that the neighbors behind us replaced their fence. It’s up on a five or six foot wall, but I told the workers to stop a few minutes and ran around back and pulled all the weeds I could along the fence line, because that would be my only real chance for several decades, most likely. Feel free to come up with your own geopolitical analogy for the situation.

    (I know it’s not exactly related to this post, but I feel weird commenting on old posts, especially if I’m not advertising some editing service…)


      • Oh, pretty much the entire length of the property line to the back of our house is wall, with a bit of hillside. Aside from some ivy and creeper, it’s definitely full of weeds. At this point, I’m almost afraid to touch them for fear that they’re structural…


  2. I think you’ve perhaps confused moral law and reality. Don’t feel bad; most modern Westerners do.

    The claims about the nature of war are intended as moral claims. These are rules to be followed, because they are right, not a description of the way things are. Generally they only work out (when they work out at all) when wars happen between brother civilizations, rather than with true aliens, and are more honored in the breach anyway.

    But the men who proposed and promulgated these rules knew that, and they worked hard to make sure their and their brother civiilzations followed these rules, because it was better. So, for example, the trinitarian distinction between military, state, and civilian is a proposal, not a discovery.

    Nowadays, we’re so unfamiliar with war we’ll believe pretty much anything we’re told, until we start looking closer at it.


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