The Bloodiest Man In American History

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Quantrill’s band was composed of tough young Missourians with Southern sympathies who resented jayhawker raids, and of border ruffians and outlaws like Quantrill himself. A Confederate general who encountered them in Texas said all of them were killers who “deemed the life of a man less than that of a sheep-killing dog.” Some of the more notorious members included “Bloody Bill” Anderson (who bedecked the bridle of his horse with human scalps); the fearless, sadistic George Todd; and three young men serving their apprenticeship in outlawry under Quantrill: Cole Younger and Frank and Jesse James. (See “The Wild, Wild West,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, August, 1960.)

Quantrill and his men saw duty with Confederate troops at the battles of Independence and Lone Jack, Missouri, in August, 1862, and at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, in December of that year. It was after the Independence clash that Quantrill received his Confederate captain’s commission, but he and his men resisted all efforts by the Confederate authorities to have them join the regular forces on a permanent basis. They were more interested in their personal war with the Kansans and with Missouri Unionists than in the Southern cause as such. Confederate generals in the West were quite willing to make use of the bushwhackers’ services, despite the atrocity stories which followed them wherever they went.

The bushwhackers dressed in picturesque guerrilla shirts—loose, gaudily beaded blouses worn over their ordinary clothes and having a low scooped neck and capacious pockets for ammunition. Much of the time, however, they wore captured Federal uniforms. So disguised, they were often able to approach within point-blank range of a Union detachment, then wipe it out. Taken as a whole, they were the most formidable “revolver fighters” the West ever knew.

After each foray across the border the bushwhackers scattered with their loot into the rugged hills of western Missouri. The intensely pro-Southern people of this region regarded them as heroic defenders against the jayhawkers, and so sheltered them and helped them evade the Union pursuit columns.

By the spring of 1863 Quantrill, with several hundred men under his command, was at the peak of his power and confidence. According to one unauthenticated account, he even journeyed to Richmond, Virginia, and had an interview with the Confederate Secretary of War in which he urged that the South wage a “black flag” war and that he be commissioned a colonel of “partisan rangers.” In any case, he adopted the title of colonel and on occasion wore a colonel’s uniform. And he began laying plans for what was to be his most famous and ambitious undertaking: the raid on Lawrence, Kansas.

For years the people of western Missouri had made no secret of their determination someday to wipe out Lawrence. To them the town was the citadel of Kansas abolitionism, the symbol of all that they hated in Kansas. It had been the “Free-State Fortress” during the fifties, and it was now headquarters for the hated Kansas guerrillas known as the Red Legs. With a population of nearly three thousand, it was also one of the largest and wealthiest towns in Kansas. When Ouantrill announced, “Let’s go to Lawrence-we can get more revenge, and more money, there than anywhere else,” his men required no further urging.

On August 19, 1863, three hundred bushwhackers began marching westward from the Blackwater River in Johnson County, Missouri. Along the way 150 more joined them, bringing their total number up to 450—the largest force of its kind assembled under one command during the Civil War. Late in the afternoon of August 20 they crossed into Kansas five miles south of Aubrey. Here they were favored by a tragic failure in the Union border defenses. The commander of the Federal post at Aubrey was notified by a scout that a large body of guerrillas was entering the state. But instead of pursuing Quantrill and sending couriers to alert the towns to the west, he merely forwarded the report to the other Union posts along the line and to headquarters at Kansas City.

SIDEBAR: See those Men! They Have No Flag

Throughout the moonless night Quantrill’s column moved steadily across the Kansas prairie “like a monstrous snake, creeping upon its prey.” Many of the bushwhackers slept as they rode, strapped to their saddles. They made only a few brief halts, to rest the horses or to get a bearing. During one such stop George Todd went to a nearby farmhouse and with a musket stock clubbed to death a Unionist refugee from Missouri, possibly to settle an old personal grudge. The raiders murdered numerous others along the way, including ten different guides they pressed into service. Some carried lists of intended victims with them. Many Kansans saw them as they passed and guessed their identity and destination, but, paralyzed by fear, made no effort to send a warning to Lawrence.