The Bloodiest Man In American History

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“At the first glimmer of day” on August 21, Lawrence came into sight. Quantrill halted the column on a summit southeast of the town and sent several men ahead to reconnoiter. Some of his followers suggested turning back—surely the inhabitants had been alerted by now and would be waiting for them. “You can do as you please,” replied Quantrill. “I am going into Lawrencel” Then, without waiting for his scouts to return, he gave the order to charge.

The first inkling the sleeping townspeople had of the bushwhackers was the rattle of gunfire, the pounding of hoofs, and the agonized screams of the wounded and dying. Witnesses never forgot the sight—hundreds of bearded, long-haired, wild-looking men, in slouch hats and greasy, sweat-stained shirts, yelling, shooting, and riding with reckless skill.

Upon arriving at the Kansas River, which bordered the town on the north, they turned back and surrounded the four-story Eldridge House, Lawrence’s central building. They approached cautiously, but the occupants, bewildered by the sudden onslaught, possessed neither the will nor the means to defend the place. One guest, Captain A. R. Banks, waved a white sheet from a window and called for Quantrill.

He rode forward, attired in his elaborately ornamented guerrilla shirt, four pistols in his belt, two more in saddle holsters.

“What is your object in coming to Lawrence?” cried Banks.

“Plunder!” replied Quantrill.

“We are defenseless and at your mercy. The house is surrendered, but we demand protection for the inmates.”

Quantrill promised that they would not be harmed if they offered no resistance. He then ordered them to come down to the street, where two bushwhackers relieved them of money and valuables while others pillaged the rooms, then set fire to the hotel.

As the flames shot skyward, Quantrill rose in his stirrups, turned to his men, and shouted: “Kill! Kill! Lawrence must be thoroughly cleansed, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill! Kill!”

With a wild yell the raiders spread out through the town. Some, screaming “Whiskey! Whiskey!” broke into the saloons. Others ransacked the stores and shops. At the Johnson House, bushwhackers lined up all the male residents in an alley and mowed them down with revolvers. Farther up the street they shot and wounded two men, then threw them screaming into the flames of a burning building. And everywhere they plundered and burned private houses, after first slaying every male occupant they discovered. They did not, however, kill or rape any women.

The panic-stricken men of Lawrence endeavored frantically to escape. Many fled to cornfields and woods, or concealed themselves along the riverbank. Others, whose dwellings were surrounded before they could get away, hid in cellars, attics, barns, and gardens, or even disguised themselves as women. Still others sought refuge under the board sidewalks.

Women who talked with the bushwhackers subsequently related that they all asserted they had come to Lawrence to avenge wrongs done to their people in Missouri by jayhawkers and Red Legs. They claimed, too, that they were being more merciful than the Kansans, whom they charged not only with robbery, arson, and murder, but also with molesting women.

Most of the raiders obtained fresh horses to replace their own jaded mounts or to bear additional plunder. What they could not use or carry, they burned. They proceeded systematically from building to building, setting fire to each one; the smoke swirled straight up into the sky and “stood like great black columns along the street.” Soon an overhanging shroud darkened the entire town.

During the early part of the massacre Quantrill sat in a hotel lobby eating a hearty breakfast and conversing with former acquaintances—many of whom hastened to claim a friendship which under other circumstances they would have denied. Later he took a buggy and drove triumphantly about the burning town. When, at nine o’clock, his lookouts atop a nearby hill reported seeing the dust of approaching Union troops, he ordered his men to form into columns of four, and almost as suddenly as they had come, they were gone.

They left behind almost total devastation. Lawrence’s business center was destroyed; one hundred houses had been burned to the ground and another hundred damaged by fire. The dead lay scattered everywhere, “some so charred that they could not be recognized and could scarcely be taken up.” Bones were visible among the embers, and the “sickening odor of burning flesh was oppressive.” In all, 150 men of Lawrence (and one of Quantrill’s raiders) lost their lives; another thirty were wounded.

Quantrill evaded the feeble Union pursuit without difficulty. By the next morning he was well back into Missouri, where his men, as usual, scattered into the hills. About a dozen of the raiders were caught and killed, but Quantrill and most of the others escaped.