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The Bloodiest Man In American History
On the flaming Kansas-Missouri border the name of Quantrill struck terror in men’s hearts. He was a cruel and ruthless guerrilla who burned, robbed, and killed without mercy; but legend made of him a hero dashing and bold
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
The Lawrence massacre was the bloody climax of the Kansas-Missouri border conflict. It was also the most atrocious single event of the Civil War. For stark, melodramatic horror, nothing else quite matched it. It has given Quantrill a reputation as the bloodiest man in American history, and placed him in the company of Simon Girty and John Wilkes Booth as one of the great national villains.
But he was not through. In October, he and his men headed south to spend the winter in Texas. On the way, near Baxter Springs, Kansas, they came upon Major General James G. Blunt, commander of Union forces in the Indian Territory, accompanied by his personal escort. Quantrill’s men were wearing Federal uniforms, and Blunt’s soldiers thought they were troops from the garrison at Baxter Springs. Suddenly, at point-blank range, the bushwhackers opened fire. The survivors fled in terror, closely pursued by the exultant guerrillas, who mercilessly killed every man they overtook, including an artist from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and the hapless members of Blunt’s headquarters band. Blunt himself escaped only because he had a fleet horse. In all, nearly a hundred Union soldiers were slain. Afterward Quantrill, ordinarily a light drinker, got roaring drunk and swaggered about the field bragging of his victory.
The bushwhackers continued on to Texas. In the Indian Territory they captured (according to Quantrill’s own report to Confederate General Sterling Price) “150 Federal Indians and Negroes,” but brought “none of them through.” All told, counting numerous minor raids and skirmishes, Quantrill’s raiders probably killed close to a thousand men during 1863.
The Baxter Springs massacre was Quantrill’s last major success. In Texas dissension broke out among the guerrillas; many left Quantrill to form a separate band under Anderson, and Todd took over actual leadership of the remainder. Quantrill retained only a nominal over-all command. The reason for his sudden eclipse is not clear, but apparently Todd, a man of superlative courage and dash, had become more popular with the rank and file, especially the younger, wilder ones.
During most of 1864 Quantrill hid out in northern Missouri with his mistress, Kate Clarke, who is said to have accompanied him on some of his raids dressed in men’s clothes. (After the war she used money given her by Quantrill to establish a brothel in St. Louis.) That autumn Todd and Anderson, along with many other bushwhackers, were killed while participating in an unsuccessful Confederate invasion of Missouri and Kansas. This debacle, along with the general collapse of the Confederacy, broke the hold of the bushwhackers on Missouri. Early in 1865 Quantrill led a small band out of the state into central Kentucky.
They passed the winter and spring there, committing petty depredations and skirmishing with Kentucky Unionist militia. Apparently Quantrill had no real plans, except to continue his freebooting career. On May 10, 1865, the inevitable end came. A party of “Federal guerrillas” surprised his band in a barn near Louisville and severely wounded Quantrill as he attempted to flee. He was taken to Louisville, where, on June 6, he died in a military prison.
“The monster is dead,” rejoiced the Kansas press. But in the legends of the Missouri border he lived on. There, the stories of his dashing exploits and hair-breadth escapes were told and retold, becoming more elaborate with each telling. To have been one of his men soon became a mark of honor and distinction; as late as 1929 those of his followers who survived the war, and escaped the fate of Jesse James, held annual reunions at Independence. There are many men still alive in Missouri who recall the thrill they experienced as children when some bearded veteran was pointed out to them and they were told in a hushed voice: “He was one of Quantrill’s raiders.” And such is the perversity of fame’s allure that well into the present century elderly impostors occasionally appeared to lay claim to the dubious honor of having been William Clarke Quantrill himself.