- Historic Sites
Drawn to the story of the fearsome Confederate raider by a modern act of violence, the author finds a strange epic in the Rebel’s restless remains
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
On October 1 two Americans, allegedly from Lawrence, Kansas, arrived on Vancouver Island, made their way to Sharp’s shack, and beat him with a fireplace poker and the butt of a shotgun. He died the next day. His killers were never apprehended. After the Sharp story surfaced, the Kansas State Historical Society took the bones off display, but for the next eighty years curious visitors were allowed to handle them. Because the shinbones were long mislabeled as from the thigh, many remarked on how short Quantrill must have been. Actually he was five nine.
In 1982 a Quantrill buff named Mark Dugan overcame the mockery and reluctance of Dover politicians and placed a U.S. government-issued tombstone on the unmarked grave. For a century after his death Quantrill had been considered a black sheep by most Doverites, and even at this late date a local priest adamantly declined to perform a burial ceremony for “that bastard,” so a visiting priest from a neighboring community who possessed conveniently little knowledge of Civil War history was recruited.
In 1989 the Kansas legislature passed a law requiring museums in the state to appropriately divest themselves of Indian bones, and the anthropologists at the Kansas State Historical Society seized the opportunity to rid the collections of the many human bones of all races that they had accumulated over the years.
The Dover Historical Society’s trustees agreed to bury Quantrill’s bones, along with his skull, in his Dover grave. This appealed to the Kansas State Historical Society officials, but officers of the Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans were outraged that the ceremony was to be brief and attended by invitation only. “They’re practically going to bury the bones at midnight,” one Son complained. The Sons went to work lobbying and cajoling the KSHS bureaucrats and won the bones, but the Doverites would not relinquish the skull.
The Sons buried Quantrill’s five bones and a vial containing a lock of his hair with “full military honors” on Saturday, October 24, 1992, at 10:00 A.M., at the Confederate Memorial Cemetery, Higginsville, Missouri. Six hundred people attended, some in period costumes. Inside the small white clapboard chapel, sitting on a bier, was a casket made from one-inch-thick hand-hewn oak boards. Inside it, the vial of hair and each of the bones were individually encased in museum-grade, acid-free plastic bubble-wrap.
Draped over the casket was a Confederate flag. I became aware that sitting in the second row of the chapel was a five-man squad in dress uniform from a nearby military academy, including one teenage African-American, the only one of his race in the entire crowd. Before the war Quantrill had belonged to a gang of “border ruffians” who stole slaves and ransomed them back to their owners, and during the war his men were especially quick to murder any blacks captured in Federal uniform. So I found myself wondering how much of the Quantrill story this teenager knew and what his thoughts were.
An honor guard of the 5th Missouri Infantry, C.S.A., in full Confederate regalia, posted the colors on either side of the casket as dozens and dozens of cameras flashed and video cameras whirred. Father Hugh Behan gave a scriptural reading, and a young man sang “Hallowed Ground” in a lovely tenor voice, accompanying himself on the guitar.
Some people had criticized the idea of burying an “evil” man in the cemetery, but in his homily Father Behan, a self-described pacifist with a profound interest in American history, warned against judging historical figures outside the context of their times and retroactively applying “our understanding of morality and ethics, of Tightness and wrongness, back into another century.”
In his eulogy Robert Hawkins III, an attorney and the commander in chief of the Missouri division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, answered those who thought Quantrill’s bones should have gone to Dover. “We do not wish him buried where people are ashamed of him, where no one remembers or cares to recall the brutality of a partisan warfare that created men like Captain Quantrill and those who rode with him. … He belongs here—here, with those who were truly his people.” Referring to the Confederate flag draped over the casket, Hawkins remarked that “it is very difficult to overcome the wrenching away of our flag by the media who give it over to the use of hate groups who have no right to it. … Let several hundred of us meet for a memorial service and we are lucky if there is mention in local newspapers, but let five persons don sheets and hoods and dare to use this flag, and their image with the flag prominently displayed will be on the front page of newspapers from coast to coast.”
The pallbearers, all but one of whom were direct descendants of Quantrill’s raiders, wheeled the casket outside and down to the grave. Father Behan read the Roman Catholic funeral liturgy for a committal service and spontaneously prayed for an end to hatred, bigotry, and divisiveness.