- 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
At the end of the half-hour ceremony, a twenty-one-man squad of the 5th Missouri Infantry fired three volleys, and the casket was lowered into the grave. Some re-enactors had proposed rushing out of the woods at this moment, firing pistols and spurring their horses and depositing a single reverential rose on the casket, but Commander in Chief Hawkins had nixed the idea. He had also forbidden the presence of an artillery unit. As he explained to me later, “We don’t claim to be press experts, but our experience is that when you have cannons show up, all the pictures are of the cannons. And we wanted the focus to be on the grave, not on people charging up on horseback from the brush, not on cannons.” But he had not counted on a woman in period costume plunging forward as the casket disappeared below the surface to place a black flag on its lid. (There is an old myth that Quantrill’s band used a black flag as a standard.) Hawkins invited anyone who cared to to throw a handful of dirt into the grave.
The head of the Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans said, “We do not wish him buried where people are ashamed of him.”
Present at the graveside was a pleasant, obviously sincere young man who claimed to be Quantrill’s great-greatgrandson. There are at least fourteen families around the country professing to be linear descendants of Quantrill; however, there is no hint of evidence that he sired any children. This fellow had recently learned of the supposed lineage from the ramblings of a dying elderly relative, yet he was instantly accepted by the Missouri Sons and had been chosen as one of the pallbearers. After the service several women in period costumes fluttered around him, giddy and gushing, as if he were a Hollywood celebrity. The casket maker ceremoniously presented him with a chip of wood and a bent nail left over from his handiwork.
After the crowd departed, bags of cement were opened and dumped over the casket so that seeping rainwater would form a solid crust over it to deter would-be grave robbers, and the grave was rilled in.
Six days later Quantrill’s skull was buried in a thirty-bytwenty-two-inch white fiberglass child’s coffin. Only twenty-two people were present, including two men and three children who lived on the borders of the cemetery and had wandered up, drawn by the small crowd.
At that service Father Michael Carter led the singing of the first verse of “Amazing Grace” and then read the standard Catholic funeral liturgy and squirted a jet of holy water over the coffin from a small plastic squeeze bottle.
A hole had been dug three feet down in the Quantrill grave; it was feared that going deeper might uncover the bones buried in 1889 and thus potentially trigger lawsuits from Quantrill family descendants. The gravediggers lowered the coffin by hand, shoveled in the dirt, and went their way.
The wax head remains in the refrigerator. Not long ago someone slammed the door on it, mashing the end of the nose. A number of long, wide cracks have appeared in the wax, like ugly scars. At the society’s annual Christmas party the head is always festooned in seasonal red and green ribbons, and last year someone suggested sticking a wick in it and using it as a giant candle. The head is brought out now and again to adorn some festive occasion, and it is increasingly deemed to be hilarious.
Alive, Quantrill terrified tens of thousands, but the passage of time has taken away much of his stature and diminished his reputation to the point where he is a source of levity to the descendants of his boyhood friends and neighbors.