Quantrill's Raiders (1861 - 1865)

Updated: August 22, 2017

Quantrill's Raiders was a band of Confederate irregulars that employed guerrilla tactics to ambush Union army patrols and terrorize Northern sympathizers, primarily in Kansas during the Civil War.

In some respects, the Civil War began in Kansas and Missouri long before the first salvo was fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Nearly seven years earlier, on May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which established procedures to expedite the formation of new territories in the Louisiana Purchase west of Missouri (namely Kansas and Nebraska). Sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the legislation attempted to sidestep the growing discord over the expansion of slavery by promoting the concept of popular sovereignty, which allowed the settlers in each territory to decide the issue. Douglas believed that the implementation of popular sovereignty would mend the sectional divide over the extension of slavery. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act fanned the flames. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory in an attempt to influence the vote over slavery through intimidation.

When the Civil War erupted, these partisan groups morphed into paramilitary units supporting the Northern and Southern causes. Initially, the extra-military "irregulars" endeavored to support Union and Confederate regular forces in the field. Gradually, however, their goals and methods embraced lawlessness. Employing guerrilla tactics, these "bushwhackers" increasingly began targeting civilians through acts motivated by revenge or avarice. Theft, cold-blooded murder, and pillaging of entire communities became hallmarks of raids in Kansas and Missouri.

The most infamous of these units coalesced around William C. Quantrill, an erstwhile schoolteacher from Canal Dover, Ohio, who pursued an aimless life of depravity after immigrating to Kansas in 1857. When the war began, Quantrill enlisted and served as a private in Company A of the 1st Cherokee Regiment in the Confederate Army. His unit joined up with General Sterling Price's forces in Missouri in time to participate in the Confederate victories at the Battle of Wilson's Creek (August 10, 1861) and the First Battle of Lexington (September 12-20, 1861).

By December 1861, Quantrill had become either disillusioned with Price's leadership or disenchanted with army life, prompting him to desert. He began assembling a band of irregulars that used guerilla tactics to ambush Yankee patrols and terrorize Northern sympathizers. By 1862, Quantrill's feared band of followers, known as Quantrill's Raiders, included infamous figures such as William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson and the James and Younger brothers who led a notorious gang of outlaws after the war.

As the size of Quantrill's unit grew, the scope of his sorties expanded to include entire communities. Just after midnight on September 7, 1862, Quantrill’s force of roughly 140 men stormed Olathe, Kansas. While holding the citizenry captive, they proceeded to loot the town's businesses and homes, after killing six men.

The next month Quantrill's Raiders came across a Union supply train near Shawneetown (now Shawnee), Kansas on October 17. Quietly surrounding the unsuspecting Federals, the guerrillas launched a surprise attack easily killing thirteen soldiers. Quantrill's men then donned the uniforms of their victims and rode unmolested into Shawneetown where they murdered several citizens, pillaged and burned the community's businesses and homes, and then rode out with seven prisoners who they later executed.

Quantrill's most notable raid occurred on August 21, 1863, as retribution for a series of events that began earlier in the year. In early August, Federal troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing began rounding up civilians who were aiding guerrillas operating within the District of the Border. Among those arrested were several female relatives and friends of Quantrill's band. The women were detained in a makeshift jail in Kansas City. On August 13, 1863, the building collapsed, killing four of the prisoners, including the sister of William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson. A few days later a fifth girl died from her injuries. In retaliation for the deaths, Quantrill orchestrated a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, the home of free-state U.S. Senator James H. Lane. Quantrill loathed Lane, a noted Jayhawker who had initiated his own episodes of guerilla warfare during raids against pro-slavery civilians in Missouri earlier in the war. Quantrill was particularly incensed by the sacking of Osceola, Missouri, two years previously at the expense of the lives of nine local citizens.

During the predawn hours of August 21, 1863, as many as 450 of Quantrill's Raiders rode into Lawrence as most of the town's unsuspecting residents slept. After occupying the Eldridge Hotel, the marauders broke into small groups and proceeded to plunder the town for the next four hours. By the time the pillagers rode out, they had burned nearly one-quarter of the town's buildings (including all but two businesses), robbed the bank, and looted every home. Adding to the barbarity of their deeds, the raiders murdered between 160 and 190 men and boys, many of whom were unarmed. Beyond the human toll, the Leavenworth Daily Conservative's account of the raid two days later estimated that financial losses exceeded two million dollars (in 1863 currency). Lane, who was in town when the assault began, managed to escape capture by hiding in a nearby cornfield.

A few weeks after the Lawrence Massacre, Quantrill's Raiders headed for Texas to spend the winter. As they made their way south, Quantrill decided to raid Fort Blair, a small Federal outpost in the southeast corner of Kansas near the town of Baxter Springs. As Quantrill's advance scouts neared the fort on October 6, 1863, they surprised a black officer and a civilian practicing their marksmanship and murdered both unsuspecting men. Quantrill then split his force and proceeded to attack Fort Blair from two directions.

At about noon, the Rebels charged the garrison's ninety soldiers who were just sitting down for lunch outside of the fort. Amidst a hail of gunfire, the startled Federals fled for the safety of the fort. Once safely behind the breastworks, the greatly outnumbered, but better disciplined, Union soldiers stymied the guerrilla attack. After losing the element of surprise, along with about ten of his men, Quantrill suspended the assault.

Following the failed sortie, Quantrill reassembled the Raiders north of the fort where he spotted a wagon train approaching. Deprived of his initial objective, the Rebel leader opted to pursue a consolation prize. Led by Major General James G. Blunt, the convoy consisted of Blunt's headquarters staff and a military band accompanied by a few cavalrymen on their way to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Concealing most of his men in a grove of nearby trees, Quantrill ordered an advance party dressed in Federal uniforms to ride forward to meet Blunt. In return, the unsuspecting Union general sent his chief scout, Captain William Tough, forward to greet the advancing party. Tough soon recognized the approaching riders as members of Quantrill's band of miscreants and he beat a hasty retreat to warn Blunt. Tough's alarm came too late for Blunt to mount a defense against the guerrillas who swarmed out of the woods. In the melee that followed, many of Blunt's men fled in terror. Those who bolted on horseback were quickly ridden down and dispatched. Others, on foot, were summarily executed, some with their own weapons, after they had surrendered. The guerrillas even murdered the band members who were reportedly unarmed. When the assault concluded, Quantrill's men had killed most of Blunt's party. Blunt and fourteen of his men escaped death by hiding in the woods or tall prairie grass.

Casualty numbers are inexact, but by the time the action around Baxter Springs ended on October 6, roughly 100 Union soldiers and sympathizers lay dead (about six of the fort's garrison, a few civilians, and more than eighty of Blunt's men). Estimates for the number of guerrillas killed during the Baxter Springs Massacre, although highly speculative, totaled about ten.

Upon arriving in Texas, Quantrill's outlaws soon began targeting pro-Confederate residents of the Lone Star State. Their presence reached its nadir on March 28, 1864, when authorities arrested Quantrill for murdering a Confederate officer. Before he could be tried, Quantrill escaped into Indian Territory. Consequently, his outfit dispersed into splinter gangs led by George Todd and "Bloody" Bill Anderson.

Todd and Anderson's units returned to Missouri where, on September 27, 1864, they participated in the Centralia Massacre that resulted in the execution of twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers, and the ensuing Battle of Centralia that culminated with the death of another 123 Federals. Both groups soon disintegrated following the demise of their leaders. Todd was killed during the first day's fighting at the Second Battle of Independence, on October 21, 1864, and Anderson was shot from his saddle five days later (October 26, 1864) while charging a unit of Union soldiers near Orrick, Missouri.

Quantrill eventually made his way back to Missouri where he laid low. As the Confederacy's fortunes worsened in late 1864, Quantrill reassembled some of his Raiders and reportedly hatched a plot to travel to Washington to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If Quantrill ever seriously considered murdering President Lincoln, he discarded the plan upon reaching Kentucky where he resumed his life of crime.

On May 10, 1865, a band of Federal irregulars surrounded Quantrill and his men in a barn owned by James H. Wakefield in Spencer County, Kentucky. In the ensuing gun battle, one of the Yankees shot Quantrill in the back as he tried to flee on horseback. The Union soldiers took the paralyzed desperado to a hospital in Louisville where he died a few weeks later on June 6, 1865, at the age of twenty-seven.

Several of Quantrill's Raiders who were with him in Kentucky eluded capture and returned to Kansas or Missouri. Following the war, some of Quantrill's Raiders were captured, imprisoned, and later pardoned. Others continued their life of crime under the leadership of Archie Clement. After "Little Arch" was killed in a gunfight in 1866, the remainder of his men eventually morphed into the James-Younger gang, notorious for their high-profile bank and train robberies during the 1870s.

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"Quantrill's Raiders," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 25 Sep 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1695>

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"Quantrill's Raiders." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 25, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1695

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