War comes to Kansas: ‘Vengeance is in my heart, and death in my hand’

Atrocities were mercifully few in America’s most bloody war. But the exceptions were grim. Frederick Chiaventone recalls the Lawrence Massacre.


To all appearances it was to be another particularly warm and humid but uneventful summer day as the sun rose above Lawrence, Kansas on 21 August 1863. Insects buzzed in the high grass, and the air was still.

Far to the east, the Civil War had been raging for more than two years, and, with the fall of Vicksburg and the pivotal victory at Gettysburg earlier that summer, the Union’s efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. Many in Washington D.C. felt that the end was in sight.

A vivid Union depiction of the Lawrence Massacre, 21 August 1863, probably the worst atrocity of the American Civil War. Four hundred Confederate guerrillas entered the Kansas town, intent on murdering its male inhabitants and burning it to the ground.

Out west, at Lawrence, there was little evidence of the war. A sleepy but prosperous city of brick and clapboard structures arranged in neat, well-ordered streets, it boasted a robust downtown area and well-appointed hotels such as the stately Eldridge that catered to visiting businessmen. That would all change on this fateful day.

Jayhawkers Lawrence had been founded in 1854 by abolitionist activists, many of whom had moved there from the Atlantic seaboard in the hope of turning Kansas Territory into an anti-slavery bastion. (The eastern portion of the territory had been admitted to the Union as a free state in January 1861.) The town was even named after one of the founding lights of the anti-slavery movement: Amos Adams Lawrence.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, it had been a hotbed of anti-slavery agitation. This, though, had given cover to the predatory activities of some prominent citizens, notably the former state Senator James Lane and Charles ‘Doc’ Jennison. These two radical abolitionists led militia organisations referred to popularly as ‘Red Legs’ and ‘Jayhawkers’.

In the turbulent years preceding the Civil War, these groups conducted vicious forays into neighboring Missouri, ostensibly to punish slaveholders, but in many cases to kill, burn, and plunder.

When rival James G. Blunt was promoted brigadier-general in his stead, ‘Doc’ Jennison abandoned Federal employment and became, in essence, a private contractor with his own Jayhawker units. In Jennison’s case, his business was destruction and thievery. An unusual number of Lawrence homes were well furnished with china, silver, even pianos taken from Missourians in cross-border raids.

ABOVE ‘Bleeding Kansas’: a Northern propaganda depiction of the violent struggle between abolitionists and pro-slavery ‘Border Ruffians’ that raged along the Kansas Missouri border in the years before the Civil War.
‘Bleeding Kansas’: a Northern propaganda depiction of the violent struggle between abolitionists and pro-slavery ‘Border Ruffians’ that raged along the Kansas Missouri border in the years before the Civil War.

The Red Legs (so-called after the red, Moroccan-leather leggings favoured by the unit) were to become the 7th Kansas Cavalry – though they continued to do their share of marauding; Jennison’s Jayhawkers (taking their name from a predatory bird) cut a wide and bloody swath throughout western Missouri. Both units had their headquarters in Lawrence, and considered themselves well beyond the reach of their Confederate-sympathising counterparts.

Bushwhackers To the east of the Missouri River, Confederate sympathies ran strong and deep. Pro-Southern groups, initially dismissed as ‘Border Ruffians’, sprang up in the years leading to the Civil War. These groups opposed the Jayhawkers and Red Legs, and carried out their own raids across the Missouri into Kansas. With the onset of war, these groups morphed into paramilitary organisations calling themselves ‘Missouri Partisan Rangers’. However, they were more commonly known as ‘Bushwhackers’.

Loosely organised and operating generally in small, fast-moving bands, they depended on stealth and superb horsemanship. They were heavily armed with shotguns, Bowie knives, and revolvers. Colt Navy revolvers were common, but Remington revolvers were highly prized, as their design allowed the guerrilla to replace quickly an empty cylinder with a fully loaded one.

Lacking uniforms, the Southerners were particularly fond of specially designed ‘guerrilla shirts’ – over-sized garments with capacious pockets for spare revolver cylinders – frequently sporting lavish embroidery pains-takingly stitched by wives and sweethearts.

Their self-appointed overall leader was William Clarke Quantrill. Aged 26, he was a former schoolteacher fallen on hard times, who, oddly enough, had once taught in Lawrence.

LEFT William Clarke Quantrill (1837-1865), a Kansas Missouri ‘Border Ruffian’ who became the most notable Confederate guerrilla leader of the Civil War. The Lawrence Raid was his biggest operation. He was killed in a Union ambush in May 1865.
William Clarke Quantrill (1837-1865), a Kansas Missouri ‘Border Ruffian’ who became the most notable Confederate guerrilla leader of the Civil War. The Lawrence Raid was his biggest operation. He was killed in a Union ambush in May 1865.

Quantrill and anderson A charismatic, punctilious, and fashion-conscious young man, ‘Colonel’ Quantrill claimed leadership of an extensive guerrilla movement that endeavoured to pay the Red Legs and Jayhawkers back in their own currency. Among Quantrill’s men was one subordinate who was building an especially fearsome reputation for himself and his immediate followers – William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson.

Anderson, a 25-year-old former horse- rustler and ne’er-do-well, had spent years living on the fringe of society. A borderline psychotic with a riveting cold gaze, Bloody Bill’s sub-command was populated by a number of like-minded men, such as Cole Younger and Frank James (brother of Jesse), who would go on to make their own fearsome reputations after the war.

As with the Red Legs and Jayhawkers, Bushwhacker military operations were often only a thin veil for more rapacious activities.

As the war progressed, the activities of the guerrillas became a spiral of ever-increasing violence. Most of those involved were teen-agers and men in their early twenties. Freed of the normal restraints imposed by parents, teachers, and religious figures, and operating in the adrenalin-fuelled context of war, they became hardened to killing. They were, in any case, frontiersmen and hunters, many of whom came to see their enemies as less than human.

brutal men, vicious deeds Young guerrillas sometimes carried out horrendous atrocities. They took scalps, slit throats, and disembowelled their enemies. It was not unusual for them to behead dead opponents and then exchange those heads with those of other corpses. Some guerrillas cut off the trigger-fingers of the enemy dead, and strung them together as a grisly necklace.

‘Bloody Bill’ – a thin, gangly man with an intense and murderous gaze – was himself known to keep a rawhide thong into which he tied a knot for every man he had killed. The war gave a convenient outlet to his psychotic tendencies.

below John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude, a mural in the Kansas Statehouse showing John Brown and the clash of forces during the Lawrence Massacre.
John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude, a mural in the Kansas Statehouse showing John Brown and the clash of forces during the Lawrence Massacre.

In Bill’s unit, men like Younger and James were joined by such brutal compatriots as ‘Little Archie’ Clement and Dave Poole, men who had never been able to fit into society, even a society as rough and tumble as that of the American Frontier.

Among all the men associated with Quantrill’s partisan bands, Lieutenant Anderson and his followers were arguably the most vicious, unstable, and bloodthirsty – traits that would be in grim evidence in late August 1863.

Planning the raid The raid on Lawrence was a long time in planning and preparation. Quantrill, having lived and worked there before the war, had intimate knowledge of the town and its population. For months he had considered how best to pay the Red Legs and Jayhawkers back for their sanguinary raids into Missouri, and, knowing that these organisations worked out of Lawrence, he had decided to make the town his principal target.

Thus far, however, the Missouri Partisan Rangers had operated in small bands, each one seldom numbering more than a dozen members for any single operation. Quantrill knew that the marauders working out of Lawrence felt themselves well out of reach of the Partisan Rangers, and had a strength of numbers far exceeding that of any of the separate guerrilla bands. In addition, a contingent of Federal recruits was encamped along the Kansas River on the edge of the city.

The residents of Lawrence felt they could afford to have a rather smug and dismissive attitude towards guerrilla threats. For a raid to have any chance of success, the raiding party would have to be extremely strong, and strike with complete surprise. A raid on Lawrence, therefore, required significant advance planning and coordination. Quantrill began his work months ahead of time, putting the word out to the widely scattered guerrilla bands.

A building collapse One factor that the wily leader of the Bushwhackers could not anticipate was the collapse of a building in Kansas City, and the way this singular event would affect his plans.

ABOVE William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson (1840-1864), a ruthless killer, was probably the most vicious of Quantrill’s followers. He died in battle in October 1864. He is depicted here in death.
William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson (1840-1864), a ruthless killer, was probably the most vicious of Quantrill’s followers. He died in battle in October 1864. He is depicted here in death.

The building in question belonged to renowned artist George Caleb Bingham. Bingham and his family had lived there until he was appointed State Treasurer of Missouri in 1862, when he moved to the capital in Jefferson City. Thereafter he leased the structure to Federal forces, who used it as a makeshift detention centre, where a number of female family-members of known Confederate guerrillas were imprisoned.

On 13 August 1863, while Federal troops were renovating an adjoining structure, a common wall collapsed, bringing Bingham’s house crashing down. This injured all of the female inmates, and killed four of them.

Of the four women killed, one was Josephine Anderson – the 14-year-old sister of ‘Bloody Bill’; Anderson’s other sisters, Mary Ellen and Janie, were grievously injured in the collapse, with the former crippled for life. The consequences of this would be catastrophic for the residents of Lawrence.

Quantrill’s miniature army When Quantrill launched his raid on the afternoon of 20 August, all the disparate groups of guerrillas streamed in to join him as his group headed for Kansas. By the time he had reached the outskirts of Lawrence, his force had grown to over 400 men – all mounted on strong horses, and each man carrying multiple revolvers in addition to rifles, shotguns, swords, and hunting knives. Many had gone so far as to tie themselves into the saddle so as not to fall off in the punishing ride that had kept some of them up for more than 24 hours.

The guerrilla force, the largest assembled during the Civil War, arrived at the edge of town just as dawn was breaking. Fatigue was replaced by adrenalin as the Bushwhackers closed in for the kill. It was to be a day that no Lawrence resident would ever forget.

Just prior to setting off, Quantrill called a large assembly of the guerrillas and announced his plans.

The Kansan has been murdering and robbing our people for two years and more, burned their houses by districts, hauled their household plunder, farming instruments… to Kansas, driven off their cattle… until forbearance has ceased to be a virtue. Lawrence is the great hotbed of abolitionism in Kansas. All the plunder stolen from Missouri will be found in Lawrence. We can get more revenge and more money there than anywhere else in the State of Kansas.

Some guerrillas argued that Lawrence was a stronghold, likely to be heavily defended, and that any attempt there would be suicidal. Quantrill agreed that there was little chance of surviving the encounter, saying, ‘I consider it a forlorn hope, for if we go, I don’t know if any one of us will get back to tell the story. But if you never risk, you never gain.’ The die was cast.

BELOW Originally done as a wood engraving, this print shows a Union propaganda picture of a Confederate guerrilla raid on a Western town.
Originally done as a wood engraving, this print shows a Union propaganda picture of a Confederate guerrilla raid on a Western town.

The attack Quantrill’s raiders crashed into Lawrence whooping, hollering, and firing off pistols and shotguns in every direction. The sleepy townsfolk were taken entirely by surprise, and for many the incursion spelled sudden death.

Bent on extracting vengeance as well as plunder, the Bushwhackers killed and burned in a fury. One survivor, Reverend Cordley, described the scene: ‘one saw the dead everywhere, on the sidewalks, in the streets, among the weeds in the gardens’.

While the attackers did not kill a single woman, they had no compunction about killing their fathers, husbands, and sons, often directly in front of them. No adult male was truly safe. More than one woman was splashed with the blood of her husband, some of them dispatched by a close-range shot even as their desperate wives tried to shield them.

The adrenalin-fuelled raiders dashed from building to building seizing goods, smashing windows and doors, and setting fire to the structures.

Some of the unit leaders carried ‘death lists’ displaying the names of Lawrence residents known to have served with the Red Legs or Jayhawkers and of special interest to the attackers. To these few, death was a certainty; but many not on the lists also perished.

Quantrill himself supervised the attack, but, oddly, was instrumental in reducing the killing. Having lived in the town before the war, he still had friends and associates among the residents, and, gathering a large group in the relative safety of the Eldridge Hotel, set some of his followers to guard the physical safety of these people. While their property was subject to the attentions of the guerrillas, they remained relatively secure themselves.

Massacre Beyond the confines of the Eldridge, the remainder of the townspeople were at the mercy of some of the Civil War’s most enthusiastic and merciless bloodletters – ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson and his associates Cole Younger, Frank James, ‘Little Archie’ Clement, Dave Poole, and Jabez McCorkle, whose sister had also died in the Kansas City building collapse. These men were implacable and utterly ruthless.

One of the worst butchers was a former preacher named Larkin Skaggs, who raged about the town in a fury of blood-lust reinforced by ‘liberated’ liquor.

Anderson’s band, while careful not to harm women or very young children, had no compunction about murdering every able-bodied man in sight. Nor did they have to be able-bodied – one unfortunate, weak and confined to his sickbed, was brought out into the street in his bed to avoid being burned alive. But the guerrillas fired their pistols repeatedly into his supine form.

Men died in the streets, in backyards, in ploughed fields. Some died screaming as a building burned around them. The mayor of Lawrence, George Washington Collamore, and a man-servant had tried to hide in a well. It was a desperate but futile effort. Smoke from the fiercely burning town had been drawn into the well and they both suffocated, as did a would-be rescuer.

One of the guerrillas’ primary targets, Senator James Lane, barely escaped with his life. Hearing the shots and screaming, Lane – still in his nightshirt – rushed out of the back door of his house and into a nearby cornfield, where he cowered in the thick vegetation until the guerrillas abandoned the search.

Escape The killing and burning in Lawrence continued for four hours before Quantrill gathered in his forces and headed back for the Missouri border. He suspected that Federal troops had by now been alerted, and were converging on the town. Quantrill did not know for sure, but he calculated that even with their increased numbers the guerrillas were probably no match for converging Federal columns.

He was right. Huge columns of dark smoke billowed into the still prairie sky, a grim beacon for approaching rescuers. Already several columns of Federal forces were galloping towards Lawrence in hot pursuit of the raiders. The guerrillas hurried south and then east, staying barely ahead of their pursuers.

It was a close-run escape, and Quantrill designated one of his lieutenants, George Todd, to take 60 men to form a rear-guard. Todd’s mission was to try to keep Federal troops from catching up with the bulk of the raiders.

Todd’s little command did their job well, fighting a successful delaying action, but one in which the guerrillas lost more men than in the raid itself. Their determined actions kept the main body of the raiding force secure.

In fact, of Quantrill’s entire command, only one man had actually died in Lawrence. That man was demonic former preacher Larkin Skaggs. Skaggs had had far too much to drink, and was consequently left behind, reeling in his saddle, drunk as a lord, screaming at the Kansans and firing his pistols, until an angry mob finally surrounded, overpowered, and killed him.

But Skaggs’ colleagues had done their worst. Behind them they left over 150 dead, and a town all but reduced to ashes. Quantrill’s prime targets, however – Charles Jennison and Senator Lane – as well as many of their followers, had escaped unscathed. The raid was a brutal and disorienting psychological blow to the Union, but a strategic failure.

Counter-insurgency measures Federal forces never caught up with the main body of Quantrill’s fleeing command, for the guerrillas split into their smaller groups and scattered to various hideouts. This was not, however, the end of the story.

Pursued relentlessly by ‘Lawrence Avengers’, the guerrillas went to ground, but the damage was done. Following this, probably the most vicious and brutal raid of the war, the fury of the survivors was intense.

Shortly afterwards, on 25 August, General Thomas Ewing, the Union commander of the region, issued his famous Order No.11, whereby four Missouri counties along the Kansas border – Cass, Vernon, Bates, and Jackson – were depopulated to ensure that Confederate guerrillas were deprived of any aid or support by the residents. An area that in 1860 had supported a population of over 10,000 was reduced to fewer than 600 residents. Homes and farms were burned, and thousands of refugees were driven from their devastated properties. For years thereafter, this region was described as ‘the Burnt District’.

The hunt for guerrillas was unrelenting and merciless. Neither Anderson nor Quantrill survived the Civil War. Few of their followers long survived its aftermath. Not welcomed back into the fold of civilisation, many were hunted down and slain by fellow Missourians who felt that the Partisan Rangers’ reputation had kept Missouri out of the recovering nation’s mainstream.

Some, such as the James and Younger brothers, accustomed to living outside the law, would rise to national prominence as outlaws. Their surviving adversaries, such as ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, both of whom had served with the Red Legs, would claim the national spotlight in other arenas.

In a larger sense, the Lawrence Raid was an insignificant affair. At Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and countless other Civil War battlefields, the dead were counted in many thousands. What makes it stand out is that it was a massacre of unarmed civilians, carried out by pro-slavery fanatics, some of them psychotic, virtually all of them murderous misfits. .

The men who made ‘Bleeding Kansas’

The 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas, was just one act in an ongoing war between the residents of Kansas and Missouri that had begun ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

While many residents of western Missouri were committed to maintaining the status quo, eastern Kansas was home to a large population of radical abolitionists determined to making slave-holding illegal in both states.

Each side resorted readily to violence to advance their respective causes. In a vicious tit-for-tat struggle, heavily armed bands would cross the border to mete out their versions of frontier justice to the opposition.

On the Kansas side, Charles ‘Doc’ Jennison and Senator James Henry Lane, leaders of the ‘Jayhawkers’ and ‘Red Legs’ respectively, shared similar views to the anti-slavery radical John Brown, who first attracted attention with a bloody foray against slaveholders in Kansas in 1856. On the opposite bank of the Missouri, they were opposed by their rebel counterparts, initially referred to as ‘Border Ruffians’ and later as ‘Bushwhackers’.

Guerrilla leadership was a tenuous affair, and while William Clarke Quantrill claimed primacy, he had to contend with a number of strong personalities, among them not only ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson but also men like William Gregg, John Jarrette, and George Todd – the latter a clear rival for Quantrill’s position.

After the Lawrence Raid, many of the guerrilla bands headed to Texas for the winter, where tensions ran so high that Quantrill’s and Todd’s forces actually clashed in a firefight.

Horsemen and gunslingers

As well as being exceptional horsemen, the Missouri guerrillas routinely carried four or more revolvers, giving them a distinct edge in firepower, especially when confronting Federal infantry units armed with single-shot rifles and muskets.

It is worth noting that the guerrillas filled each of their cartridges with slightly less than the usual charge of gunpowder. This allowed the weapon to be fired with less recoil, allowing the firer to squeeze off more well-aimed shots in a shorter time. As engagements were fought on horseback and at close-quarters, the loss of range was immaterial.

Another technique they employed was using the middle finger to squeeze the trigger. The index finger lay directly below the cylinder and thus approximated a natural pointing action. Marksmanship was thereby greatly improved.

As revolvers were frequently subject to mishaps, one chamber of the cylinder – that under the hammer – was usually left without the percussion cap in place. This prevented accidental discharge while the gun was holstered should the rider’s horse vault an obstacle. At least one of Bill Anderson’s men ignored this practice and paid dearly for it, when his pistol discharged as he jumped his horse over a fence. The bullet cut a deep furrow down the man’s leg. Infection and gangrene soon set in, and the victim died in great pain.

A final distinguishing feature of the guerrillas was their use of gauntlets to minimise the powder burns that resulted from firing their pistols.

Further reading

Michael Fellman, Inside War: the guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War.
Thomas Goodrich, Black Flag: guerrilla warfare on the Western Border, 1861-65.
Thomas Goodrich, Bloody Dawn: the story of the Lawrence Massacre.
Edward E. Leslie, The Devil Knows How To Ride: the true story of William Clarke Quantrill and his Confederate raiders.