William Quantrill, Jesse James, and the Centralia Massacre

William Quantrill
William Quantrill. Public Domain/Courtesy Harry S. Truman Library

It wasn’t always possible to determine which side certain individuals fought for during some skirmishes that took place during the U.S. Civil War, especially when Confederate guerrillas were involved in the State of Missouri.  Although Missouri was a border state that stayed neutral during the Civil War, the state provided more than 150,000 troops who fought during this conflict – 40,000 on the Confederate side and 110,000 for the Union.

 

In 1860, Missouri held a Constitutional Convention where the main topic was secession and the vote was to stay in the Union but to remain neutral.  In the 1860 Presidential election, Missouri was one of only two states that the Democratic candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, carried (New Jersey being the other) over Republican Abraham Lincoln. The two candidates had met in a series of debates where they discussed their individual beliefs. Douglas had run on a platform that wanted to maintain the status quo, while Lincoln believed that slavery was an issue that needed to be dealt with by the Union as a whole.

Rise of William Quantrill

After the onset of the Civil War, Missouri continued its’ attempt to remain neutral but ended up with two different governments that supported opposite sides.  This caused many instances where neighbors were fighting neighbors.  It also led to famed guerrilla leaders like William Quantrill, who built his own army that fought for the Confederacy.

William Quantrill was born in Ohio, but eventually settled in Missouri. When the Civil War started Quantrill was in Texas where he befriended Joel B. Mayes who would later be elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1887.  It was during this association with Mayes that he had learned the art of guerilla warfare from Native Americans.

 

Quantrill returned to Missouri and in August 1861, he fought with General Sterling Price at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield.  Shortly after this battle, Quantrill left the Confederate Army in order to form his own so-called army of irregulars that infamously became known at Quantrill’s Raiders.

At first, Quantrill’s Raiders consisted of just over a dozen men and they patrolled the Kansas-Missouri border where they ambushed both Union soldiers and Union sympathizers. Their main opposition were Jayhawkers, guerillas from Kansas whose loyalty was pro-Union. The violence got so bad that the area became known as 'bleeding Kansas'. 

By 1862, Quantrill had approximately 200 men under his command and focused their attacks around the town Kansas City and Independence. Since Missouri was divided between Union and Confederate loyalists, Quantrill was easily able to recruit Southern men who resented what they perceived to be the harsh Union rule.

James Brothers and Quantrill's Raiders

In 1863, Quantrill’s force had grown to over 450 men, one of whom was Frank James, older brother of Jesse James. In August 1863, Quantrill and his men committed what became known as the Lawrence Massacre.

They torched the town of Lawrence, Kansas and killed more than 175 men and boys, many of them in front of their families. Although Quantrill targeted Lawrence because it was a center for Jayhawkers, it is believed that the terror that was imposed on the cities’ residents stemmed from the Union imprisoning family members of Quantrill supporters and allies, including the sisters of William T. Anderson – who was a key member of Quantrill’s Raiders.  A number of these women died, including one of Anderson’s sisters while imprisoned by the Union.
 
Anderson who was nicknamed 'Bloody Bill'. Quantrill would later have a falling out that caused Anderson to become the leader of most of Quantrill’s group of guerrillas which would include sixteen-year-old Jesse James. Quantrill, on the other hand now had a force that only a few dozen.

The Centralia Massacre

In September 1864, Anderson had an army that totaled approximately 400 guerrillas and they were preparing to assist the Confederate Army in a campaign to invade Missouri. Anderson took about 80 of his guerrillas to Centralia, Missouri to gather information. Just outside the town, Anderson stopped a train. On board were 22 Union soldiers who were on leave and they were unarmed.  After ordering these men to remove their uniforms, Anderson’s men then executed all 22 of them.  Anderson would later use these Union uniforms as disguises.   

A nearby Union force of approximately 125 soldiers began to pursue Anderson, who by this time had rejoined his entire. Anderson set a trap using a small number of his force as bait which the Union soldiers fell for. Anderson and his men then surrounded the Union force and killed every soldier, mutilating and scalping bodies. Frank and Jesse James, as well as future member of their gang Cole Younger all rode with Anderson that day. The 'Centralia Massacre' was one the worst atrocities that occurred during the Civil War.  

The Union Army made it a top priority to kill Anderson and only one month after Centralia they accomplished this goal. In early 1865, Quantrill and his guerillas had moved on to Western Kentucky and in May,after Robert E. Lee had surrendered, Quantrill and his men were ambushed. During this skirmish, Quantrill was shot in the back causing him to be paralyzed from the chest down. Quantrill died the following as a result of his injuries.