William Quantrill and the Lawrence Massacre

William Clarke Quantrill and his men riding horses through Lawrence, Kansas and killing civilians
William Clarke Quantrill leading a band of Confederate troops and slaughtering hundreds of civilians by guerilla warfare in protest of anti-slavery efforts during the Civil War.

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William Clarke Quantrill was a Confederate captain during the American Civil War and was responsible for the Lawrence massacre, which was one of the worst and bloodiest events in the war.

Quantrill was born in Ohio in 1837. He decided to become a schoolteacher as a young man and started this profession. However, he left Ohio to make more money for himself and his family. At this time, Kansas was deeply embroiled in violence between those in favor of continuing the practice of human enslavement and Free Soil proponents, or those that opposed expanding the practice of enslavement to new territories. He had grown up in a Unionist family, and he himself espoused Free Soil beliefs. He found it hard to make money in Kansas and, after returning home for a time, decided to quit his profession and sign up as a teamster from Fort Leavenworth.

His mission in Leavenworth was to resupply the Federal Army, which was embroiled in a fight against the Mormons in Utah. During this mission, he met numerous pro-slavery southerners who deeply affected his beliefs. By the time he returned from his mission, he had become a staunch southern supporter. He also found that he could make much more money through thievery. Thus, Quantrill began a much less legitimate career. When the Civil War began, he gathered a small band of men and began making profitable hit-and-run attacks against the Federal troops.

What Captain Quantrill Did

Quantrill and his men staged numerous raids into Kansas during the early part of the Civil War. He was quickly labeled an outlaw by the Union for his attacks on pro-Union forces. He was involved in several skirmishes with Jayhawkers (pro-Union guerilla bands) and eventually was made a Captain in the Confederate Army. His attitude towards his role in the Civil War drastically changed in 1862 when the Commander of the Department of Missouri, Major General Henry W. Halleck, ordered that guerrillas such as Quantrill and his men would be treated as robbers and murderers, not normal prisoners of war. Before this proclamation, Quantrill acted as if he were a normal soldier adhering to the principals of accepting enemy surrender. After this, he gave an order to give "no quarter."

In 1863, Quantrill set his sights on Lawrence, Kansas, which he said was full of Union sympathizers. Before the attack occurred, many female relatives of Quantrill's Raiders were killed when a prison collapsed in Kansas City. The Union Commander was given the blame and this fanned the already-fearsome flames of the Raiders. On August 21, 1863, Quantrill led his band of about 450 men into Lawrence, Kansas. They attacked this pro-Union stronghold, killing over 150 men, with few of them offering resistance. In addition, Quantrill's Raiders burned and looted the town. In the north, this event became known as the Lawrence Massacre and was vilified as one of the worst events of the Civil War.

The Motive

Quantrill was either a Confederate patriot punishing northern sympathizers or a profiteer taking advantage of the war for his own and his men's benefit. The fact that his band did not kill any women or children would seem to point to the first explanation. However, the group did wantonly kill men who were most likely simple farmers, many without any real connection to the Union. They also burned numerous buildings to the ground. The looting further suggests that Quantrill did not have purely ideological motives for attacking Lawrence.

However, in response to this, many of the Raiders are said to have ridden through the streets of Lawrence yelling "Osceola." This referred to an event in Osceola, Missouri where Federal Officer James Henry Lane had his men burn and loot both Loyal and Confederate sympathizers indiscriminately.

Quantrill's Legacy as an Outlaw

Quantrill was killed in 1865 during a raid in Kentucky. However, he quickly became a celebrated figure of the Civil War from the southern perspective. He was a hero to his supporters in Missouri and his fame actually helped several other outlaw figures of the Old West. The James Brothers and the Youngers used the experienced they gained riding with Quantrill to help them rob banks and trains. Members of his Raiders gathered from 1888 to 1929 to recount their war efforts. Today, there is a William Clarke Quantrill Society dedicated to the study of Quantrill, his men, and the border wars.


  • "Home." William Clarke Quantrill Society, 2014.
  • "William Clarke Quantrill." New Perspectives on The West, PBS, The West Film Project and WETA Credits, 2001.
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Kelly, Martin. "William Quantrill and the Lawrence Massacre." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/william-quantrill-soldier-or-murderer-104550. Kelly, Martin. (2021, September 7). William Quantrill and the Lawrence Massacre. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-quantrill-soldier-or-murderer-104550 Kelly, Martin. "William Quantrill and the Lawrence Massacre." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-quantrill-soldier-or-murderer-104550 (accessed June 7, 2023).