William C. Quantrill: Soldier or Murderer?

Part 1: The Man and His Deeds

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

The controversy swirls around William Clarke Quantrill. Some people would consider him a patriot of the South, doing his part again Northern tyranny. Others would consider him to be a lawless butcher that took advantage of the disarray brought about by the Civil War to assuage his need for brutality and cruelty. If we judge Quantrill by today's standards, most would agree with the latter description.

Historians, however, look at an individual such as Quantrill in the context of his own time. Following is a critical, historical look at this controversial figure.

The Man

Quantrill was born in Ohio in 1837. He decided to become a schoolteacher as a young man and started his profession. However, he decided to leave Ohio to try and make more money for himself and his family. At this time, Kansas was deeply embroiled in violence between pro-slavery and free soil proponents. He had grown up in a Unionist family, and he himself espoused Free Soil beliefs. He found it hard to make any more 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 was to resupply the Federal Army 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 of his return from this 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.

His Deeds

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 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, 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

What was William Clarke Quantrill's true motivation in attacking Lawrence? There are two possible explanations. 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.

The Legacy

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 the Quantrill, his men and the border wars. Looking at Quantrill in the context of his times provides an interesting perspective on his actions. To this day, people argue whether his actions were warranted. What is your opinion?

Quantrill: Hero or Villain?

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Kelly, Martin. "William C. Quantrill: Soldier or Murderer?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/william-quantrill-soldier-or-murderer-104550. Kelly, Martin. (2017, February 11). William C. Quantrill: Soldier or Murderer? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-quantrill-soldier-or-murderer-104550 Kelly, Martin. "William C. Quantrill: Soldier or Murderer?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-quantrill-soldier-or-murderer-104550 (accessed September 26, 2017).