While the famous battles of the Civil War were raging in the eastern part of the nation, there was a war-within-a-war going on straddling the Missouri-Kansas border. Union volunteer militia nicknamed “Jayhawkers” were fighting Confederate irregulars — the most famous being Quantrill’s Raiders.
Trouble had been brewing there long before the Civil War started.
Missouri had been a slave state since 1821, so those deep pro-slavery roots imported from southern states began to reach into Kansas Territory while they were pushing for statehood.
“Would Kansas enter the Union as a slave or free state?” was the question — and there was plenty of support and passion from both sides.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for a popular vote on the issue by the territory’s settlers — not by outsiders.
No surprise that violence would break out.
Abolitionist John Brown — later of Harpers Ferry fame — rushed to the scene in 1856 to prod the abolitionist movement with a more vigorous call to arms.
“These men are all talk,” he raged. “What we need is action — action!”
The action wasn’t long in coming.
In May that year, Brown and his followers killed five slavery supporters at the “Pottawatomie Massacre” in eastern Kansas — retaliating for an earlier sacking of anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kan., by pro-slavery forces.
There would be much worse times ahead for Lawrence.
Guerilla warfare between small paramilitary volunteer militia units of pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” and anti-slavery “Free-Staters” flared up repeatedly — right up into the real Civil War.
It was a time of violence, raids, assaults, electoral fraud and retribution murders.
Reporting on the crisis, New York Tribune editor Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley called it “Bleeding Kansas.”
Pro-slavery settlers argued that they had the right to bring their own property into the territory — including slaves.
Just three months before the outbreak of the Civil War, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.
However, when the Civil War ended, violence was far from over. The Wild West would become even wilder.
The war had trained a new breed of warrior who would turn their violent skills to criminal purposes.
Among them were the Quantrill Raiders.
William Clarke Quantrill was only 24 years old when the Confederacy gave him permission to organize a volunteer paramilitary unit to help the South fight the war.
He’d learned guerilla tactics in Texas from Cherokee Nation war chief Joel B. Mays who sympathized with the Confederacy.
(The Cherokees owned slaves until they were exiled from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida to Oklahoma in the 1830s in the tragic Trail of Tears.)
Quantrill’s small band of “bushwhackers” included the notorious bankrobbers Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger. It also included one of the West’s most vicious oulaws — William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
At first, the Raiders had the blessings of the Confederacy under the Partisan Ranger Act of 1861 that encouraged paramilitary groups to harrass Union forces. Then they went rogue.
The North fought back with their own paramilitary Jayhawkers or “Red Legs.”
One of the deadliest and most notorious of Quantrill’s Raiders was William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
He was raised in Kansas by a southern family. After his father was killed by a pro-Union judge, young Bill learned to support himself by rustling horses and robbing travelers — while carrying an inborn hatred that motivated him to kill Yankee soldiers and North sympathizers during the Civil War.
He joined Quantrill in 1863 and was given command of a unit of 30 to 40 men. One of them was a psychopathic 18-year-old named Archie Clement who loved to mutilate and torture, and was loyal only to Anderson.
In 1864, when Anderson’s unit stopped the Northern Missouri Railroad, Clement helped rob the civilian passengers and kill 22 unarmed Union soldiers, then scalp and mutilate the bodies — the atrocity remembered as the Centralia Massacre.
Quantrill’s Raiders had an extensive support network in Missouri that provided them with information and numerous hiding places. Bloody Bill Anderson’s sisters were among them.
The Raiders became so dangerous that Union General Thomas Ewing Jr. arrested female relatives of the guerillas and held them captive, including Anderson’s sisters.
The women were confined in a makeshift three-story jail in Kansas City.
When the building collapsed, one of Bloody Bill’s sisters died and another was maimed. Rumors spread that the building was deliberately sabotaged by Union soldiers.
Anderson vowed revenge.
Biographer Larry Wood wrote that Anderson’s focus changed after the death of his sister to killing — an act even to be enjoyed.
Revenge came when the Raiders launched a pre-dawn attack on anti-slavery Lawrence, 40 miles southwest of Kansas City on Aug. 21, 1863.
Four hundred of Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas rode in, ransacked homes, shot civilians, looted stores and set fire to the town.
Reverend Snyder was shot while milking his cow. Mayor George Collamore hid in a well but died of smoke inhalation — while the rest of his family survived.
George Ellis, a free black man, saw his father killed, but he survived by hiding in dense bushes near the Kansas River. His brother Ben and mother Jane also survived.
Free-State leader James H. Lane hid in a cornfield and survived. Charles Robinson, the state governor and a leader of the Free-State movement, also escaped death.
Hugh Dunn Fisher, chaplain with the 5th Kansas Cavalry home on sick leave, hid underneath the cellar stairs but survived even after Quantrill’s men burned the house down. The rest of the family also made it.
Throughout the day, panicked townsfolk hid wherever they could or jumped into the Kansas River to escape the carnage.
As the day went on, terror spread throughout the town, with panicked citizens fleeing into nearby ravines, hiding in cellars or cornfields, and attempting to escape across the Kansas River.
By nightfall the raiders left the smoking ruins, leaving behind 160 to 190 dead men and boys — 20 percent of the town’s males — and 85 traumatized widows.
It was a dark day in Confederate history.
Later, most of the Lawrence raiders fled to Texas, where they broke into several smaller bands and continued raiding all the way to Kentucky until about a month after the Civil War formally ended when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9.
(North-South skirmishes would continue another 16 months.)
On May 10, 1865, near Taylorsville, Ky., William Quantrill was shot in the chest when his band was ambushed by Union forces.
He was transported to a military prison hospital in Louisville and died on June 6.
Unionists consider William Quantrill as a terrorist and outlaw, while Confederacy sympathizers remembered him as a celebrity and war hero.
During Reconstruction, jobs were hard to find, so desperate unemployed ex-soldiers used the brutal wartime tactics they’d learned to give birth to postwar banditry terrorizing much of the West until the 20th century.
Jesse James spent 16 years robbing and killing after the war.
He was shot to death in St. Joseph, Mo., on April 3, 1882, by fellow gang member Robert Ford, who betrayed him for the reward money.
Jesse was a killer, but pulp fiction depicted him as a Robin Hood battling the greedy landowners and ruthless bankers.
His brother, Frank, worked at a variety of jobs during his last 30 years and died at age 72 in 1915 at the family farm near Kearney, Mo.
The law caught up with all four Younger Brothers.
John was killed in a shootout with Pinkerton detectives, and the others were convicted of robbery and murder, and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Bob Younger died in prison in 1889; Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901, but Jim committed suicide the following year. Cole was pardoned in 1903 and worked for a while in Wild West shows and carnivals, then retired to his hometown of Lee’s Summit, Mo., where he died of a heart attack.
But history has been kind to some of those outlaws to this day — including Quantrill Raider members James and Younger brothers whose post-Civil War occupation was robbing banks and trains.
Yet they still became folk heroes.
Since Quantrill’s Raiders were guerillas and not regular soldiers, they were denied the general amnesty given to the Confederate army after the war ended.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Returning to outlaw life…
“An embittered Cole continued to associate with his old war comrades and in the midst of the tumultuous Reconstruction in Missouri, some former soldiers turned outlaws. Claiming to be taking revenge against Yankee capitalist banks and railroads, the James-Younger Gang made its first robbery on February 13, 1866, when the men stormed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri taking over $60,000 in cash and bonds.”
— Legends of America
“Free-Soiler” anti-slavery proponents said having slaves was unethical and inhumane, and as one report said, “would allow rich slaveholders to control the land, to the exclusion of white non-slaveholders who regardless of their moral inclinations did not have the means to acquire either slaves or sizable land holdings for themselves.”
Frank James Obituary…
“Frank James surrendered in Jefferson City, Missouri. After his surrender James was taken to Independence, Missouri, where he was held in jail three weeks, and later to Gallatin, where he remained in jail a year awaiting trial. Finally James was acquitted and went to Oklahoma to live with his mother. He never was in the penitentiary and never was convicted of any of the charges against him.”
— New York Times
Postwar James-Younger Gang…
The James and Younger gangs’ activities after the Civil War took place in much of the central part of the country robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches in at least 11 states: Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and West Virginia.
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Invitation to readers …
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Community History Popcorn stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at email@example.com.