Lawrence Massacre (aka Battle of Lawrence) and Quantrill's Raid into Kansas

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William Quantrill's Raid into Kansas and the Lawrence Massacre

Other Name(s): Lawrence Massacre, Battle of Lawrence, Quantrill's Lawrence Raid, Quantrill's Raid into Kansas

Location: Douglas County, Kansas

Campaign: Quantrill’s Raid into Kansas (1863)

Date(s): August 21, 1863

Principal Commanders: No Union commander [US]; Lt. Col. William Clarke Quantrill [CS]

Forces Engaged: No Union troops [US]; Quantrill's Raiders and other guerrillas [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 204 total (US 164; CS 40)

Result(s): Confederate victory

Quantrill Lawrence Kansas Massacre Map
Quantrill Lawrence Kansas Massacre Map.gif
Quantrill's Raiders Lawrence Kansas Massacre Map

Introduction: The Lawrence Massacre, also known as Quantrill's raid, was a rebel guerrilla attack during the American Civil War by Quantrill's Raiders, led by William Quantrill, on the Union town of Lawrence, Kansas. The attack on August 21, 1863, targeted Lawrence due to the town's long support of abolition and its reputation as a center for Jayhawkers and Redlegs, which were free-state militia and vigilante groups known for attacking and destroying farms and plantations in Missouri's pro-slavery western counties.

Summary: In a supposed retaliation for a Union raid on Osceola, Missouri, Lt. Col. William C. Quantrill led a force of about 300 to 400 partisans in an attack on the city of Lawrence, Kansas. His men killed civilians—men and boys—and destroyed many of the buildings. He held the town several hours and then withdrew. The Civil War atrocities that transpired between Missouri and Kansas were a direct result of the Kansas-Missouri Border War (1854-1861), which is commonly referred to as Bleeding Kansas. The “Lawrence Massacre” was, perhaps, the extreme example of the vicious Kansas-Missouri border warfare. See also Kansas Civil War History.

Attack: The attack was the product of careful planning. Quantrill had been able to gain the confidence of many of the leaders of independent Bushwhacker groups, and chose the day and time of the attack well in advance. The different groups of Missouri riders approached Lawrence from the east in several independent columns, and converged with well-timed precision in the final miles before Lawrence during the pre-dawn hours of the appointed day. Many of the men had been riding for over 24 hours to make the rendezvous and had lashed themselves to their saddles to keep riding if they fell asleep. Almost all were armed with multiple six-shot revolvers.

Lawrence and the Civil War
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Kansas Civil War Battlefields

Between three and four hundred riders arrived at the summit of Mount Oread, then descended on Lawrence in a fury. Over four hours, the raiders pillaged and set fire to the town and killed most of its male population. Quantrill's men burned to the ground a quarter of the buildings in Lawrence, including all but two businesses. They looted most of the banks and stores and killed between 185 and 200 men and boys. According to an 1897 account, among the dead were 18 of 23 unmustered army recruits. By 9 a.m., the raiders were on their way out of town, evading the few units that followed in earnest, and splitting up so as to avoid Union pursuit of a unified column.

The raid was less a battle than a mass execution. Two weeks prior to the raid, a Lawrence newspaper boasted, "Lawrence has ready for any emergency over five hundred fighting men...every one of who would like to see [Quantrill's raiders]". However, a squad of soldiers temporarily stationed in Lawrence had returned to Fort Leavenworth, and due to the surprise, swiftness, and fury of the initial assault, the local militia was unable to assemble and mount a defense. Most of the victims of the raid were unarmed when gunned down.

With revenge a principal motive, Quantrill’s raiders entered Lawrence with lists of men to be killed and buildings to be burned. Senator James H. Lane was at the top of the list. Lane was a military leader and chief political proponent of the jayhawking raids that had cut a swath of death, plundering, and arson through western Missouri (including the destruction of Osceola) in the early months of the Civil War. Lane escaped death by racing through a cornfield in his nightshirt. John Speer had been put into the newspaper business by Lane, was one of Lane’s chief political backers, and was also on the list. Speer likewise escaped execution, but two of his sons were killed in the raid. (One of Speer's sons may have been the same John L. Speer that appeared on a list of redlegs previously issued by the Union military.) Speer’s youngest son, fifteen-year-old Billy, may have been included on the death lists, but he was released by Quantrill’s men after giving them a false name. The Speer boy later shot one of the raiders during their exit from Lawrence, causing one of the few casualties among Quantrill’s command while in Lawrence. Charles L. Robinson, first governor of Kansas and a prominent abolitionist, may also have been on the list, though he maintained he was spared because Quantrill respected his efforts to keep peace on the border at the start of the war.

Lawrence Kansas Massacre Map
Lawrence Kansas Massacre.jpg
Lawrence Kansas Massacre Map

(Right) Location of Lawrence

While many of the victims of the raid had been specifically targeted beforehand, executions were more indiscriminate among segments of the raiders, particularly Todd's band that operated in the western part of Lawrence. The men and boys riding with "Bloody Bill" Anderson also accounted for a disproportionate number of the Lawrence dead. The raid devolved into extreme brutality. The survivors reported that one man was shot while in the arms of his pleading wife, that another was killed with a toddler in his arms, that a group of men who had surrendered under assurances of safety were then gunned down, and that a pair of men were bound and forced into a burning building where they died in horrible agony. Another dramatic story was told in a letter written on September 7, 1863, by H.M. Simpson, whose entire family narrowly escaped death by hiding in a nearby cornfield as the massacre raged all around them: "My father was very slow to get into the cornfield. He was so indignant at the ruffians that he was unwilling to retreat before them. My little children were in the field three hours. They seemed to know that if they cried the noise would betray their parents whereabouts, & so they kept as still as mice. The baby was very hungry & I gave her an ear of raw green corn which she ate ravenously."

The youth of some of the victims is often characterized as a particularly reprehensible aspect of the raid. Bobbie Martin is generally cited as being the youngest victim; some histories of the raid state he was twelve years old, while others state he was fourteen. Most accounts state he was wearing a Union soldier uniform or clothing made from his father’s uniform; some state he was carrying a musket and cartridges. (For perspective on the age of participants in the conflict, it has been estimated that about 800,000 Union soldiers were seventeen years of age or younger, with about 100,000 of those being fifteen or younger.) Most of Quantrill’s guerrilla fighters were teenagers. One of the youngest was Riley Crawford, who was thirteen when brought by his mother to Quantrill after her husband was shot and her home burned by Union soldiers.

(Sources listed below.)

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Sources: National Park Service; Library of Congress; National Archives; Official Record of the Union and Confederate Armies; Albert E. Castel. Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind (1997); Albert E. Castel. William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times (1999); Thomas Goodrich, Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre (1992); Paul I. Wellman. A Dynasty of Western Outlaws (1961).

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