Part 3: The Lawrence Raid

{Editor's note: In preparation for this year's Border War, RMN reader Keith Piontek has authored a four-part series on the origins of the Missouri/Kansas rivalry. Today, we have part three.}


No event in the real Border War is more infamous than Quantrill’s raid on Lawence, Kansas.  The raid is often described as an unprovoked attack on the innocent citizens of Lawrence, having no legitimate military objectives, comprised of heinous crimes without precedent, and on a scale far surpassing the outrages that precipitated it.  This article provides a foundation of facts upon which the fairness of these characterizations can be assessed.  This article does not attempt to justify the raid; there is no justification for the horrors perpetrated during the raid.  However, this article does attempt to establish that, in the context of what had preceded the raid, the events of August 21, 1863 are understandable, and were predictable. 

The origin of the Missouri-Kansas conflict during the Civil War lay in Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the ensuing struggle between abolitionist and pro-slavery forces for victory in the Kansas statehood elections. Both sides demonstrated they would engage in nearly any means (legal, extra-legal, or illegal) to win the elections. After John Brown (of later Harpers Ferry infamy) brutally hacked to death a number of pro-slavery Kansas settlers in 1856, the struggle turned increasingly brutal and bloody. Ruffians on both sides engaged in theft, murder and various other forms of mayhem. The border ruffians on the pro-slavery side came to be known as jayhawkers, while those on the pro-slavery side were called bushwhackers. Free-state forces eventually prevailed, and Kansas joined the United States in 1861. In looking back on the territorial period, neither side in the conflict could claim innocence in the lawless struggle. However, an early historian of that era (of New England stock and a KU professor at the time of his writing) observed, “…in comparison with the Missourians, whose sins were black enough, jayhawkers were the superior devils.”


In the early years of the Civil War, the “deviltry” turned into hell for many Missourians.  After the election of Lincoln, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the outbreak of open hostilities between North and South, a variety of unprincipled opportunists from Kansas declared total war on western Missouri.  Some Kansans who enlisted with the Union forces undoubtedly were motivated by noble virtues of freedom and equality.  However, many who joined the armed camps springing up in Kansas had more dubious motives.  One of their leaders was Jim Lane, an unprincipled demagogue who was driven much more by ambition than by abolition. When his career as a politician in Indiana began to falter, Lane immigrated to Kansas looking for opportunity.  Lane admitted that “if Kansas had been a good hemp and tobacco state, I would have favored slavery.”  After gauging the political winds in Kansas, Lane abandoned his Democratic Party background for radical Republicanism, stoked the fires of animosity against Missourians into conflict, and rode the ensuing maelstrom to political power.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lane wheedled a military commission from the Lincoln administration, and proceeded to raise an army.    


The promise of plunder helped to fill the ranks of the forces being raised by Lane and his cohorts.  The hardships of life on the Kansas prairies had resulted in a steady stream of former settlers heading back east throughout the territorial period.  The Panic of 1857 resulted in a dramatic drop in land values, and many of those that had settled Kansas to speculate in land were reduced to paupers.  Then, in 1860 a great drought began.  For more than a year little or no rain fell, and crops failed. It has been estimated that up to approximately one-third of the population of Kansas Territory, facing economic ruin and possible starvation, pulled up stakes and left, with another one-third rendered completely destitute, too poor to move, and dependent on charity.  Because of its older and more robust socio-economy, Missouri remained a land of relative riches.  With the outbreak of war, many impoverished Kansans jumped at the chance to improve their economic status at the expense of the Missourians.


 One of the first groups to take advantage were the Southern Kansas Jay-Hawkers (later the Seventh Kansas Cavalry), under the command of the notorious Charles Jennison.  As the Civil War unfolded, the term Jayhawker became synonymous with Kansans who used the causes of anti-slavery and Unionism as cover for criminal and predatory activities. As an Illinois newspaper editor reported, “A Jayhawker is a Unionist who professes to rob, burn out, and murder only rebels in arms against the government…They are all lawless and indiscriminate in their inequities.


With many able-bodied Missouri men away in either Confederate or Union arms, jayhawkers under the command of men such as Lane and Jennison had free play among the women, children, and old men who remained across the border. The Jayhawkers had taken to heart the years of anti-Missouri propaganda. In the words of one Kansas abolitionist, “When I deal with men made in God’s image, I will never shoot them; but these pro-slavery Missourians are demons from the bottomless pit and may be shot with impunity.


The jayhawkers swept through western Missouri in a campaign of theft, arson, torture, and murder.  Between September 1861 and the February 1862, a whole string of Missouri towns were plundered and burned.  Osceola (about the same size as Lawrence, Kansas) was completely burned to the ground, and effectively wiped from the Missouri map.  Among the other population centers reduced to ashes were Morristown, Papinsville, Butler, Dayton, and Columbus.  Additionally, hundreds of families were burned out of their homes in the farmlands around Pleasant Hill, Rose Hill, Kingsville, and Lexington. In their predations, the jayhawkers made little effort to distinguish between Union and Secessionist among the Missouri residents. 


By the spring of 1862, less than a year after the opening salvos of the Civil War had been fired at Fort Sumter, much of the wealth of western Missouri had been stripped off by the marauding Kansans.  Millions of dollars in property were stolen or destroyed. Wagon trains of booty and herds of stolen livestock were taken into Lawrence and other bases of jayhawking operations.  Hundreds of Missourians were dead.  Sometimes the lucky ones were the men that were shot, hung, or burned. Thousands of wives and children were now without husband and father, without home, and completely dispossessed.  One illustration of the human suffering caused by the raids comes from a Jayhawker sergeant’s report: “…we saw a woman approaching from down the dreary, uninhabited roadway. She was on foot and was carrying a baby hugged to her breast, with four little children also walking…All were in their nightclothes and all wet to the skin; children crying from cold and hunger. The babe was dead…the mother died from exposure within 36 hours. The four children were sent to four different homes.”


The criminal nature and motivation of the Jayhawkers was amply documented in contemporary reports and correspondence.  During the summer of 1861, the surgeon in Montgomery’s Jayhawker command described most in his regiments as “villains who joined the force for protection in their plundering operations.” Lieutenant Colonel Daniel R. Anthony, a senior officer in Jennison‘s Southern Kansas Jay-Hawkers, wrote his brother-in-law back east about the benefits of jayhawking, “Don’t you want a captaincy or a majorship in the army - or don’t you want to come out here and speculate in cattle - horses and mules - there is a good chance to buy cheap - and stock a farm here at little expense - I would advise you to come out and try it.”


At the outbreak of the war, most Missourians had remained Unionist.  Fewer than 5,000 had responded to the initial call of Missouri secessionists to join the Confederate armies.  However, with the Jayhawkers operating under the flag of the Union, many Missourians came to view the war as nothing more than a federally sanctioned invasion of hearth and home.  At the outset of his jayhawking expedition into Missouri, perhaps as justification for the indiscriminate looting that was to ensue, Jennison had proclaimed, “…neutrality is ended.  If you are patriots you must fight (for the Union), if you are traitors you must be punished.”  Forced to choose, Missourians now flocked to the flag of the Confederacy.  


Too late, high-ranking Union leaders realized the damage that the Jayhawkers had wrought. General Henry Halleck, Commander of the Department of the West, wrote of the Jayhawkers: “They are no better than a band of robbers; they cross the line, rob, steal, plunder, and burn whatever they can lay their hands upon. They disgrace the name and uniform of American soldiers. The course pursued by those under Lane and Jennison, has turned against us many thousands who were formerly Union men.”

Some in the federal command sought to curtail the criminal actions of the jayhawkers, but the genie was already out of the bottle. Because the conventional Confederate forces in the region were forced to stay south of the Missouri-Arkansas border after their defeat at the battle of Pea Ridge, the young men and boys of Missouri who wished to protect their homes and oppose the jayhawkers had only one choice, to join the irregular Confederate forces.  Some joined the Missouri Partisan Rangers to resist the jayhawkers and oppose the Union army of occupation.  Other Missourians conducted their own raids into Kansas and against pro-Union Missourians.  Some sought the return of stolen goods, some sought revenge for murdered friends and family, others were simply the Missouri bushwhacker version of the low-life jayhawkers.  The violence continued to spiral downward. Unable or unwilling to differentiate between the legitimate activities of Missouri Partisan Rangers and the bushwhackers, Union forces adopted severe policies against all in arms against the Union. One such policy was execution of captured Missouri guerillas. This only steepened the descent into the horrors of total war.  An inspector general of the Union army, tasked with reporting on the impact of the no-prisoners policy in Missouri, wrote “The existing practice enables evil-disposed soldiers to rob and murder loyal and inoffensive citizens under the cover that they were acting as bushwhackers.” In retaliation, Union soldiers captured by Missouri Partisan Rangers and guerillas, formerly paroled, were now also summarily executed.


Another Union policy unleashed in western Missouri was the imprisonment of female relatives of known and suspected Missouri guerillas. In the summer of 1863, the collapse of a Union jail for women in Kansas City killed five of these young women, and crippled several more for life.  Many believed the collapse was intentional (it is notable that no Union soldiers or guards were injured or killed in the event.)


Within a week of the jail collapse, a force of several hundred revenge-minded Missourians was on its way to Lawrence, Kansas and the history books.  Lawrence was the home of the detested Senator Jim Lane, was a center of jayhawking operations, and was a veritable warehouse of goods stolen from Missouri.  The gang of redlegs (a variant of the jayhawkers) based in Lawrence “contained men of the most desperate and hardened character, and a full recital of their deeds would sound like the biography of devils. Either the people of Lawrence could not drive out the freebooters, or they thought it mattered little what might happen to Missouri disloyalists.” 


Aristotle observed, "Men regard it as their right to return evil for evil – and, if they cannot, feel they have lost their liberty." Shakespeare wrote, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” But perhaps no-one stated the motivation of Quantrill more eloquently than a subordinate who described his commander as, “favoring the old dispensation to the new, that is, the gospel of Moses to that of Jesus Christ.” Quantrill decided that it would an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

The guerillas were hardened by the nature of the attack on their homes and families, and by the “extreme measures” used against them by Union forces. Bill Anderson, soon to be known as “Bloody Bill”, lost a sister in the jail collapse. Cole Younger’s father, a staunch Union man, had been murdered.  The four Kimberlin brothers, including 12-year-old Julian, fought under Quantrill after their father was hung from the rafter of his own barn and their home burned.   One Quantrill man’s 13-year-old brother was shot on charges he helped feed the guerillas.  In the words of a guerilla biographer,

“Almost from the first a large majority of Quantrill’s original command had over them the shadow of some terrible crime. This one recalled a father murdered, this one a brother waylaid and shot, this one a house pillaged and burnt, this one a relative assassinated, this one a grievous insult while at peace at home, this one a robbery of all his earthly possessions, this one the force which compelled him to witness the brutal treatment of a mother or sister, this one was driven away from his own life a thief in the night, this one was threatened with death for opinion's sake, this one was proscribed at the instance of some designing neighbor, this one was arrested wantonly and forced to do the degrading work of a menial; while all had more or less of wrath laid up against the day when they were to meet face to face and hand to hand those whom they had good cause to regard as the living embodiment of unnumbered wrongs.”

Yes, the revenge of the guerillas riding under Quantrill would be severe.


Prior to the jayhawking expeditions of Lane and Jennison in 1861-1862, Governor Robinson of Kansas had tried to stop Lane and his ilk, stating there was little for Kansans to fear from secessionist forces in Missouri, but warning “…what we do have to fear…is that Lane’s brigade will get up a war by going over the line, committing depredations, and then returning into our State.”  That warning went unheeded, and on August 21, 1863, the people of Lawrence would pay the price. 


Quantrill failed in a primary objective of the Lawrence raid, the capture of Senator Jim Lane. Furthermore, many of the red legs headquartered in Lawrence were gone that day.  However, Quantrill and his men were not to be denied their revenge. It would be as lawless and brutal as the months of depredations wreaked on Missourians by the jayhawkers, and it would be compressed into a single day.  Quantrill’s men gunned down and killed approximately 150 male residents of Lawrence (from a total population of slightly over 2,000). Approximately one-quarter of the buildings in Lawrence were put to the torch.


The retaliatory nature of the attack on Lawrence was confirmed by the survivors.  “The universal testimony of all the ladies and others who talked with the butchers of the 21st ult. Is that these demons claimed there were here to revenge the wrongs done their families by our men under Lane, Jennison, Anthony and Co.”   


In response came one of the final escalations of the conflict.  Union General Thomas Ewing had already been frustrated by the inability of his forces to defeat the Partisan Rangers operating out of western Missouri, and in the wake of the Lawrence raid he was under intense political pressure to act.  Jayhawker leader Jim Lane was calling for the men of Kansas to assemble on the border for the purpose of marching into Missouri and carrying out a campaign of “devastation and extermination.”  Four days after the Lawrence raid, General Ewing issued General Order No. 11, which called for the immediate and forced depopulation of several counties along Missouri’s western border.   Most of the soldiers that enforced the order were Kansans who welcomed such a splendid opportunity to once again punish and prey upon the Missourians.  A high ranking official in Missouri’s Union state government described how under the Order men “were shot down in the very act of obeying the order, and their wagons and effects seized by their murderers.” 


Slavery was an evil that needed to be ended; unfortunately, the war that ultimately ended slavery in the United States was used as cover for criminals such as the Jayhawkers to achieve their own evil ends.  The war in Missouri was particularly brutal. In a post-war speech, Union Brigadier General John B. Sanborn stated “There exists in the breasts of the people of educated and Christian communities wild and ferocious passions…(which when loosed in a guerilla war) become more cruel and destructive than any that live in the breasts of savage and barbarous nations.

Those passions, and the cruel and destructive behavior, occurred in people on both sides of the conflict. Did one side in the conflict take particular pride in it?  The University of Kansas decided in 1890 to call their new football team the Jayhawkers, and later made the Jayhawk the official mascot of the KU athletic teams.  At that time, many Missourians who had lost family, friends, and home in the jayhawking reign of terror during the Civil War were still alive.  Students of the University of Missouri in 1891 were removed from that terror by only a single generation.  Imagine their reaction when “Go Jayhawkers” was chanted at the inaugural MU-KU football game played that year.  If the animosity between Kansans and Missourians had previously started to subside, it was certainly rekindled and stoked at that moment.  The rivalry between Missourians and Kansans would live on, with the battles to be fought on the gridiron and hardwood.  It would come to be known as The Border War.  


Keith Piontek
November  2008



Principal References


Brownlee, Richard S.  Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy, Guerilla Warfare in the West, 1861-1865. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1958.


Castel, Albert .  Civil War Kansas.  University Press of Kansas.  1997.


Castel, Albert.  Order No. 11 and the Civil War on the Border.  Missouri Historical Review 57: 357-68, July 1963. 


Cutler, William G. History of the State of Kansas.  A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL.  1883.


Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.


Goodrich, Thomas. War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998. 320p.


Goodrich, Thomas. Black Flag: Guerilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.


Leslie, Edward E. The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.


Edwards, John N.  Noted Guerrillas or the Warfare of the Border.  1877


Spring, Leverett Wilson.  Kansas, The Prelude to the War for the Union.  New York: Boston Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896.  


Peterson, Paul L.  Quantrill of Missouri.  Cumberland House Publishing, Inc.  2003. 


Traditions, The Jayhawk.  University of Kansas web site.

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