Quantrill’s Raiders were the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (also known as “bushwhackers“) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse James and his brother Frank.
Early in the war Missouri and Kansas were nominally under Union government control and became subject to widespread violence as groups of Confederate bushwhackers and anti-slavery Jayhawkers competed for control. The town of Lawrence, Kansas, a center of anti-slavery sentiment, had outlawed Quantrill’s men and jailed some of their young women. In August 1863 Quantrill led an attack on the town, killing more than 180 civilians, supposedly in retaliation for the casualties caused when the women’s jail had collapsed.
The Confederate government, which had granted Quantrill a field commission under the Partisan Ranger Act, was outraged and withdrew support for such irregular forces. By 1864 Quantrill had lost control of the group, which split up into small bands. Some, including Quantrill, were killed in various engagements. Others lived on to hold reunions many years later, when the name Quantrill’s Raiders began to be used. The James brothers formed their own gang and conducted robberies for years as a continuing insurgency in the region.
For over six years, ever since Kansas was opened up as a territory by Stephen A. Douglas‘ Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, its prairies had been the stage for an almost incessant series of political conventions, raids, massacres, pitched battles, and atrocities, all part of a fierce conflict between the Free State and pro-slavery forces that had come to Kansas to settle and to battle.
In February 1861 Missouri voters elected delegates to a statewide convention, which rejected secession by a vote of 89-1. Unionists, led by regular U.S. Army commander Nathaniel Lyon and Frank Blair of the politically powerful Blair family, fought for political and military control across the state against the increasingly pro-secessionist forces, led by Gov. Claiborne Jackson and future Confederate Gen. Sterling Price. By June there was open warfare between Union forces and troops supporting the Confederacy. Guerrilla warfare erupted throughout the state and intensified in August after the Union defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
One historical work describes the situation in the state after Wilson’s Creek:
Unlike other border areas in Maryland and Kentucky, local conflicts, bushwhacking, sniping, and guerrilla fighting marked this period of Missouri history. “When regular troops were absent, the improvised war often assumed a deadly guerrilla nature as local citizens took up arms spontaneously against their neighbors. This was a war of stealth and raid without a front, without formal organization, and with almost no division between the civilian and the warrior.”
By August 1862, with the Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, the state was free of significant regular Confederate troops. But the insurgent violence in Missouri continued. The most notorious of these guerrilla forces was led by William Clarke Quantrill.
Methods and legal status
Quantrill was not the only Confederate guerrilla operating in Missouri, but he rapidly gained the greatest notoriety. He and his men ambushed Union patrols and supply convoys, seized the mail, and occasionally struck towns on either side of the Kansas-Missouri border. Reflecting the internecine nature of the guerrilla conflict in Missouri, Quantrill directed much of his effort against pro-Union civilians, attempting to drive them from the territory where he operated. Quantrill’s guerrillas attacked Jayhawkers, Union militia, and U.S. forces, relying primarily on ambush and raids.
Under his direction Confederate guerrillas perfected military tactics such as disguises, coordinated and synchronized attacks, planned dispersal after an attack using pre-planned routes and relays of horses; and technical methods, including the use of multiple .36-cal. Colt revolvers for increased firepower and their improved accuracy over the .44-cal.
On 15 August 1862 Quantrill was granted a field commission as a captain in the Confederate army under the Confederate Partisan Ranger Act. Other officers were elected by the men. Quantrill often referred to himself as a colonel. Despite the legal responsibility assumed by the Confederate government, Quantrill often acted on his own with little concern for his government’s policy or orders. His most notable operation was the Lawrence Massacre, a revenge raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863.
Lawrence had historically been the base of operations for abolitionist and jayhawker organizations. Pro-slavery forces also operated in the area, as both sides tried to gain power to determine whether Kansas would authorize slavery. During the period of border warfare (1855–61), the region became known as “Bleeding Kansas” in the press. During the Civil War, abolitionists, redlegs, jayhawkers, and Union soldiers made irregular raids into western Missouri, where slavery was concentrated in the area known as Little Dixie along the Missouri River. There were incidents of robberies, theft, arson and the murder of citizens committed by each side.
In August 1863 Union authorities assigned to the border were frustrated by the hit-and-run tactics of Quantrill’s guerrillas and particularly the aid provided by Confederate sympathizers in Western Missouri. Authorities began imprisoning the female family members of the known guerrillas, with the intent of banishing them. These females, some teenagers, were jailed in Kansas City, Missouri, in the house of artist George Caleb Bingham on Grand Street. The adjoining structure had been altered and Bingham had added an extra story to his house. The structure collapsed, maiming and killing several women. The deaths of the women outraged the pro-southern guerrillas.
Calling for revenge, Quantrill organized a unified partisan raid on Lawrence. Coordinating across vast distances, small bands of partisans rode across 50 miles of open prairie to rendezvous on Mount Oread in the early morning hours before the raid. Quantrill’s men burned a quarter of the town’s buildings and killed at least 150 men and boys. One of the main targets of the raid, abolitionist U.S. Sen. Jim Lane, escaped by fleeing into corn fields. The Lawrence raid was the most deadly and infamous operation of Missouri’s Confederate guerrillas.
The Confederate leadership was appalled by the raid and withdrew even tacit support from the “bushwhackers”. Following the raid, Quantrill led his men behind Confederate lines down to Texas, where they wintered in 1863-64. Along the way, they attacked Fort Baxter and massacred more than 100 Union troops near Baxter Springs, Kansas. In Texas they continued to embarrass the Confederate command by their often lawless actions.
Some Confederate officers appreciated the effectiveness of these irregulars against Union forces, which rarely gained the upper hand over them, especially Quantrill. Among these was Gen. Joseph O. Shelby. He rode south into Mexico with his troops rather than surrender at the end of the war. His command was remembered as “The Undefeated”.
Among Quantrill’s men was a freedman named John Noland. One of Quantrill’s scouts, he was reputed to be his best one. Noland helped to scout Lawrence before the 1863 raid. He joined Quantrill’s raiders because of the abuse his family suffered at the hands of Kansas jayhawkers. Post-war pictures show him sitting with comrades at reunions of the Raiders.
In the 1999 movie Ride with the Devil, depicting a group of fictionalized Missouri bushwhackers, the character of Daniel Holt was representative of John Noland.
Dissolution and aftermath
During late winter 1863, Quantrill lost his hold over his men. In early 1864 the guerrillas returned from Texas to Missouri in separate bands, none led by Quantrill.
Quantrill’s guerrillas, as a group, did not maintain operations in winters along the border. Quantrill took his men to , over winter and offered his services to the Confederacy. Their assignments included attacking teamsters who supplied the Union, repelling Union and Jayhawker raids into northern Texas, warding off Indian attacks, and policing and rounding-up deserters roaming in Texas and Oklahoma. The guerrillas were rowdy, undisciplined, and dangerous. Quantrill lost his control of the men in the winter of 1863-64.
The men split into bands and were commanded by lieutenants, “Bloody” Bill Anderson and George Todd. These guerrillas returned to Missouri in early 1864, while Quantrill took several of his loyal troops east towards Kentucky. In Kentucky, pro-Union soldiers and hired killers tracked Quantrill and his men. They were cornered in a barn, where a shootout resulted in Quantrill being injured in the spine, unable to move. He was arrested, but reportedly died a week later from his wounds.
William Anderson’s splinter group of guerrillas was assigned to duty in 1864 north of the Missouri River, during the Gen. Sterling Price raid. He was to disrupt Union operations north of the Missouri River, and draw Union troops toward his cavalry command. Anderson was reportedly shot dead north of Orrick. His body was dragged through the streets of Richmond, Missouri. His grave marker is located in the old Mormon Pioneer cemetery, in the extreme southwest corner, behind some pine trees and near the road.
George Todd’s splinter group was attached to Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s raid south of the Missouri River. He functioned as a cavalry scout. Todd died after being shot out of his saddle by a Union sniper, north of Independence, Missouri, a day before the Battle of Westport.
Some of the guerrillas continued under the leadership of Archie Clement. He kept a group together after the war and harassed the state government of Missouri during the tumultuous year of 1866. In December 1866, state militiamen killed Clement in Lexington. Several of his men continued as outlaws, emerging in time as the James-Younger Gang. The last survivor of Quantrill’s Raiders died in 1940.
- The Audie Murphy film, Kansas Raiders, deals with Quantrill’s Raiders in the period immediately after the Civil War.
- In the film Bandolero!, Mace Bishop (James Stewart) compares his riding with Union General Sherman to his brother Dee Bishop’s (Dean Martin) riding with Quantrill as “war versus meanness”.
- The film The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) has Randolph Scott playing Jeff Travis, a former spy for Quantrill’s Raiders, who rides to Arizona to start a new life, but finds that his reputation has preceded him.
- The film Dark Command (1940) deals with the fictional William Cantrell’s Raiders, also led by a partisan made an officer by the Confederacy.
- In the films True Grit, protagonist Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne in the original 1969 version and Jeff Bridges in the 2010 version) prides himself for having been part of Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War. He has a cat named General Sterling Price after the notable Confederate general from Missouri.
- The main character of the film The Outlaw Josey Wales joins Bloody Bill Anderson’s unit after his family is murdered by Jayhawkers.
- season 4 episode 8 of Little House on the Prairie called The Aftermath, was about Jesse James and his brother Frank who holed up in Walnut Grove and references Quantrill’s Raiders throughout
- Ride with the Devil (1999), starring Tobey Maguire and Jewel, depicts Quantrill’s Raiders and the Missouri-Kansas conflict.
- In the 1978 movie Goin’ South, Jack Nicholson plays Henry Lloyd Moon, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders.
- Lone Ranger episode “The Twisted Track” is about a member of Quantrill’s Raiders (William Henry) seeking revenge against a Union officer.
- The movie The Hateful Eight makes references to the Mannix Marauders, a fictionalized version of Quantrill’s Raiders.
- Season 1, episode 20 of Gunsmoke titled “Reunion ’78” shows a survivor of a Quantrill raid ten year earlier seeking revenge on a raider.
Literary fiction and music
- Quantrill’s Raiders are a major element in Wildwood Boys (William Morrow, New York; 2000), a biographical novel of “Bloody Bill” Anderson by James Carlos Blake.
- In the song “Frank and Jesse James” on his 1976 eponymous album, Warren Zevon sings about young Frank and Jesse James when “they joined up with Quantrill” just after “war broke out between the states”.
- Castel (1997) pp. 1-2
- Nevins (1959) pp. 120-129, 310-316
- Donald, Baker, and Holt (2001) p. 177. The quote within the larger quote was from Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War, (1989) p. 23.
- Nichols, Bruce. Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri, 1862. McFarland and Company, Inc., 2004, pp. 48-9
- Schultz (1996) p. 117
- Keegan 2009, p. 270.
- Casualties are based on the more recent scholarship of Dr. Michael Fellman of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. See Fellman (1989) cited above and referenced below, p. 25 and 254.
- Wellman, 1961.
- “A Hard History Lesson: A Civil War Tragedy Details a Lynching”, Star Local media
- Castel, Albert.Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. (1997) ISBN 0-7006-0872-9. This is a revised version of the 1958 edition, with a new introduction and some text corrections.
- Donald, David Herbert; Baker, Jean Harvey; and Holt, Michael F. The Civil War and Reconstruction. (2001) ISBN 0-393-97427-8
- Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri in the American Civil War. (1989) ISBN 0-19-506471-2
- Gilmore, Donald. Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (2006) ISBN 978-158980-329-9
- Nevins, Allan. The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861-1862. (1959) SBN 684-10426-1
- Petersen, Paul. Quantrill of Missouri (2003) ISBN 1-58182-359-2
- Petersen, Paul. Quantrill in Texas (2007) ISBN 978-1-58182-582-4
- Petersen, Paul. Quantrill at Lawrence (2011) ISBN 978-1-58980-909-3
- Schultz, Duane. Quantrill’s War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill. (1996) ISBN 0-312-14710-4