The Story of Kansas

150 years later, Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence still stirs deep emotions – on both sides

After 150 years, the emotions and opinions are still raw.

Generations of Kansans have been taught that thieving, bloodthirsty Missourians ripped Lawrence men from their families in the early morning hours of Aug. 21, 1863, and shot them in the dusty streets of Lawrence.

“It was utterly catastrophic,” said Pat Kehde, a retired Lawrence bookstore owner and great-granddaughter of Ralph and Jetta Dix.

On the morning of the raid, Jetta tried to protect Ralph by standing between William Quantrill’s men and her husband. When Jetta stumbled as one of Quantrill’s men rode his horse into her, Ralph was momentarily unguarded and in that instant was shot and killed.

“It is very real to me,” Kehde said. “Ralph was not an abolitionist. No one calls it a raid. It was a massacre.”

And yet, generations of Missourians have also been taught how thieving, vengeful Kansans displaced families, shot men and scorched the earth of four Missouri counties bordering Kansas.

Tom Rafiner, a Missouri historian, is a descendant of two families who were displaced – first by James Lane’s Kansas brigade, which marched over 600 miles in western Missouri plundering and burning farms; and later by Union military Order No. 11, which ordered the evacuation of the four Missouri counties.

“I think the bloodshed that occurred in Lawrence was catastrophic,” Rafiner said. “The fact that Lawrence was attacked isn’t surprising. It was in retaliation for what Lane did to Missouri, and Lane lived in Lawrence. If people wanted to know what would be the most likely place for Missouri raiders to attack, it would be Lawrence.

“But then, people in Kansas don’t want to talk about all the towns and villages and farmers that were burned to the ground by Kansas troops and raiders.”

Fifteen decades after Quantrill and 400 of his men rode into town, the impact is still felt.

Lasting impact

The attack on Lawrence, said Kansas historian Thomas Goodrich, was “Kansas’ 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. It was the singular event in Kansas history known for its startling savagery and black drama. Nothing even comes close to it.”

“This is a story of how the state’s second-largest city was wiped off the earth and a black mushroom cloud that rose up like Hiroshima from all the burning buildings could be seen in seven counties around Lawrence. Nearly 200 of the state’s most prominent citizens were murdered that day,” Goodrich said.

Quantrill’s attack on Lawrence, which had about 3,000 residents at the time, helped define and shape not only Lawrence but also Kansas as well, historians say.

“It’s the kind of event that makes a mark on the identity of a community,” said Steve Novak, director of the Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence. “We defined ourselves based on the resilience it took to overcome the raid. There was a determination to keep the downtown a vital community center.”

And the raid effectively slowed the growth of Lawrence, one of the major cities in Kansas at the time. Instead, cities farther west, including Wichita, gained a foothold and began to grow, Goodrich said.

“Lawrence received such a terrific shock, it was set back,” he said. “After the raid, a third of its population left.”

The story still resonates in modern culture, said Lawrence historian Paul Stuewe, because the American public lives with the concept of terrorism on a daily basis: the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and the Boston Marathon bombing.

“We are in an age where we have a war on terrorism, and we talk about terrorism all the time,” Stuewe said. “But we don’t think about the 19th-century terrorism.

“This was about attacking an unarmed city, murdering unarmed men in front of wives and children. If that would happen today, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would go crazy with 24-hour coverage.”

To observe the anniversary, both Missouri and Lawrence historical groups organized tours of key sites along the path Quantrill and his raiders took. And, on the anniversary day Wednesday, both sides plan to tell the story through actual time on Twitter.

Rivalry, movies and rock groups

Most college freshmen entering the University of Kansas today probably don’t understand the tension that used to rise when University of Missouri teams came to play in Lawrence, said Goodrich.

“I’ve noticed rivalries around the country,” he said. “Alabama and Auburn are not even close to what we had. Most people don’t get it.

“This is something that is passed down from generation to generation – your dad hated them because his dad hated them.”

The tensions between Missouri and Kansas have become part of popular culture.

The September 1861 sacking and raiding of Osceola, Mo., by Kansas Jayhawkers was the premise for the 1976 Clint Eastwood movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” And the 1999 movie “Ride With the Devil,” featuring Tobey Maguire and Jewell, told of the Lawrence raid from the Missouri perspective.

The rock group Kansas featured fiery abolitionist John Brown on its 1974 album cover "Kansas.”

President Harry Truman, who grew up in Independence, Mo., would often tell the story of how Kansas Jayhawkers stole his family’s silverware, killed his family’s hogs and burned the hay and barns.

A popular T-shirt includes John Steuart Curry’s iconic painting of John Brown and the saying, “KANSAS: Keeping America safe from Missouri since 1854.”

A T-shirt with a Missouri point of view says, “William Quantrill is my homeboy.”

The attack

William Quantrill first came to Kansas in 1859 at age 22. He eventually ended up in Lawrence, where he taught school for a year.

He orchestrated a raid into Missouri to liberate some slaves. But before the raid took place, he warned the slaves’ owner, and the ensuing skirmish left three free-state Kansans dead.

Kansans wanted to charge him with murder, so Quantrill fled to Missouri.

Within a year, he was leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate guerrilla group that quickly gained notoriety for harassing Union soldiers and residents living along the Kansas-Missouri border.

In 1860, Quantrill wrote a letter to his mother explaining his politics, according to the book “Quantrill of Missouri: The Making of a Guerrilla Warrior: The Man, the Myth, the Soldier” by Paul R. Petersen.

Quantrill wrote: “You have undoubtedly heard of the wrongs committed in this territory by the southern people, or pro slavery party, but when one once knows the facts they can easily see that it has been the opposite party that have been the main movers in the troubles & by far the most lawless set of people in the country.”

By the summer of 1863, emotions were at an all-time high.

Federal soldiers began rounding up friends and relatives of known or suspected Confederate guerrillas and putting them in Kansas City, Mo., jails. In August, a makeshift guardhouse collapsed, killing four women prisoners. Another died the next day, and two others lived, though they were horribly injured.

In his book “Bloody Dawn,” Goodrich suggests that Confederate anger over the incident triggered Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence. Some of the men who rode in the raid were related to the women prisoners.

In the weeks and days leading up to the raid, rumors swirled around Lawrence suggesting an attack was possible. Although the majority of townsmen were away fighting in the Civil War, those remaining drilled with guns, which were stored at the town’s armory.

As a result, on the day of the attack – which started while many residents were still at home in bed – they had little to defend themselves with, said Ken Spurgeon, a Kansas historian, author and filmmaker.

Before beginning the raid, which was not sanctioned by the Confederate Army, Quantrill ordered his men to kill “every man big enough to carry a gun.”

He and his men rode in from the east and fanned out through all portions of the town.

R.G. Elliott, a Lawrence newspaper editor and survivor of the attack, wrote: “At 5 o’clock in the morning we were attacked by Quantrill and his gang, some 300 or 400 in number. We had not a moment’s warning. The people were awakened from their slumber by the crackling of pistols and the tramping of horses, and as they ran out to form companies or to find a place of security, they were shot down in cold blood.”

The raid shocked and enraged the rest of the nation. The New York Times said of the massacre: “It is a calamity of the most heartrending kind – an atrocity of unspeakable character.”

The reaction of Southern newspapers was mixed. Some supported the raid; others were outraged because it was an attack on civilians, Spurgeon said.

Throughout Lawrence, particularly up and down Massachusetts Street, doors were kicked open, guns were fired. Chaos unfolded.

Quantrill and his men were in Lawrence a little more than four hours, burning buildings and looting banks and stores.

Jetta Dix told her 3-year-old son to watch over his 20-month-old twin sisters in a nearby ravine while she frantically tried to save her husband, said Kedhe, her great-granddaughter.

The Eldridge Hotel, which sits on the site of the Free State Hotel – which was destroyed and burned in 1856 by pro-slavery supporters – was again destroyed in the 1863 attack. Guests milled about as raiders robbed them of cash, jewelry and other personal items.

As Quantrill and his men rode away, the survivors – mostly women and children – began to pick up the pieces. It was late August, and bodies had to be buried as the ruins of buildings continued to smolder and smoke rose into the sky.

In the first few days, finding food was a problem because most if had been destroyed in the raid. Word quickly spread and soon aid and relief began filtering in.

The Eldridge was rebuilt by Col. Shalor Eldridge, bigger and better. By the 1920s, it had fallen into disrepair. In 1925, it was torn down and then rebuilt because of its symbolic significance to Lawrence. It was renovated in 1985 and 2005.

The city of Lawrence’s seal depicts the phoenix, a mythical bird, rising from the ashes.

“The people who survived the raid were determined that we would remember them,” said Lawrence historian Katie Armitage. “They told their stories. They worked very hard to get a citizens’ monument put up. They wanted their experience memorialized.”

Armitage said what connects her most to the story is the fate of the 85 widows who rebuilt their lives following the raid. Many remarried. Some turned their homes into boarding houses. Nearly all stayed in Lawrence.

The aftermath

William Allen White, one of Kansas’ premier journalists, called Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence “the Arlington of Kansas.”

In the center of the cemetery, along winding paths up a series of bluffs, is the mass grave and memorial to the Lawrence men who died during the raid.

“Everybody who lives in Kansas knows about Lawrence,” said Spurgeon, the author and filmmaker. “It is a random act of violence that today still seems unexplainable. I don’t believe either side understood the ferocity of what occurred.”

Today, Quantrill might be best described as “not mentally all together,” he said.

“He’s definitely a terrorist. If you look at what terrorists do today, they destroy buildings, kill people and anger them or try to destroy the United States in one way or another.

“If you look at it, they achieved what they set out to do. They caught us by surprise. We had no idea they would go that far. Where they didn’t succeed is for the next 10 to 15 years, our country, our presidents and military hunted out their hiding holes and took them little by little.

“Lawrence was an incredible victory for them, their greatest moment, but they lost the war. ”

Missouri historian Rafiner calls Quantrill “a military genius, great leader and sociopath.”

“If I had been 18 years old at that time and my father’s farm had been raided and burned, I might have joined,” he said.

“The violence was at such a brutal level, a lot of young men came to Quantrill out of a sense of revenge and retaliation.”

Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area is based in the old Carnegie Library in Lawrence but covers 29 counties in eastern Kansas and 12 in Missouri, telling the stories of both Kansas and Missouri.

“We are telling the story from all perspectives,” said Fred Conboy, the director. “We don’t take a partisan view. We look at the motivation of Quantrill, what caused him to be such an angry man. We connect people to these stories.”

In Missouri, Jackie Roberts is the genealogy branch manager at the Cass County Historical Society, which on Saturday retraced the route of Quantrill from Jackson and Cass counties to the Kansas border. In advertising the tour, she wrote: “We would like to give special recognition to the descendants of the brave men who accompanied Quantrill throughout the war and especially during the trip to raid Lawrence.”

“The people who rode with Quantrill were standing up for state’s rights,” Roberts said.

In Lawrence, Kehde, Ralph and Jetta Dix’s great-granddaughter, politely disagrees.

“It was utterly catastrophic,” Kehde said. “The fact that the survivors were able to go on the next day is a miracle.

“There was so much carnage and shock. The people who did this were teenage boys and maybe a little older. They were well-armed, violent and irrational.

“And the people who survived that day came out of it with conviction and determination. Their story is very real to me.”

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