300 to 400 riders converged outside the city of Lawrence, Kansas in the early morning hours of August 21, 1863.
They were a loose collection of independent bushwacker groups, pro-slavery and nominally Confederate, though they were part of no command and control structure.
This was a civilian group operating outside of the Confederate chain of command, more of a gang of criminal outlaws than a military operation. There was Cole Younger and Frank James, Jesse’s older brother. There was William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, whose men were known for tying the scalps of slain Unionists to the saddles and bridles of their horses. Leading the group was a 27 year old former schoolteacher from Ohio: William Clarke Quantrill.
Lawrence, Kansas was mostly asleep as several columns of riders descended on the town. It was 5:00am and pitch dark, as most of the city of 3,000 awoke to the sound of pounding hooves.
Doors were smashed in amid the sounds of gunshots and screams. Quantrill’s band went through the town, systematically shooting most of the male population. The shooting, the looting and the burning went on for four hours. Between 160 and 190 of the men and boys of Lawrence, ages 14 to 90, were murdered. Most of them had had no means of defending themselves.
Intending to deprive Confederate sympathizers from their base of support, General Thomas Ewing authorized General Order No. 11 four days later, ordering that most of four counties along the Kansas-Missouri border be depopulated. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced out of their homes as Union troops came through, burning buildings, torching fields and shooting livestock.
The area was so thoroughly devastated that it would forever be known as the “Burnt District”.
Quantrill fled to Texas after the raid on Lawrence, and was later killed in a Union ambush near Taylorsville, Kentucky. His band broke up into several smaller groups, with some joining the Confederate army.
Others such as Frank and Jesse James and the Younger brothers, went on to apply the hit and run tactics they had learned from Quantrill’s band to a career of bank and train robberies.
Quantrill himself said that the raid was retribution for the 1861 “Jayhawker” raid of Colonel Charles “Doc” Jennison and Senator James H. Lane, that left 9 dead in Osceola, Missouri and acres of so-called “Jennison Monuments”, the two story brick chimneys that were all that remained of the burned out homes of Union and Confederate sympathizers alike.
Others blamed the raid on the collapse of a makeshift jail in Kansas City that killed several female relatives of the raiders. It seems more likely that it was just one more in a series of homicidal raids carried out by both sides: such raids usually resulting in the death of innocents.
Newspaper articles appeared in Canada in August 1907 that Quantrill was still alive, living on Vancouver Island under the name of John Sharp. It was probably an unfortunate fib on Mr. Sharp’s part. Two men traveled to Canada for the express purpose of beating Mr. Sharp to death, which they did as soon as they could locate him. The crime has never been solved.