August 21, 1863 Bushwacker

During the “Bleeding Kansas” period, pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” and anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” crossed one another’s borders with impunity, primarily to murder each other’s civilians and burn out one another’s towns.

Lawrence, 1863
Lawrence, Kansas 1863

In the early morning hours of August 21, 1863, 300 to 400 riders converged in the darkness outside the city of Lawrence, Kansas.

These were a loose collection of independent “bushwacker groups”, pro-slavery and nominally Confederate, though subject to no structure of command and control.

This was a civilian group operating outside of any structured chain of command, more a gang of criminal outlaws than any military operation. There was Cole Younger and Frank James, the soon-to-be-famous 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 this assemblage of ruffians was a 27-year-old former schoolteacher from Ohio: William Clarke Quantrill.

Lawrence Kansas
Lawrence Kansas

Lawrence, Kansas was mostly asleep at that hour, 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 no means of defending themselves.

06quantrill0Intending 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, it would forever be known as the “Burnt District”.

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Following the raid on Lawrence, Quantrill fled to Texas and was later killed in a Union ambush, near Taylorsville Kentucky.

William Clarke Quantrill
William Clarke Quantrill

Quantrill’s 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 “army” to a career of bank and train robberies.

Quantrill himself explained the incursion as retribution, for the 1861 “Jayhawker” raid of Colonel Charles “Doc” Jennison and Senator James H. Lane, that left 9 dead in Osceola, Missouri, resulting in acres of so-called “Jennison Monuments”, the two story brick chimneys which were all that remained of the burned out homes of Union and Confederate sympathizer, 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.

QuantrillsGuerrillasReunion1920
Quantrill’s Guerrillas Reunion, 1920

In 1907, newspaper articles appeared in Canada reporting that Quantrill was still alive, living on northwest Vancouver Island, under the name of John Sharp.  “Quantrill” claimed to have survived that Kentucky ambush after all, despite wounds from bullet and bayonet. Sharp/Quantrill made his way south to Chile, according to the story, before drifting up north and finally become a mine caretaker at Coal Harbour at Quatsino, on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.

The story was probably one of fiction on Mr. Sharp’s part, but the fib would prove to have unfortunate consequences. Weeks later, two men traveled north to Canada, with the apparent purpose of taking revenge.  The pair took a coastal steamer out of Quatsino Sound the following morning, the day in which Sharp was found, severely beaten.  John Sharp died several hours later, without identifying his attackers.  The crime has never been solved.

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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

4 thoughts on “August 21, 1863 Bushwacker”

    1. Yes sir, it certainly was. This episode took place during the Civil War but is legitimately part of a series of events beginning in 1854, called ‘Bleeding Kansas’. Previously, the Missouri compromise of 1820 I believe, had governed the westward expansion of new territories as to which would be “free“, and which would legalize slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 attempted to ‘Democratize’ the issue through popular sovereignty but instead, pitted the two sides against one another in ways that lead to epic levels of violence. Often at the expense of each other’s non-combatants.

      Liked by 1 person

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