The most famous battles of the Civil War are written into every school curriculum and American History book – Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh – places we hear about all the time. Thousands of men died at these battles and their names are forever etched into the American psyche.
But, just preceding the years of the Civil War, a different conflict was already raging on, far away from the bloody fields of Virginia, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. A deadly border war between the states of Missouri and Kansas stretched on for years, spilling over into surrounding towns and cities as militias and civilians from the two states fought over an extremely pressing issue: slavery.
By the time the Civil War began in 1861, opposing factions from Kansas and Missouri had already been engaged in a tit-for-tat conflict since 1854. The dispute was over whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state. Pro-slavery groups from Missouri, called Border Ruffians or bushwhackers, clashed with abolitionist groups, known as Jayhawkers, who lived in Kansas. This conflict became is known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
The town of Lawrence, Kansas was an anti-slavery stronghold. It was first raided by Border Ruffians in May 1856. Only one was killed during the raid, but this incident sent a clear message to the abolitionist Jayhawkers that violence would be employed if and when it was needed. A few days later, abolitionist and firebrand John Brown led a raiding group in retaliation, and killed five pro-slavery settlers south of Lawrence in Franklin County.
The violence continued to escalate and by 1859, more than 50 men from both sides of the conflict had been killed. After substantial violence and conflict, on January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. The outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 reignited passions along the Kansas-Missouri border and led to another surge in raiding, conflict, and violence.
In September 1861, Jayhawkers raided and burned the town of Osceola, Missouri, freed 200 slaves, and killed 9 local men. This was only one of many raids conducted by Kansas anti-slavery groups, but it was among the more deadly. Border Ruffians from Missouri vowed revenge, and armed with the knowledge that Lawrence was the epicenter of the free state movement, they plotted their next move.
That revenge came almost two years later, at the hands of William Quantrill.
Quantrill led a group of violent Missouri men, known as Quantrill’s Raiders, who were fiercely dedicated to the Confederacy. He and his men, at times including soon-to-be notorious criminals Frank and Jesse James, conducted raids into Kansas in order to ransack towns and intimidate citizens.
Quantrill always kept the deadly Jayhawker raid of September 1861 in the back of his mind, but it wasn’t until August 1863 that him and his men were spurred to take drastic action. Union authorities, tired of the border violence perpetrated by Quantrill’s Raiders, outlawed Quantrill’s men and began rounding up female family members of known Border Ruffians. The prison where the women were being held in Kansas City collapsed (possibly by design), killing 4 of the jailed women and injuring two more.
Quantrill and his men took swift and deadly revenge on Lawrence, Kansas, and the Jayhawkers who lived there. Early on the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill and roughly 450 Border Ruffians descended on Lawrence while its citizens slept. For four long hours, the guerrilla fighters spread throughout Lawrence, burning buildings and murdering men and boys indiscriminately. When Quantrill and his raiders were finished, Lawrence was destroyed. Over 180 buildings were burned, and nearly 200 men and boys were dead.
The massacre in Lawrence became a sensational news story, and, at the peak of the Civil War, the eyes of the nation fell squarely on Kansas. Lawrence residents eventually rebuilt their town, which today is home to the University of Kansas.
Quantrill continued to fight, even after Robert E. Lee led the Confederacy’s surrender in April 1865. In May 1865, Quantrill and his men were ambushed by Union soldiers in Kentucky. He was shot and paralyzed, and taken to a military hospital in Louisville. Quantrill died from his wounds but a month later, on June 6, 1865.
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