For many, the sounds of the alarms had become so commonplace that few bothered to listen to them anymore. Before the war had even started, Lawrence had become a center of the struggle between abolitionists and pro-slavery settlers in the Border War that would infamously become known as Bleeding Kansas. In 1856 800 men entered the town under the leadership of Sheriff Samuel Jones and destroyed the anti-slavery presses and the Free State Hotel, built the previous year by the New England Emigrant Aid Society as a temporary home for Free-Stater’s relocating to the state. Even if it wasn’t safe, it had seemed to calm, at least for a while. The threat was nothing like it was after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Lexington, or in those days and weeks following the Battle of Springfield just a few months prior. It had seemed like the rebellion in Missouri was finally put down, and the army patrolled the Border. However uneasy it was, there was some semblance of peace. Regardless, with an almost constant state of emergency in place, few residents had probably given the cannons arriving and the drills taking place a second thought
What most didn’t know was that the Union Army had received word that William Quantrill and his band of Bushwacker’s had set their sights on the border town, their blood boiling for revenge after General James Lane led a band of pro-Union “Jayhawkers” on the siege of Osceola. Their hatred for the state had only grown with General Thomas Ewing’s arrest of women and girls who had given aid and comfort to Confederate soldiers. Housing them makeshift prisons in Kansas City, one had collapsed, killing four, and injuring even more. Among the dead and wounded, two of the teenaged sisters of the infamous “Bloody Bill” Anderson, one of Quantrill’s most trusted advisors.
As the day of the attack slowly came and went early in that August, the Mayor, George Collamore, former Brigadier General, and Quartermaster General of Kansas, and Lieutenant T.J. Hadley, who commanded a unit of a few dozen soldiers stationed in Lawrence had to breathe a little easier. Little did they know that about 400 Missouri Guerillas had slowly marched forward. They had no intention of attacking until late August, well after the reports had them striking, perhaps knowing the bold claim that had he attacked when he was supposed to there welcome would come from “bloody hands and hospitable graves.”
By almost 4 am Quantrill, and his men had made it through Franklin, Missouri, only a few miles from their intended target, cloaked by night but still taking every precaution, laying on their horses to avoid drawing attention to themselves, to keep the element of surprise. As they closed the distance between them and Lawrence the order would come up from their commander, “Rush on, boys, it will be daylight before we are there! We ought to have been there an hour ago.” Their pace would quicken as he set his men to columns of fours and pushed forward in a hastened gallop.
At about 5 am on August 21st, 1863, they would reach the outskirts of town with the numbers varying between roughly 300 and 400 men. Second thought and doubt would begin to creep in as some wondered what lay ahead, worrying they not nearly prepared enough to ride through the town, and that they would be quickly cut down. Cautiously Quantrill would send William Gregg with five scouts ahead to ride through town and determine the lay of the land while sending some more up to the top of Mount Oread to serve as lookouts. As scouts made it through town, there was little indication that there was anything to fear. Those they saw, as few as they might have been seemed unconcerned by strangers riding through that early, some even mistaking them for Union soldiers. In the end, it became clear they weren’t prepared for what was about to come.
It wouldn’t matter to Quantrill; his mind had already been made up that he was going to attack. Now at the outskirts of the town, there was no turning back. Crying out to his men he would declare, “You can do as you please, I’m going to Lawrence” before riding into the town. They would follow even as one loudly declared, “We are lost.” Some were sent directly to the house of the Reverend S.S. Snyder, a minister at the United Brethren Church and a Lieutenant in the Second Colored Regiment. He would be one of the first to die, shot as he milked his cow in those early morning hours.
Hard and heavy would Quantrill’s Bushwacker’s ride through the town, raiding, looting, murdering, letting loose hell on the people of the town. They had a list of names of those who they were going to kill first. The Mayor, Collamore, would hide in his family well, as they set fire to his house. Though his family survived the brutality of the day, he would die of smoke inhalation. Senator Lane, the general who had led the jayhawkers in the Siege of Osceola, would escape hiding in corn fields. Former Governor Charles Robinson, another prominent Free Stater, though long time rival of Senator Lane, would barely escape with his own life, as would Hugh Dunn Fischer, chaplain of the 5th Kansas Calvary. He would be dragged out of the house by his wife hidden in a carpet as Quantrill’s men watched his house burn. Though James Speer, the newspaper publisher backed by Lane, would escape with his life, two of his sons would be killed, the only thing sparing his youngest’s life was the fact that he gave a fake name. Meanwhile, Quantrill and his men would capture the Elbridge Hotel as their base for the remainder of the massacre, as his troops began to set fire to the town. By the time it was said and done, 4 hours later, over a quarter of the town was burned to the ground, including all but two of the businesses, and 164 civilians were dead, most of whom were men and boys.
It was, by no account a raid, it was, for lack of a better term, a slaughter, a mass execution, a savage carnage unleashed on the people of Lawrence. So horrified by the events of Lawrence the Confederate Government would withdraw any and all support it had for Quantrill and his men. They would ride into Texas where they would eventually split among different factions by Winter, too rowdy and undisciplined to remain together.
General Ewing would issue his General Order Number 11, expelling Missouri residents from the border counties of their state and then burning their homes and towns to the ground. Kansas Governor Thomas Carney would commission the infamous Colonel Charles Jennison, the Redleg Bandit who been an officer leading the Jayhawk raids in the early days of the war to wreak havoc. He would lay waste to everything in his path until he was finally captured in Missouri two years later, court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.
Quantrill himself would not be so lucky. Still leading a group of maybe a dozen men, he would be caught in a Union Ambush in Kentucky a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant, he would be shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down, before dying at age 27 on June 6th of 1865. Still, his name would live on, not just in the reunions of the men who would, after the war, begin to call themselves Quantrill’s Raiders, but also in the stories of two of his most famous Guerilla’s, Frank and Jesse James.