I have not enjoyed myself much or felt very happy since I left home, for happiness depends on contentment, and that has not fell to my lot, and it seems to me never will . . . merry little birds make one wish he were as happy as all around him; but that cannot be; as this earth is not a heaven for man; for we at the happiest day feel a burden of sorrow which we cannot throw off here.
(1) PhotographIn the photograph from 1912, taken forty-nine years after the raid, the remaining men kneel, sit, and stand in wide rows three deep. As I count it, there are nearly fifty men in all. The photographer had to move the camera so far back that their expressions are only the ghosts of expressions. You can tell they are hardened though—gaunt and weathered; these are faces for breaking firewood over. Some look as though they might be smiling, others grimacing. By virtue of their posture and the positioning of their heads, one gives off an air of pride while his neighbor to the left communicates shame. By this time they were old men in suits with canes and prickly gray beards. Before the raid they had all been farmers and had then survived the bitter fighting of the Civil War as well as the onset of industrialization. They were on the cusp of World War I and likely unable to fathom the ways fighting had changed, how massive numbers of people could be slaughtered in an instant. These men survived the raid, but they weren't survivors of the raid. They were what was left of Quantrill's band of 450 that rode through Lawrence, Kansas, in August of 1863 and murdered most of the men and boys in town. So I return to the photo: How long had it been since they'd seen each other? Whose idea was it to have this strange reunion? How had their memories of the past changed? Did they speak of the raid? What on earth did they talk about?
—William Clarke Quantrill
Letter to sister, February 8, 1860
(2) The Secret BrideOn the eve of the raid, Quantrill is sullen, stalking, brooding—in love. He has left his men at the camp, hidden in the covering brush and mouthlike gorges of Sni-A-Bar, and snuck away to see his young mystery bride. The men whisper about her; there are rumors, but few have ever actually seen her. He can't explain the need to keep secret his marriage to a thirteen-year-old other than that he is a gentleman and, well . . . Tonight he and Kate walk through the spinney of oak trees near her parents' home—fingers laced, intertwined—and he builds a fire along the banks of the creek. She pronounces his name "Quantr-elle" after a misspelling in the newspaper and he hasn't had the heart to correct her, thinking the sound sweet and exotic. For a time she lets his hand inch up her naked thigh, beneath the thinning gray dress she's worn all summer, and he knows he should take her right there and make love to her, but he can't. His mind's awash, away, thinking about tomorrow, the ride into Lawrence. He knows he very well might not return, knows the chances are quite good in fact, but this is a war after all, even if he and his men are uncommissioned, unofficered, and unacknowledged by Southern leadership. A few nights ago, prior to taking the vote, he announced his intentions by yelling, "We're gonna burn that bitch to the ground," and his men thundered their approval, stamping their boots and rifle butts in the dirt, then voting unanimously. But as he worked to finalize the plans, he walked through camp and heard mumblings of "suicide," "impossible," "tyrannical."
"I'm going to Lawrence tomorrow," he says now, and Kate smiles, taking his hand. She wants to say, Take me with you, or to ask why he's going there, but she thinks better of it, not wanting to appear maudlin, knowing well enough the answer is simply that he must go. Like every other time he's left her, she fears he won't return, that she'll never see him again. She wants to seize his hand quickly and say something—Don't go, or Put yourself on me and give me a baby—but can't bring herself to speak, her young body fit to explode in a burst of light and heat, sounding something like ssssshhhhhooooom, or maybe a whispered I love you. For some time they sit silent, letting the stars wink and flames tongue all around them, until she grabs his hand and says coyly, "How many men have you killed?" This is a joke they have, a game, something she asks often in jest, though in truth the thought excites her. He is, after all, famous. He is Wanted—and by none more than her. And Quantrill, being a gentleman and a liar, responds, "None, my dear. I've never harmed a soul." He leans forward and, as her father does every night, kisses her forehead before leaving. She is thirteen years old, after all, and sometimes when they kiss he thinks of his own sister he's not seen in years.
(3) Book, MonumentWritten during the Depression, The WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas describes a Lawrence with twenty-five-cent movie houses, three hotels, and a population of 13,726. It tells the origins of the University of Kansas and of the other institute of higher learning: Haskell Indian Junior College, where "smartly clad Indian coeds and white-collared braves seek to adjust themselves to a new culture, replacing lacrosse and old war cries with football and ‘Rah! Rah! Haskell.'" There is mention of the town's historical importance to the abolitionist movement, noting John Brown and other Jayhawkers who fought to keep Kansas a free state after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed the citizens of the territory to decide for themselves. Northerners, many from Massachusetts, flooded into the territory, armed to the teeth, as did pro-slavery Missourians, and what followed were years of bloody atrocities. In the history section of the guide there is a quick reference to Quantrill: "At daybreak on August 21, 1863, Lawrence citizens were aroused by the sound of firing and the shouts of guerrilla raiders who swept down on the town from the east, led by the notorious irregular, William Clarke Quantrill . . . After four hours they withdrew, leaving 150 dead and the major portion of the town in ruins. So futile was the resistance offered by the surprised and terror-stricken citizens that the Quantrill band retired with the loss of only one man."
By the time I enrolled at KU in the mid nineties, the town's population had swelled to nearly 100,000 and the movie tickets were seven dollars. Haskell had grown to become one of the largest Native American universities in the country, and needless to say there were many more hotels. Having grown up in Lawrence, I had learned about the raid as a young girl, probably in school, and promptly I'd forgotten about it. However, the name Quantrill floated in my unconscious: like so many occupants of that dream space, something at once intensely familiar and strangely foreign. It wasn't until my sophomore year of college, when I went on a dark walk with a boy, that Quantrill returned to me permanently.
This boy and I shared a row in the huge auditorium that held our American history survey class. Lost in a sea of people who looked exactly like us, our eyes had met; and afterward he told me he thought the band depicted on my T-shirt was all right. He liked music, too—he played, he said, asking if I wanted to hear some songs he'd written. This was years before he would give up on supporting himself as a musician and ship off to fight in the war, to die so far away. That night he walked me—guitar over his shoulder, bottle of red wine in hand—to a cemetery. I followed, curious. I expected something dramatic. I expected recitations of Baudelaire and running naked past gravestones, but we just drank wine while he played a few songs. I made a joke about him trying to seduce me and he laughed and then got serious, asking what I thought of his songs. I said they were beautiful and he smiled. But later, when we had finished the bottle of wine, I moved closer to him, setting my hand on his knee, and he shook his leg so that my hand fell from him; and as if nothing had happened, as if I'd just asked him a question, he said so earnestly that these songs were about trying to connect, that they were written for his girlfriend. I felt embarrassed and walked away from him as he bent over the body of the guitar, picking at the strings. Then, with those notes traveling in the air between us, I came upon the large granite monument and, aided by the soft light from the moon and stars, made out the engraved tribute to the victims of the raid.
(4) The CalmingSecond in command, George Todd, handsomely dressed and devilishly sharp with a pistol, makes one final stop before meeting up with Quantrill. Thinking it better to travel in smaller numbers, Quantrill sent him to the Northland for a few days, dispatching a rider to give word of his plan to attack Lawrence. Never one to back away from a fight, Todd is excited, but he has some unfinished business to which he must attend before joining the others. There is a man, supposedly sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, living in ________; and for Todd his presence is a personal affront. This is Missouri, after all, not Kansas, and there's really no place for that sort of thing here. So he and his crew of twenty men pay a visit to ________. When they arrive, Todd has fifteen of his men circle the perimeter of the house, rifles loaded, pistols cocked, and with the others he dismounts and stalks to the front door, calmly knocking on the smooth oak as if he were a neighbor wanting to draw from the well. Todd can hear footsteps inside and then his own blood coursing through his body. When an older woman answers the door, she avoids staring at the bulge below his midsection by admiring his blue eyes, the way his short, well-kept brown hair and fancy attire set him apart from the others beside him—shaggy, slouched, stinking. First, playing nice, he inquires, Is Mr. ________ home? But when she says he's in Kansas City and not to return for another three days, he pushes the door open. Where is he? he says, all rotten teeth and sneer now, as she backs away. But she's telling the truth, she swears, and so he and the men begin tearing the place apart, looking for her husband. A bit of the dandy in him, Todd opens the lid of a large wooden chest in the bedroom, thinking he might at least find some nice clothing, but these people are farmers; and holding up a pair of plain brown trousers with holes in the knees, he angers and overturns the chest, sending clothes flying through the air.
After thoroughly searching the house, Todd is satisfied with her answer but not satisfied. No, he wants to prove a point—that there will be no quarter for abolitionists in Missouri—and this woman has stolen his thunder, kind of like Quantrill does when Todd, so popular amongst the men, oversteps his bounds. His blood has cooled, settling inside his limbs like a thick lip on curdled milk. As he looks around the room, his men's eyes are expectant as puppies', waiting for his order to torch the place. But by the window overlooking the stretch of poorly tended wheat fields starved with drought, Todd spies a piano. He moves to the bench and lets a mischievous pinky ease down a key. The sound is loud, booming, elephant-like. The woman startles. Now he lays both hands on the keyboard, the old lessons coming back. His fingers move with a long-hidden familiarity, and the sound is calming. He looks at the others in the room as he plays—outside, the horses shudder and twitch to the arresting sound and his men wonder what the hell is going on in there—and what he wants to say is, I'm trying to tell you all something. This is how I feel.
(5) SongThere exist lyrics for a song about Quantrill, though the date is undetermined. There are only two verses and a chorus, so perhaps it was never finished. The words are:
Quantrill was a man
Who came upon the land
From Missouri with his band
With a Colt in every hand
Hey, can you hear the cries from Lawrence?
The end is upon us
Hey can you hear those cries?
Everybody's gonna die
He put his gun in every eye
That ever tried to smile
To burn the town he did try
While the babies all asked, Why?
Senior year, working on my thesis, I went to the historical archives at KU to seek a field recording of the song, something in the Alan Lomax vein, but there was none. One night I took the words to that boy who played guitar. We still hung out quite often. By this point he'd withdrawn from school and was tending bar downtown, trying to finish songs for his album. His girlfriend smiled at me when she opened the door and said she was running out for cigarettes but would be right back. I returned her smile, then looked down as I walked inside. He was sitting on the couch and I sat across from him in a chair, the two of us talking for a while. He lit a joint and took a few drags while I told him about the raid. Born out of state, he'd never heard of it. "It happened right here in Lawrence," I said, exasperated.
He nodded, unimpressed, his eyes all bloodshot, and passed me the joint. "Why don't we remember this kind of shit?"
I asked him if he could put music to the lyrics, and he took the paper from my hands and looked at it a minute. He sipped his whiskey, picked up his acoustic guitar, and strummed a couple chords, humming a little. Then he put the guitar down and said, "Is this political? I don't do political stuff." I told him it was historical, and he dropped his pick and reached for the joint: "I write love songs, girl."
(6) PelathePelathe is the hero you never hear about in all this, the Indian Sisyphus. When Quantrill's men storm into Kansas unscathed, blowing right past a number of Union Army checkpoints that line the entire border, it's clear to the Union leadership in Kansas City that the raiders, now in the neighborhood of 450 strong, are heading for Lawrence. They know they must get word to the people of Lawrence of the hellfire headed their way; but Lawrence is fifty miles away yet, and who could beat Quantrill's men on their superior horses?
Pelathe, a Shawnee Indian scout, happens to be accompanying one of the Union leaders when the news comes about Quantrill, and he pleads to be allowed to go, to try to beat the raiders to Lawrence. Lacking a better plan, they mount Pelathe on their best horse and tell him to fly. Sometimes known amongst other scouts as the Eagle, Pelathe does feel like a bird as he burns a trail for Lawrence through the brambled scrub. He rides full speed for one hour, and then two, through the night until the horse begins to fail, coming to a dead halt in the pitch-black early morning, no water in sight. There are still miles to go. He considers the beautiful animal a minute, running a slow hand through her mane, then imagines all the people in Lawrence, and so he pats her head, whispering a few final words in her ear, before unsheathing his bowie knife and stabbing it into her sides. The horse cries out as Pelathe rubs gunpowder into the wounds, and before he can re-stirrup, the sorrel mare takes off again. Through this sacrifice he's able to get a few more miles out of her before she expires, collapsing, Pelathe flying forward over her. He must keep going though, he tells himself, so he begins to run on foot until his legs give out at a Delaware Indian tribe's camp near the outskirts of Lawrence. He tells them what is happening, of the urgency, that they must warn the townspeople, and with fresh horses they head out, thundering through the purple of early morning. But when they get to the ferry landing on the Kaw River they see it is too late, that the horror has already begun; Quantrill has beaten them to town.
(7) SeedsA few points of interest:
- A previous raid of Lawrence occurred on May 21, 1856, nearly five years before Kansas became the thirty-fourth star on the flag and seven years before Quantrill's Raid. Led by David Atchison, former president of the U.S. Senate, a large group of Missourians stormed into town and shelled the Free State Hotel and the printing press and looted most of the stores.
- Following Atchison's raid, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, lasting two entire days, called "The Crime Against Kansas." A few days later, so upset by the rhetoric of the speech and the blame assigned to Southern states, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina calmly walked up to Sumner and began clubbing him with his golden-knobbed cane for several uninterrupted minutes until the cane broke, upon which time he attempted to stab Sumner with the splintered end. The senator would not recover for three years.
- When news of the caning reached Kansas, John Brown, a radicalized preacher and leader of the abolitionist cause, demanded retribution. With his company of Free State Volunteers, he set out for Pottawatomie Creek, calling for the lives of five pro-slavery men. This, he said, was what God demanded. First he directed the group to the Doyle family's cabin and led Mr. Doyle's sons outside, where they were stabbed, dismembered, and pierced in their sides in front of their father and mother. Then Brown raised a pistol and shot Mr. Doyle in the head. After two more stops of a similar fashion, Brown had his five.
- And so it went, back and forth like this for the next several years, raids perpetrated by both sides with the innocent often paying the price—like the women who were rounded up in Missouri by federals, taken to Kansas City, and placed in a dilapidated jail cell on suspicion of aiding the rebel bushwhackers. Some of these women were in fact the wives, mothers, and sisters of Quantrill's men; so when the jail collapsed and killed a number of women, it was clear there would be consequences. Eight days later, Quantrill was leading 450 men back into the center of the abolitionist movement.
(8) Forever the SouthThe first to go are the young boys from the Fourteenth Kansas Regiment, camped on the edge of town, training to join up with the Union Army. Quantrill's men cut right through them, picking off the thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds as they sleep, or as they wander out of their tents scratching their heads and balls, rubbing eyes, wondering what the hell all this racket is: We're trying to get some gol' darn sleep; then boom, they're dead. They are unarmed and defenseless, thanks to a recent city ordinance forwarded by Mayor Collamore decreeing that all weapons in Lawrence be kept locked up inside the armory as a safety measure—all the powerfully accurate Sharps rifles sent to Lawrence from eastern abolitionists by train, in boxes labeled bibles so as to go unsearched.
Two blocks away, members of the Second Colored Regiment, a camp of black troops, reach for pistols that aren't on their hips, rifles that aren't slung over their shoulders, and must make a tough decision. Twenty or so stay and are slaughtered by Quantrill's men, while others flee for the river, wading across, silently cursing first their lack of weapons, then themselves, for their cowardice, their unwillingness to be martyred.
At five-thirty in the morning, Massachusetts Street is bedlam, horses thundering every which way, raiders firing potshots at scurrying store owners—targets as easy as lone whiskey bottles atop fence posts. Quantrill watches with an unsettled, pensive look: things are going too well; any minute, surely, the Union Army will sweep through and send his men hightailing back toward the border; he is supposed to die today. But the army never comes, and soon his stony look gives way to amusement as cries of his name, audible over pistol shots and whinnies, sound all around him: Long live Quantrill! Long live Jefferson Davis! Forever the South! Sure that this raid will win him the respect and recognition of the Confederate Army, he is already savoring the sweet assonance: General Quantrill.
He visits the Free State Hotel, setting up in the lobby after his men have cleared the rooms and rounded up the guests. "How about some breakfast," Quantrill says to the proprietor, who is straight-backed with fear and then hurrying to the kitchen to prepare the food himself. Upstairs Quantrill's men loot the rooms, stuffing into their pockets watches, jewelry, and women's silken undergarments of blue, rouge, and absinthe green. Downstairs the collected guests wonder if they are about to be executed, silently saying prayers, smatterings of whispered mercies, watching the back of the man who will issue the order, if it is to be. Quantrill sits down at a table by the window, waiting for his biscuits and eggs, listening to the anxious shifting of bodies behind him, yet his mind is elsewhere, thinking of Kate, humming a ballad: "I don't know when I'll see you again, my dear." He closes his eyes and sees her face, beautiful, but then it starts to fade.
"What do you want to do?" George Todd asks. "Leave 'em or kill 'em?"
Quantrill thinks a moment, as one of the ladies moves her weight to the other foot, nudging a chair that squeaks, before deciding to spare them. He tells Todd to take them over to city hall as prisoners of war. As Todd is about to lead the prisoners out into the street, he notices one of them is wearing a Union uniform: Captain Banks, provost marshal of Kansas. He inspects the man's clothing, examining the pretty blue coloring and careful stitching. He moves over to Banks, hand on his gun, leaning close to the terrified man's face, and says, "Gimme y'r clothes." The captain undresses right there in front of him.
(9) FilmIn Ang Lee's 1999 film Ride With the Devil, Tobey Maguire plays a Dutch immigrant living in Missouri who takes up the Southern cause, joining the irregulars waging guerrilla warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border. It's a fictionalized account, based on a novel called Woe to Live On, though, interestingly, the movie's title is stolen from an earlier biography of Quantrill. It's mostly a buddy movie and a love story, but Quantrill does make an appearance, a kind of historical cameo almost no one would recognize. Lee halfheartedly attempts to recreate the raid on Lawrence, but the results are rather tame. He devotes roughly ten minutes to it, and many of the sequences are about as compelling as the Wild West reenactments in Dodge City. The best part of the movie is before the raid, when Quantrill and his men gather on a hilltop, looking down at the sleeping, unsuspecting town. Quantrill, played by John Ales, passes out death lists bearing the names, ranked by importance, of the men to kill. He offers a few words—something like, Boys, you know what we need to do. You know what we must do. No quarter for them federal sons-a-bitches!—which elicit a booming cacophony of threats and swears. A hodgepodge of syllables belonging to words like abolitionistfuckerswhoresniggersfreesoilers flies through the air, and with the raise of their hats and scarves they head down the hillside in a thunderous swirl of dust, hoofbeats, and rebel yells.
The movie came out soon after I graduated. I was working odd jobs around Lawrence—thanks to my history degree—and I saw it seven times before it left Liberty Hall. Sometimes I went in the middle of the day and sat alone in the dark theater. Once I took the guitar player with me and spent most of the movie leaning over to explain the historical references and occasional inaccuracies. He listened politely, eyes moving between the screen and me. When it was over he said he was glad I'd brought him, and we both smiled at one another. I told him I wished I could see the movie just once the way he had, without any of the background knowledge. It seemed then like something might happen.
This was around the time he was starting to get local gigs; he was playing that night at the Bottleneck, a big deal. He was stuck on some new girl, he said, and was writing great songs about the one who had just left. I told him I wouldn't be able to come, but later I showed up, halfway through his set, and stood in the back of the bar nursing a beer, watching him sing songs about girls he'd left and been left by.
(10) Three Ghosts
a/ Getta Dix
Getta, the proprietor of a boarding house for local workers, draws a hand to her chest when she realizes what's happening. Her husband, her love, is over at the Johnson House with his brother; she leaves her children with a nurse and rushes into the street, knowing the raiders won't harm her. When she reaches the hotel she sees her brother-in-law stumble down the back steps, falling to the ground before her. She cups his head with her hands. He looks at her with the eyes of one who has seen God—with unflinching terror, burbling blood, an inability to speak—and then his lids slide closed. She tries to remove her hands, but part of his brain has fallen out the back of his head and now rests in her palms. What she yells then, looking down at her hands, is not his name but her husband's, and she drops the bits of jellied brain into the dust and scrambles up the steps of the house, where she finds a trio of bushwhackers, three sheets to the wind, holding several local men at gunpoint. Her husband is amongst them and she hurries over to his side, pleading for his life, screaming, spitting. She's convincing, too, very nearly talking two of them out of killing her husband, but the third, the leader, is too soused to abide any talk of mercy and pushes all the hostages outside to the street, unloading several rounds into their chests. Getta watches her husband's body fall; it happens so quickly—crack, thump—that it's not until he's on the ground that everything slows down. Her soul is fleeing her by way of small, rapid exhalations out her mouth, and all that's left is the absence of feeling, of care. She sits on the bottom step of a storefront near the body and watches the world pass before her, the horror it has so quickly become. A straw hat belonging to one of the dead blows along the street like tumbleweed and her hand reaches for it, placing it over her husband's placid face. She walks away slowly, desultory, between the bustle of canting horses, the giggle and snarl of drunks, the mangle of the quiet, lonesome dead.
b/ Kasper Kaspar
Son of wealthy German immigrants—the owner of the Lawrence Tribune and his epileptic and nostalgic wife—seventeen-year-old burgeoning newspaperman Kasper Kaspar is at the press early on the morning of the raid. He doesn't know it yet, but his father is already dead, killed while asleep in bed, and his mother is in shock, still shaking the body, expecting it to wake at any moment. What brings young Kasper to the Tribune so early, however, has nothing to do with newspapering. He's locked in an embrace with the office printer, an older man affectionately known as Rooster. It is just as Kasper finally works up the nerve to take the tip of Rooster's penis in his mouth that he first feels the heat closing in, a warmth more than their own bodies' doing. The raiders have set fire to the building, which goes up almost instantly, like tinder, because of the printing chemicals. There's a moment as the two men huddle naked amid the flames, watching smoke funnel under and over closed doors, when they have a decision to make. A future as outcasts awaits them if they run out into the street as they are—naked, shivering, womanly—a life of hiding in attics, of food pushed under locked doors. Their decision is communicated through look and gesture as they embrace, kiss, and then whisper in the other's ear only as the fire overtakes them. Barely audible over the hiss of burning wood and the sizzle of steaming printer blocks are their oaths and cries: "Hold me. Did you hear me? Hold me tighter. I'll see you on the other side."
The flames then consume them, the heat so intense that their bodies dissolve, scatter in the wind, and disappear. For this reason, Kasper's mother will, for the rest of her life, believe he is still alive.
c/ Mayor Collamore
Mayor George Washington Collamore, he of the infamous and untimely gun seizure that leaves his town unarmed, wakes to find his house surrounded by raiders. With his hired hand Patrick, he dashes out the kitchen door, through the swaths of wheat, and into his well house. Patrick lowers the mayor down the shaft first before joining the anxious and fearful old man at the bottom of the stone well. There, the close quarters force them to huddle, looking up at the circle of light above them, waiting either for the mayor's wife to tell them it is OK to come out or for a man in a slouch hat to fire his Colt blindly into their hiding spot.
Turns out, though, neither happens. The raiders grill the mayor's wife for a while but she won't, on pain of death, give up her husband. Frustrated and drunk, the bushwhackers loot the place of all its worth and then set it on fire. They wait out front, figuring that if the mayor were hiding in the house somewhere he would come running. But really the beauty of the fire is what transfixes them. They've been lighting them all morning, have been doing so for months in fact, yet none like this one. Something inside, the canisters of furniture wax and shoe polish, feeds the blaze, a tongue of fire shooting dragonlike out the chimney top. The smells of burning linens and flowers from the garden bloom from the conflagration until the walls come crashing down and the house collapses. Only then does this audience finally disperse.
As the mayor's wife rushes to the well house, she doesn't realize that smoke from the fire has funneled all oxygen out of the shaft like a whirring gust of wind on the open prairie, leaving the mayor and Patrick to a much slower and more horrifying death than at the end of a gun. Inherent in those last moments, in the groping push and pull of their hands as they slowly run out of air, is nothing amorous, but a simple prayer of human touch, an instinctive hope: You can get me out of here, can't you?
(11) CorrespondenceDate: 08/21/2003
Subject: re: Inquiries?
Thank you for your interest in the State Historical Society here at MU. Excuse the formality, but I'll answer your questions in kind:
Thank you for your interest and please don't hesitate to contact me again. I hope you do decide to come visit, even if you are a KU alum . . . just kidding. Best,
- Yes, we have a good deal of material on Quantrill, specifically, and rooms full of general Civil War–era Kansas/Missouri material: letters, newspapers, books, pictures, paintings, etc. You should come visit—Columbia's only a three-hour drive from Lawrence.
- There is certainly a small but avid group of enthusiasts interested in—some would say obsessed with—that border war period. There are a number of Civil War battle reenactments across Missouri that attract good-size crowds. More than the reenactments, however, there is a culture that goes along with it, some of it truly bizarre. I've heard of small-town bars where patrons dress as Confederate soldiers or bushwhackers. I once even came across a Woman-Seeking-Man ad in the Weekly in which a woman was looking to marry anyone who could prove a family connection to Quantrill.
- I don't know if I can offer a definitive answer on how people here today look back on those times or how they feel about men like Quantrill, George Todd, and Bloody Bill. I think a lot of people in Missouri feel that even though we look back today at what these men were trying to preserve—the institution of slavery—as abhorrent, they were not simply bloodthirsty monsters. I think some people feel, as the historian Donald Gilmore writes, ". . . the Missouri guerrillas were legitimate partisan warriors who fought bravely for their cause against insurmountable odds." When you're on the wrong moral side of history and constantly reminded of it you get defensive. I'm not saying that's how I feel. It's complicated.
- I mean, can anyone ever understand the horrors of the past? There have been countless books written about awful events like the raid on Lawrence, but they're at best approximations in my opinion. We'll never understand. That's the thing about history, right: it's not graven—it's points of view.
(12) Poor Kansas, Poor Bleeding KansasAs the raid wears on, the bushwhackers anticipate the out-the-back-door-and-into-the-potato-vines escape, and now they simply set the fields aflame and wait for the men to stream out. The raiders make sport of it, this killing of the fleeing men, a sort of target practice.
But as the hours pass, the guerrillas also get sloppy. Drinking and looting take priority, and this truancy affords a few hard-won victories for the people of Lawrence. There is the incident in which an elderly man quickly shaves and dresses as a sickly old woman. When the raiders arrive, they carry him out of the house on a bed, Cleopatra-style, before torching the place. Some townsfolk, emboldened by the rush of their own imminent deaths, begin fighting back. Lacking guns, a few men challenge the bushwhackers with pitchforks and knives. Surprisingly, many of Quantrill's men leave when confronted in this manner, because they either respect the suicidal gumption of the defenseless or simply are cowards.
When the raiders open fire on a crowd of local men gathered on Massachusetts Street, Josiah Simeon falls to the ground, feigning death, and then pulls the bodies of the dead atop him. The blood trickles down on him, the pleas for help worm through the pile to his ear, through crevices and openings between skin, until all is still, dead. Sometime later he hears a noise, footsteps nearby, bodies being turned over, rummaged through. When the body above him is removed, he can't stop from opening his eyes, expecting to find the barrel of a Colt. But what he sees instead are the vacant eyes of a woman trying to find her husband and son amongst the heaps of dead and dying. And at last, here, she has found her son, whose body has thus far saved Josiah's life. Josiah looks at her, into those eyes, and pulls the woman's son back atop him.
(13) Painting, Drawing, NewspaperLauretta Louise Fox Fisk depicts nearly all of Lawrence aflame in her painting The Lawrence Massacre. You likely wouldn't recognize the subject on an initial viewing, however, which is one of the painting's interesting effects. In the foreground, raiders ride their horses down the main thoroughfare, Massachusetts Street. Their guns are drawn, but they are not great in number, nor are they particularly menacing. The tone of the scene is oddly calming. In the background the burning town is easily mistakable, to the casual eye, for a tawny sunrise. This contrasts greatly with the pencil drawing that ran in Harper's Weekly a month after the raid, titled The Ruins of Lawrence, which looks anachronistically more like a postwar bombed-out Berlin than a torched Wild West prairie town.
A curious thing about the burning of Lawrence is the lack of a consistent death count. Most references cite "nearly 150," while other estimates range from 132 to 186. The August 23, 1863, edition of the New York Times reports "about 180 murdered" under the heading "The Invasion of Kansas." The granite monument in the cemetery abides the general estimate of 150 victims, but the surrounding gravestones, all etched with the same date, make any single number an inadequate assessment of the tragedy.
His grave is in another cemetery, far from the monument but very present to me here. He enlisted for the money, he said, for the experiences that would give him new material to write about, so he could stop singing stupid love songs.
(14) The Living and the DeadAfter four hours Quantrill's men leave town, and the people of Lawrence abandon their hiding spots to survey the destruction and roll over bodies, searching for husbands and fathers, sons and lovers, usually to sadness and horror. All over town long, wailing cries populate the air like animals caterwauling in the rutting. A makeshift hospital is raised in the only church that survived the onslaught, but the remaining doctors are little more than morticians and bartenders, dispensing whiskey to the newly amputated or slowly dying.
Massachusetts Street is completely devastated. People uselessly hurry pails of water from nearby wells and the Kaw River to the burning buildings, continuing on that first morning, mostly in silence now, mostly in vain, to salvage what they can of Lawrence. And that sound passing amongst them—the sharp and single cries amidst the vast stretches of oppressive silence—is the echo of loss.
(15) ConfessionShortly before he shipped out, we were walking up and down Massachusetts Street, stopping at our favorite haunts—listening to records at Love Garden and combing stacks at the Dusty Bookshelf—strolling in the early fall with a beautiful ennui. I suggested we drop by the city's history museum. He'd never been. I told him of the most abject statue of Langston Hughes on display in a hall honoring famous Lawrencians.
A volunteer near the entryway, an old woman revealing bits of corn chip in her teeth when she smiled, informed us we were the only ones there. We walked through the building, so dark and dusty, lit solely by shafts of sun penetrating the high windows. Something new had been added since my last visit: a multimedia program of significant moments in state history. We skipped around the timeline, stopping on Quantrill's Raid. I wanted to tell him how I felt, to unburden myself, to ask him not to leave. But I knew he didn't feel the same way about me, never had. How impossible it seemed then that two people ever connected. He controlled the mouse, advancing to the next screen, saying, sMan, that must have been crazy. Can you imagine things like that ever happened here?" I murmured agreement and asked if he'd miss playing guitar while he was over there; but he didn't answer, just clicked the stop button.
(16) The Journey of the BodyBy the time Quantrill's Raiders leave Lawrence, the Union leaders in Kansas City have finally mobilized forces that head to intercept the guerrillas before they cross into Missouri, where they'll disappear into the brush and thicket, gully and wood—into the very soil—and become ghosts, their story spreading, growing mythic. The Union forces stage two dramatic attempts to stop the rebels, but ultimately they fail.
Now it is almost twenty-four hours after the ambush began; and with a clutch of Union troops shrinking behind him in the distance, Quantrill feels as though he could sleep for a year, maybe two. He is weary. He knows his men will be safe if they can just make it to Missouri, and he's oppressed by the desire to ride straight to Kate's home and see her face again, that face slipping from his mind's grasp. Amidst all the death has been her memory, the longing to touch her again. Despite this pull, he will take his men to Texas to hide out and let things settle, and there his men will gradually betray him one by one. But he doesn't know this now, as they race together for the border. There is so much, in fact, that Quantrill doesn't know.
He doesn't know that he'll never receive the recognition he so covets from the Confederate Army—no legitimization of him and his men, no General Quantrill; he doesn't know that months from now his men will abandon him, taking up with either Bloody Bill or George Todd or, so racked with guilt over their hand in the burning of Lawrence that they can no longer fight, returning to their families and farms; he doesn't know that only a handful of them will follow him to Kentucky, where he'll continue to fight in vain; he doesn't know that there he'll be shot and die farther away from Kate than ever, buried in a simple idler's grave in Louisville; he doesn't know that his skull will be stolen and his eye sockets destined to garage the limp pricks of awkward freshman pledges in a generational fraternity ritual; he doesn't know that it'll be more than a hundred years before his body is exhumed and returned to the loam of Missouri, where the people will split over whether to celebrate the occasion or to riot. What he knows now is only a word containing a desire, a wish of coming home, really: Kate.
It is morning once again and the last twenty-four hours have taken on the coloring of a much longer time. There in the distance, as he crosses into Missouri, the sun appears in the sky, purple shading into blue shading into red, forming slowly up over the far-off hills like a blister, a blemish, a birthmark.
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