On August 21, 1863, a Confederate guerilla group led by William Quantrill attacked citizens in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, during the American Civil War. Guerillas killed more than 150 boys and men and burned much of the town. The Lawrence Massacre, also known as Quantrill’s raid, was a culmination of tension between local abolitionists and pro-slavery partisans along the Missouri-Kansas border.
These border tensions had been brewing for some time. Beginning in 1855, pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers engaged in a series of violent confrontations and political killings over whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state, leading to a border war known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Lawrence was founded along the Oregon Trail on the homelands of the Kaw, Lakota, Osage, and Kikapoo by New Englanders. Considered the anti-slavery capital, Lawrence was well-known as a stronghold for abolitionists and the Free-State movement. When Kansas was admitted to the Union at the start of the Civil War, the town became a gathering place for pro-Unionists and Jayhawkers, Free-State militiamen known for attacking plantations, freeing enslaved Black people, and confiscating Confederate supplies in nearby Missouri.
In April 1863, Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr. issued General Order No. 10, which called for the arrest of anyone “giving aid or comfort” to Confederate guerillas. A number of women and girls, most of them relatives of the guerillas, were arrested and incarcerated in squalid conditions in a women’s prison in Kansas City. A week before the Lawrence Massacre, the prison collapsed, killing four and leaving others with severe injuries.
In the predawn hours on August 21, Quantrill led a group of about 450 Confederate guerillas, also called “Bushwhackers,” into Lawrence. They surprised the town’s sleeping residents and began to execute civilians and loot valuables. Panicked residents tried to hide in cornfields or along the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers, though some surrendered only to be shot later. For over four hours, Quantrill’s raiders pillaged and burned the town, killing at least 150 men and boys.
The Lawrence Massacre was one of the bloodiest events of the Kansas-Missouri border war. Following the attack, Gen. Ewing issued General Order No. 11, ordering all citizens of four counties on the Missouri side of the border to relocate to Kansas City. Ewing intended to cut off supplies and support to the guerillas, and under his orders, Jayhawkers burned everything remaining to the ground.
Although Quantrill was a field-commissioned officer under the Partisan Ranger Act, Confederate leadership was outraged by his tactics and withdrew official support for his Bushwhackers. Quantrill led his men south towards Texas and continued to wreak havoc. Infamous members of Quantrill’s raiders included Bloody Bill Anderson, outlaw Jesse James, and his older brother Frank James. On May 10, 1865, William Quantrill was shot by Union troops in Kentucky in one of the last engagements of the Civil War. He died of his wounds on June 6, 1865.
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