The Sack of Lawrence

August 21, 1863 – Colonel William C. Quantrill’s Confederate raiders rampaged through Lawrence, the focal point of “Bleeding Kansas” since before the war.

W.C. Quantrill | Image Credit:

Quantrill’s partisans operated against Federal forces around the Missouri-Kansas border. Quantrill had targeted Lawrence for attack in retaliation for Federal depredations in Missouri, including an 1861 raid on Osceola. A recent building collapse that killed several women suspected of aiding the partisans, as well as punitive measures imposed by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, commanding the Federal District of the Border, also played a role. Moreover, Lawrence was the hated center of the Free State Movement, and it promised to be rich with loot.

Quantrill ordered his 450 men to “kill every man big enough to carry a gun.” The lone exception was Brigadier General James H. Lane, the U.S. senator who led Kansas Jayhawkers in terrorizing Confederate sympathizers throughout western Missouri. Lane was to be captured and brought back to Missouri for hanging. Lane’s men had given the partisans no quarter in the past, and now Quantrill would give none in return.

The partisans rode into town at 5 a.m. Quantrill, waving one of his Colt revolvers, hollered, “Kill! Kill and you will make no mistake! Lawrence must be cleansed, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill! Kill!” An abolitionist minister was the first victim, shot in the head while milking his cow. The raiders kidnapped a woman and forced her to lead them to the homes of men whose names they had written on a “death list.”

Quantrill’s men split up and moved through town in various directions, with one group riding upon the camp of 22 troops from the 14th Kansas. Shouting “Osceola!”, they shot or trampled 17 men to death, while the other five escaped. The partisans rampaged through the streets burning houses and buildings; the thick smoke suffocated the town mayor as he hid in a well.

Quantrill ate breakfast in a hotel as his men robbed the saloons and banks. They killed 183 men and teenage boys, most of whom were unarmed. Some men, such as Lane, escaped the carnage. Lane removed the nameplate from the front of his house and fled into a nearby cornfield in his nightshirt. Quantrill found Lane’s house anyway and had it burned while Lane’s wife watched.

The partisans did not harm any woman physically, but they forced many to watch their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons be killed. One woman watched the raiders kill her husband and then refuse to let her pull his body out of their burning house. The partisans also stole many of the women’s valuables, including their wedding rings. Quantrill later stated that “the ladies of Lawrence were brave and plucky.” A resident recalled:

“The ladies were wonderfully brave and efficient that morning. Some of them, by their shrewdness and suavity, turned raiders from their purpose when they came to their houses. Sometimes they outwitted them, and at other times they boldly confronted and resisted them. In scores of cases they put the fires out as soon as those who kindled them left the house. In some cases they defiantly followed the raiders around, and extinguished the flames as they were kindled.”

The murder and pillage ended around 9 a.m., when word arrived that Federal troops were approaching. The raiders fled back to Missouri. Some 80 widows and 250 fatherless children remained after Quantrill’s men left. About 185 buildings were burned, with property damage assessed at $1.5 million. One partisan was too drunk to leave with the rest; the vengeful survivors shot him, rode his body through town, and then ripped his corpse to pieces.

An observer later said, “The town is a complete ruin. The whole of the business part, and all good private residences are burned down. Everything of value was taken along by the fiends… I cannot describe the horrors.” Another wrote, “The whole business part of the town, except two stores, was in ashes. The bodies of dead men… were laying in all directions.” Kansas Governor Thomas Carney wrote, “No fiend in human shape could have acted with more savage brutality.”

Both Federals and Confederates considered the sack of Lawrence a senseless atrocity that did nothing to advance any cause in the war. Lane opted not to pursue Quantrill. Instead, he led his Jayhawkers into Missouri and went on a murder spree of his own. At the same time, Lane demanded that Ewing impose more punitive consequences on those suspected of aiding Quantrill and other guerrillas.



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