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A Look Back At Quantrill's Raid, 150 Years Later

Joe Colman b. 1955
Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas

It was guerrilla war, and not unlike Afghanistan today or what happened in Iraq. But this was on native Kansas soil.

One hundred fifty years ago this morning, 400 men rode out of Missouri to kill and to destroy much of abolitionist Lawrence, Kan.

With the massacre lodged in history, a group of students from the Army’s Command and General Staff College at nearby Fort Leavenworth ventured to the scene of the 1863 carnage.

The border war between Missouri guerilla partisans — Unionists called them Bushwackers —and the Kansans had been boiling since Kansas became a slavery-free state. Old and new resentments between pro-Union and pro-Confederate forces were more real to locals than the Civil War raging in the East.

When William Clarke Quantrill rode his irregular followers into Lawrence, it was hot and dusty and had been 100 degrees the day before. Men were armed with shotguns — some carried as many as six revolvers.

To learn from the history of the day, the Fort Leavenworth group was organized by Kevin Benson who teaches foreign military and cultural studies. He worked with instructor and retired colonel, Edwin Kennedy, Jr. and historian Tom Chychota to walk and talk the Lawrence raid.

The students stop on a rise of ground on the Southeast edge of town.

“This is where Quantrill actually stood and talked to his men and told them his final instructions,” says Chychota.

The orders were simple and definite. No women would be harmed. Any Black men would be taken as slaves back to Missouri.

“The instructions essentially were to kill every able-bodied man or boy capable of carrying a weapon, anybody 8 or 9 years old or older, if they were male, was a legitimate target,” says Kennedy.

Some 150 males, men and boys were dead by time Quantrill’s men rode out of a charred and shocked Lawrence.

The Army students hearing this, seeing the ground on which it happened, come from a range of military jobs. Many have war experience.

Lieutenant Colonel Pat Clune, has been in Iraq. His class had been told Quantrill’s men killed the Lawrence blacksmith, and Clune drew a more modern lesson from it.

“Without doing a deeper sense of analysis and thought you would just think, great. They killed the blacksmith," says Clune. "If you understand the reason they did that, the cavalry wouldn’t have a place to get more horseshoes. You take away that, the cavalryman doesn’t have his horse, he’s not mobile. He can’t do his job."

You have to think about it in today's context, says Clune, which could include stopping a citizen in a war zone, finding he has bomb making parts with him. Same effect as neutralizing the enemy blacksmith.

Clune says he was enlightened, learning things he’d never imagined. He considered factional violence and civil wars happened in other parts of the world.

“That’s their problem. We would never have that here," he says. "Yet as a case in point, these were neighbors only 150 plus years ago. They were neighbors, got along great until this came along. And then you didn’t know who your friend was, or your enemy.”

Colonel Kennedy says the goal was to terrorize Lawrence and stifle armed resistance; and Quantrill and his men did just that.

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