William Clarke Quantrill

William Clarke Quantrill, Confederate Guerrilla Leader

July 31, 1837–June 6, 1865


Confederate Guerrilla Leader



A. K. A.:

Charley Hart


“Kill! Kill and you will make no mistake! Lawrence should be thoroughly cleansed, and the only way to cleanse it is to kill! Kill!”

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and lit the fuse of civil war. Until then, the northern limit to slavery in the territories had been drawn at the latitude 36°30’ north, as established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. But Stephen Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois, wanted to lay the groundwork for a transcontinental railroad running west from Chicago and needed Southern support to make it happen. The result, sponsored by Douglas, was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stipulated that slavery could exist north of the 36°30’ line if settlers there voted for it—a rather harmless-sounding concept dubbed “popular sovereignty.”

Harmless it definitely wasn’t. The act led directly to the creation of the Republican Party, which dedicated itself to containing the further spread of slavery and ultimately sent Lincoln to the White House. But just as important, slavery wasn’t the sort of issue that people calmly debated and decided at the polls like diligent citizens, especially on the frontier. The immediate effect of Douglas’s pet project was to turn the Kansas Territory into a literal battleground. Homesteaders from neighboring slave states came pouring over the border to swell the ranks of pro-South men, while Northern “emigration societies” sent a flood of settlers into Kansas to buttress the free-soil camp. “Bushwhackers,” pro-slavery partisans, fought bloody battles with free-soil fighters known as “jayhawkers” in a wrathful guerrilla war of assault and retaliation that held a horrified nation enthralled. It looked very much … well, like a civil war.

From 1905 to 1942, the skull of guerilla leader William Quantrill was used in a mysterious fraternity initiation ritual. Fraternity brothers nicknamed the prop “Jake.”

Which it was. For more than six long years before the shelling of Fort Sumter, Kansas shuddered with sectional violence. From 1854 to the end of the wider conflict that began after Lincoln’s election, the plains would produce no small number of dubious celebrities: John Brown, who would take his holy mission all the way to Harpers Ferry and the gallows; Jacob Herd, ruthless scourge of the Underground Railroad; John Stewart, the “Fighting Preacher,” a part-time Methodist minister and full-time jayhawker; JamesLane, called “The Grim Chieftain of Kansas,” a senator, brigand, and notorious bane of slaveholders; “Doc” Jennison, abolitionist and cattle thief; “Bloody Bill” Anderson, collector of Yankee scalps; the Younger brothers, driven to brutality by their father’s murder at the hands of jayhawkers; and Frank and Jesse James, bushwhackers and future bank robbers extraordinaire.

Dominating this rogue’s gallery was a figure who continues to personify the maelstrom that was “Bleeding Kansas.” William Clark Quantrill arrived late on the scene—folks had been shooting and stabbing and burning each other along the Kansas-Missouri border for more than five years by the time he chose to join the fray. But in time his name would be as celebrated and reviled as any in the annals of the Civil War.

He had an unlikely background for a desperado. Born the son of a tinker in Dover, Ohio, he was a pretty good student who graduated from high school and became a teacher. In time he grew bored and eager to make something more of himself, and—like so many of his generation—journeyed west to find his fortune.

It proved elusive. Quantrill ended up doing all manner of things for money—he tried a bit of farming, sold copies of a book his father wrote on tinsmithing, shot prairie chickens for petty change, gambled a lot, tried prospecting in Colorado, and even slung hash and drove a wagon for the army. But nothing put real distance between him and the poverty that seemed ever to stalk him.

There were, of course, other ways of making money. And most of them were illegal. Having gotten a job as a teamster hauling army supplies out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he came under the influence of pro-South border ruffians who introduced him to the wide world of bushwhacking. Since arriving in the territory, Quantrill—who had begun using the alias “Charley Hart”—had essentially abandoned the antislavery stance he’d acquired in his Ohio upbringing and come to look upon abolitionists with suspicion and even disgust. To the men he now associated with, jayhawkers had brought violence upon themselves by killing and burning for their cause. Bushwhackers were only returning the favor and defending their own. It was an idea that both sides could’ve argued. But by 1860, Quantrill had harnessed his fortunes to the South-leaning side.

And, conveniently, he had found himself a job: for in Kansas, being a partisan was as much a vocation as an ideological struggle. If Quantrill now threw himself into the strife of Bleeding Kansas, it was because it offered hard material reward as well as participation in the Cause. In 1860, he rode with a bunch of fellow bushwhackers, making a decent amount of money by hitting stations on the Underground Railroad. They would hold up the operators at gunpoint, kidnap whatever fugitive slaves happened to be there, and collect reward money from the masters who were eager to get their slaves back. Other ways of making ends meet included kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and cattle rustling.

In 1861, however, everything changed. For one thing, a Republican had made it to the White House. For another, Kansas was formally made a state in January—a free state. And, last but not least, civil war broke over the country like a long-anticipated deluge. Now a Confederate, Quantrill rode for a while with a unit of pro-South Cherokees, then enlisted in General Sterling Price’s army after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August, enlisting as a private. It was the extent of his regular army career—the following autumn he fell in with a band of Missouri bushwhackers and soon became their leader.

Considering himself a legitimate Confederate combatant, Quantrill tried to behave as one, whether parolling captured Union officers or offering terms to defeated foes. This didn’t last long, however, and for several reasons. First, the environment that produced him and the men he attracted to his group had long since been inured to savagery and the expectation of savagery. Second, the Union authorities immediately outlawed bushwhackers like Quantrill’s raiders as illegal combatants who were not subject to the established rules of war, a fact that Quantrill took to heart. And third … well, perhaps Quantrill himself was affected by the desperate clash to which he’d attached his fate.

Operating along the border that separated Kansas and Missouri, Quantrill’s band of bushwhackers became embroiled in the ruthless tit for tat that had been going on since 1854. A bold, brutal, and lucky guerrilla leader, Quantrill earned a reputation that made him one of the most wanted men in the West. In April 1862, the Confederate government passed the Partisan Rangers Act, legitimizing (and, hopefully, bringing under control) the numerous irregular raiders who terrorized Unionists throughout the long frontier that separated North and South. The following August, Quantrill helped capture Independence, Missouri, and was soon given a captain’s commission in the Confederate army. His raiders held up stagecoaches, robbed prominent Unionist households, harried Federal camps and their supply lines, rode down and murdered enemy soldiers, and generally shot their way into newspaper headlines. Quantrill had embraced a war without quarter, becoming a horror on horseback that sowed fear throughout the countryside and profited from his depredations.

Of course, lots of unscrupulous malefactors were doing that in Kansas and Missouri—it was all the rage, in fact. But Quantrill was in a class by himself, as he proved the following year. In November 1862, he traveled to Richmond and perhaps acquired a colonel’s commission, though this remains in dispute to this day. The following August, however, he undertook the “operation” that would forever link his name to atrocity.

Lawrence, Kansas, was the center of Northern and abolitionist activity in the state. The home of Jim Lane and other anti-South partisans, it had long been a jayhawker sanctuary and, since 1861, a center of Union recruitment. To William Quantrill, it was the holy grail of targets—a fat hog waiting to be shot, cleaned, butchered, and smoked. For weeks the guerrilla leader reconnoitered his target, familiarizing himself with its schedules and geography. Then he struck. On the morning of August 21, he and his men hit Lawrence like a biblical plague, setting as much as they could to the torch and looting everything in sight. Drinking, ransacking, they sentenced every male inhabitant they came across to death—by the end of the nightmare, some 150 men and boys would be hauled out into the street and shot before their screaming womenfolk. (Jim Lane, a choice target, managed to escape.) Their horses laden with booty, the marauders left behind a scene of mass murder and smoldering devastation.

Even in a state accustomed to crimes of ideological passion, the Lawrence massacre was a shock. Union authorities reacted with equivalent insensitivity: Identifying Missouri as the hive from which Quantrill’s raiders flew to do their dastardly deeds, the Federals issued General Order Number 11, which actually commanded all inhabitants of several Missouri counties bordering Kansas to get out. The area was soon depopulated, all because of Quantrill’s audacious barbarity—a stunning example of Unionist excess that, ironically, filled Quantrill’s ranks with more recruits.

Federal units did their best to catch him in the weeks that followed, but to no avail. Deciding to winter in Texas, Quantrill led his men south in October and ran into a hundred Federals escorting the headquarters of Major General James Blunt to Fort Smith. Surprising the bluecoats at Baxter Springs, Kansas, Quantrill’s raiders slaughtered the majority of them, plundered the column’s unusually large store of liquor, and sat about getting drunk amongst the charred and mutilated corpses. (Though Blunt managed to escape the massacre, he would later go insane and die in an asylum in 1881.) Deposed at gunpoint by one of his own, a bushwhacker named George Todd, Quantrill was back in Missouri the following spring. Times were changing, and not for the better: Toward the end of 1864, the Confederate cause was finished in Missouri, and Quantrill, accompanied by thirty or so diehards, made for Kentucky.

Armed with stolen Federal uniforms, the band had a high old time getting the drop on enemy soldiers, then robbing and executing them. But the end was closer than Quantrill knew. In January 1865, a shady character named Edwin Terrell was hired by Union authorities in Kentucky to hunt down Quantrill. Terrell finally caught up to his quarry on May 10, shooting him in the back as the infamous raider ran for his life. Quantrill, paralyzed, lingered for weeks until dying on June 6.

Throughout his career, the destroyer of Lawrence had ridden with—and commanded the respect of—some of the era’s most storied bushwhackers, including Bill Anderson, Cole Younger, and both Frank and Jesse James. Such credentials speak for themselves. Hardened by a conflict in which both sides dramatically lowered the bar of established conduct, Quantrill’s hands were some of the bloodiest in a very bloody struggle. As one contemporary wrote, Quantrill’s “mode of warfare” was “little, if at all, removed from that of the wildest savage … [an] inhuman warfare, in which men are to be shot down like dogs, after throwing down their arms and holding up their hands supplicating for mercy.” The author of these words? Brigadier General Henry McCulloch—the regular army officer who, while Quantrill’s raiders were wintering in Texas, was technically their direct superior.


Before the war, William Quantrill fell hard for Anna Walker, the beautiful daughter of a large Missouri slave owner named Morgan Walker. Though the feeling was mutual, the relationship did not last. (Anna’s taste in men stayed more or the less the same—she ended up hooking up with George Todd, the bushwhacker who deposed Quantrill, and went on to marry Joe Vaughan, also a Quantrill raider.) The true love of Quantrill’s life, however, was Sarah “Kate” King of Jackson County, Missouri. The two probably met sometime in 1863, though Kate was soon forbidden by her father to keep seeing the famous guerrilla. In spite of his efforts, the romance blossomed in secret, and Kate and William may even have married—a topic that historians continue to debate. Whether or not she actually married Quantrill, Kate took “Clarke” as an alias last name to further conceal her connection to her infamous lover.

But of all the women in Quantrill’s life (and there were probably many), the oddest has to be Sue Mundy. Called the “Wild Woman Guerrilla,” Sue rode with Quantrill in Kentucky in 1865. And she wasn’t a woman at all. Her—his—real name wasMarcellus Jerome Clark, a former Confederate artilleryman with unusually smooth facial skin. Many stories circulated as to how Jerome came to be called Sue, including the one told by Clark himself: that a female horse thief named Sue Mundy blamed her crime on Clark, and it stuck. At any rate, Clark’s colorful career as a Kentucky terror came to a grisly end. In March 1865, he was publicly hanged for his crimes, but dropped a distance that was too short to snap his neck. He thrashed for what seemed an eternity before succumbing to asphyxiation.


Quantrill’s demise began, strangely enough, with a horseshoe. His treasured horse, Old Charley, was known for his speed and coolness under fire and had gotten Quantrill out of numerous scrapes. He also didn’t like being handled by anyone except his owner. So when one of Quantrill’s men attempted to change Old Charley’s shoe, the animal reared testily and injured himelf. A vexed Quantrill had no choice but to procure another mount.

The mishap proved deadly when Terrell and his fellow riders caught Quantrill’s men napping in a barn on the morning of May 10, 1865. As Quantrill attempted to mount his horse, the beast—who had never before smelled gunpowder or experienced the chaos of battle—bucked wildly amidst the hiss of bullets, preventing his desperate rider from mounting him. Quantrill was forced to give up and simply run as fast as he could behind his galloping men. Just moments later, as he was attempting to mount another horse, Quantrill took a bullet in the left shoulder that ended up lodging near his spine. He fell into the mud, incapable of moving his stricken body. The end had come.

The Headless Horseman

Upon his death in 1865, William Quantrill—who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed—was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. But that is hardly the end of the story. In 1887, his mother, Caroline Clarke Quantrill, enlisted the help of an Ohio publisher named William Scott to track down her son’s bones and bring them back to Dover. Scott, however, proved unscrupulous in his dealings with the widow: Instructed to bring the remains home and bury them in the Quantrill family plot, the publisher did that and more—he buried some and kept the rest in his office to be peddled for money.

Among the bones he decided to keep was Quantrill’s skull, though Scott was never able to sell it. He died in 1902. Not long afterward, Scott’s son gave or sold the skull to a local fraternity, who used it for years as the featured prop in their initiation ceremonies. (As Quantrill biographer Edward E. Leslie relates, the brothers dubbed the thing “Jake.”) In the early 1970s, a trustee of the fraternity handed the relic over to the Dover Historical Society, who used it to fashion a wax likeness of the infamous bushwhacker. Not until 1992 was Quantrill’s head reunited with the rest (or at least part of the rest) of its body. In October of that year, the skull—enclosed in a child’s coffin—was lowered into the plot that contained the bones Scott had buried more than a century before. Less than a week earlier, the Missouri division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had buried five of Quantrill’s bones in the Confederate Memorial Cemetery in Higginsville. Some six hundred mourners and curiosity seekers had attended the ceremony.

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