Southern rangers, in particular those led by John Hunt Morgan and John Singleton Mosby (“Grey Ghost of the Confederacy”), were thorns in the sides of Union commanders, often causing havoc as well as wreaking widespread destruction.
The best of them were bold and resourceful, idolized by those they commanded. They struck hard at Union positions away from the major battlefields. Not surprisingly, they were detested by Northern generals, but they now have an honored place in the annals of the War Between the States.
There were others who should never be so honored, Southern bands whose conduct was so disgraceful that the pages of this period are sullied by their misdeeds. Some styled “Partisan Rangers,” they were hated by Union commanders and an acute embarrassment to Confederate army, for these were irregulars and nothing more than outlaws.
Possibly the worst of such rangers, and certainly the most notorious, were the Partisan Rangers led by William Quantrill, a man who seems to have had no redeeming features and was very likely a psychopath. Utterly ruthless, he treated any prisoners he took abominably, in many instances shooting them.
William Clarke Quantrill was born in Canal Dover, Ohio, since renamed Dover, on July 31, 1837, the son of Thomas and Caroline Quantrill. His parents were pro-Union, but their son, in his twisted and vicious way, favored the South. His father came originally from Hagerstown, Md.; his mother from Chambersburg, Pa., where John Brown had lived in 1859, prior to his raid on Harpers Ferry.
Much that has been written about Quantrill is confusing and contradictory, for not everyone regards him as a villain. In his teens, he taught school in Ohio and elsewhere, moving around frequently. For a time he was a gambler, calling himself Charley Hart. In 1857, he had to leave Kansas in haste to escape a horse-theft charge. Before long, his life was that of a petty criminal and possibly a murderer.
With the outbreak of war, this wayward son of decent parents joined the Confederate army and fought at Wilson’s Creek, Mo., a battle of Aug. 10, 1861, in which Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was killed. This bloody confrontation proved a costly victory for Confederate Gen. Benjamin McCulloch, who suffered heavy casualties and was unable to make further headway in Missouri.
Although awarded the rank of captain during Col. J.T. Hughes’ dawn attack on Independence, Mo., on Aug. 11, 1862, in which Hughes lost his life, and later falsely claiming to have been promoted to colonel, Quantrill left the regular army to assemble and lead his Partisan Rangers. Then began the atrocious misdeeds that would make his name a byword for infamy.
Strangely, perhaps, he got married early in the war. His bride was 14-year-old Sarah King of Blue Springs, Mo. She is said to have ridden with Quantrill’s band. History seems to be silent as to what became of her after she was widowed at 17.
Quantrill’s rangers soon earned their evil reputation for the slaughter of military and civilian prisoners alike. To the Union, Quantrill was a ruthless outlaw who led, among others, Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers and the well-named “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
It was what befell Lawrence, Kan., for which Quantrill would be forever remembered. Hating it for Union sympathies, he struck the little town on Aug. 21, 1863, killing at least 150 of its male population and putting Lawrence itself to the torch. Situated in Douglas County, not far from Kansas City, this unhappy town would rise phoenixlike from the ashes, a memorial to one of the worst excesses of the Civil War.
Always on the move, Quantrill led a large force to the Kansas headquarters of Union Gen. James G. Blunt, his men wearing Federal uniforms. Greatly outnumbering Blunt, who would escape, Quantrill’s Rangers attacked on Oct. 6, 1863. At least 80 Union soldiers died in what was to become known as the Baxter Springs Massacre.
To Confederacy and Union alike, Quantrill had become anathema. When he moved to Texas, Gen. McCulloch had him arrested for the murder of a Confederate officer, but he managed to break free, and although hotly pursued, got away. Texas had become too hot for him, so he returned to Missouri. By this time, his hold on his diminishing followers was failing.
The end for William Clarke Quantrill came suddenly, as so often happens with men of his kind. Near Taylorsville, Ky., on May 10, 1865, he was ambushed by Union Capt. Edward Terrell’s cavalry troops, being wounded twice, with little hope of recovery. Had he survived, he would undoubtedly have been shot or hanged. Held at first in a Louisville military hospital, he was eventually moved to (of all places) a Catholic hospital, where he died on June 6, 1865.
Quantrill’s remains now lie in the Old Confederate Veterans Home and Cemetery in Higginsville, Mo., where he had been reinterred in 1992 with full Confederate honors, a flag being initially laid across the casket. It is for others to decide whether such a man deserved any honors at all, but still there are many in Missouri who believe history has been unjust to Quantrill, and they speak or write of him with admiration and respect.