Quantrill, William Clarke

Encyclopedia entry by ,
Albany State University

Charcoal drawing of William Clarke Quantrill, by A.L. Dillenbeck. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Biographical Information:

  • Date of Birth: July 31, 1837
  • Place of Birth: Canal Dover, Ohio
  • Claim to Fame: Led a band of Confederate guerrillas, "Quantrill's Raiders," and attacked Lawrence, Kansas, in "Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence"
  • Date of Death: June 6, 1865
  • Place of Death: Louisville, Kentucky
  • Cause of Death: Shot in a Union ambush on May 10, 1865
  • Final Resting Place: Saint Johns Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky; Fourth Street Cemetery, Dover, Ohio; Confederate Memorial State Park, Higginsville, Missouri (Read the story of Quantrill's three graves.)


William Clarke Quantrill was a prominent Confederate guerrilla leader during the American Civil War who is most famous for having led a raid on the Unionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863. Confederate “bushwhackers” such as Quantrill and pro-Union “jayhawkers” used irregular tactics in Kansas and Missouri, contributing to a prolonged and violent guerrilla conflict in the region and the creation of a romantic outlaw mythology after the war. Quantrill was perhaps the most notorious and enigmatic wartime guerrilla, and many of the “facts” or mythologies surrounding him were self-created.

Quantrill was perhaps the most notorious and enigmatic wartime guerrilla.

Quantrill was born in Canal Dover, Ohio, on October 11, 1837. The son of a school teacher, Quantrill worked as a teacher and other various trades in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana before moving to Missouri at age 19. Quantrill traveled to Kansas in 1858, where he earned a living as a gambler under the alias “Charles Hart” and worked as a school teacher in Lawrence before becoming involved in the border violence and fleeing to Missouri in 1860.

Quantrill’s political views and personal turning points are highly debated. While living in Kansas and Missouri, he purportedly earned money by aiding both Free-State men in liberating slaves and proslavery men by capturing and returning escaped slaves. Yet in writing to his mother in January 1860, Quantrill disclosed his contempt for the “murderer and robber” John Brown and his sympathizers. Moreover, in December 1860 Quantrill and five Quaker abolitionists planned to liberate the slaves of Morgan Walker, a slaveholder in Jackson County, Missouri. Quantrill, however, acted as an informant by alerting the Walkers to the raid, and the Quakers were fatally ambushed. Whatever his role or intent, it is clear that by late 1860, Quantrill opposed what he saw as egregious antislavery violence in Kansas and expressed a desire to act upon that opposition.

View Quantrill's Battles in a larger map

Quantrill sided with the Confederacy in 1861 at the outset of the Civil War, seeing action at the Battles of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, Missouri. By late 1861, Quantrill had raised a band of several hundred men to attack Unionists along the Missouri-Kansas border. Quantrill motivated his men—and constructed his own mythology—by telling them that he and his older brother (who probably never existed) had been ambushed by jayhawkers in Kansas on their way back from the west. Quantrill claimed that his brother had been killed instantly, while he was shot twice, robbed, and left for dead. After protecting his brother’s body from the elements for several days, he claimed to have been rescued and nursed back to health by a Shawnee Indian. Vowing reprisal, Quantrill maintained that he then joined the Union Army and took vengeance on his brother’s murderers.

In another incident shrouded in uncertainty, Quantrill was allegedly promoted to captain of Confederate partisan forces by Colonel M. Jeff Thompson following the Battle of Independence, Missouri, on August 11, 1862, and declared an outlaw by Union authorities. To this day, it is still unclear whether Quantrill was ever a commissioned officer, or if he merely operated as a bandit. Further complicating Quantrill’s life story, he met Sarah Katherine King, often believed to be as young as 13 years old, around this time. They were married in secret due to her disapproving family, and she lived in camp through much of the remainder of the war.

Quantrill’s men killed between 160-190 men and boys, many in cold blood, before looting and burning much of the town.

The culmination of Quantrill’s violent experience was what became known as the Lawrence Massacre. On August 21, 1863, Quantrill led approximately 450 Confederate raiders into Lawrence, a Unionist and antislavery stronghold that was also home to Republican Senator James H. Lane, who had become a target of proslavery forces. Although Lane escaped, Quantrill’s men killed between 160-190 men and boys, many in cold blood, before looting and burning much of the town.

Union Retribution for the Lawrence Raid came in the form of General Thomas Ewing Jr.’s General Order No. 11 on August 25, which detained pro-Confederate civilians and systematically depopulated four Missouri counties along the Kansas border. Most of the Lawrence raiders fled to Texas in late 1863, and Quantrill’s unit broke into several smaller bands headed by his lieutenants, including William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Quantrill staged raids into Kentucky in the spring of 1865, where he was ambushed and received a gunshot wound to the chest on May 10 near Taylorsville. Quantrill was transported to a military prison hospital in Louisville and died on June 6. He was buried in St. John’s Catholic Cemetery in Louisville, although some of his remains were later reinterred in Dover (formerly Canal Dover), Ohio, and Higginsville, Missouri.

View an interview of William Clarke Quantrill, as portrayed by Aaron Worley at the Kansas City Public Library.

Whereas Unionists evoked Quantrill as a terrorist and an outlaw, those sympathetic to the former Confederacy remembered him as a celebrity and a dashing hero. Quantrill’s tactics and popular memory continued to influence postwar society, as ex-Confederate guerrillas turned bank and train robbers, including the James and Younger brothers, became folk heroes. Historians continue to debate the military importance and cultural legacy of Quantrill: was he an opportunistic bandit or a legitimate partisan? Were his operations a sideshow, or did they tie down countless men and resources that could have been deployed elsewhere? With a lack of reliable sources, it appears that Quantrill’s legacy will remain an enigma well into the future.

Suggested Reading: 

Castel, Albert E. William Clarke Quantrill, His Life and Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Connelley, William E. Quantrill and the Border Wars. Cedar Rapids, IA: The Torch Press, 1910.

Schultz, Duane. Quantrill's War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill, 1837-1865. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Cite this page: 
Stanley, Matthew. "Quantrill, William Clarke" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 24, 2019 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/quantrill-william-clarke


My great-grandfather, Thomas

My great-grandfather, Thomas Creekmore McCurry, survived an attack at his home on the Kansas/Missouri border after his father left to fight for the Union. His older brother, William Worth McCurry, was killed in the attack. Family oral history attributes this murder to Qantrill's raiders. Is there a way to learn more? Since Thomas Creekmore McCurry is also President Obama's ancestor, I thought it might be of interest beyond the family.

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