Civil War lingers in Lawrence


Raid: The Kansas college town remains marked by the carnage of Aug. 21, 1863.

November 21, 2001|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN STAFF

LAWRENCE, Kansas - They came, they saw and they plundered. And before they rode off, they killed as many as 200 men and boys and left an abolitionist's dream burning on the Kansas plains.

For four hours on Aug. 21, 1863, the unmitigated savagery of the Civil War visited Lawrence in the form of Confederate guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill and 450 of his cavalrymen.

Their objective was threefold: to kill every male big enough to carry a gun, to steal all the money and valuables they could haul away and to reduce Lawrence to smoldering rubble.

To Quantrill and his raiders, Lawrence was a sinful city, worthy of destruction. It was founded by abolitionists who settled in Kansas before the Civil War to prevent it from becoming a slave state. Itching for a fight, the abolitionists left the East carrying Bibles to honor God's word and brand new Sharps rifles to slay their pro-slavery enemies.

Southerners who believed the Good Lord wanted Kansas to be a slave state also settled there. Soon, the prairie ran red with blood, and Bleeding Kansas became a precursor of the Civil War.

Today, Lawrence is perhaps best known as a college town, home of the University of Kansas, with its undergraduate enrollment of 25,000, and Haskell Indian Nations University, with a student body drawn from 150 tribes.

This town of 80,000 is a cultural oasis with playhouses and art galleries. It also boasts of being the hometown of Beat writer William S. Burroughs and the place where poet Langston Hughes spent part of his childhood.

Lawrence was rebuilt after Quantrill destroyed it 138 years ago, but a few vestiges of the raid remain.

A plaque on the facade of the Eldridge Hotel at 701 Massachusetts St. notes that Quantrill burned it during the "Lawrence Massacre."

The House Building at 729-731 Massachusetts St. is the only structure in the shopping district that survived the raid. Francis Sporting Goods Inc. occupies 731, and a microbrewery, Brown Bear Brewing Co., sits next door at 729.

Two Brown Bear microbrews - Quantrill's Red and Josiah Miller's IPA - owe their names to the raid. The Brown Bear's menu describes Quantrill's Red as a "medium bodied ale with hints of malt flavor." The other brew, an India pale ale, is named after Josiah Miller, owner of the House Building in 1863. The Brown Bear's menu thanks Quantrill for sparing the building.

While gallows humor prevails at the Brown Bear, a somber mood hangs over Oak Hill Cemetery, where a large monument to Quantrill's victims stands in Section 3. The monument says 150 people were killed by the "inhumane ferocity of border guerrilas [sic] led by the infamous Quantrill." But the actual death toll is higher because some victims were buried without being counted.

The raid created 85 widows and 250 fatherless children. About 185 homes were burned, and the damage estimate ran as high as $2.5 million in Civil War-era dollars.

Steven Jansen, director of the Watkins Community Museum of History, says it takes some knowledge of history to put the raid in perspective.

Lawrence takes its name from Amos Lawrence, a wealthy abolitionist who financed the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. In 1854, members of the society began moving to Kansas. Lawrence was founded as the abolitionists' first outpost. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Kansas guerrillas known as Jayhawkers fought with Bushwackers from neighboring Missouri, a slave state.

In 1861, Kansas joined the Union as a free state about six weeks after South Carolina seceded. The nasty conflict along the Kansas-Missouri border escalated when the Civil War erupted, and it was punctuated by cross-border raids, looting and murder.

"Any boy growing up during the border conflict learned lessons about warfare and survival that are comparable to any Israeli or Palestinian today," says Jansen.

The Jayhawkers were led by James H. Lane, a fiery orator who was more opportunist than abolitionist. In fact, Lane once said he'd just as soon buy a black person as a mule. But he quickly learned that he could pick up lots of loot by riding with the Jayhawkers.

Quantrill settled in Lawrence in 1859 and rode with the Jayhawkers until he switched sides and became a Bushwacker. The reason for Quantrill's turnaround is unclear, Jansen says. But it's generally agreed that Quantrill double-crossed a small band of Jayhawkers who planned to raid a rich Missouri farmer's house and cart off his slaves and other valuables.

Quantrill tipped off one of the Missouri farmer's relatives and the unsuspecting Jayhawkers walked into an ambush. Afterward, Quantrill rode with the pro-slavery forces.

Jansen says many Jayhawkers were not abolitionists. The anti-slavery cause merely provided them with a thinly veiled excuse for looting in Missouri.

Amos Lawrence fulfilled his dream of seeing Kansas enter the Union as a free state. But it came with a heavy price. The town that carried his name was a hated symbol of the abolitionist movement and a target for destruction.

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