Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence

Encyclopedia entry by ,
Colorado State University-Pueblo

An illustration of Quantrill and his band of guerrillas raiding Lawrence, first published in Harper's Weekly on September 5, 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Event Summary:

  • Date: August 21, 1863
  • Location: Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas
  • Adversaries: William Clarke Quantrill's Raiders vs. the civilian population of Lawrence
  • Casualties: Between 160-190 men and teenaged boys killed; one raider, Larkin Skaggs, killed
  • Result: Destruction of most of the town; Order No. 11 issued to quell the bushwhacker violence

William Quantrill’s raid on the Free-State town of Lawrence, Kansas (also known as the Lawrence Massacre) was a defining moment in the border conflict. At dawn on August 21, 1863, Quantrill and his guerrillas rode into Lawrence, where they burned much of the town and killed between 160 and 190 men and boys. This raid was the culmination of an ongoing conflict between the Free-State forces who controlled Lawrence and the proslavery partisans who lived in nearby Missouri. Although Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861, ending the period called “Bleeding Kansas,” the animosities of the territorial period lived on with the outbreak of civil war that same year.

One of the first casualties was Reverend Snyder, shot as he was milking his cow outside his home along present- day East 19th Street.

On that fateful August morning, a group of roughly 400 Confederate guerrillas entered the sleeping town. They immediately began to ransack homes, shoot civilians, loot stores, and set fire to buildings (including the prominent Eldridge Hotel, although Quantrill allowed its inhabitants to evacuate safely). One of the first casualties was Reverend Snyder, shot as he was milking his cow outside his home along present-day East 19th Street. Mayor George Collamore, upon hearing the commotion, hid in his family’s well, where he died of smoke inhalation. The rest of his family survived, although they had lost their home and the raiders severely wounded his 18-year-old son.

George Ellis, a free black man, had risen early to finish some work on his family’s farm. The raiders killed George’s father, but George, his brother Ben, and his mother Jane managed to survive. George hid in a dense thicket near the Kansas River, and after Quantrill’s men set the house afire, Jane successfully dragged Ben out of the flames and concealed him underneath a feather bed. In addition to targeting African Americans, the raiders also inquired about the whereabouts of notorious Free-State leaders like James H. Lane, who was able to hide in a West Lawrence cornfield to escape detection, along with several of his neighbors. The state governor and a leader of the Free-State movement, Charles Robinson, was lucky enough to escape with his life as well.

Hugh Dunn Fisher, a chaplain with the 5th Kansas Cavalry who was home on sick leave, attempted to flee with two of his sons, but being unable to keep up with them, he returned to his house and hid underneath the cellar stairs. When some of Quantrill’s men entered the house, they demanded that his wife Elizabeth let them inspect the cellar. They failed to see Fisher in the dim light, but as they left, they set fire to the house and watched it burn, hoping to flush him out if he were hiding. Elizabeth fought valiantly to extinguish the flames, but being unable to do so, she drug out a large rug (on the pretense of saving her possessions), and Hugh hid under it until the raiders left. Their entire family survived the raid.

Terror spread throughout the town, with panicked citizens fleeing into nearby ravines, hiding in cellars or cornfields, and attempting to escape across the Kansas River.

As the day went on, terror spread throughout the town, with panicked citizens fleeing into nearby ravines, hiding in cellars or cornfields, and attempting to escape across the Kansas River. By nightfall the raiders were gone, but traumatized residents now faced the daunting task of cleaning up between $1 million and $1.5 million of damage (in 1863 dollars) and coping with the high death toll. Approximately 20 percent of the male population had been killed, leaving 85 widows.


View Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence in a larger map

There are many possible motivations behind the Lawrence Massacre. Founded in 1854, Lawrence’s reputation for being an anti-slavery stronghold made it a target for guerrilla violence. Then, during the Civil War, Union regiments tasked with controlling the guerrilla population in Missouri often rendezvoused in Lawrence. A prominent resident and U.S. Senator, James H. Lane, commanded the infamous “Jayhawkers,” a military regiment that conducted raids into Missouri, confiscated supplies, and killed Missourians who sided with the Confederacy. One such raid took place on September 23, 1861, when Lane and his men ransacked Osceola, destroying stores and homes and robbing the bank. Quantrill’s guerrillas likely sought retribution for these attacks on Missouri.

Historians have also speculated that the Lawrence massacre was revenge for the unexplained collapse of a women’s prison in Kansas City only eight days earlier, which killed female relatives of the guerrillas, including one of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s sisters and Cole Younger’s cousin. Quantrill himself also had personal experience with Lawrence, having lived there under an alias a few years prior. All of these motivations are plausible explanations for why Quantrill chose to attack Lawrence.

Quantrill’s raid was doubtless one of the most significant acts of violence against civilians during the Civil War, and with it came powerful repercussions. To control these guerrillas and prevent another massacre, Union General Thomas Ewing issued Order No. 11 on August 25, 1863, which stated that all residents of four counties on the Missouri side of the border (Jackson, Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon counties) must relocate to the Kansas City area. He accurately believed that such action would flush out guerrillas and limit their ability to get supplies from friends and family living in these counties.

Suggested Reading: 

Castel, Albert E. Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Cheatham, Gary. "Desperate Characters: The Development and Impact of the Confederate Guerrillas in Kansas." Kansas History 14 (Autumn 1991): 144–162.

Goodrich, Thomas. Bloody Dawn: The Story of the Lawrence Massacre. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1992.

Cite this page: 

Epps, Kristen. "Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Aug, 27, 2014 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/content/quantrill%E2%80%99s-raid-lawrence

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