William Clarke Quantrill (1837–1865)

A pro-Confederate guerrilla leader who operated primarily in Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory during the Civil War, William Quantrill also spent time in Arkansas during the conflict. His actions against Federal troops and civilians led to much notoriety.

William Clarke Quantrill was born on July 31, 1837, to Thomas Henry Quantrill and Caroline Cornelia Clarke Quantrill in Canal Dover, Ohio, where his father was a tinsmith and school principal. He had two brothers and a sister. At the age of sixteen, he began working as teacher and, in 1857, moved to Kansas Territory with a number of other men from Canal Dover. While in Kansas, he espoused abolitionist views. Quantrill received a land claim but fell out with his Ohio friends, leading him to join a wagon train to Utah, serving as a cow herder during the 1857–58 drive. The expedition was part of an effort by the government to pacify Mormons in the Utah Territory. It was during this expedition that Quantrill met many Missourians who would later fight alongside him during the Civil War.

After arriving in Utah, Quantrill spent time mining for gold in Colorado before returning to Kansas and assuming a teaching position. Moving to Lawrence, Kansas, Quantrill associated with both abolitionists and pro-slavery groups. He participated in several raids and thefts in the Lawrence area during the summer and fall of 1860. In December 1860, Quantrill allied himself with several abolitionists in an effort to free slaves near Independence, Missouri. During the actual raid, it turned out that Quantrill had informed on the group, and all of the abolitionists were killed in the resulting gunfight.

At the outbreak of war in 1861, Quantrill reportedly fought with pro-Southern forces at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, in August. Postwar reports place him with Missouri State Guard units at the Battle of Lexington, Missouri, in September 1861. He drifted to Blue Springs, Missouri, and led a group of men against Kansas Jayhawkers raiding farms in the area in October. This marked the beginning of Quantrill’s actions as a guerrilla leader against Federal forces and their allies.

On August 15, 1862, Quantrill and his men were officially mustered into the Confederate service as partisan rangers. Quantrill received a commission as a captain, but Federal forces did not recognize units organized as partisan rangers, treating the members of those units as guerrillas. Over the next two years, Quantrill and his band attacked Federal units in Missouri and Kansas, depending on civilian support to evade capture.

In November 1862, Quantrill led his men into Arkansas in an effort to winter in the area or in Texas. The group joined Confederate forces under the command of Major General Thomas C. Hindman, assigned to a brigade under the command of Colonel Joseph O. Shelby. Quantrill and two of his men traveled to Richmond, Virginia, in a failed effort to obtain a permission to raise a regiment of partisan fighters along with a commission as a colonel. During his absence, Quantrill’s men participated in the Engagement at Cane Hill and the Battle of Prairie Grove.

The guerrillas returned to Missouri after the battles in Arkansas and continued their actions again Union troops. Quantrill worked with other guerrilla leaders, organizing a raid against the Unionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. The raid turned into a massacre that killed more than 180 men and boys. The guerrillas fled back to Missouri, beating back attacks by Federal pursuers.

Increased Federal efforts continued to take a toll on Quantrill and his men. Disputes caused some members of the group to depart, while others were killed or captured.

By late 1864, Quantrill realized that the war would end soon. He dressed his remaining men in Federal uniforms and moved from central Missouri into Arkansas, entering near Pocahontas (Randolph County). Crossing the Mississippi River north of West Memphis (Crittenden County), the men gathered supplies from Union garrisons who were unaware of the true identities of the guerrillas. Entering Kentucky, the group conducted raids, killed Federal soldiers, and relied on Southern sympathizers for protection while Union units searched for the guerrillas. Through multiple engagements, Federal forces killed or captured several members of the group, leaving Quantrill in a weakened position. Tracked to a farm in Spencer County, Kentucky, Union forces attacked Quantrill’s group on May 10, 1865. During the fighting, Quantrill was shot in the back and paralyzed. He was captured by the Union forces and eventually transported to a military hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where he reportedly died on June 6, 1865.

Although Quantrill was reported to have died in Kentucky, an Arkansas-related rumor emerged regarding his “true fate” in the years after the war. In 1867, a man named Captain L. J. Crocker appeared in Gregory (Woodruff County). Using cash to purchase a farm, he remained in the area for the rest of his life. Several people identified him as Quantrill over the years, and Crocker reportedly admitted his true identity to a number of Masons in 1910. He died in 1917 and is buried in Augusta (Woodruff County).

For additional information:
Banasik, Michael. Cavaliers of the Brush: Quantrill and His Men. Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 2003.

Earle, Jonathan, and Diane Mutti Burke, eds. Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013.

Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

McCorkle, John, O. S. Barton, Albert Castel, and Herman Hattaway. Three Years with Quantrill: A True Story Told by His Scout, John McCorkle. The Western Frontier Library. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Oates, Stephen B. “Cavalry Fight at Cane Hill.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Spring 1961): 65–73.

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

Shea, William L. “Prelude to Prairie Grove: Cane Hill, November 28, 1862.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Summer 2012): 122–150.

Weaver, Barry Roland. “Jesse James in Arkansas: The War Days.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Winter 1964): 359–364.

David Sesser
Southeastern Louisiana University


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