Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

“My Dear Mother”: Letters by William Clarke Quantrill

August 20th, 2019

One of the most renowned collections in Spencer Research Library is a series of letters written by William Clarke Quantrill to his mother, Caroline Cornelia Clarke Quantrill, between 1855 and 1860. During this period, Quantrill wrote sporadically to Caroline, letting her know his whereabouts, describing his plans for the future, promising he would come home soon, and vowing to send money when he could. Quantrill rarely revealed his views on politics or current events in these letters, and nothing in them hints at the course he would choose after he stopped writing home altogether. On August 21, 1863, 156 years ago this week, Quantrill gained infamy for organizing and leading a guerrilla raid on Lawrence in support of the Confederate cause.

Quantrill was born in Dover, Ohio, on July 31, 1837. After graduating from high school at age sixteen, he began teaching school in Dover, a career he would return to off and on several times. His father passed away in 1854, leaving Quantrill, as the eldest of eight children, the male head of the family. Caroline took in boarders, and his oldest sister took in sewing jobs, but the family remained very poor.

In the summer of 1855, Quantrill joined a group of other Dover residents and traveled to Illinois to seek better farmland and to see what other opportunities may lie a little farther west. In the letter below, dated August 8, 1855, he tells Caroline of his safe arrival, indicates he will try to send her some money, and mentions the possibility of getting a teaching position. “This country is a great deal different from Ohio,” he writes, “for miles around I can see nothing but tall grass.”

Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, August 8, 1855
Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, August 8, 1855
William Clarke Quantrill’s letter to his mother Caroline, August 8, 1855. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

By July 1859, Quantrill had tried his luck at various occupations, in addition to teaching, and had explored business enterprises in Mendota, Illinois; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and the Kansas and Utah Territories. He had even tried his luck in the gold mines of Colorado. He was restless, and nothing seems to have satisfied him. The letter below, written to Caroline on July 30, 1859, was from Lawrence, Kansas, the place where he would gain his notoriety. In it, he relates a story to his mother that must have stirred her worst fears for her son’s safety.

Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, July 30, 1859
Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, July 30, 1859
William Clarke Quantrill’s letter to his mother Caroline, July 30, 1859. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

It has been some time since I wrote to you, and I am now a long ways distant from the place I last wrote to you. I have seen some pretty hard & scaly times, both from cold weather & starvation & the Indians & I am one of 7 out of a party of 19 who started from Salt Lake City for the Gold Mines of Pikes Peak which are talked of all over the country & undoubtedly the Humbug of all Humbugs. I say so because I spent two months in the gold region haveing [sic] my own experience & that of a number with whom I was acquainted to prove it conclusively…

I am now in Lawrence after having spent over $300 & many a day & night when I expected either to be killed or freeze to death & at last when nearly in the settlements to have my horse and all taken from me & a companion of mine shot in 3 different places & left for dead & all that saved my head was I was out hunting away from the camp about a mile and a half & hearing the firing hurried to camp in time to see the indians driving off our horses & my friend lying on the ground apparently dead but still breathing with difficulty having been shot 3 times, his leg broke below the knee, shot in the thigh with 7 iron slugs & last shot through the body with an arrow which I first thought would kill him but he lives yet & if taken care of properly will be as well as ever in 6 or 8 weeks. I hardly know what to do at present nor where to go but in my next letter I will be able to tell you some more. I think my friend & myself will make goverment pay us for our losses by the Indians if possible when he gets well.

You would hardly know me if you were to see me I am so weather beaten & rough looking that every body says I am about 25 years of age.

In his final letter to Caroline, written on June 23, 1860, Quantrill inquires about the money he says he sent to her, tells her he will send more when he can and talks about the weather and his health. H also speaks of wanting to visit, but says he cannot get away. After this letter, Caroline would contend that she had no more word from him, relying on rumors and reports that she heard from the newspapers, her neighbors, and strangers to try to know his whereabouts.

Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, June 23, 1860
William Clarke Quantrill’s letter to his mother Caroline, June 23, 1860. Handwritten copy of the original. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

Caroline loved her son and found many of the stories about him quite hard to accept or even untrue. Caroline wrote the letter below on February 24, 1889, to the childhood friend of her son, William W. Scott. In it, she rails against Scott for what she perceives as his attempt to vilify and profit from her son. “You have told me a great-deal to hirt [sic] my feelings,” she tells him. Scott had become like a son to Caroline and often provided for her. He also wanted to write a book about Quantrill, but out of respect to Caroline, he was waiting until her death to do it. When she found out about the book, she turned on him, writing

Now I will tell you some thing of your Self The foalks in these parts did not have any confidence in you from the fact of you Being a Yankey Man They could not depend on your word They didnt know but you were a Son of Some Old Yankey. hunting up something to make money out off. I have had to tell as much as fifty time all about your place of birth, and that my Husband educated you along with My Son. & that you Boath graduated at the same time, & were fine scholars. So you see I had a goodeal [good deal] of talking to do to make it good on your side…

You may as well give up writing a History of my Dear lost Boy, for you never will get any thing correct. no one but His men & friends and my-self could get up a correct History of him. His men never will Enlighten the Yankeys on the Subject. So what they gather up will be mostely Lies.

Image of a letter from Caroline Clarke Quantrill to W.W. Scott, February 24, 1889
Letter from Caroline Clarke Quantrill to W. W. Scott, February 24, 1889. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

Caroline defended her son until her death in 1903.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services

Sources:

William Clarke Quantrill Correspondence. RH MS 75. Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

Leslie, Edward E. The Devil Knows How to Ride. New York: Random House, 1996.

Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence: Stories of Loss Destruction and Survival

September 6th, 2013

This week we present you with two labels from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s current exhibition: “Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence: Stories of Loss, Destruction and Survival.”  The exhibit, curated by Sheryl Willliams, Spencer’s Curator of Collections, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the infamous attack on Lawrence and draws on materials from the Kansas Collection‘s holdings to illuminate this significant chapter in Kansas history.

Exhibition Title Wall for Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence: Stories of Loss, Destruction and Survival

Title wall for the exhibition featuring a photograph of the 50th anniversary of survivors of Quantrill’s Raid.
August 21, 1913. Courtesy of KU Libraries.  Click image to enlarge or travel to KU Libraries Flickr Stream.

Visitors at the opening reception for Curator of Collections Sheryl Williams speaks to the audience about Quantrill's Raid

Left: Visitors at the opening reception for “Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence: Stories of Loss, Destruction and Survival”
Right: Curator of Collections Sheryl Williams speaks on Quantrill’s Raid.
Click image to enlarge or travel to KU Libraries Flickr Stream

The exhibition is open to the public in the Spencer Research Library’s gallery through the end of October and available online at http://exhibits.lib.ku.edu/exhibits/show/quantrill.  We encourage readers to explore its moving stories of loss and resilience.

Hell Let Loose

On August 21, 1863 Quantrill and some four hundred men rode into Lawrence, on a dawn raid, catching the citizens by surprise, in spite of earlier rumors of possible attack. At the end of four hours at least 143 men and teen aged boys, most unarmed and unresisting, were known dead, many killed in front of their wives and children. Most of the business district was destroyed by fire, and many homes were plundered and burned. Lawrence was in ruins and its remaining citizens in shock and despair.

According to an account of the raid written shortly afterwards by Rev. Richard Cordley:

No one expected indiscriminate slaughter. When it was known that the town was in their possession, everybody expected that they would rob and burn the town, kill all military men they could find, and a few marked characters. But few expected a wholesale murder. … A gentlemen who was concealed where he could see the whole , said the scene presented was the most perfect realization of the slang phrase, “Hell let loose,” that could ever be imagined.

Destruction of Lawrence, an artist's sketch from Harper's Weekly. September 5, 1863

Destruction of Lawrence, an artist’s sketch from Harper’s Weekly. September 5, 1863. Call Number: RH PH 18:L:8.5. Online Exhibition item link.

The Horror And Sorrow

Excerpted from “William Clarke Quantrill and the Civil War Raid on Lawrence, Kansas, August 21, 1863, an Eyewitness Account,” Rev. Richard Cordley,  edited by Richard B. Sheridan, 1999.

As the scene at their entrance was one of the wildest, the scene after their departure was one of the saddest that ever met mortal gaze.  Massachusetts Street was one bed of embers.  On this street seventy-five buildings, containing at least twice that number of places of business and offices, were destroyed.  The dead lay all along the side-walk, many of them so burned that they could not be recognized, and could scarcely be taken up.  Here and there among the embers could be seen the bones of those who had perished in the buildings and had been consumed.  On two sides of another block lay seventeen bodies.  Almost the first sight that met our gaze, was a father almost frantic, looking for the remains of his son among the embers of his office.  The work of gathering and burying the dead soon began.  From every quarter they were being brought in, until the floor of the Methodist Church, which was taken as a sort of a hospital, was covered with dead and wounded.  In almost every house could be heard the wail of the widow and orphan. The work of burying was sad and wearying.  Coffins could not be procured.  Many carpenters were killed and most of the living had lost their tools.  But they rallied nobly and worked day and night, making pine and walnut boxes, fastening them together with the burnt nails gathered from the ruins of the stores. It sounded rather harsh to the ear of the mourner, to have the lid nailed over the bodies of their loved ones; but it was the best that could be done.  Thus the work went on for three days, til one hundred and twenty-two were deposited in the Cemetery, and many others in their own yard.  Fifty-three were buried in one long grave. Early on the morning after the massacre, our attention was attracted by loud wailings.  We went in the direction of the sound, and among the ashes of a building, sat a woman, holding in her hands the blackened skull of her husband, who was shot and burned at that place.

Photograph of Reverend Richard Cordley Image of William Elsey Connelley's  “Map of Quantrill's Route,” 1819.

Left: Reverend Richard Cordley, no date. Call Number: RH PH 18:K:205(f). Online exhibition item link.
Right: William Elsey Connelley’s map showing the route followed in pursuing Quantrill after the Raid, no date. Call Number: RH Map P7. Online exhibition item link.

Sheryl Williams
Curator of Collections and Kansas Collection Librarian