Civil War Stories: Quantrill Raids Lawrence

Newspaper man in Lawrence shares his own story of Civil War brutality.
CAPPER's Staff
Good Old Days
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 The most devastating single incident of the Civil War in Kansas was the raid on Lawrence, August 21, 1863, led by the Confederate guerrilla, William C. Quantrill. The raiders looted and burned more than 200 buildings, killed nearly 150 men and boys and then disappeared into the Missouri hills. Among the Lawrence offices destroyed was that of the Kansas Weekly Tribune, but its editor, John Speer, borrowed type from Topeka and published again on August 27. Here he describes the massacre as he saw it.

"We were awakened by the voice of Mrs. Speer, exclaiming, 'What does all that mean?' and jumped from our bed instantly, when a colored man cried through our window, 'The secesh have come!' Looking into town we could see but a small portion of stragglers, the main body being hidden by the building and the densest portion of Massachusetts Street. Soon firing commenced in all directions. We could not distinguish any efforts for defense.

"We seized a double-barreled shotgun, but we found we had neither ramrod or powder. Still, we thought we could wind through the brush to where we supposed our friends were, and get ammunition. The rush of the Rebels to the bank east of town soon dispelled that hope; and we were compelled to return with an empty gun, and make our best efforts for our family. The necessity of securing every person capable of defense compelled the Rebels to pass by all the dwellings on the outskirts of town. Hence, we had time for deliberation.

"There being no possible chance to aid any person outside of our family, we went to work to remove our four little children and such valuables as we could grasp, with the intention of abandoning the house entirely. We had seen so much brutality, had heard the firing, and seen unarmed men falling, that we expected no mercy for even helpless children. My fearless wife, however, said she would stay, but only on the condition that we should leave. We went into the undergrowth nearby. There we watched the proceedings. Previously Allen's warehouse, the Republican office and Willis's Livery Stable were in flames.

"Horses were galloping in every direction, guns were discharged, wounded men and boys were screaming, buildings cracking and demons yelling with every discharge of the deadly missiles. We occupied this position until the ruffians rode to our dwelling. We then passed through a cornfield to the riverbank. Here in amongst the thicket of grapevines and all manner of undergrowth, we found men, women and children, some of the former wounded. Here we first heard that our son was wounded. Men had escaped who had been shot at, with infants in their arms. Numbers of names were given by persons who saw the dead fall, as they fled from the merciless massacre.

"When the cry reached us the demons had left, however, we knew nothing of our own family. Hurrying forward, our little girl met us screaming, 'Pa, Robby is dead!' A poor, sick German woman was at our door with two babes, crying, 'My poor man is murdered!' Mrs. Speer had left to look for the dead. We ran to the scene of the massacre, and found our oldest son shot thru the body. The floor was covered with mutilated dead.

"These details may seem merely personal relations of our own afflictions, but we cannot help uttering them. Would to God that they were exceptions, but they are mere illustrations of the general carnage ... the indescribable distress ... the agonizing sorrows which afflict the hearts of nearly every family. Women are weeping over the ruins of their once happy homes. We have dwelt principally upon what we have seen and have no heart for hunting up details, especially in regard to property."

Cecile Culp
De Soto, Kansas

 Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’S WEEKLY asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community. 


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