Far from being ashamed of their wartime actions, Quantrill’s raiders held gala reunions to relive their deeds.
Not all the Confederate guerrillas who rode with William Clarke Quantrill during the Civil War followed their infamous leader’s example by dying young. Some, in fact, lived to an improbable ripe old age. And like old soldiers everywhere, they liked to meet and talk over old times, even when those times included the cold-blooded murder of 150 men and boys at Lawrence, Kansas, in the summer of 1863.
The first informal gathering of former Quantrill guerrillas was held at the City Hotel in Blue Springs, Mo., on May 11, 1888. The guest of honor for the spur-of-the-moment “ice cream social” was Caroline Clarke Quantrill, the raider’s aged mother, who was then in the midst of a nostalgic tour of the sites of her son’s various wartime depredations.
The gathering was a great success. Tables laden with food and drink were set up on the lawn outside the hotel, and 14 former guerrillas attended the festivities. A correspondent for the Kansas City Journal assured his readers that the old guerrillas “were an intelligent and well behaved lot of men, and did not seem possessed of any of the bloodthirsty characteristics ascribed to them. If they ever had, the refining influence of twenty-three years of peace and civilization have evidently transformed them into good law abiding citizens.”
One by one, the former night riders stopped by Mrs. Quantrill’s table to “talk with her about her son, and [tell] her of the parts in the great internecine strife that they had enacted with him.” After the event, Mrs. Quantrill was given a grand send-off at the Blue Springs train station, where practically the entire town gathered to see her off. “The last they saw of her,” wrote the Kansas City reporter, “was the flutter of a handkerchief at the window as the train swept around the bend.”
After Mrs. Quantrill’s first and only visit to the state, the old guerrillas went back to their farms and businesses for another decade. Not until September 10, 1898, was the first official reunion of the “Quantrill Band Survivors” held at Blue Springs. The fact that the gathering did not occur until some 33 years after the war was over would seem to indicate that the survivors did not entirely trust the healing power of time.
Some 500 persons showed up for the reunion, including 35 former guerrillas. Frank Gregg, one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, had the men line up for roll call. The proceedings were considerably disrupted when someone in the crowd suddenly shouted, “Bluecoats! Bluecoats!” and the old men scrambled for cover, only to find that it was one of their own number, Hi George, playing a practical joke.
Frank James, the famous bank robber who had gotten his start riding with Quantrill during the war, was the natural center of attention. Dressed in “neat checked trousers, black coat and vest, red necktie and patent leather shoes,” the reformed bandit declined an invitation to make a speech, allowing that he had done many foolish things in his life, but never anything that foolish. Instead, he traded wartime reminiscences with his old comrades, helped them eat a lavish picnic lunch, and went back to his job as a burlesque house doorkeeper and weekend horse racer.
For the next several years, the Quantrill Band Survivors met at various places on various dates, usually in conjunction with the county fair, where they were greater attractions than all the livestock shows and blue-ribbon exhibits. Eventually, the group began meeting each August at the Jackson County home of Miss Lizzie Wallace, whose father had been rescued from hanging by Quantrill and his men. The reunions became gala two-day affairs, with long tables set up in a grove of trees behind the Wallace farm to accommodate the old raiders and their families. Once-feared guerrillas, surrounded by tow-headed grandchildren, nibbled on fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches, potato salad and pecan pies while listening to tunes provided by black musicians hired especially for the occasion. A particularly popular guest was John Nowland, a black man who had ridden with Quantrill during the war and was considered by his former comrades to be “a man among men.”
Residents of Lawrence, Kan., and other border towns visited by the raiders in their salad days did not find the annual gatherings so amusing, particularly given the old guerrillas’ lamentable penchant for granting newspaper interviews and recounting their gruesome deeds in loving detail. Lawrence Judge Samuel Riggs, a survivor of the 1863 massacre, even attempted to dust off the 43 murder indictments handed down after the raid, but repeated requests that the governor of Kansas demand extradition of the old bushwhackers quietly died a political death.
Inevitably, time had the final reckoning on Quantrill’s men, and the last reunion–the 32nd–was held in 1929. By then, only five ex-guerrillas were in attendance, and they voted to limit all subsequent gatherings to one day. As it turned out, they need not have bothered–no more reunions were ever held. On March 3, 1932, the last known survivor, Frank Smith, died on his 86th birthday, “his body parts worn out by age and steady work.” That was more than could be said for the countless wartime victims of Quantrill and his men.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War