THE DEVIL’S DUEThe Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders, by Edward E. Leslie, Random House, $27.50.
Quantrill’s War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill, 1837-1865, by Duane Schultz, St. Martin’s Press, $24.95.
Anyone interested in the vicious bushwhacker-redleg war in Kansas and Missouri now has the enviable task of choosing between two first-class histories of William Clarke Quantrill, the guerrilla fighter hated and feared more than perhaps any other figure in Civil War history. Which book you buy may depend on how thorough a treatment of Quantrill’s life and times you want.
The Devil Knows How to Ride, by Edmond E. Leslie, is longer and more detailed than Quantrill’s War, by Duane Shultz. Shultz nevertheless provides excellent coverage of Quantrill’s short and somewhat enigmatic life. Aficionados of the border wars will deeply enjoy both books.
What both authors do extremely well is re-create the miasma of hatred and distrust that infested Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War and for many years preceding it. The unrelenting anger nursed by thousands of men on both sides fueled atrocity after atrocity. Both books include dozens of vignettes that vividly paint the dismal picture of raid and retribution, outrage and revenge, that characterized the dirty war along the border.
One of these vignettes is the collapse in 1863 of a makeshift jail in Kansas City, a calamity that killed and injured a number of women who were related to some of the bushwhackers. The guerrillas leaped to the conclusion, almost certainly wrong, that the Federal authorities had engineered the collapse. Cole Younger, among others, remained forever convinced that the disaster in the jail was a deliberate act of murder.
Leslie, in his detailed account of the collapse, produces evidence that the building’s supports were weakened by Federal troops, but only to gain access to prostitutes imprisoned in cells downstairs from the bushwhackers’ relatives. Regardless of the truth, as myth and rumor multiplied, the tragedy begot more tragedy, in the form of revenge. It was a catalyst for Quantrill’s notorious bloody raid on the pro-Union town of Lawrence that August.
Neither author spares Quantrill’s enemies, the “jayhawkers,” from the criticism they deserve. After all, the jayhawkers looted, murdered, and burned with much the same abandon as the bushwhackers. Both the Union and the Confederacy enlisted mostly farm boys out to “see the elephant,” but they also attracted flaming zealots and lawless scum, radicals who gladly embraced a cause that, to them, justified almost any excess.
Both books are good, quick reads. Both writers have clear, smooth, readable styles with none of the academic pretentiousness that makes a good deal of history dull and tedious. Both show their authors’ senses of humor and profound familiarity with their subject, right down to the slang of the 1860s. (Did you know that to “sound on the goose” meant to hold the correct political opinion?)
Both books are well indexed and annotated, though the index and the notes for The Devil Knows How to Ride are more detailed than those for Quantrill’s War. Both contain excellent photo sections and good maps. Leslie’s maps are somewhat more detailed, but Quantrill’s War includes an especially good diagram of the bushwhackers’ long and dangerous route to and from Lawrence.
Both authors chose to collect their references as endnotes. The notes for The Devil Knows How to Ride are interesting to read, for Leslie has included incidental information not found in the body of his text.
Here and there the authors take slightly different views of Quantrill, though neither sees anything heroic in him. Schultz is inclined to follow the long-accepted view of Quantrill as an especially nasty piece of work: even as a child he was a vandal and a torturer of animals. Leslie, however, relies on accounts that portray young Quantrill as no worse than his contemporaries, in spite of a domineering father.
Readers with a special interest in the lives of the James and Younger brothers will find much about those famous outlaws in both books. The Devil Knows How to Ride deals with their careers during and after the war in more detail than does Quantrill’s War.
The Devil Knows How to Ride is especially interesting in another way: it treats the history of the Quantrill family more completely than does Quantrill’s War, and its final chapter deals with the remarkable postwar odyssey of Quantrill’s bones. Leslie also does an especially good job of relating the subsequent histories of some of the better-known survivors of the guerrilla wars.
Leslie writes about the guerrillas’ engagements and forays in much more detail than does Schultz. Readers who want a less detailed view of the border wars may favor Quantrill’s War, which tells the tale vividly without spending as much time on small skirmishes and raids.
Both authors write in great detail about Quantrill’s tragic raid on Lawrence, Kansas, certainly the war’s best-known guerrilla strike. The accounts of Lawrence in both books elicit the same sense of revulsion. Both authors do a masterful job of re-creating the horror of that day.
If I had to choose between the two books, I would read The Devil Knows How to Ride, mostly because I liked its more detailed treatment of the whole history of the border wars. On the other hand, Quantrill’s War is an equally fine work, just as well written, and quicker to read. Which book you prefer probably depends on your level of interest. You can’t go wrong with either one.
Robert Barr Smith
University of Oklahoma
More recommended readings:
* Guide to the Battle of Shiloh, edited by Jay Luvaas, Stephen Bowman, and Leonard Fullenkamp, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 267 pages, $29.95. This latest guide book in the U.S. Army War College series on Civil War battles uses plenty of eyewitness accounts to help provide a picture of the bloody 1862 battle.
* Thunder along the Mississippi: The River Battles that Split the Confederacy, by Jack D. Coombe, Sarpedon Publishers, New York, New York, 270 pages, $24.95. Coombe traces a year and a half of gunboat battles from Forts Henry and Donelson through Vicksburg.
* The Civil War Supply Catalogue, by Alan Wellikoff, Crown Publishers, New York, New York, 203 pages, $23. The author of The Historical Supply Catalogue: A 19th-Century Sourcebook narrows his view in this compendium of currently available reproduction pieces and other products with a Civil War history.
* Johnny Reb: The Uniform of the Confederate Army, 1861-1865, by Leslie D. Jensen, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 80 pages, $12.95. Part of the G.I. Series, this book details the clothing and equipment used by Southern soldiers.
* Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War, by George Worthington Adams, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 263 pages, $12.95. Following H.H. Cunningham’s Doctors in Gray, Adams’s work, first published in 1952 and now issued in paperback, describes how Union doctors dealt with the devastating disease and injury they faced daily.
* Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain, by John Michael Priest, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 455 pages, $17.95. The author of Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle chronicles the 11 days of battles that set the stage for the September 1862 Battle of Antietam.
* Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry during the Civil War, by Chester G. Hearn, by Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 333 pages, $29.95. Hearn tells the story of what happened after John Brown’s notorious 1859 raid.
* Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, by Ernest B. Furgurson, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 431 pages, $30. Furgurson portrays the city at its most pivotal moment: its collapse under Federal pressure in April 1865.