The Devil Knows How to Ride:The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and his Confederate Raiders, by Edward E. Leslie Random House, New York, $30).
By Richard F. Welch
With the possible ex- ception of John S. Mosby, William Clarke Quantrill remains the best-known guerrilla leader of the Civil War. Unlike Mosby, who operated near his command center and capital and whose military conduct followed generally accepted standards of behavior, Quantrill fought deep inside nominally Unionist territory in a conflict that began bitterly and escalated–or descended–into a savage contest of attack, repri-sal, murder and pillage. Even before his death in 1865, Quantrill’s name had come to epitomize the bloody and relentless violence of the guerrilla conflict that raged for years along the Kansas-Missouri border.
With the postwar fame–or infamy– of several of his former followers, such as the James brothers and Cole Younger, Quantrill’s reputation as a guerrilla chieftain grew. With his new book, The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and his Confederate Raiders (Random House, New York, $30), Edward E. Leslie has presented a fresh look at Quantrill and his campaigns, offering both new insights and additional information on Quantrill’s career.
The relentless scourge of Union men in Kansas and Missouri was born and raised in Dover, Ohio. His father was a marginal, slightly disreputable man who beat his son and died young. Quantrill managed to get what was a decent education for the time and sometimes worked as a teacher. Like many young men with slim prospects at home, he drifted west, seeking to make his fortune. He gambled in Utah and tried gold mining in Colorado, but was back on the anarchic Kansas-Missouri border by 1859.
The struggle between Free and Slave Staters in Kansas proved a training ground for many young men who later fought in the border war or with the main contending armies farther south and east. Leslie argues that contact with pro-slavery teamsters turned Quantrill against the abolitionists and their allies before the start of the war. Shortly before the bombardment of Fort Sumter touched off the war, Quantrill irrevocably threw in his lot with the pro-Southern faction when he decoyed a gang of abolitionists into an ambush in Missouri. His earliest military experience came in regular Confederate units, and he fought with Brig. Gen. Sterling Price at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington. When Price retreated south, Quantrill returned to the Missouri counties surrounding Kansas City and organized a band of guerrillas.
The activities of the Confederate raiders have so dominated popular images of the border campaigns that many are unaware of the depredations and provocations of the Unionist forces. Pro-Southern Missourians were continually beset and abused by Kansas Jayhawkers and Redleg raiders, regular Federal troops and Unionist Missouri militia. These units prowled the Missouri side of the border, stealing, burning and looting. As the fighting rose in intensity, Union troops increasingly gunned down individuals and families who they believed supported Rebel guerrillas. The Unionist forays were so vicious that, rather than suppressing Rebel activity, they actually drove many into the bushwhacker bands.
At the beginning of his military career, Quantrill attempted to maintain some code of military conduct; he kept promises made to the enemy, accepted surrenders, gave paroles, attempted prisoner exchanges and prevented sexual assaults. However, beginning with Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck’s March 1862 decree that outlawed all Confederate guerrillas and ordered their execution “as robbers and murderers” if they were captured, Federal authorities adopted a virtual no-quarter stance toward the raiders. Quantrill replied in kind–and then some.
Throughout 1862, Quantrill perfected the art of guerrilla warfare. He learned how to prevent surprises, avoid combat where success was uncertain and strike the enemy where he was unprepared. He also occasionally raided across the border into Kansas, wreaking havoc in revenge for the plundering and killing of Jayhawker and Redleg bands. Quantrill soon became the most notorious of the Confederate guerrilla leaders and attained a well-earned reputation for audacity, cunning and ruthlessness. He and his men were generally mounted on fine, fast steeds, which they stole whenever necessary, and while they sometimes carried carbines, their preferred weapons were Colt six-shooters. Although guerrillas sometimes wore Confederate uniforms, their favorite dress was the so-called guerrilla shirt, usually brown, with deep pockets for ammunition or loot and ornately embroidered by female relatives or admirers.
In August 1863, Quantrill unleashed his men in the lightning raid that secured his reputation as the most capable and lethal guerrilla of the war. Lawrence, Kan., approximately 40 miles from the border with Missouri, served as a major base for Jayhawker and Redleg bands. It was also home to Senator James Lane, a Jayhawker leader who had led many raids into Missouri, including the one that destroyed the town of Osceola. To carry out the assault, Quantrill gathered almost 450 men, possibly the largest guerrilla force ever assembled in the conflict.
The Lawrence raid was the most successful operation of its kind carried out by a partisan band during the war. It also revealed the border war in all its remorseless violence. Quantrill and his men had good reason to hate the Unionist bands operating out of Kansas, and at Lawrence he and his men got payback–plus interest. “We are fiends from hell,” one of his men shouted at a terrified resident, and the guerrillas, with some exceptions, set out to prove it. Much of Lawrence went up in flames, and approximately 200 male townspeople were killed.
Leslie believes that, even before the Lawrence raid, Quantrill was having difficulty imposing any discipline on his men and that the butchery that characterized that raid caused what little self-control they possessed to snap. During a winter sojourn in Texas, one of the more brutal of Quantrill’s men, George Todd, pulled a gun on him and took over command of most of the band. Quantrill, who left with a handful of his most loyal followers, ceased to be a major force in the guerrilla struggle in Missouri.
With a few trusted men, Quantrill moved eastward into Kentucky. Leslie suggests that he was headed for Virginia in hopes of surrendering with Robert E. Lee. He surely knew that he was unlikely to be taken alive in Missouri. Nevertheless, Quantrill tarried in Kentucky plying his old trade until he was mortally wounded in May 1865.
Those who are familiar with the guerrilla war on the Missouri-Kansas border are unlikely to find much in the way of new information in The Devil Knows How to Ride. They will, however, find the most complete account of Quantrill and his milieu available in a single volume. Leslie has thoroughly investigated the available source material, mastered the topic and written a gripping, absorbing, but also thoughtful and judicious, narrative. The Devil Knows How to Ride is a welcome addition to the body of work dealing with the Civil War in the trans-Mississippi West.