Share This Article

In July 1857, William Clarke Quantrill wrote to his mother back home in Ohio. ‘I have but one wish, and that is that you were here,’ he told her, ‘for I cannot be happy here all alone; & it seems that I am the only person or thing that is not happy along this beautiful stream.’ Eight years later this apparently tender, lonely young man would die in a Louisville, Kentucky, prison, notorious for being one of the most vicious butchers in the Civil War.

Quantrill was born at Canal Dover, Ohio, on July 31, 1837, the oldest of 12 children. Even as a child, he evinced a twisted, cruel nature. He nailed snakes to trees, shot pigs through the ears to hear them squeal, and tied cats together by their tails and watched them claw each other to death. Walking through fields, he would stab horses and slice open cows.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Quantrill began teaching school at age 16. Not content to tutor others, in 1857 the restless young man moved to Kansas in search of his fortune.

Standing 5 feet 9 inches tall, young Quantrill had a slight frame, reddish hair and cold, steel-blue eyes. One historian described him as ‘bold and physically courageous [but] a sham and almost completely amoral.’ Quantrill honed his violent nature while living with thieves, murderers and brigands in Kansas. When the Civil War erupted, Quantrill–who had already committed several brutal murders–eagerly fought with the Confederate army at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, Mo. By Christmas 1861, however, the 24-year-old Quantrill had organized a small band of pro-Confederate guerrillas to fight and kill Union soldiers and pro-Northern civilians whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.

As the guerrilla band gained notoriety, the group expanded in number. Quantrill, who was rapidly becoming infamous for murder, robbery and the mutilation of the dead, masterminded the August 21, 1863, massacre at Lawrence, Kan., in which 150 men and boys were brutally slain. Two weeks later, the band perpetrated another slaughter at Baxter Springs, Kan., where the bushwhackers attacked a Union headquarters train. The merciless guerrillas killed 98 Federals and lost only six of their own men. It was later reported that the guerrillas had mutilated the dead bluecoats.

Despite his often demonstrated adeptness at killing, Quantrill’s band grew annoyed with their leader’s frequent absences and attempts to secure a high Confederate rank, and soon dissolved into rival factions. Although his personal popularity waned, Quantrill still kept many well-known guerrillas in his service, including Jim Younger and his cousin, Frank James.

In October 1864, Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price was defeated at Westport, Mo., and Mine Creek, Kan. As Southern hopes for a Confederate-controlled Missouri plummeted, Quantrill’s guerrilla band faced imminent destruction. Fearing capture and execution by Union authorities in Missouri, Quantrill gathered approximately 40 bushwhackers in mid-December and headed east, forever turning his back on Missouri.

Crossing the Mississippi River above Memphis on New Year’s Day, the guerrillas, wearing captured Federal uniforms, assumed the identity of the nonexistent U.S. 4th Missouri Cavalry. Posing as ‘Captain Clarke,’ Quantrill informed his men that they would enter Kentucky and ride to Washington, D.C., where the guerrilla chieftain planned to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Quantrill may have made the statement in jest, for many in his command later scoffed at this claim. Others vowed that their commander did plan to kill the Union commander in chief. Conversely, Quantrill, knowing that the war would soon end, may have planned to go to Virginia to surrender his band with Robert E. Lee’s army, believing his men would get a reprieve in Virginia. In Missouri they faced certain execution.

It is equally likely that Quantrill entered Kentucky simply because it had become an Eden for bushwhackers. Killers claiming Southern or Union ties roamed freely in the Bluegrass State, robbing and murdering at will. Dire deeds went unpunished. As Union military control tightened in Missouri, Quantrill sought a land where he could terrorize with impunity. In his search, he found Kentucky. There he would also find his death.

According to a postwar memoir written by Quantrill scout John McCorkle, the blue uniforms and the Captain Clarke alias easily hoodwinked Federal troops. While riding through Tennessee, the guerrillas were joined by a local Union soldier. As the Federal rode with the men, he pointed out the homes of various Southern sympathizers and jauntily detailed those who should be killed for their disloyalty. Upon reaching one stately home, the soldier pointed and said: ‘That Rebel that lives there ought not be permitted to live another day. He is rich and the worst Rebel in this country and has done more to aid the damned Rebels than any man in the country.’ Hearing the tale, Quantrill turned to guerrilla John Barker and told him to go with the Federal to dispose of the Rebel. McCorkle relates: ‘John left with our informant and in an hour returned alone, and the rebel who lived on the hill was not molested;…the [Federal] who talked about him never talked about his neighbors anymore.’

The Missourians entered Kentucky in mid-January 1865 near Canton and moved east. On their ride they frequently encountered Northern soldiers. Passing themselves off as Missouri Federals, the guerrillas talked and joked with their enemies. At one point, however, the jovial encounters ended. The bushwhackers met a Union captain who was forming a company of black troops. The captain, who boasted openly about what his men would do to the Rebels, was summarily killed by Quantrill’s cohorts.

In one exaggerated tale spun by McCorkle, the guerrillas supposedly stopped at a private residence for breakfast. After the group dined with the family, McCorkle claimed that the host’s two daughters sensed the guerrillas’ Southern sympathies despite their blue uniforms. Upon leaving the house, he said, the two girls approached the guerrillas and said, ‘Gentlemen, from your manners we take you to be Southern men, and while I do not know who you are, if you are Southern soldiers I wish you all the happiness and success that could possibly come to anyone, but if you are Federals, my heartfelt wish is that you all will be in hell before night.’ McCorkle said the men let out a cheer, but were sternly silenced by their commander for losing their 4th Missouri Cavalry persona. It is probable that the years added hyperbole to McCorkle’s memory, for it is unlikely that a Kentucky belle living in the war-torn state would make such a rash statement to blue-clad troopers. A handful of Kentucky women had already been jailed for revealing their Southern leanings.

As Quantrill’s raiders maneuvered into central Kentucky, their guise continued to deceive Federal troops. A Union dispatch related that on January 22 the bushwhackers had arrived in Hartford. Telling Union authorities that they were the 4th Missouri Cavalry ‘detached to hunt guerrillas,’ Quantrill requested ‘a guide to conduct him toward the Ohio River, where the guerrillas most abound.’ A Federal lieutenant named Barnett, ‘who was in the neighborhood as a recruiting officer of the One hundred and twenty-fifth Colored Infantry,’ an Indiana trooper named W.B. Lawton, and W. Lownsley of the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry all volunteered to show ‘Captain Clarke’ the way. The dispatch continued: ‘About three miles from Hartford, near the Hawesville road, they hung Lownsley, it is supposed. He was found in the woods near a week afterward. They shot Lawton after traveling with him about twelve miles, and shot Barnett about sixteen miles from here. Their bodies were all found.’

Following the murders, the guerrillas made their way to Hustonville. Eyeing some fresh horses, the band prepared to make off with several of them. As guerrilla Allen Parmer pulled himself onto one of the animals, the Federal lieutenant who owned the horse rushed out. Pointing at Parmer, the lieutenant said the horses would be taken ‘over his dead body.’ Parmer growled, ‘That is a damned easy job,’ pulled his pistol and shot the lieutenant in the face. The bullet traveled through the lieutenant’s head and broke his neck, killing him instantly. Hurrying from town, the bushwhackers turned their horses toward Danville, the geographic center of Kentucky.

In Danville, the veil protecting Captain Clarke was violently lifted. On January 29, U.S. Captain William L. Gross, assistant quartermaster and assistant superintendent of the U.S. military telegraph in Danville, sent a disheartened message to his superiors. Gross informed them that ‘thirty-five guerrillas, under Captain Clarke, all dressed in Federal uniform, entered Danville this morning. They robbed some of the citizens and one boot store and left on the Perryville pike at 11:15 a.m. They claimed, at first, to be Federal troops, Fourth Missouri Cavalry, but there is no doubt they are guerrillas in disguise. They gutted my office pretty effectually.’

Purifying the story of the Danville raid, John McCorkle said that Quantrill merely ‘told the soldiers and men to all go home and let him alone, that he intended to hurt no one.’ After the war, McCorkle became a respected citizen of Glasgow, Mo., and became known as ‘a Christian gentleman of strong character and a tender heart.’ He probably failed to mention the plundering to sanitize his role in the incident.

Following the sack of Danville, the guerrillas rode westward toward Perryville, the scene of an October 1862 battle. Union commanders, however, were not dwelling on past fights–they were searching for a new way to catch Captain Clarke. That afternoon, Union brigadier general and Danville native Speed F. Fry sent Federal forces in Lebanon an order to’send one detachment through Perryville and one directly to Perryville. Order your men not to take any prisoners if they find them. Tell your men to be very careful, as guerrillas are arrayed in Federal uniform.’ Tired of statewide bushwhacker attacks, angered that the guerrillas were so bold as to wear Federal uniforms and sickened by the plundering of his hometown, Fry ordered Union troops to hoist the black flag. As Quantrill’s men had offered no mercy, Fry called for no quarter.

Riding a number of miles toward Perryville, the guerrillas swung north toward Harrodsburg, with Federal patrols on their tail. As night approached, the band split up into several groups to dine and sleep in private homes. Five miles from Harrodsburg, Quantrill slept in the residence of Mrs. Sallie Van Arsdell while other guerrillas found refuge with her neighbor John Adams. Later in the evening, a group of Federal troops under Captain J.H. Bridgewater surrounded the Adams house. As the bushwhackers tried to escape, Bridgewater’s men killed four guerrillas and captured nine others, including Jim Younger.

Quantrill somehow managed to gather his remaining men and escape town. Those killed outside the Adams house were buried in the Oakland Church cemetery, but were re-interred 40 years later in Harrodsburg’s Spring Hill Cemetery, where they could rest with other Southern dead. The prisoners, who stated they were going to Virginia (which could lend credence to Quantrill’s plot to assassinate Lincoln or surrender with Lee), were jailed in Lexington, but eventually moved to Louisville. One guerrilla, accused of killing the Union lieutenant in Hustonville, was held in Lexington but was released after the war. According to McCorkle, the prisoners were constantly threatened with execution, but they bravely defied their captors.

With a portion of the band killed and captured, Quantrill gathered his men and rode to Nelson County. The guerrillas were harassed by Union militia but managed to drive them off. At this time Quantrill may have consolidated forces with Sue Mundy, one of Kentucky’s most notorious guerrillas. Mundy, whose real name was Marcellus Jerome Clarke, was called ‘Sue’ because his youth, flowing locks and cleanshaven face gave him a feminine appearance. Mundy had served in John Hunt Morgan’s command and entered the commonwealth with Morgan’s raiders. After Morgan’s death in September 1864, he re-entered Kentucky to wage a one-man guerrilla war against Federal troops. On January 29, the same day as Quantrill’s Danville raid, Mundy skirmished with the 54th (Union) Kentucky near Bardstown.

By January 30, the chase was on. Union commanders had mobilized all nearby troops to catch or kill the elusive Clarke. Three miles from Chaplintown, Federal soldiers had a running fight with Clarke’s guerrillas and wounded one of them while others with better horses escaped. Two days later, Union Colonel H.M. Buckley, commander of the 54th Kentucky, wrote to his superiors ‘I chased Quantrill all day yesterday from Spencer through Shelby toward the Louisville and Frankfort Railroad; am still after him; will catch him if I can.’ Buckley, who previously had repulsed Sue Mundy’s forces, now hunted both guerrillas. Union forces at last were learning that the mysterious Captain Clarke was the notorious Missouri bushwhacker.

Entering the town of Midway on the night of February 2, the combined force of Quantrill and Mundy robbed citizens, burned the railroad depot and stole 15 thoroughbreds from a nearby farm. The previous night the guerrillas had put a railroad depot and freight cars to the torch at Lair Station. In a panic-ridden dispatch, Buckley reiterated that the dreaded Missourian was in the commonwealth. He wrote: ‘We have chased Sue Munday’s [sic] gang into Henry. Our horses are worn out; can’t do anything without fresh horses. Please send some, if only fifty. Quantrill is with the gang.’

Passing by New Market at 11 a.m. on February 8, the band attacked a Federal wagon train. The guerrillas killed three soldiers, captured four others, burned a number of wagons and shot all the mules. Following the raid, Major Thomas Mahoney of the Lebanon-based 30th Kentucky Mounted Infantry feared that the remainder of his wagon train would be reduced to cinders by Quantrill’s men. Organizing all available troops, the Federals pursued the guerrillas, skirmishing with them all the way to Bradfordsville. Most of the Union soldiers facing the bushwhackers were from the invalid corps–Mahoney wrote that many ‘could not master horses and load their guns.’

Chased to Bradfordsville, the guerrillas wheeled their mounts and prepared to make a stand. The Federals dismounted, and–employing a tactic used numerous times in Missouri–the guerrillas drew their revolvers and charged. According to Mahoney, the guerrillas numbered 45, while 35 ill or disabled men filled the Union ranks. Mahoney remembered that during the excitement of the charge, some of his men ‘let their horses get away, which ran to the guerrillas.’ A portion of Mahoney’s already understrength command then withdrew without orders, causing the frustrated major to halt his pursuit. Following the charge, the guerrillas killed the four Federals they had captured at New Market.

The following day, word spread about the Bradfordsville fight. Union troops stationed at Crab Orchard, Campbellsville, Columbia, Danville, Stanford, Lebanon and Lawrenceburg all moved after the guerrillas. They left the local citizenry to guard each unprotected town. At 2 a.m., the Federal detachment from Stanford, under Captain J.H. Bridgewater (who had attacked the guerrillas at Harrodsburg), again encountered the band on Little South Fork, west of Huston-ville. It is probable the guerrillas were surprised in camp, for Bridgewater’s men ‘killed 4, captured 35 horses and equipments; ran 30 or 35 of their men into the woods, most of whom were barefooted; only 7 got away mounted. Captain Clarke escaped barefooted, but our men in three detachments are hunting for them and with good prospect of finding them as the snow is fresh on the ground.’

The prospect of catching the routed guerrillas was indeed good; on February 10, a Union captain in Danville reported that troops ‘just brought in three of Clarke’s men, captured in the woods after Bridgewater’s fight.’ The following day Federal scouts reported that they had ‘captured another of Clarke’s men but in bringing him in this morning he attempted to escape, and was shot dead on the spot.’ This unnamed guerrilla was probably executed by the Federal scouts. Many remembered General Fry’s order to allow no quarter.

Although Bridgewater had dispersed Quantrill’s men, the bushwhackers soon reorganized and resumed terrorizing citizens and Federal troops. On February 27, the bushwhackers raided the town of Hickman. Entering the town at 10 a.m., the guerrillas plundered stores and homes and abused and beat citizens–women and children included–shooting at them, compelling them to give up their money and setting fire to the buildings. According to a Union lieutenant in Hickman, who possibly exaggerated the guerrillas’ depredations to ensure a stronger Union presence there, Quantrill’s men left after ‘the appearance of the [U.S. steamer] Hastings coming up the river. They carried with them a large amount of money, supplies, and whisky….I have been informed that whenever the gun-boat is absent there are always from five to thirty-five rebels in the town.’ The nervous lieutenant was practically begging his commander to keep gunboats there permanently.

Two days later, Quantrill relaxed at the home of Jim Dawson, near Taylorsville. As the guerrilla chieftain was visiting, his host’s young daughter asked Quantrill to write in her autograph book. For a moment, the schoolteacher in Quantrill emerged once again. He scribbled four stanzas of a poem, one verse of which read:

‘Though the cannon’s roar around me
Yet it shall still bear me on
Though dark clouds are above me<
It hath springs which may be won.’

According to McCorkle, who portrayed his leader as a Robin Hood and failed to mention the Bradfordsville fight as well as Bridgewater’s attack, the guerrilla band stayed in Nelson and Spencer counties for several weeks, hiding out and socializing with prominent Southern families. The scout related that a Union deserter known as Major Metz was robbing local citizens, physically abusing them and telling his victims he was from Missouri. According to McCorkle, Quantrill refused to see the good name of Missouri dragged through the mud. He ordered McCorkle to find the major. When he did, ‘We led the Major into the woods and he was soon deprived of all desire to steal and rob and had abused and mistreated his last man.’

Following the demise of Metz, Quantrill led the band between Louisville and Taylorsville, where they encountered a regiment of black infantry. The bushwhackers, McCorkle said, ‘rode into the woods and would ride up to the edge of the timber, fire into them, and dash back into the woods.’ The guerrillas, experts at hit-and-run warfare, continued this harassing fire until the exhausted troops finally reached Taylorsville.

By March 1865, Kentucky guerrillas were finding that their luck was running out. On the 12th, Sue Mundy was captured in Brandenberg. Another infamous guerrilla who had roamed the Bluegrass State, ‘One Arm’ Sam Berry, was captured, found guilty of 11 murders and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The fearsome Champ Ferguson, tried by Union authorities for more than 50 murders, received a death sentence.

Quantrill, however, managed to remain free. On April 13 he allied with a guerrilla named Billy Marion and skirmished with Federal troops near Bloomfield. One Northern soldier was killed and three wounded in the fight, but five guerrillas became casualties in the brief action. Troops under the command of Union Captain Edwin Terrell claimed to have found Marion and killed him, but Quantrill again escaped.

Terrell, a leader of Federal guerrillas in Spencer County, had a reputation of being a fearsome hunter of Confederate irregulars. Serving the Confederacy early in the war, Terrell changed sides and began a career of plundering, raiding and killing Southern sympathizers. Union authorities had grown tired of dealing with the lawless bands. Following the philosophy of ‘it takes a guerrilla to catch a guerrilla,’ they hired the galvanized bushwhacker to hunt down Quantrill. Terrell would accomplish this task, but, as one of his comrades related: ‘Terrell was a bad man. Perhaps as bad as the man he was hunting down.’ Following the death of Billy Marion, the Unionist bushwhackers turned their sights on Quantrill.

Moving toward the Salt River, Quantrill learned from a local citizen of the Lincoln assassination. His men cheered and broke ranks, riding to the homes of Southern sympathizers, where they celebrated the death of the president. With all good news, however, must come the bad. Returning to Nelson County, the men learned from their leader that Robert E. Lee had surrendered. McCorkle stated: ‘Knowing the war was over, we decided to separate and make the best terms of surrender we could….This was the last time I ever saw Quantrill.’

With a handful of men, the guerrilla chieftain rode toward Spencer County. When they reached the Taylorsville-Bloomfield Pike on May 10, a heavy rain began, driving the remnants of the band into shelter. Entering a barn owned by James H. Wakefield (a sympathizer with whom he had previously stayed), Quan-trill lay down on a pile of hay to rest. His men, bored by confinement in the barn, began pelting each other with corncobs. Guerrilla John Ross received the brunt of the attack, and he ran from the barn to avoid the shower of cobs. Running into the rain, Ross suddenly spied a company of Federal troops. He turned and shouted, ‘Great God, boys, the Federals are right on us!’ Terrell, alerted to the guerrillas’ location by a local blacksmith, had found his quarry.

Quantrill jumped from the hay, shouting commands to his men. Telling them to ‘mount, about face, and charge,’ he grabbed his horse and pulled himself into the saddle. As Quantrill mounted, his stirrup leather broke, throwing him across the back of his horse. Quan-trill’s mount, which was borrowed and gun-shy, immediately panicked and followed the other horses out of the barn. As the frightened beast cleared the barn door, Quantrill was shot in the back. The pistol ball entered near his left shoulder blade and cut downward into his spine. Partially paralyzed, the guerrilla fell from his horse. One of Terrell’s men, watching Quantrill fall face down in the mud, fired again. The pistol ball blew off Quantrill’s right trigger finger.

Jumping off their horses, Terrell’s men quickly stole Quantrill’s boots, pistols and money. Dragging him into Wakefield’s house, the Union bushwhackers began to loot the dwelling, but Wakefield gave them $30 and a jug of whiskey to end their ransacking.

Quantrill mumbled that he was Captain Clarke of the 4th Missouri Cavalry. Terrell’s men, hoodwinked like scores of others, believed the story and left him at Wakefield’s home. They wheeled their mounts away and continued their search for the real Quantrill.

Once the Federals had dispersed, Frank James and four others returned to visit their wounded commander, telling Quantrill that they wanted to take him and hide him in the woods. The guerrilla leader declined, murmuring: ‘Boys, it is impossible for me to get well, the war is over, and I am in reality a dying man, so let me alone. Goodbye.’ Two days later, after learning that the wounded Missourian was indeed Quantrill,Terrell returned, loaded Quantrill’s paralyzed frame onto a wagon and headed for the military prison in Louisville.

During the journey, Quantrill recognized a doctor in Jeffersonville and asked if he had treated him earlier in the raid. The physician answered: ‘I am the man. I have moved here.’ Showing grim humor despite the debilitating wound, Quantrill responded, ‘So have I.’ Later, two young women presented the guerrilla with a bouquet of flowers.

Upon reaching Louisville, Quantrill was placed in the military prison hospital, where he was nursed by a Catholic priest. He made a full confession, converted to Catholicism and took the sacrament of extreme unction. On June 6, following an operation, William Clarke Quantrill died at the age of 27.

The guerrilla leader left behind $800 in gold, a portion of which was earmarked to pay for his tombstone. The remaining funds were given to Kate Clarke, a pseudonym for his mistress, Kate King. Kate, who may have married Quantrill, had on occasion dressed like a man and ridden with the guerrillas. She apparently used her inheritance to start a house of ill repute in St. Louis.

Fearing that Quantrill’s body would be stolen, the priest who converted him buried the guerrilla in an unmarked grave in the Louisville Catholic Cemetery. In 1887, Quantrill’s mother visited the grave with William W. Scott, a boyhood friend of the bushwhacker who informed Mrs. Quantrill that he was planning to write a biography of her son. With her permission, Scott unearthed the chieftain’s body. When he touched the bones, Quantrill’s spinal column and ribs turned to dust. He took the skull to Mrs. Quantrill, who was able to identify the remains as her son’s because of a chipped tooth. Although she wanted the remains moved to Canal Dover, Scott kept the majority of them. A year later he gave a portion of the bones to the Kansas Historical Society, and following his death in 1902 the remainder were given to the same organization.

Quantrill’s bones now rest in three separate locations. The dust of his ribs and spine are in Louisville, an arm and shinbones are buried in Higginsville, Mo., while the rest are buried in Dover, Ohio. Despite the many burial locations, Quantrill’s skull traversed a wide area before reaching a final resting place. At one point a college fraternity acquired it and used it for initiation ceremonies. The grisly artifact then made it into the hands of the Kansas State Historical Society (where a wax copy of Quantrill’s head was made). At some point, the skull was shipped to Dover and eventually buried in 1992.

Many involved in Quantrill’s last ride met violent ends. Terrell, who managed to hunt down the bushwhacker, was killed a few weeks after Quantrill’s death. Terrell and his band were’shooting up’ Shelbyville after its citizens were accused of harboring Confederates. As Terrell was terrorizing the town, an incensed group of townspeople joined together and killed the Union guerrilla. Upon his death, Kentuckians breathed a sigh of relief that their state had been exorcised ‘of a notorious outlaw.’ He was 23 years old.

Captured Confederate bushwhacker Sue Mundy was taken to Louisville and hanged downtown while thousands watched. The guerrillas who had escaped Terrell’s ambush at the Wakefield house surrendered on July 26.

The death of Quantrill was overshadowed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In death, however, myths enveloped the Missouri bushwhacker. To many he became a glorious figure, defending the sons and daughters of the South from the tyrannical North. In truth, Quantrill was a notorious killer, one who, had he survived the war, would doubtless have chalked up further violent escapades. Giving no quarter, Quantrill expected none. From his first murder in Kansas to his last in the Bluegrass State, Quantrill cut a violent swath wherever he went. The sensitive young schoolteacher became one of the most dangerous and despicable figures of the Civil War.

This article was written by Stuart W. Sanders and originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!