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I was a revolutionary, p.2

I Was a Revolutionary, page 2


I Was a Revolutionary

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  •When news of the caning reached Kansas, John Brown demanded retribution. With his company of Free State Volunteers, he set out for Pottawatomie Creek, calling for the lives of five pro-slavery men. This, he said, was what God had told him he must do. First he directed the group to the Doyle family’s cabin and led two of Mr. Doyle’s sons outside, where they were stabbed, dismembered, and pierced in their sides in front of their father and mother. Then Brown produced a pistol and shot Mr. Doyle in the head. After two more stops of a similar fashion, Brown had his five.

  •And so it went, back and forth like this for the next several years, raids perpetrated by both sides with the innocent often paying the price. Like the women who were rounded up in Missouri by federal soldiers and taken to Kansas City and placed in a dilapidated jail cell on suspicion of aiding the rebel bushwhackers. Some of these women were in fact the wives, mothers, and sisters of Quantrill’s men. So when the jail collapsed, killing a number of them, one knew there would be consequences. Eight days later, Quantrill was leading his men into Lawrence.

  (8) Forever the South

  The first to die are the young boys from the Fourteenth Kansas Regiment, encamped on the edge of town, training to join up with the Union Army. Quantrill’s men cut right through them, picking the thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds off as they sleep, or as they wander out of their tents, scratching their heads and balls, rubbing their eyes, wondering what the hell all the racket is, then boom: they’re dead. They are unarmed and defenseless thanks to a recent city ordinance forwarded by Mayor Collamore decreeing all weapons in Lawrence be kept locked inside the armory as a safety measure—all those reliably accurate Sharps rifles sent by train to Lawrence from eastern abolitionists in boxes labeled BIBLES so as to go unsearched.

  Two blocks away, the Second Colored Regiment, a camp of black troops, reach for pistols that aren’t on their hips, rifles that aren’t slung over their shoulders, and must make a tough decision. Twenty or so stay long enough to be slaughtered while others flee for the river, away from Quantrill’s men, wading across, silently cursing their lack of weapons, then themselves, their unwillingness to martyr.

  At five-thirty in the morning, Massachusetts Street is bedlam, horses thundering every which way, raiders making easy work of scurrying storeowners—targets hardly more difficult than lone whiskey bottles atop fence posts. Quantrill watches with an unsettled, pensive look: things are going too well; any minute, surely, the federals will sweep through and send his men hightailing back toward the border. He is supposed to die today. But the army never comes and soon his stony look gives way to amusement as cries of his name, audible over pistol shots and whinnies, sound all around him: Long live Quantrill! Long live Jefferson Davis! Forever the South! Sure that this raid will win him the respect and recognition of the Confederate army, he is already savoring the sweet euphony of: General Quantrill.

  Some years ago, before the war, Quantrill had lived in Lawrence for a time, and now he notes the unexpected pleasures of destroying the familiar. He visits Eldridge House, a hotel, the largest building in town, taking a seat in the lobby after his men have cleared the rooms and rounded up the guests. “How about some breakfast,” Quantrill says to the proprietor, who hurries to the kitchen to prepare the food himself. Upstairs, Quantrill’s men loot the rooms, stuffing into their pockets watches, jewelry, and women’s silken undergarments of amethyst, rouge, and Nile green. Downstairs, the collected guests consider their impending execution, silently mouthing prayers, smatterings of whispered mercies, watching the back of the man who will issue the order, if it is to be. Quantrill sits down at a table by the window, watching the theater in the street, waiting for his biscuits and eggs, listening to the anxious shifting of bodies behind him. Yet his mind is elsewhere, away, thinking of Kate, humming a ballad: “I don’t know when I’ll see you again, my dear . . .” He closes his eyes and sees her face, beautiful, but then her mouth is asking why he’s left her and gone to Lawrence.

  “What do you want to do?” George Todd asks. “Leave them or kill them?”

  One of the ladies shifts her weight to the other foot, nudging a chair, which squeaks, as Quantrill thinks, relishing the privilege of mercy. He tells Todd to take them over to City Hall as prisoners of war. As Todd is about to lead the prisoners into the street, he notices one man wearing a Union uniform: Captain Banks, provost marshal of Kansas. He inspects the man’s clothing, examining the pretty blue coloring and careful stitching. He moves over to Banks, hand on his gun, leaning close to his face, and says, “Gimme your clothes,” making the captain undress right there in front of him.

  (9) Film

  In Ang Lee’s 1999 film Ride with the Devil, Tobey Maguire plays a Dutch emigrant, now living in Missouri, who takes up the Southern cause, joining the irregulars waging guerrilla warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border. It’s a fictionalized account, based on a novel called Woe to Live On, though, interestingly, the movie’s title is borrowed from an earlier biography of Quantrill. It’s mostly a buddy movie and a love story, but Quantrill does make an appearance, a kind of historical cameo almost no one would recognize. Lee attempts to re-create the raid on Lawrence, devoting roughly ten minutes to it, and most of the sequences carry the bogus verisimilitude of Wild West reenactments at Boot Hill in Dodge City. The best part of the movie is before the raid, when Quantrill and his men gather atop Mount Oread, from which they look down at the sleeping, unsuspecting town. Quantrill, played by John Ales, passes out death lists bearing the names, ranked by importance, of the men to kill. He offers a few brief remarks, which elicit a cacophonous hodgepodge of syllables belonging to words like abolitionistfuckerswhoresniggersfreesoilers, and the men raise their hats and scarves and head down the mountain in a thunderous swirl of dust, pounding hooves, and rebel yells.

  It’s not the first film to feature Quantrill. The earliest dates back to 1914, a two-reeler called Quantrell’s Son, and there was a slew of B westerns in the forties and fifties in which Quantrill, or some incarnation of Quantrill, appears. In Dark Command, from 1940, he is Will Cantrell, played by Walter Pidgeon, a Lawrence schoolteacher who loses a local sheriff’s election and his girlfriend to John Wayne, which combine to become the impetus for his raid. In this movie, however, the raid fails, and it ends with Wayne killing Pidgeon. The film’s not alone in playing fast and loose with history, and it’s certainly not the only one to change the outcome of the raid. But even the ones that don’t do so—and I’ve seen them all—approach the raid timidly, presenting a toothless version of the event.

  I tried to tell this to the guitar player when he accompanied me to a matinee showing of Ride with the Devil. The movie had come out soon after I graduated, and I was working odd jobs around Lawrence, thanks to my history degree. I saw it eight times before it left Liberty Hall, and on the occasion I took him with me I spent most of the movie leaning over to explain the historical references and inaccuracies. God, how annoying I must have been, but he listened politely, eyes moving between the screen and me. When it was over, he said he was glad I’d brought him, and we smiled at each other. It seemed like something might happen. But when I told him that just once I wished I could see the movie the way he had, without any background knowledge, he grew defensive, distant, and said it seemed like I had enjoyed it pretty well anyway. This was around the time he was starting to get local gigs, playing that night at the Bottleneck, a big deal. He was stuck on some new girl, he said, and was writing great songs about the one who’d just left. I told him I wouldn’t be able to come but showed up later, halfway through his set, and stood in the back of the bar, nursing a beer, watching him sing songs about girls he’d left and been left by.

  (10) Three Ghosts


  Proprietor of a boardinghouse for local workers, Getta draws a hand to her chest when she realizes what’s happening. Her husband, her love, is over at the Johnson House with his brother. She leaves her children with a nurse and rushes into the street, knowing the raide
rs won’t harm her. When she reaches the house, she sees her brother-in-law stumble down the back steps, falling to the ground before her. She cups his head with her hands. He looks at her with the eyes of one who has seen God—with unflinching terror—and then his lids slide closed. She tries to remove her hands, but part of his brain has fallen out the back of his head and now rests in her palms. What she yells then, looking at her hands, is not his name but her husband’s, and she drops the bits of jellied brain into the dust and scrambles up the steps of the house, where she finds a trio of bushwhackers holding several local men at gunpoint. Her husband stands near them, and she hurries to his side, pleading for his life. She’s convincing, talking two of them out of killing her husband, but the third, the leader, is too soused to abide any talk of mercy and pushes all seven men outside to the street, where he and his compatriots unload multiple rounds into their chests. Getta watches her husband’s body fall; it happens so quickly—crack, thump—that it’s not until he’s on the ground that everything slows down. She sits on the bottom step of a storefront near his body, exhaling hard until her breath slows and all that’s left is the absence of feeling. She watches the world pass before her, the horror it has so quickly become. A straw hat belonging to one of the dead blows along the street like tumbleweed and she reaches for it, places it over her husband’s placid face. She walks away slowly, desultorily, between the bustle of jigging horses, the giggle and snarl of drunks, and the mangle of the quiet, lonesome dead.


  Seventeen-year-old apprentice newspaperman Kasper Kaspar is at the press early on the morning of the raid. He doesn’t know it yet, but his father is already dead, killed while asleep in bed, and his mother is in shock, still shaking the body, expecting it to wake at any moment. What brings young Kasper to the office so early, however, has nothing to do with newspapering. He’s locked in an embrace with the office printer, an older man affectionately known as Rooster. It is as Kasper finally works up the nerve to take the tip of Rooster’s penis in his mouth that he first feels the heat closing in, a warmth more than their own bodies’ doing. The raiders have set fire to the building, which goes up instantly, like tinder, thanks to the paper, ink, and kerosene. There’s a moment as the two men huddle amid the flames, watching smoke funnel under and over closed doors, when they have a decision to make. A future as outcasts awaits them if they run out into the street as they are, flushed, shivering, womanly. Their decision is communicated through look and gesture as they embrace, kiss, and then whisper in each other’s ears only as the fire overtakes them. Barely audible over the hiss of burning wood and the sizzle of steaming printer blocks are their oaths and cries:

  “Come closer.”


  “Hold me.”

  “I’ll follow you to the other side.”

  When the flames consume them, the heat is so intense that their bodies dissolve, later to scatter in the wind and disappear. For this reason, Kasper’s mother will, for the rest of her life, believe he is still alive, setting a place for him every night at the dinner table.


  Mayor George Washington Collamore, he of the infamous and untimely gun seizure that leaves his town unarmed, wakes to find his house surrounded by raiders. With his hired hand, Patrick, he dashes out of the kitchen, through the swaths of wheat, and into his well house. Patrick lowers the mayor down the shaft first before joining him at the bottom of the stone well. There, the proximity of quarters forces them to press close together, from which vantage they look up at the circle of light above them, waiting either for the mayor’s wife to appear and tell them it is okay to come out or for a man in a slouch hat to fire his Colt blindly into their hiding spot.

  But history has something else in store. The raiders press the mayor’s wife, but she won’t give up her husband. Somehow the men at the top of the death list—Governor Robinson, Senator Lane, and Mayor Collamore—have all managed to escape. Frustrated and drunk, the bushwhackers loot the place of all its worth and then set it on fire. They wait out front, figuring that if the mayor is hiding in the house he will come running. There’s the transfixing beauty of the fire, too. They’ve been lighting them all morning, yet none like this. Something inside, perhaps the canisters of furniture wax and shoe polish, feeds the blaze, a tongue of fire shooting dragon-like out the chimney top. The smells of burning linens and flowers in the garden mix in the air and the conflagration roars until the walls come crashing down and finally the house collapses. Only then does this audience disperse.

  As the mayor’s wife rushes to the well house, she doesn’t realize that smoke from the fire has funneled all the oxygen out of the shaft like a whirring gust of wind on the open prairie, leaving the mayor and Patrick to a much slower and more horrifying death than if a gun had just been put to their heads and unloaded into their brains. Inherent in those last moments, in the groping push and pull of their hands as they slowly run out of air, is nothing amorous, but a simple prayer of human touch, an instinctive hope: You can get me out of here, can’t you?

  (11) Correspondence

  Date: 08/21/2003

  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: re: Inquiries?

  Thank you for your interest in the State Historical Society here at MU. Excuse the formality, but I’ll answer your questions in turn:

  [*]Yes, we have a good deal of material on Quantrill, specifically, and rooms full of general Civil War–era Kansas/Missouri material: letters, newspapers, books, pictures, paintings, etc. You should come visit—Columbia’s only a three-hour drive from Lawrence.

  [*]There is certainly a small but avid group of enthusiasts interested in—some would say obsessed with—that Border War period. There are a number of Civil War battle reenactments across Missouri that attract good-size crowds. More than the reenactments, however, there is a culture that goes along with it, some of it truly bizarre. I’ve heard of small-town bars where patrons dress as Confederate soldiers or bushwhackers. I once even came across a woman-seeking-man ad in the Weekly in which a woman was looking to marry anyone who could prove a family connection to Quantrill.

  [*]I don’t know if I can offer a definitive answer on how people here today look back on those times or how they feel about men like Quantrill and George Todd. I think a lot of people in Missouri feel that even though we look at what these men were trying to preserve—the institution of slavery—as abhorrent, they were not simply bloodthirsty monsters. I think some people feel, as the historian Donald Gilmore writes, that “the Missouri guerrillas were legitimate partisan warriors who fought bravely for their cause against insurmountable odds.” When you’re on the wrong moral side of history and constantly reminded of it, you get defensive. I’m not saying that’s how I feel. It’s complicated.

  [*]I mean, can anyone in Kansas or Missouri understand the horrors of the past any better than they can what’s happening in Afghanistan or Iraq? Distance, temporal or otherwise, is a leveling force. There have been countless books written about awful events like the raid on Lawrence, but they’re at best approximations, in my opinion. We’ll never truly understand. That’s the thing about history, right? It’s not graven—it’s points of view.

  Thank you for your interest and please don’t hesitate to contact me again. I hope you do decide to come visit, even if you are a KU alum . . . just kidding.


  Janice Stallings

  (12) Poor Kansas, Poor Bleeding Kansas

  As the raid wears on, the bushwhackers anticipate the out-the-back-door-and-into-the-potato-vines escape, and now they simply set the fields aflame and wait for the men to stream out. The raiders make sport of it, a lively sort of target practice.

  But as the hours pass, the guerrillas also get sloppy. Drinking and looting take priority, and this affords a few hard-won victories for the townsfolk. There is the incident in which an elderly man quickly shaves and dresses as a sickl
y old woman. When the raiders arrive, they carry him out of the house in his bed, Cleopatra-style, before torching the place. Some townsfolk, emboldened by the imminence of their own deaths, start fighting back. Lacking guns, a few men challenge the bushwhackers with pitchforks and knives. Surprisingly, many of Quantrill’s men simply leave when confronted, seeming to respect the suicidal gumption of the defenseless.

  When the raiders open fire on a crowd of local men gathered on Massachusetts Street, Josiah Simeon falls to the ground, feigning death, and pulls the bodies of the dead atop him. The blood trickles down, the pleas for help worm through the pile, through crevices and openings between skin, until all is still, dead. Sometime later he hears a noise, footsteps nearby, bodies being turned over, rummaged through. When the body above him is removed, he opens his eyes reluctantly, expecting to be staring straight into the barrel of a Colt. But what he sees instead are the vacant, soul-deadened eyes of a woman trying to find her son. And at last, here, she has found him, this body that has thus far saved Josiah’s life. Josiah looks at her, into those eyes, and says, “Leave him be—he’s my only chance,” pulling the woman’s son out of her hands to cover himself.

  (13) Painting, Drawing, Newspaper

  Lauretta Louise Fox Fisk depicts nearly all of Lawrence aflame in her painting The Lawrence Massacre. You likely wouldn’t recognize the subject on initial viewing, however, which is one of the painting’s interesting effects. In the foreground, raiders ride their horses down the main thoroughfare, Massachusetts Street, toward the viewer. Their guns are drawn, but their numbers are not great, nor do they seem particularly menacing. The tone of the scene is oddly calm. In the background, the burning town is easily mistakable for a tawny sunrise to the casual eye. This contrasts greatly with the pencil drawing that ran a month after the raid in Harper’s Weekly titled The Ruins of Lawrence, which today looks anachronistic, more like a postwar bombed-out Berlin than a torched Old West prairie town.

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