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Trampling Out The Vintage, 1855-1866

2:17:09 PM CDT - Wednesday, October 09, 2002

On Thursday evening August 20, 1863 Robert Stevens, a speculator in lands and lobbyist for Kansas interests around the Indian Department at Washington, checked into the Eldridge House in Lawrence, Kansas, probably to attend a railroad meeting. Charles and Sara Robinson that night went to sleep in their house on Massachusetts Street on a still night under a full moon. They talked about Charles's rising early to attend to some horses at their barn on Mt. Oread. When he left in the predawn dark, Sara asked him what time it was. He said quarter to five. She turned over and napped until the housekeeper rushed in with a cry that the town was under attack. Miss E.P. Leonard was visiting, a tall woman (5'8") who had just had a narrow escape from drowning on a return by steamship from Europe. "Wheel left," Sara heard a horseman say, "kill every man, woman and child."

Stevens was awakened shortly after 5:00 A.M. by gunshots and shouting. Pulling on his pants and coat, he realized the raiders were about to burn him and his companions inside their hotel. Luckily, the leader of the band of Missouri bushwhackers was William Quantrill, a former client of attorney Stevens. Stevens met with Quantrill and negotiated the evacuation of the Eldridge House guests, but could not otherwise moderate the savagery. When Robinson returned from his bird's-eye perch on the hill as the raiders departed, he had to pass bodies and burning homes. The Eldridge House was on fire, "truly a 'wall of fire," Sara wrote, that "never wavered." "O God!" Stevens wrote to his family in New York. "No pen, no language, can fitly describe the awful scene. It was not a fight, not a murder, but the most terrible, cold-blooded, fiendish massacre ever heard of in this country, or any other where civilized people pretend to live."

Horrid scenes were legion. There was the spectacle of Katherine Riggs being dragged through a lot and over a woodpile as she hung on the bridle of a man's horse to keep him from shooting her fleeing husband, to say nothing of the terrors to which children and old people were subjected. H.M. Simpson, a banker who handled Massachusetts resident Hiram Hill's investments in Lawrence, wrote Hill that he, his wife, his father, and his children stood hiding in a cornfield for over three hours that hot day. The children, Simpson wrote, seemed to know not to cry, but the baby got hungry. He gave it an ear of raw green corn to eat. "Mrs. Simpson is quite well," the letter continued, "but has not yet entirely got over the effect of the terrible scenes she has passed through."

The morning after the raid a wailing arose. A woman found among the ashes of a large building held the blackened skull of her husband, who had been shot and burned in his place of business. The cemetery in the next days, was, in Stevens's words, a "most busy place; many men were at work; long trenches were dug, two sets working, one digging, the other following & covering coffins."

On Monday John Ingalls came down from Atchison as part of a column of relief. Lawrence was smoking ruins "and the charred and distorted corpses" of the victims still littered the streets. "Absolutely nothing remained. Not a yard of calico, a pound of flour or sugar, a nail or a pan or pair of shoes could be purchased in a town where stocks of not less value than a million and a half of dollars were exposed two days before." Simpson estimated the business loss to Lawrence at $1,100,000. He himself lost everything and had to "commence life again at the bottom of the ladder."

Governor Thomas Carney visited Lawrence, and called it a "disaster." He wrote the military authorities, "The track of the enemy from the Missouri border to Lawrence may be traced in blood. Ruins of villages, towns & cities, the sacrifice of millions of property & sadder yet the sacrifice of hundreds of the lives of our best citizens proclaim the success of the brutal marauders." He could admire the skill of the bushwhackers as horsemen, but could hardly condone the federal government's lack of attention to the defense of Kansas.

The next Sunday people feared the raiders might return. As Ingalls described the scene: "Women with a single night dress, the only garment left them from the destruction of their houses, naked infants, wrapped in old quilts and scraps of carpeting, men haggard and desperate, fled in one tumultuous flood to the ferry landing with shrieks & cries that were pitiable to hear." The wind suddenly blew with frightful coldness from the north and a thunderstorm "poured its torrents upon the hungry and half-clad multitude as they huddled upon the banks of the forbidding stream." Ingalls spent the evening until midnight standing in front of the Eldridge House with his revolver until word came that the rumor was just a rumor. "You can easily imagine," he wrote his father, "what a feeling of exasperation exists among the people of Kansas."

So was the much-written-about Quantrill's raid, the most famous incident of the Civil War in the new state of Kansas. One hundred fifty were killed and newspapers across the nation competed with each other to describe the details. The contrast of civilization and sudden chaos was almost as striking and as tempting to describe as the Kansas tornado.

Yet Quantrill's raid was neither an official military engagement, nor without provocation from the "innocents" of Kansas. And it had precedents dating to long before the nation was plunged into war. Lawrence had been burned before. "Bleeding Kansas" had long been in the news. The chaos of the territorial period and first years of statehood amid war, extending from 1854 to 1865 -- a time when inter arma leges silent (among arms, laws are silent)-- represents not only the first definable era in the history of Kansas proper but also one saturated with the drama of vivid contrasts and enduring in its impact on regional culture. "We do not intend to abandon the place," Mr. Simpson wrote as he picked up the pieces of his life in 1863, "no matter what may happen."

From "Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000," by

Craig Miner, published by the University Press of Kansas  2002. www.kansaspress.ku.edu. Used by permission of the publisher.