William Clarke Quantrill (1837–65) earned infamy during the Civil War for his atrocities against citizens and guerrilla warfare against Union soldiers. He served the Confederacy and perhaps hoped to secure high rank and recognition from its leaders. But Quantrill's activities indicated that he fought for plunder and personal revenge rather than from any commitment to the South. Born in Ohio, Quantrill headed to Kansas Territory at age eighteen and became embroiled in hostilities between free-state and slave-state forces. At that early date Quantrill easily changed sides, his sole concern being pillage. After the firing on Fort Sumter, guerrilla warfare rocked the border between Kansas and Missouri.
Quantrill retreated to Missouri in early 1861 and lived with one Marcus Gill. When Gill left for Texas, Quantrill followed. Quantrill soon moved on to Indian Territory where he befriended Joel B. Mayes, the future principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Quantrill stayed with Mayes, learned Cherokee guerrilla tactics, and in August witnessed the Battle of Wilson's Creek in Missouri. He returned to the region around Jackson and Cass counties in Missouri and organized a group of irregulars. Because he could read and was an excellent shot and horseman, he became the gang's leader. Throughout 1862 Quantrill and his band of nearly two hundred men raided around Kansas City, Independence, and Olathe. They left Missouri and Kansas during the winter of 1862–63 to quarter in Indian Territory, in Arkansas, and in Texas.
In 1863 Quantrill undertook the raids that made his name feared in the region. On August 21 his band torched Lawrence, Kansas, where they murdered some 150 citizens. Afterward, he and his men retreated to Texas via the Texas Road. En route they surprised Union troops under Gen. James G. Blunt at Baxter Springs, Kansas, in early October, killed about eighty Federals, and wounded eighteen. Quantrill reached Fort Gibson in Indian Territory on October 10, and his men killed twelve Union soldiers there. His band then joined forces with Col. Daniel McIntosh and Gen. Douglas H. Cooper. Here Quantrill wrote his only official report of the war. He claimed that he had killed 150 Negroes and Union Indians in the Cherokee Nation, and he signed the report "W. C. Quantrill, Colonel Commanding."
Quantrill and his men camped near Sherman, Texas, in late 1863 and mercilessly plundered the inhabitants. Confederate Gen. Henry McCulloch sent them into Indian Territory. In mid-December Quantrill and his men joined with Gen. Stand Watie for an attack on Fort Gibson. This foray achieved nothing, and it is doubtful that the raiders saw combat. About one week later Quantrill, Watie, and Col. William Penn Adair attempted to assault Fort Smith, Arkansas. Again, little action resulted, and Quantrill returned to Texas for the winter.
McCulloch lost patience with the outrages committed by Quantrill's men and arrested him. However, he escaped, took his band into Indian Territory, and joined General Cooper, who was plotting to take Fort Smith. They arrived near Fort Smith on April 6, 1864, but had no intention of assisting Cooper. Quantrill moved toward Fort Gibson and ordered nine civilians killed at the Creek Agency. A Confederate force raided near Fort Gibson on April 17, but Quantrill avoided the fight; he later outmaneuvered Union troops and escaped into southwestern Missouri.
Quantrill made an excursion into Texas in May 1864, believing that Confederate charges against him had been dropped and that he might be given a formal command. But a command was not forthcoming, and he went back to his band, whose leadership he had lost. He eventually took a small group to Kentucky to engage in guerrilla activities there; he was shot on May 10, 1865, and died in a Louisville prison on June 6, 1865. In August 1864 an action occurred above Fort Gibson between Federal troops and remnants of Quantrill's raiders. In this battle Jesse James was wounded and began his outlaw career.
Quantrill's reputation was made in the border war between Missouri and Kansas. His Indian Territory operations lacked importance and exhibited none of the dash that he had showed in Kansas. The reasons are twofold. First, Quantrill and his men needed familiar surroundings to implement their guerrilla tactics. Indian Territory was alien to them, and they avoided conflict there. Second, Indian Territory did not have Unionist population centers that were ripe for his kind of terrorism. For Quantrill and his men, Indian Territory served as an escape route, not a field of action.
Albert Castel, William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times (Reprint ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).
LeRoy H. Fischer and Lary C. Rampp, "Quantrill's Civil War Operations in Indian Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 46 (Summer 1968).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
James L. Huston, “Quantrill's Raiders,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=QU002.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.