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THE UN-CIVIL WAR IN MISSOURI - The Plan For Vengeance

Part 2 of a Series
Mike Scruggs

When the three-story Thomas building in Kansas City collapsed on August 13, 1863, eleven Southern girls between the age of 13 and 20 were being held on the second story, which was being used as a Union detention center for women. Their crime was sympathy for the Southern cause. Several had undoubtedly aided their brothers, fathers, and husbands who were members of Quantrill’s Missouri Partisan Rangers. As many as 27 women had been held there in early August, but fortunately many had been removed. According to what I believe to be the best records, five of the girls were killed or died of injuries shortly thereafter. Five others were seriously injured, and only one was unscathed.

The cause of the Thomas building collapse is known, but the intention of the Union soldiers involved is not. The Thomas building was attached by a joint wall and common floor joists to the Cockrell building. The first floors of both buildings were supported by outer foundation walls and internal wooden pillars in the basements. The Cockrell building was used as a guardhouse. The first floor of the Thomas building was occupied by Jewish grocers. The second floor housed the women’s prison, and the third floor was vacant. For reasons unclear, Union soldiers began removing several of the internal pillars that supported girders running the entire length of both buildings in order to make a passage through a foundation wall from the Cockrell building to the Thomas building. Some say they were planning a large barracks area. Others say that prostitutes were sometimes held in the basement of the Thomas building, and the guards wanted easy access to them. Why they would remove the supporting pillars in the latter case seems a mystery.

Several days before the collapse of the Thomas building onto the guardhouse, the merchants on the first floor noticed that the building seemed to be sinking and that large cracks were appearing along the walls and ceilings. Consequently, they moved out. The girls on the second floor also noticed that large and sometimes groaning cracks were forming on the walls and ceiling. In expressing their fear to the guards, they were only taunted and teased that they were going to be killed. The landlady of a boarding house where many of the soldiers stayed heard them talking about their work and was so alarmed that she visited the Union headquarters and demanded that the girls be removed. The provost marshal, the captain of the guards, and a military surgeon all notified Union Brigadier General Thomas Ewing that the Thomas building was unsafe. In fact, an inspector had previously reported it was unsafe. Ewing, however, sent his adjutant, Major Harrison Hannah, to investigate, but he assured Ewing that the building was safe. Ewing then sent a second inspector who also assured him that the building was safe. Meanwhile, even the guards evacuated both buildings.

The rest of the story we have already told. On the morning of August 13, 1863, the Thomas Building came crashing down on the guardhouse resulting in the death or fatal injury of five young girls between the ages of 13 and 20. General Ewing never investigated the cause of the collapse or disciplined any of the men involved. It was only because Union General George C. Bingham owned the building and sued for damages that we know so much about the structural cause of the collapse. We do not know whether the Union soldiers who undermined the building did so foolishly or malignantly. At the time, Quantrill’s men and most of western Missouri thought it was intentional. But in any case, there was gross negligence on the part of General Ewing and several of his subordinates.

Bill Anderson lost his fourteen-year old sister, Josephine, as an immediate result of the collapse, and his thirteen-year old sister, Martha, had sustained severe injuries. In March 1862, Anderson’s father and uncle had been hanged by raiders belonging to the Eighth Kansas Jayhawker Cavalry. All of the dead girls had relatives serving in Quantrill’s Rangers, and two were also cousins of Cole and Jim Younger. The Younger brothers’ father had been murdered by Missouri Union militia in July 1862. Both Bill Anderson and Cole Younger were key Quantrill lieutenants, and Anderson would later earn the sobriquet “Bloody Bill.”

Besides the collapse of the Thomas building and the death of six Southern girls, approximately 221 Missouri men had been murdered and over 200 homes had been burned by Kansas Jayhawkers, Missouri Union militia, and “Redlegs” in the summer of 1863. The “Redlegs” were a particularly vicious company of Kansas guerillas organized by Kansas Republican Senator Jim Lane and led by George Hoyt. They were so named because of the knee-high dyed leather or sheepskin leggings they wore. Their number included the afterwards famous “Wild Bill” Hickock, Kit Carson, and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. According to Mary Ethel Noland, a first cousin of President Harry S. Truman, the Kansas Redlegs were not proper soldiers but a band of desperados who sometimes

“would come over and they would shoot a harmless old man because he was a Southern sympathizer, or sometimes they would even hang one; and sometimes they would shoot a young boy who was almost too young to bear arms…”

Frank and Jesse James were also serving under Quantrill in August 1863. In May 1862, the James Brothers’ step-father, Dr. Reuben Samuel, had been tortured by Union soldiers seeking the whereabouts of Confederate Frank James. They beat up fifteen-year old Jesse and then attempted to force information from Dr. Samuel by hanging him to a tree and strangling him. (This type of torture by strangulation was frequently used by Union soldiers to discover the location of money and valuables during Sherman’s March through Georgia and South Carolina in 1864-65.) If Dr. Samuel knew of Frank’s whereabouts, he did not tell them. He survived the torture, but may have sustained some brain damage.

Quantrill’s men had favored a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, ever since Kansas Jayhawkers destroyed Osceola, Missouri, in 1861, killing nine men by execution and leaving only a few buildings standing. Lawrence was the seat of radical abolitionism in Kansas and the home of Jim Lane and other leading Jayhawkers. It was also headquarters for the hated Redlegs. Most of the goods stolen or confiscated by Jayhawkers and Redlegs were auctioned off to Kansas abolitionists in Lawrence. It was especially around Lawrence that land cleared by Missouri settlers had been claim-jumped by New England settlers, thus launching a string of grievances, terrorism, and retaliations that flamed into the Kansas-Missouri Border War five years before the Union and Confederate confrontation at Fort Sumter in 1861.

As the guerilla war against Union occupation of Missouri was met with more and harsher measures against the civilian population, Quantrill’s men had become increasingly bitter about the barbarity shown to Southern women and children. The death of these young women in the hands of Union soldiers was a strong catalyst to reap vengeance on Lawrence.

Col William Quantrill, however, was a brilliant and careful planner. One of his lieutenants described him as “the smartest man he’d ever met.” He and a small cadre of his lieutenants had been planning a Lawrence raid for months. But still, he did not intend to ride into Lawrence until his plans and intelligence gathering were complete. He also wanted to wait until he could catch Jim Lane there. Quantrill knew that he must get his expedition of 400 men through a series of Union outposts without being detected and then get them back to Missouri safely. Lawrence was a town of 1200 people, and every able-bodied man was a member of the militia. At least a company of regular Union troops would also be there. In addition, Jayhawker Cavalry units were stationed nearby and individuals and small detachments of Jayhawkers and Redlegs would be in and out of town. He knew his Partisan Rangers and a small detachment of Confederate regulars must rally undetected, travel undetected at night, and arrive before dawn to execute a swift surprise attack against potentially superior forces. As it turned out, there would be about 500 Union fighting men in Lawrence, making surprise and near flawless execution absolutely essential.

Quantrill relied on two of his most trusted men for the reconnaissance of Lawrence. The first out was, surprisingly, a black man, John T. Noland. Noland has been described as a “brave and resourceful fellow,” especially loyal to Quantrill and the Missouri Partisans. The second was Fletcher Taylor. Taylor was only sent out when Quantrill feared that Noland had been captured or killed. They both arrived back about the same time and brought details of all the buildings, their uses, and their occupants. A death list was prepared of all the Redlegs, radical abolitionists, Jayhawker leaders, and identified war criminals that might be in Lawrence. A detailed, step by step plan, to accomplish their mission was thus set in motion. Some notorious war criminals were to be killed in route to Lawrence.

William Quantrill’s appearance and demeanor completely contradicted the monster psychopath portrayed in the abolitionist press in Lawrence and New England. Only a few years before, he had been a respected school teacher. Only twenty-six years old, he was slightly above average height and slender in build, with a kind and handsome face and calm blue eyes that suggested a noble spirit. Home-schooled by loving and well educated parents in Ohio, he graduated from Union College when he was only sixteen. Like his father, he was extraordinarily gifted at math and a lightening-calculator. He had a studious love of books, but he could ride and shoot as well as any man in Missouri. He was morally high-minded and consistently fair and courteous. He was respected and trusted by his men and loved by the people of western Missouri, who considered him their protector. Yet he was a terror to Kansas Jayhawkers and Redlegs. To be continued.