He stayed only a short time, but before he left Grayson County, he noted the area’s Southern sympathies, good grass and water, and abundance of places to hide in the backcountry. When he got back to the border, he recruited a band of hard cases and set forth on a career to make a reputation as leader of a contingent of predatory guerrillas known as the Missouri Partisan Rangers. The Union authorities called them other things—outlaws, thieves and cutthroats.
Quantrill came back to Grayson County in the fall of 1862 with twenty-five of his men. They spent a quiet and, by all accounts, law-abiding winter camped around Kentuckytown. The band even may have helped local authorities control the rustlers and horse thieves who were taking advantage of the absence of so many men away with the Confederate army, and at one point, Quantrill stepped in to help quell a mob of local women who were looting an army commissary warehouse in Sherman. Come spring, Quantrill went back to Kansas and into the darker pages of history.
On August 21, 1863, four hundred guerrillas and hangers on led by Quantrill, including some men whose names would become infamous years thence—William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Frank James, Cole Younger—stormed into the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, setting it to the torch and killing 180 men and boys. Unionists characterized the raid as unmitigated murder.
Some have suggested the raid was in retaliation for the deaths of ten women and girls in the collapse of a building Union prison in Kansas City on August 13, 1863. Some of those who died were related to some of the guerrillas. In addition, Historians have now determined that Lawrence was the transshipment point for a profitable trade in household goods looted from Southern supporters along the border and then sent to the Colorado gold towns. From the raiders’ perspective, this made Lawrence at least a legitimate military target, but the depredations directed against the civilian population were so outrageous that the guerrillas began to lose favor even with Southerners.
After Lawrence, the heat was on in Kansas, and so in October, Quantrill took his men south and headed for Sherman. On the way, at Baxter Springs, Kansas, they ambushed a detachment of Kansas troopers who were escorting the department commander, General James Blunt, to his new headquarters in Little Rock. The guerrillas, numbering around 200, all but wiped out the Federals and rumors spread that Quantrill’s men murdered many of the soldiers after they had surrendered. This was the bloody mindset of the men who crossed the Red River at Colbert’s Ferry in November and encamped for the winter at Mineral Springs.
At first, it seemed that the stay would be as uneventful as the year before, but that soon changed. The guerrillas started their own ad hoc operations against the citizens of North Texas and the Nations. They robbed, murdered, and acted with general disregard for the law and Confederate authorities, neither of whom had the manpower to deal with them. Early on, in a robbery attempt, one of the guerrillas gunned down Major Butts, one of the county’s influential citizens and the husband of Sophia Coffee Butts, but local authorities made no arrests.
Back in Kansas, General Blunt had designs on revenge for Lawrence and Baxter Springs. His targets were the lightly defended Texas towns just across the Red. He gathered a force of about four hundred—Kansas militia and Union partisans, Redlegs and Jayhawkers—and struck south bent on mayhem.
On December 23, Confederate Brigadier General Henry McCulloch, commanding the Northern Sub-District in Bonham, received word of the approaching Federals and sent a disturbing telegram to General Edmund Kirby Smith, head of the Trans Mississippi Department, in Houston. McCulloch asked for help. “News of a reliable character reached me this morning that Jayhawkers in considerable force had penetrated Gainesville. I sent all the cavalry force I had this morning at 8 o’clock, numbering only some 200 men, directing Quantrill, from Sherman, to meet them at once.” By the time Smith got the message, the situation had been dealt with, but not in the way McCulloch had expected.
Quantrill had ignored McCulloch’s directive, refusing to join with regular Confederate forces. Instead, he and his men set out on their own. Sometime, probably on the 22nd, and somewhere, probably around Gordonville, they found the Jayhawker invaders.
The set-to was less a military action than a one-sided, murderous brawl. It was one gang of thugs against another gang of thugs. The guerrillas were skilled and well organized; the other side was anything but. They were opportunists looking for swag and easy pickings, with no stomach for a fight. The result was a running rout that commenced when the invaders scattered like a covey of quail.
Quantrill’s men hunted them down in much the same manner they would have hunted game. When it was over, Yankee bodies would be scattered across the countryside all the way to Paris.
That night Quantrill and his men came to Sherman to celebrate their Christmas success by galloping into the city and shooting up the place. William Elsey Connelley’s book, Quantrill and the Border Wars, described the scene:
In Sherman they terrorized the people by riding recklessly through the streets yelling and firing their pistols right and left. They shot the steeples of the churches full of holes, and they shot the lock off the door of the postoffice (sic). On Christmas Eve they rode their horses into Ben. Christian’s hotel and shot away the tassels and other ornaments on the cap worn by Mrs. Butts, widow of the murdered man [Major Butts] and mother-in-law of the proprietor. They constantly rode their horses into grocery stores and there permitted them to tear open flour-bags and eat flour.
The citizens of North Texas had had enough of Quantrill and his men. The Christmas Eve rampage was the raiders’ last hurrah, as Confederate authorities took steps to bring an end to the mayhem. By spring, the guerrillas, wracked with internal dissension and infighting, had fallen apart and broken into a number of small groups. General McCulloch ordered Quantrill to Bonham, and had him arrested and jailed when he arrived.
In short order, a group of about a dozen loyal followers broke the guerrilla leader out of the Fannin County jail, ran south to Kentuckytown where they obtained fresh horse and then fled back into the Nations. William Clarke Quantrill was on his way north, back to Missouri with a handful of followers, riding toward his death under the guns of Federal troopers in Kentucky in 1865. But that is another story.