Quantrill was the oldest of 12 children, four of whom died in infancy. He was born at Canal Dover (now just Dover), Ohio, on July 31, 1837. His father was Thomas Henry Quantrill, formerly of Hagerstown, Maryland. His mother, Caroline Cornelia Clark, was a native of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. They were married on October 11, 1836, and moved to Canal Dover the following December.
Quantrill was well educated and followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a school teacher at the age of sixteen. In 1854, his abusive father died of tuberculosis, leaving the family with a huge financial debt. Quantrill's mother had to turn her home into a boarding house in order to survive. He helped support the family working as a school teacher, but left home a year later and headed to Mendota, Illinois. In Illinois, Quantrill continued his career as a teacher but soon moved again to Fort Wayne, Indiana. He worked as a bookkeeper for a lumberyard, along with teaching, all in the interest of supporting his family; however, he was unable to earn a decent wage. He quickly took up gambling and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. During this time, he learned how to use the Bowie knife, Sharps rifle and the Colt revolver. At the age of 19 he moved to Missouri at the urging of his friends and his mother. She was able to find a family friend that would take Quantrill with him to Missouri.
Henry Torrey and Harmon Beeson were traveling to Missouri to become farmers and offered to pay for Quantrill's land if he would work for them until the age of twenty-one. They settled at Marais des Cygnes, but things did not go as well as planned. After about a year, Quantrill became restless and wanted to sell his claim. A dispute arose over the claim, and he went to court with Torrey and Beeson. The court awarded the men what was owed to them, but Quantrill only paid half of what the court had mandated. His relationship with Beeson was never the same, but he remained friends with Torrey.
Quantrill then joined a group of Missouri ruffians and became somewhat of a drifter. The group helped protect Missouri farmers from the Jayhawkers for pay and slept wherever they could find lodging. Quantrill traveled back to Utah and then to Colorado but returned in less than a year to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1859. It was at this time that his political views started to take shape, and his attitude towards the slavery issue began to form.
Before 1860, Quantrill’s political view appeared to be in support of the anti-slavery side. He wrote to his good friend W.W. Scott in January 1858 that the Lecompton Constitution was a “swindle” and that James H. Lane; a Northern sympathizer, was “as good a man as we have here.” He also called the Democrats “the worst men we have for they are all rascals, for no one can be a democrat here without being one.”. One year later, in 1859, he was back in Lawrence, Kansas where he taught school until it closed in 1860. He then took up with brigands and turned to cattle rustling and anything else that could earn him a dollar. He also learned the profitability of capturing runaway slaves and devised treacherous plans to use free black men as bait for runaway slaves, whom he captured and returned to their masters in exchange for reward money. His new lifestyle may have been the reason for his change of political views. In February 1860, Quantrill wrote a letter to his mother expressing his views on the anti-slavery supporters. He told her that the pro-slavery movement was right and that he now detested Jim Lane. He said that the hanging of John Brown had been too good for him and that, “the devil has got unlimited sway over this territory, and will hold it until we have a better set of man and society generally.
In 1861, Quantrill went to Texas with a slaveholder named Marcus Gill. There he met Joel B. Mayes and joined the Cherokee Nations. Joel B. Mayes was a Confederate sympathizer and a war chief of the Cherokee Nations in Texas. Mayes was half Scotch-Irish, half Cherokee Indian and had moved from Georgia to the old Indian Territory in 1838. Mayes enlisted and served as a private in Company A of the 1st Cherokee Regiment in the Confederate army. It was Mayes who taught William guerrilla warfare tactics. He would learn the ambush fighting tactics used by the Native Americans as well as sneak attacks and camouflage. Quantrill, in the company of Mayes and the Cherokee Nations, joined with General Sterling Price and fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington in August and September of 1861.
William deserted General Price’s army and went to Blue Springs, Missouri to form his own ‘Army’ of loyal men who had great belief in him and the Confederates cause. By Christmas of 1861, he had ten men who would follow him full-time into his pro-Confederate guerrilla organization. These men were: William Haller, George Todd, Joseph Gilcrist, Perry Hoy, John Little, James Little, Joseph Baughan, William H. Gregg, James A. Hendricks, and John W. Koger. Later in 1862, the Younger brothers as well as William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson and the James brothers would join Quantrill’s army.
The most significant event in Quantrill's guerrilla career took place on August 21, 1863. Lawrence had been seen for years as the stronghold of the anti-slavery forces in Kansas and as a base of operation for incursions into Missouri by Jayhawkers and pro-Union forces. It was also the home of James H. Lane, a senator infamous in Missouri for his staunch anti-slavery views and also a leader of the Jayhawkers. Moreover, during the weeks immediately preceding the raid, Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr., had ordered the detention of any civilians giving aid to Quantrill's Raiders. Several female relatives of the guerrillas had been imprisoned in a makeshift jail in Kansas City, Missouri. On August 14, the building collapsed, killing four young women and seriously injuring others. Among the casualties was Josephine Anderson, sister of one of Quantrill's key guerrilla allies, "Bloody Bill" Anderson. Another of Anderson's sisters, Mary, was permanently crippled in the collapse. Quantrill's men believed the collapse was deliberate, and the event fanned them into a fury.
Historians have suggested that Quantrill had actually planned to raid Lawrence in advance of the building's collapse, in retaliation for earlier Jayhawker attacks as well as the burning of Osceola, Missouri.
Early on the morning of August 21, Quantrill descended from Mount Oread and attacked Lawrence at the head of a combined force of as many as 450 guerrillas. Senator Lane, a prime target of the raid, managed to escape through a cornfield in his nightshirt, but the guerrillas, on Quantrill's orders, killed 183 men and boys "old enough to carry a rifle", Quantrill, known to be armed with several French pinfire revolvers, his favorite weapon of choice, carried out several personally, dragging many from their homes to execute them before their families. The ages of those killed ranged from as young as 14 all the way up to 90. When Quantrill's men rode out at 9 a.m., most of Lawrence's buildings were burning, including all but two businesses. His raiders looted indiscriminately and robbed the town's bank.
On August 25, in retaliation for the raid, General Ewing authorized General Order No. 11 (not to be confused with General Ulysses S. Grant's General Order of the same name). The edict ordered the depopulation of three-and-a-half Missouri counties along the Kansas border (with the exception of a few designated towns), forcing tens of thousands of civilians to abandon their homes. Union troops marched through behind them, burning buildings, torching planted fields and shooting down livestock to deprive the guerrillas of food, fodder, and support. The area was so thoroughly devastated that it became known thereafter as the "Burnt District". Quantrill and his men rode south to Texas, where they passed the winter with the Confederate forces.
While in Texas, Quantrill and his 400 men quarreled. His once-large band broke up into several smaller guerrilla companies. One was led by his lieutenant, "Bloody Bill" Anderson, whose men came to be known for tying the scalps of slain unionists to the saddles and bridles of their horses. Quantrill joined them briefly in the fall of 1863 during fighting north of the Missouri River.
In the spring of 1865, now leading only a few dozen men, Quantrill staged a series of raids in western Kentucky. He rode into a Union ambush on May 10 near Taylorsville, Kentucky, armed with several French pinfires which bore his name, and received a gunshot wound to the chest. He was brought by wagon to Louisville, Kentucky and taken to the military prison hospital, located on the north side of Broadway at 10th Street. He died from his wounds on June 6, 1865, at the age of 27.
Claim of post-1865 survival
In August, 1907, news articles appeared in Canada and the United States claiming that J.E. Duffy, a member of a Michigan cavalry troop that dealt with Quantrill's raiders during the Civil War, had met Quantrill at Quatsino Sound, on northern Vancouver Island while investigating timber rights in the area. Duffy claimed to recognize the man, living under the name of John Sharp, as Quantrill. Duffy said that Sharp admitted he was Quantrill and discussed in detail raids in Kansas and elsewhere. Sharp claimed that he had survived the ambush in Kentucky, though receiving a bayonet and bullet wound, making his way to South America where he lived some years in Chile. He returned to the United States, working as a cattleman in Fort Worth, Texas. He then moved to Oregon, acting as a cowpuncher and drover, before reaching British Columbia in the 1890s, where he worked in logging, trapping and finally as a mine caretaker at Coal Harbour at Quatsino.
Within some weeks after the news stories were published, two men came to British Columbia, travelling to Quatsino from Victoria, leaving Quatsino on a return voyage of a coastal steamer the next day. On that day, Sharp was found severely beaten, dying several hours later without giving information about his attackers. The police were unable to solve the murder.
During the war, Quantrill met thirteen-year-old Sarah Katherine King at her parents' farm in Blue Springs, Missouri. They married and she lived in camp with Quantrill and his men. At the time of his death, she was seventeen.
Reputation and legacy
Quantrill's actions remain controversial to this day. Some historians view him as an opportunistic, bloodthirsty outlaw; James M. McPherson, one of America's most prominent experts on the Civil War today, calls him and Anderson "pathological killers" who "murdered and burned out Missouri Unionists." Some of Quantrill's celebrity later rubbed off on other ex-Raiders – Jesse and Frank James, and Cole and Jim Younger – who went on after the war to apply Quantrill's hit-and-run tactics to bank and train robbery. The William Clarke Quantrill Society continues to research and celebrate his life and deeds.