“Charlie Quantrell”


A story of Charlie Quantrell, the Kansas highwayman who raided Nebraska and Missouri (during the Civil War). He is held up as a noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The plot follows "Brennan on the Moor," on which the song is based


This pretty picture of William Clarke Quantrill (1837-1865), also known as "Charlie (Hart)" or "Billy" Quantrill, is even more deceptive than the typical outlaw ballad.

Quantrill (this is the spelling used in the official records) was born July 31, 1837, in Canal Dover, Ohio, son of Thomas Henry and Caroline Clarke Quantrill (see Paul I. Wellman, _A Dynasty of Western Outlaws_, Bonanza, 1961, p. 26). He seems to have been somewhat strange-looking but in an attractive way; Wellman, p. 22, quotes an 1872 description: "Quantrell might be likened to a blond Apollo of the prairies. His eyes were very blue, soft and winning. Looking at his face, one might say there is the face of a student."

If he was a student, his degree must have been in violence. His public career actually began life as a jayhawker in an anti-Slavery force; this was when he first used the name "Charley Hart." But Wellman tartly remarks that he was happy to liberate other property while allegedly devoting his efforts to liberating slaves. Wellman, p. 27, observes, "By 1860 Quantrill had become a confirmed bandit, thief, and murderer, yet as a criminal he might have remained relatively obscure... had not the dislocations of the Civil War enabled him to capitalize on the inflamed emotions of the period and win his page in history -- deserved or not -- as the arch-ogre of the border."

Wellman, pp. 28-29, tells a legend about how Quantrill during one of these raids was called upon to attack the family of a girl he was involved with, and betrayed the raiders. Whether true or not, he clearly saw more opportunity on the Confederate side of the Civil War -- and came up with a tall tale about being from Maryland and having headed west where he survived some sort of massacre (see William A. Settle, Jr., _Jesse James Was His Name_, p. 19; Wellman, pp. 29-30).

Perhaps one can best measure the amount of legend in all this by noting that Quantrill's horse at this time was allegedly named "Black Bess" (Wellman, p. 29). And, yes, Black Bess was exceptionally fast (Wellman, p. 31)

Having officially changed positions, he became a pro-Confederate terrorist (having fought at Wilson's Creek -- Wellman,p. 31 -- he was commissioned Captain C.S.A. in August 1862) whose raiders brought fear and pillage to Nebraska and any other Union area that looked vulnerable.

Although there were many other guerrilla bands in Missouri and Kansas at this time, and Bloody Bill Anderson in fact commanded what we might call Quantrill's Raiders for much of the war, it was Quantrill who developed their terrorist tactics. As a result, an order was issued that they were to be killed without trial if caught in an act of terrorism (Wellman, p. 35).

Murder without trial is probably never justified, but it must be admitted that that was just what Quantrill's raiders did to Lawrence, Kansas -- admittedly a Unionist stronghold, but still, they were civilians. And Quantrill shot them down without checking their characters (Wellman, p. 39ffff.)

Different sources cite different casualty totals, usually between 150 and 200. James M. McPherson, in _Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era_ (part of the _Oxford History of the United States_), Oxford, 1988, p. 786, credits them with killing 182 men and burning 185 buildings. McPherson reports that Quantrill told his men to "Kill every male and burn every house."

Ironically, Quantrill's men missed the pro-Union extremist and sometimes Senator James Lane, the #1 target. (Wellman, p. 46, notes that Lane would respond by inducing the authorities to issue General Order #11, which caused the forced evacuation of four counties of Missouri -- the worst official act of the war in its effect on the civilian population.) This order much inflamed anti-Union sentiment, causing the locals to support Quantrill's men, such as the James Brothers, after the war (Wellman, p. 48) -- even though, as McPherson notes (p. 785), Quantill "attracted to his gang some of the most psychopathic killers in American history."

To give the Confederacy credit, Quantrill apparently travelled to Richmond at one point to seek a colonel's commission, and was turned down cold (Wellman, p. 38). McPherson, p. 785, states that he was given a captain's commission "and thereafter claimed to be a colonel."

Massacre though it was, the attack on Lawrence apparently had some propaganda value; it came in the period after Gettysurg and Vicksburg, when the Union forces were feeling triumphant, and reminded them that there was a lot more fighting still to come (see Allan Nevins, _The War for the Union: The Organized War 1863-1864_ [volume VII of _The Ordeal of the Union_], Scribner's, 1971, p. 180).

In 1864, Quantrill and his gang headed for Texas -- where a regular officer tried to arrest Quantrill. The outlaw escaped (Wellman, p. 51), but his informal army started to break up after that (Wellman, p. 52).

Union attempts to suppress the guerillas largely failed -- but, in the end, their own side ruined them. In late 1864, the former Missouri governor Sterling Price invaded Missouri from Arkansas. He used the guerillas as scouts and raiders -- and, being forced to attack fixed positions, were defeated and their formations broken up. (Price ended up back in Arkansas, having lost half his command.) Bloody Bill Anderson was killed. Quantrill lived, but headed off east with a few followers (supposedly on a quixotic plot to kill Lincoln; McPherson, pp, 787-788). getting himself killed in the process. Wellman, p. 61, claims that the commander of the cavalry troop that killed him was himself a Confederate deserter.

Wellman, pp. 62-63, tells two stories about his legacy which may or may not be true, but which surely illustrate his legend. According to one, he left a legacy of $2000 to his old flame Kate Clarke, which she used to establish a house of prostitution. According to the other, his mother eventually found his body, had it brought home to Ohio -- and then disposed of the property on which he was buried. As Wellman puts it, she "sold her son's bones as curios." (In fairness, the mother of Jesse James did something similar -- but she merely sold stones she scattered over his grave. She kept the corpse itself safe.)

After the war was over, a number of Quantrill's followers (including the James Brothers) took off on their own -- but in fact used the techniques they learned from Quantrill. (This, in fact, is the whole theme of Wellman's book -- how there was a continuous linkage of outlaws stretching all the way from Quantrill to Pretty Boy Floyd three-quarters of a century later.)

To tell this song from other Quantrell pieces, consider this first stanza:

Young people, listen unto me, a story I will tell.

His name was Charlie Quantrell, in Kansas he did dwell.

'Twas on the Kansas plains that he made his wild career,

Then many a wealthy nobleman before him stood with fear.

This, obviously, derives from "Brennan on the Moor," and Roud lumps them (!). - RBW

Historical references

  • Aug 21, 1863 - Quantrill's Raiders destroy Lawrence, Kansas, killing about 150 men.
  • May 10, 1865 - Quantrill is mortally wounded on his way to Washington (where he hoped to stir up trouble by assassination). He dies 20 days later.

Cross references


  1. Lomax-FSNA 179, "Charlie Quantrell" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Ohrlin-HBT 26, "Charlie Quantrell, Oh" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #476
  4. BI, LoF179


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1938
Found in: US