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Down, But Not Out

August 21, 1863


When the people of Lawrence, Kansas, turned in to bed on the night of August 20, 1863, none could have possibly known that in just a few short hours they would be awakened by the crack of gunfire and the sounds of screaming. As the day dawned on August 21, “A noise attracted my attention,” recalled Lawrence resident O.W. McAlster, “and I looked south and saw between 300 and 400 horsemen…. In an instant they spread out, shooting every person they saw.”

Thus began the infamous raid on this free-state citadel by the Confederate guerrilla forces of William Clarke Quantrill. By the time it was over, the raiders had murdered somewhere between 150 and 200 men and boys, looted scores of homes and businesses, and burned much of the town to the ground. In the raid’s immediate aftermath, the terrified and mournful townspeople, many without husbands and fathers, more essentially penniless, had little time to consider how they would now fund the establishment of the long-sought University of Kansas that Lawrence had won at least on a provisional basis just several months before.

The drive to found a public university in Kansas had begun almost as soon as the area received territorial status under the terms of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. What also began at this time was the period known to history as “Bleeding Kansas,” where pro- and anti-slavery forces from all parts of the country rushed into Kansas Territory and fiercely fought each other in the attempt to bring Kansas into the Union as either a free or slave state. Under the terms of “popular sovereignty,” it was the people in the territory themselves who would decide the eventual state’s status, and on this issue there could be no compromise, no possibility of consensus.

Not so on the issue of higher education, though. Legend has it, notes KU historian Clifford Griffin, that the location of the state university in Lawrence, the center of free-state activity, was some inevitable act of divine providence explicitly linking the cause of learning with the moral superiority of abolitionism. But as Griffin points out, “no group or faction was alone in its desire for a state-supported university.” Whatever was to be the status of slavery in Kansas, partisans on either side – as well as those who professed no preference – could agree that a publicly supported university was a worthy goal. The idea, writes Griffin, “appeared naturally, as part of the inevitable effort of Kansans to reproduce in a new environment institutions which had proved valuable in the older states.”

The first simmering of activity concerning the establishment of a public university in Kansas actually occurred before statehood. In 1855, the Kansas territorial legislature approved a charter for what it called the “University of the Territory of Kansas,” to be located in Douglas County. In the years that followed, various legislatures never wavered in their desire for a university; the real contentious question, however, became in what city to locate it.

On Christmas Day, 1856, prominent citizens of Lawrence, encouraged by a $10,000 pledge from Boston textile magnate Amos A. Lawrence, the town’s namesake and chief financial underwriter, called a mass meeting expressing their city’s interest. (In 1847, Amos Lawrence had loaned the same amount to help establish Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; the 1856 pledge he made to the citizens of Lawrence, Kansas, was in the form of the promissory notes and interest he held on Lawrence University.)

Two weeks later, the people of Manhattan voiced their own desire for the first public university in Kansas. Soon, residents of Emporia would also enter the fray. As with so many plans during the territorial period, though, the university never materialized due to implacable dissension between pro- and anti-slavery interests. And even if it had, it is easy to imagine the institution becoming little more than a political pawn, manipulated and exploited by whichever side happened to control the territorial legislature.

From 1857 until 1861, those committed to founding an institution of higher education in Lawrence turned their attention to religious groups. Yet after negotiating with the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Episcopalians – and even with Amos Lawrence’s endowed fund which, with interest and other smaller contributions, had reached nearly $13,000 – the Lawrence trustees found no group that could or would provide sufficient capital.

During this period even Lawrence himself, who undoubtedly had a strong paternal and pecuniary interest in the town, seemed unsure whether his namesake city was even ready for a university. His support wavered back and forth numerous times between a university and a series of common and Sunday schools, although circumstances were always such that no action was taken and his fund just kept accruing interest. In any event, the frenzy surrounding Kansas’ drive to achieve statehood, the severe drought and economic depression of the early 1860s, not to mention the coming of the Civil War, all combined to frustrate again the cause of higher education.

By January 29, 1861, free-state forces had prevailed and Kansas entered the Union as the nation’s 34th state. Under the terms of the so-called Wyandotte Constitution, the Kansas legislature was instructed to “encourage the promotion of intellectual, moral, scientific and agricultural improvement, by establishing a uniform system of common schools, and schools of a higher grade, embracing normal, preparatory, collegiate and university departments.” It also mandated that a “State University” be established “at some eligible and central point.”

This was where the issue got especially dicey, because there were five cities – Lawrence, Manhattan, Emporia, Topeka and Leavenworth – that considered themselves “eligible” for the state university; plus, all fancied themselves “central,” too. The stage was set for a political battle royal that would entail much heated debate, credible allegations of vote-buying, and countless instances of behind-the-scenes machinations and double-dealing among self-interested politicians. It would ultimately end in a split-the-difference compromise.

The state legislators did have a degree of bargaining room since, after all, the issue of where to locate the capital had yet to be decided – and also up in the air was which city would get the state penitentiary. Once Leavenworth agreed to take the prisoners and Topeka won out as the state capital, the debate became somewhat less complicated, though hardly less intense.

According to Griffin, “For all that any man could tell in the spring of 1862, the Kansas legislators might go on arguing forever about which town should get the university.” Manhattan seemed to have the edge, since that town’s nascent Bluemont College was willing to donate its buildings and land to the state in exchange for becoming the state university.

This would have been the “logical place for the school,” notes Griffin, “but the Kansas legislature was not operating according to the rules of logic.” The city of Lawrence and its legislative supporters in Topeka were promising cash, $15,000 to be exact, plus a grant of 40 acres of land to locate the university on Mount Oread where several earlier attempts to established a college had foundered. The only problem was, most of the money the Lawrence men were promising was not liquid; it was the old Amos Lawrence endowment, made up largely of promissory notes held on Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Moreover, the Lawrence men had not actually received permission to bargain with these funds.

In any event, in an attempt at compromise, the legislature and Governor Thomas Carney finally agreed on February 20, 1863, to divide the spoils, as it were, and carve the state university into three parts: the state “normal” or teachers school would be located in Emporia; the agricultural school would go to Manhattan; and the state university would be awarded to Lawrence. This conformed to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Wyandotte Constitution, and seemed to satisfy the partisans from the three competing cities. (Griffin writes that “political jobbery” was rife during the last frantic days before the February 20 vote. He tells the story of one well-connected politico who recalled that “the Lawrence men [in Topeka] had bought as many votes as they could at the going rate of around $5 apiece to get the university.” Some legislators’ principles were apparently on sale: According to William Miller, his brother Josiah, the Lawrence postmaster, reportedly “saved the institution for his town when he accidentally discovered two unbribed members of the house and paid for their ballots with $4 that he happened to have in his pocket at the time.”)

In spite of Lawrence’s successful effort in winning the state university vote, the prize was contingent upon the residents fulfilling their promise to pony up $15,000 and 40 acres of land. The land question was quickly settled after some deals were made with Charles Robinson (a former governor of Kansas and Lawrence resident) and his wife Sara to essentially trade a choice portion of Mount Oread, which they owned, for a small cash payment and other lands in and around the city. As for the other issue, despite the Lawrence men having acted without his consent, Amos Lawrence gladly allowed his endowment to be used to satisfy the monetary requirement. In fact, Robinson, in a letter to Lawrence, told him that, “It was with great difficulty that the location was secured here, and nothing saved us but the inducement of your fund.” But while the citizens of Lawrence were arranging to convert the notes into cash so as to meet the November 1, 1863, deadline, the town was befallen by a murderous tragedy at the hands of a Confederate cutthroat named William Clarke Quantrill.

Quantrill was born in Canal Dover, Ohio, in 1837 and moved to Kansas Territory 20 years later. He apparently engaged in cattle rustling, but was most notorious for stealing escaped slaves from anti-slavery residents, then returning them to their owners in Missouri to collect the bounty. He performed these latter acts while posing as a fervent abolitionist, “working” on the Underground Railroad. While living in Lawrence, he adopted the alias “Charley Hart” and was charged with robbery and arson. For his alleged crimes, the free-state citadel expelled him. One day, he would take his revenge.

By the summer of 1863, following the serious defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Confederacy was reeling in conventional military terms, but behind the lines and on the borderlands, guerrilla warfare was on the rise. Of course, bloody clashes and the resultant atrocities between pro- and anti-slavery forces across the Missouri-Kansas border had been going on since the 1850s and were arguably the opening hostilities of the Civil War, as historian Jay Monaghan has suggested in his book Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865. But nothing in the Bleeding Kansas period equaled the scale of ruthlessness and sheer devastation that befell Lawrence, Kansas, on the morning of August 21, 1863. Confederate raiders, led by Quantrill, took little mercy on the town and its residents that day.

As for their motivations, the possibilities are legion. Lawrence was indeed pernicious to the guerrillas for being a symbol of the successful free-state cause. It was the home of Charles Robinson, a free soil leader and the state’s first governor, as well as James H. Lane, a US senator and Union general known as the “Grim Chieftain,” whose actions had aroused deep hatred among pro-slavery sympathizers.

Quantrill himself had a number of vendettas against these and other prominent Lawrence residents. He also may have sought to retaliate for smaller-scale incursions by free-staters into Missouri. What seemed finally to convince the bulk of Quantrill’s raiders to attack Lawrence, though, was the accidental death of several women incarcerated in a Kansas City prison that collapsed unexpectedly. Some of the victims, jailed for sheltering Confederate guerrillas, were close relations of a number of Quantrill’s followers. The raiders now needed no further convincing by their leader to exact a measure of revenge. “Quantrill and his men came to Lawrence,” writes historian Richard B. Sheridan, “to kill the men and sack the town.”

According to the Rev. H.D. Fisher, a witness to the Lawrence Massacre, the town’s destruction was “directly attributable to two main reasons, … the utterly unprotected condition of the town” and the pitiless “method of guerrilla attack.” Lawrence was suffering from an obvious lack of manpower at the time, given that many local residents were in the Union Army and stationed elsewhere. In addition, there had been so many false alarms about impending attacks that the town’s roughly 1,200 residents had simply begun to take their safety for granted. Thus, they were unprepared and essentially incapable of defending themselves when Quantrill and his horsemen rode into town. This vulnerability was compounded by the fact that most of the citizens’ firearms had been ordered stored in a central armory, leaving homeowners defenseless. When the moment of danger arrived, they could oppose the raiders only with pleas for mercy that were invariably ignored.

During the four-hour orgy of brutality, “The order was to ‘burn every house and kill every man,’” recalled the Rev. Richard Cordley, a contemporary observer. “Almost every house was visited and robbed, and the men found in them killed or left, according to the character or whim of the captors.” “It is doubtful,” he added, “whether the world has ever witnessed such a scene of horror…. History gives no parallel, where an equal number of such desperate men, so heavily armed, were let perfectly loose in an unsuspecting community.” The Rev. Fisher wrote, “such scenes of barbarity have never been witnessed, even in the days of war, in recent centuries, except among the most degraded tribes of earth.” All accounts agree, however, that the raiders refrained from molesting or physically harming any Lawrence women.

Quantrill’s raiders rode and marched down Massachusetts Street burning and looting everything in sight. They eventually branched outwards until as many as 100 homes and businesses were destroyed and another 100 were severely damaged by fire. According to Fisher, after the raid “two-thirds of the people [of Lawrence] were homeless. … That night, nearly an hundred widows and two hundred fatherless children sat wailing in the streets…. Shorn of her pride and beauty and sons, the city wept in sack-cloth and sat in ashes.” The human toll was devastating enough, but Lawrence as a city had been laid waste. The question now was not how the people were going to raise the money for establishing the University of Kansas, but whether Lawrence as a city should simply be abandoned.

Quantrill's Raid Surviviors

Survivors of Quantrill’s Raid.
image: Kansas State Historical Society

Despite the ravages of Quantrill’s raid, though, somehow the survivors of Lawrence did manage to rise from the ashes that the Rev. Fisher so eloquently, if painfully, described. “Because,” writes Griffin, “it was utterly impossible to raise the money” after much of the townspeople’s wealth had been plundered, Charles Robinson contacted Amos Lawrence to ask an enormous favor.

Under the terms of the February 20, 1863, bill locating the university in Lawrence, the town had until November 1 to come up with $15,000 cash or else the institution would go to Emporia. The problem was: Producing the money was contingent upon Amos Lawrence’s Wisconsin debtors paying off their promissory notes, which the city had held since the late 1850s. But when the people of Lawrence came collecting, they found their debtors pleading poverty. Thus, Robinson boldly asked Amos Lawrence for an outright gift of $15,000; in response, the town’s namesake agreed to donate $10,000 if the citizens contributed the remainder.

As for that $5,000, Governor Carney consented to advance the people of Lawrence the amount from his personal account on the condition that he would be repaid later. Thus, when the November 1, 1863, deadline arrived for Lawrence to either produce the $15,000 or surrender the state university, the devastated city had the cash – and the rest is history. There is, however, a seedier, more distressing, side to the story.

Carney himself gave an impassioned speech to the 1864 legislature, seeking to convince them to appropriate $5,000 to the town of Lawrence so he could be paid back. By this act, he insisted, the “patriot heart[s]” of the state could strike a blow against Quantrill’s “rebel assassins.” His words apparently did convince, for the legislature indeed appropriated the requested amount; however, they lifted the $5,000 out of the University’s original $15,000 endowment.

This ensured that when KU officially opened in September 1866, it did so only on the shakiest of financial footings, a third poorer than it should have been. Despite this tremendous burden, though, and against all odds, “At least, and at last,” writes Griffin, “the University of Kansas had a home.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: An excellent account of the drive to create the University of Kansas can be found in C.S. Griffin, “The University of Kansas and the Years of Frustration, 1854-1864,” in Dennis Domer and Barbara Watkins, eds., Embattled Lawrence: Conflict and Community, pp. 79-95, a version of the first chapter of Griffin’s The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974). Also helpful is Richard B. Sheridan, “William Quantrill and the Lawrence Massacre, August 21, 1863,” in Embattled Lawrence, pp. 53-61, and Jay Monaghan, The Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865, pp. 279-281 and passim. See the Rev. H.D. Fisher, Gun and the Gospel: Early Kansas and Chaplain Fisher, 2nd ed., (Medical Century Company, 1897), chapter XXIL, available online from the University of Virginia at the following web address: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CONTEXTS/Kansas/fisher3.html
The Rev. Richard Cordley, The Lawrence Massacre, (Lawrence, Kan.: J.S. Broughton, 1865), available online from the Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, at the following web address:http://www.ku.edu/carrie/kancoll/books/cordley_massacre/quantrel.raid.html
William E. Connelley, A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, 5 vols., (Chicago: Lewis, 1918), chapter XLIV, available online from the Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, at the following web address:http://skyways.lib.ks.us/genweb/archives/1918ks/v2/ch44p1.html
And, finally, see “Quantrill’s Raid: Survivor’s Voices,” available online at the following web address:

http://www.ci.lawrence.ks.us/local_history/quantrill/survwds.html]