By Todd Cohen
One hundred and thirty-four years after William Quantrill came to Lawrence so did movie director Ang Lee.
Quantrill came to burn the city and kill leaders of the anti-slavery Free State movement. He left a smoldering, bleeding city. Lee came to learn about the raid and 19th century Kansas. He left with a wealth of information from the Kansas Collection at KU's Spencer Research Library.
Lee is turning the story of what some historians call the worst massacre of the Civil War into a new movie, Riding With The Devil, now being filmed near Kansas City, Mo. The movie is based on a novel, Woe To Live On, by KU graduate Daniel Woodrill. It follows the lives of a young Missouri man and his gang of misfits as they become caught up in the strife along the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War. It was the "Bleeding Kansas" period when the debate over whether to admit territories to the union as slave or free states led to murderous raids on either side of the state line.
William Clark Quantrill, an Ohio teacher, came to Kansas in 1857 to farm but failed. He joined a regiment of Missouri Confederate troops just before the Civil War. Dissatisfied with a lack of aggressiveness after the battle of Lexington, Mo., in September 1861, Quantrill left the army to bring guerrilla warfare to Unionist Kansas.
With 30 men, Quantrill first raided Aubry, Kan. in March 1862. Other raids followed, including one at Olathe. Early on the morning of Aug. 21, 1863, he led more than 300 men in a raid of Lawrence, then a town of 2,000 and the home of Charles Robinson, first governor of Kansas, and other leaders of the Free State movement. He failed to find the leaders. Nonetheless, between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. that day, Quantrill's raiders killed more than 150 defenseless men and boys and burned 200 homes and businesses to the ground.
In early October, Quantrill struck at Baxter Springs, Kan., killing 90 of 100 soldiers accompanying Major Gen. James G. Blunt, who escaped. Quantrill left Kansas and headed east in 1864. He was wounded in a battle with Union soldiers on May 10, 1865, in Kentucky and died less than a month later. He was 27.
The 1997 visit to Lawrence by the acclaimed director was equally swift and secretive. KU archivists, who were asked at the time to keep the visit a secret, showed Lee and his small entourage into a large room in the Kansas Collection. On two large tables were an array of artifacts -- photos of Quantrill, his victims, a 1909 reunion of his raiders and a 1913 reunion of survivors, photos of Lawrence in the years before and after the raid and more. Most notable were two original tearsheets from Harper's Weekly magazine, dated Sept. 5 and 19, 1863, that contain the famous drawings of the raid and aftermath.
There are no photos of the raid "though many people have asked," says Kristin Eshelman, the Kansas Collection photo archivist.
Also in the display was the actual hand-written warrant for Quantrill's arrest for first- degree murder, as well the subpoenas for Quantrill and 29 known members of his band, presumably never served. The paper is remarkably white, crisp and untarnished by the years.
The Kansas Collection also has letters Quantrill wrote to his mother a few years before the raid. They are typical son-to-mother letters that failed to foreshadow the murderous course Quantrill would follow, says Rebecca Schulte, assistant curator at the Kansas Collection.
First-hand accounts written by raid survivors, lists of those killed and an article about the 1940 film, Dark Command, loosely based on the raid, are in the collection, too. Dark Command starred Walter Pidgeon as "Cantrell." John Wayne and Roy Rogers also were in the movie, which had its world premiere in Lawrence. Other Quantrill's Raid movies include Kansas Raiders, starring Audie Murphy, and The Jayhawkers, both released in the 1950s.
Modern-day movie maker Lee "looked through the display, asked some questions about Kansas territorial history and left," says Eshelman "It was very quick."
Lee was actually tracing a course first followed by the book's author, Woodrill, a KU graduate in English.
Woodrill did substantial research at both the Spencer Research Library and at Watson Library, reviewing the KU library system's vast holdings of materials about Quantrill's Raid and the "Bleeding Kansas" period.
Woodrill originally wrote a short story for Missouri Review, a literary quarterly. He expanded the short story into the novel, says John Tibbetts, assistant professor of theater and film, who recently interviewed Woodrill for a Kansas Alumni Magazine article. The short story is now the first chapter of the book.