One will not find the name of William Clarke Quantrill in the pantheon of noble Civil War personalities but rather listed near the top of the list of its notorious scoundrels. He has been demonized as the devil incarnate, and most historical accounts portray him as a sadistic, pitiless, bloodthirsty... more
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One will not find the name of William Clarke Quantrill in the pantheon of noble Civil War personalities but rather listed near the top of the list of its notorious scoundrels. He has been demonized as the devil incarnate, and most historical accounts portray him as a sadistic, pitiless, bloodthirsty killer. That image, however, did not ring true to Paul R. Petersen when he weighed it against the man’s wartime accomplishments. When he began researching Quantrill of Missouri, he found that much of the lore that has been accepted as fact had been recorded by those who fought against Quantrill. In short, the victors wrote the history.
Petersen asks, "How could this so-called fiend have been a respected schoolteacher? How could he have organized and led up to four hundred men in the most noted band of guerrilla fighters known to history? How could he be so hated by his own men and still lead them in the most renowned battles through Missouri, winning victories over superior Union forces? Others entrusted their sons to him. Others served him as spies. Women willingly tended his wounded, and his followers even guarded him in battle. Most of his people were God-fearing farmers.…God-fearing, righteous people would not have followed a depraved, degenerate, psychotic killer."
The war in Missouri was vastly different from the set-piece encounters in Virginia and Tennessee. Here the war was personal, and no injury was forgotten or forgiven. In that environment, Quantrill’s accomplishments rivaled those of John S. Mosby’s partisan rangers and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry. But Quantrill’s victories are labeled as massacres, and his men are judged to be murderers.
In the end, Petersen discovers a vastly different Quantrill, a leader who assessed the border situation and devised an effective military solution to the problems he faced. The result was what we know now as modern guerrilla warfare.