Wife of Confederate Guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill
Sarah Quantrill (1848-1930) was the wife of William Quantrill, Confederate guerrilla leader during the Civil War. At age 14 Sarah King ran off with Quantrill and soon married him, spending most of their short marriage living in tents with him. In the summer of 1863, his most infamous action was perpretated on the citizens of Lawrence, Kansas in the Lawrence Raid. In four hours Quantrill’s Raiders murdered 200 old men and young boys. In May 1865 Quantrill was finally killed trying to escape Union forces in Kentucky.
Sarah Katherine King was born in 1848, the daughter of Robert and Malinda King whose farm was near Blue Springs, Missouri. William Clarke Quantrill was born July 31, 1837, at Canal Dover, Ohio, to Thomas Henry, a school principal, and Caroline Cornelia Quantrill. He was the oldest of 8 children, four of whom died in infancy or childhood.
Often beaten by his father, William graduated from high school at 16 and began teaching in the Dover school. His father died of tuberculosis in December 1854, plunging the family into poverty. William tried to supplement the income of his family by becoming a teacher. Wishing to help his mother and siblings, Quantrill journeyed to Illinois and Indiana but found employment only as a bookkeeper and a teacher.
After several years working as a teacher in Mendota, Illinois, he returned home to Dover where his mother arranged for two neighbors, Harmon Beeson and Henry Torrey, to buy a claim for Quantrill in Kansas, and he would work off his debt by working on their farms.
On February 26, 1857, Quantrill left for Kansas Territory. After living with these men for a year, he became restless and wanted to sell his claim. A dispute arose and had to be settled in court, but he was paid only one-half of what the court awarded him.
In the spring of 1858, Quantrill signed on as a teamster for an expedition to resupply Federal troops in Utah Territory fighting the Mormons. Many of the other teamsters were Southern fanatics who had come to Kansas from the Deep South to join in the struggle. During the year he spent in their company traveling to Utah and back to Kansas, he was converted to their point of view. Some would become Quantrill’s lifelong friends and later members of his guerrilla band.
Quantrill observed the conflict in Kansas over whether the territory would enter the Union as a slave or a free state. In the spring of 1860, he went to Lawrence where he encountered Border Ruffians: pro-slavery activists who infiltrated Kansas Territory from the neighboring slave state of Missouri. They shared his newfound political beliefs, and he joined their band.
Over the next eight months, the Border Ruffians mixed it up with the Jayhawkers – a name adopted by militant bands affiliated with the free-state cause. Quantrill’s group stole livestock and participated in the returning of one runaway slave to his owner for the reward, the selling of another runaway and an attempt to capture a number of others. After a Douglas County grand jury indicted him on several charges, Quantrill went into hiding.
After the Civil War began, Quantrill joined joined the Confederate Army, and fought under General Benjamin McCulloch at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (August 10, 1861), near Springfield, Missouri. Quantrill subsequently enlisted as a private in General Sterling Price’s army, and was said to have fought with ‘conspicuous daring’ at the Battle of Lexington, Missouri (September 1861).
Quantrill left the army soon thereafter, complaining that the South was not fighting the war with sufficient ferocity. He returned to the Blue Springs area of Jackson County and helped organize a Home Guard company of teenagers who sought to protect their neighborhood from raids by Kansas Jayhawkers.
By the end of 1861 it had evolved into a 15-member guerrilla band with Quantrill as its leader. They staged raids into Kansas, harassed Union soldiers, raided pro-Union towns, robbed mail coaches and attacked Unionist civilians. As their reputation grew, new recruits were drawn to it, at times numbering 100 men or more. Quantrill particularly wanted those who were single and motivated by revenge as the result of the harsh treatment of their families by Jayhawkers and the Federal militia.
His renegade band grew to include some 400 outlaws and guerillas known as Quantrill’s Raiders. Never officially sanctioned by the Confederate government, they fought for the Southern cause through banditry, bushwhacking and brutality, funneling a portion of their gains to the Confederate cause, while splitting most of their spoils amongst themselves.
In his early days as a guerrilla chieftain, Quantrill conducted himself honorably: he accepted surrenders, paroled prisoners and forbade rape. He expected that he and his men would be treated as soldiers if captured. Then General Henry W. Halleck, Union commander of the Department of Missouri, issued an order outlawing ‘bushwhackers’ and guerrillas.
The Union commanders declared Quantrill an outlaw, though he apparently did secure a Confederate commission as a captain of partisan rangers, and began summarily executing Quantrill’s men. He immediately retaliated by killing prisoners and would later say that he felt ‘forced’ into a ‘no quarter’ type of warfare. He quickly became known to his opponents as a feared Rebel raider, and to his supporters as a dashing, free-spirited hero.
During 1862, Quantrill’s Raiders plundered towns, skirmished with Union detachments and waylaid the mail. Quantrill was formally commissioned as a captain under the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862, following the capture of Independence, Missouri, on August 11, 1862, where he fought alongside Confederate forces, though he continued operating primarily outside of military control.
On September 7, 1862, Quantrill’s band attacked and looted Olathe, Kansas, killing several citizens. On October 17, 1862, the Raiders attacked Shawnee, Kansas, burning the town to the ground and capturing twelve unarmed men, all of whom were soon found dead. Eleven of the twelve were shot through the head.
Sarah Katherine King met William Clarke Quantrill when he and about 100 of his men were camped near the King farm in Blue Springs, Missouri. Quantrill came to talk to her father, and she was strongly attracted to him. The beautiful Sarah ran off with Quantrill at age 14 and soon married him, taking the name Kate Clarke – derived from both of their middle names. She spent most of their short marriage living in tents with him.
The Lawrence Raid
In the summer of 1863, Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr. had ordered the detention of any civilians giving aid to Quantrill’s Raiders. Several female relatives of the guerrillas were imprisoned in a makeshift jail in a house in Kansas City. On August 14, the building collapsed, killing four young women and seriously injuring others. Quantrill’s men believed the collapse was deliberate. Quantrill planned his revenge on the town of Lawrence, Kansas, the headquarters for the abolitionist Jayhawkers.
After riding 40 miles past patrols and garrisons, Quantrill struck Lawrence at dawn on August 21, 1863, leading a 450-man column: members of his own band and other guerrilla bands, Confederate army recruits and Missouri civilians. They looted the town’s banks and businesses and set fire to the homes of suspected Union sympathizers.
Over the next four hours, the raiders murdered approximately 200 men and teenage boys, from the age of 14 to 90. Nearly all were unarmed, and often their women were pleading for their lives when the bullets struck. The entire business district was burned as well as perhaps 100 houses, resulting in a property loss estimated at $2 million in Civil War–era money. The massacre is considered the greatest atrocity of the Civil War.
A survivor, Reverend H.D. Fisher, described the carnage:
With demoniac yells the scoundrels flew hither and yon, wherever a man was to be seen, shooting him down like a dog. Men were called from their beds and murdered before the eyes of wives and children on their doorsteps. Tears, entreaties, prayers availed nothing. The fiends of hell were among us and under the demands of their revengeful black leader they satiated their thirst for blood with fiendish delight.
On August 25, 1863, in retaliation for the raid, General Ewing ordered the evacuation of four Missouri counties along the Kansas border, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to abandon their homes. Union troops marched behind them, burning buildings, torching planted fields and shooting down livestock. The area was so thoroughly devastated that it became known as the Burnt District.
On October 6, 1863, Quantrill engineered a surprise attack on Union forces in Baxter Springs, Kansas, killing about 100 soldiers. Later that month, he volunteered to help round up Confederate deserters in Texas, but that assignment ended after more deserters were killed than taken into custody. Soon Confederate troops had to be assigned to protect Texans from Quantrill’s men.
Some of Quantrill’s earliest followers became disgusted with the degeneration of the band and left; they were generally replaced by those attracted more by the prospects of plunder and violence than by loftier motives. In Sherman, Texas, during the winter of 1863–1864, Quantrill had a difficult time controlling his followers: they got drunk and shot up the town and robbed storekeepers. Several robbery victims were murdered.
On March 28, 1864, Quantrill was arrested by Confederate forces and charged with plotting the murder of a Confederate officer. He escaped into Indian territory, pursued by hundreds of Confederate forces. After this narrow escape, Quantrill’s authority was challenged among his own Raiders, and his band split into several factions.
In fall 1864, Quantrill emerged from seclusion, rallied the shattered remnant of his band, and became entangled in the guerrilla war being waged in north-central Kentucky. In mid-February 1865, he was driven into hiding. In spring 1865, now leading only a few dozen men, Quantrill staged a series of raids in western Kentucky.
Union forces, meanwhile, hired Edwin Terrell, a disreputable Union guerrilla, to hunt down Quantrill, who by then had been reduced to commanding only a few dozen men. Quantrill’s last battle came in a barn near Taylorsville, Kentucky, on May 10, 1865, where he was literally caught napping when Terrell launched a surprise attack.
Quantrill tried to make a run for it but was shot in the back. The bullet traveled through his left shoulder blade, angled down and lodged against his spine, instantly paralyzing him from his shoulders down. Quantrill was questioned as he lay motionless in the field, but still with a lot of contempt in him he gave his name as Captain William Clarke of the 4th Missouri Confederate Calvary and asked permission to be allowed to die where he lay. Terrell believed his story and left to continue pursuing Quantrill.
In the meantime a doctor arrived, apparently summoned by local Confederate sympathizers and after a brief examination the doctor stated that Quantrill’s wounds were quite severe and he would not survive for very long.
Quantrill’s true identity soon emerged, however, and on May 12, Terrell returned with a horse drawn wagon. Quantrill was loaded onto it and taken to a military prison hospital wing Louisville, Kentucky, arriving there a day later. Terrell was paid for capturing him and told his services were no longer required.
With little hope of recovery, Quantrill lingered in great pain. Before his death, a priest visited him and Quantrill asked him to contact a woman who was holding a decent amount of money for him. With the money the priest purchased a cemetery plot and headstone and then gave the rest to his wife, Kate Clarke after taking out a small commission.
William Clarke Quantrill stayed at the military prison hospital until he finally succumbed to his wounds and died on June 6, 1865, at the age of 27, with Kate at his bedside. Had he survived, he would undoubtedly have been shot or hanged.
Initially buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, Quantrill’s grave has been tampered with and his bones have traveled in death as in life. Some of him is believed to lie at his original plot in Louisville, but his skull was retrieved by his mother and later buried at the Fourth Street Cemetery in his hometown of Dover, Ohio.
Three arm bones, two shin bones and some of Quantrill’s hair are interred at the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville, Missouri. These remains were buried there in 1992 with full Confederate honors, a flag being initially laid across the casket. There are still many in Missouri who believe history has been unjust to Quantrill, and they speak or write of him with admiration and respect.
At the time of Quantrill’s death, Kate was seventeen. She operated a well known house of prostitution in St. Louis (where she is listed in the 1870 census). Married five times, she was the mother of a daughter, Bertha Ivins/Evans. She married her last husband at age 74.
Sarah King Quantrill died on January 9, 1930, at the Jackson County Home for the Aged (aka the poorhouse) in Jackson County, Missouri, at the approximate age of 82.