It might be a bit overused as an axiom, that civil wars are the bloodiest – or maybe it just seems that way because it seems to be so terribly personal. This is not some outsider, some foreigner, some alien stranger invading our neighborhood, destroying our towns and slaughtering – but our own countrymen, who speak the same language and usually share a culture and background, if not the same blood.

Just so was our own Civil War. To read of the wanton brutality and the wholesale slaughter and destruction, and the enthusiasm and energy which went into the dismemberment of our own country, and to know that many of those who led the fight had been comrades and allies not fifteen years before is to realize what a monumental tragedy it was. No wonder Abraham Lincoln looks about twenty years older, comparing photographs of him taken in 1861 and 1865. He was a melancholy and sensitive man; one wonders how the weight of the responsibility and the events of those years in office did not crush him utterly. The war over which he was able to exercise control was ghastly enough – the war on the fringes, fought by partisans in Kansas and Missouri – achieved abysmal depths of senseless brutality.

Kansas had been a particularly hot center of strife even before Southern artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter. In an attempt to kick the can of ‘free state-slave state’ a little farther down the road, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 left the decision of whether those to states be enrolled as free or slave to those who settled there. And from that moment on, each side of the free-soil/slave-state debate enthusiastically aided and abetted the settling of Kansas with settlers who were adherents of one side or the other. The ‘Border Ruffians’, from slave-permitting Missouri, and the free-soil ‘Jayhawkers’ were already at each others’ throats from 1855 on. The first sack of Lawrence, the caning on the floor of the senate by Preston Brooks of South Carolina of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, John Brown’s raid on Pottawatomie –  the Civil War began to simmer in Kansas. Back east, they needed a while to get up to full speed, when it began to boil in earnest. In Kansas, partisan bands were all ready to ride – and to plunder and exterminate.

The most brutally effective of the pro-Confederate bands in Kansas was led by an Ohio-born former schoolteacher and teamster named William Clark Quantrill. He seems to have had an unsavory reputation even before the war, being associated with a number of unexplained murders and thefts in the Utah territory while working briefly there as a teamster and free-lance gambler. The eventual co-leader of his band, William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson had a similar pre-war reputation for horse thievery and murder, and a penchant for scalping his victims. He was reputed to wear a necklace of Yankee scalps into action – most people reading of his antics and behavior today would unhesitatingly call him a  psychopath and a war criminal.

By 1862, Quantrill and his men were considered outlaws by the Union authorities in Kansas – and Confederate commanders in Texas didn’t have all that much higher an opinion, especially after the Sack of Lawrence. Say what you would about Texas Confederates like General Henry McCulloch; he may have been a tough old Texas fighter – of Indians, Mexicans, bandits and whoever else was handy – but he was still a gentleman. Plundering a civilian town, burning it to the ground and executing civilian men and boys wholesale was not Henry McCulloch’s cup of tea. Neither was executing soldiers who had surrendered, as Quantrill’s men did after a fight with Union solders at Baxter Springs – but here was Quantrill and his men, looking for a place to rest and recoup, to purchase horses and generally get a break after a hard year of partisan war-fighting in Kansas. They had made Kansas too hot to hold them, and McCulloch was perennially short of men to guard the far Texas frontier against reoccurring Indian raids and to round up draft evaders and deserters. To the general commanding the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy forces, Quantrill’s appearance was a gift and McCulloch was ordered to make use of him to the fullest.

Although Quantrill and Anderson’s men mostly confined their Texas activities to Grayson and Fannin Counties, they left some bloody fingerprints in the Hill Country, too. Elements of their group were participants in the hangerbande or the ‘hanging-band’ – masked vigilantes who terrorized Gillespie and Kendall Counties by summarily lynching known and suspected pro-Unionists. It was often said bitterly after the war that the hangerbande killed more settlers there than the Indians ever did. Early in the spring of 1864, the hanging-band visited the Grape Creek settlement, a loose community of farms a few miles east of Fredericksburg. A man named Peter Burg, the owner of a fine herd of horses, was shot in the back and his horses confiscated. Three other men; William Feller, John Blank and Henry Kirchner were simply taken from their houses, taken as they sat with their families at the supper table. Kirchner’s house was searched and nearly $200 dollars in silver coin taken by Quantrill’s horse-buyer. It was rumored that Blank had recently received a letter from someone in Mexico.  Feller lived on a tract of land adjoining Kirchners and both had been involved in a land dispute with pro-Confederate sympathizers. These and other atrocities outraged the Hill Country German settlers  – more than that, similar depredations and robberies outraged Henry McCulloch and other Texas military commanders. Still, they were fighting on the Confederate side; perhaps they could go and do so where there weren’t any civilians to plunder and murder? McCulloch tried to send them to Corpus Christi, to stiffen the coastal defense. No luck with that, although McCulloch did his best to be rid of these uncomfortable allies.

Quantrill and Anderson had a falling out, about the time of the Grape Creek murders, and when Anderson indicated to McCulloch that he would testify against Quantrill as regards certain heinous crimes, the old Indian fighter hardly wasted time. He called for Quantrill to come to his HQ for a meeting, asked him to put his weapons on the table and informed him that he was under arrest.  But as soon as McCulloch’s back was turned, Quantrill grabbed his weapons, shouted to his friends that they were all liable to be under arrest and departed at speed and in a cloud of dust, heading north and back to Kansas. One imagines that Henry McCulloch was glad to be rid of them one way or another. Certainly they were not pursued with much enthusiasm, although their savage reputation may have had quite a lot to do with that.

Quantrill came to a sticky end, shortly afterwards – in Kentucky, having added Missouri to the list of places which he had made too hot to hold him. Elements of his wartime band lingered on, in the form of the James gang. But they in turn came to a sticky end in Northfield, Minnesota – the last little drop of blood from Bleeding Kansas.