August 21, 1863
The early morning sky grew bright as the three hundred men approached the outskirts of Lawrence. Travel-dusted from the prairie, they were weary, having been in the saddle all night. Quantrill, their leader, heard vague mutterings and must have guessed some were beginning to waver now that their target was near.
“We’ll be cut to pieces,” one said.
“It’s madness to go on,” muttered another.
Quantrill roweled his horse in front of his men. “This is what you came for. This is war. Time to show what you’re made of,” he declared harshly.
His words galvanised those who had begun to doubt and gradually the dissenting voices fell silent.
A short while later, Quantrill said, “I need someone to ride through the town and check for resistance.”
Charlie Weston’s heart began to beat wildly in his chest as he listened to Quantrill’s words. Would he volunteer? He had to; this was his chance, his opportunity to show his determination. “I’ll do it,” he said, the words spilling from his mouth in his eagerness to put himself forward.
Quantrill nodded in his direction. “Good. What’s your name?”
“Good man, Weston.”
Weston rode off into the early morning gloom. He rode hard, all the while expecting to find himself under fire, for the town to be suddenly alight with Union soldiers.
He approached the outskirts of the town and then passed by barns and homesteads before coming upon rows of houses and business premises. Main Street was quiet. The town was asleep, ripe for the picking!
When he reached the end of the street and turned and rode back to the gang, completely unmolested.
“All quiet,” Weston panted excitedly when he returned. “It’s a clear run.”
A smile crossed Quantrill’s face. “Good man,” he said and patted Weston on the shoulder. Quantrill’s words helped him to forget how tired, cold and hungry he was. He was eager to continue with their mission. The guerrilla war against the Union forces and its sympathizers in the area must continue, and this raid on Lawrence was going to be Weston’s biggest engagement yet. It had been planned months in advance and now that they could smell the town it seemed as if all the preparation had been worth it. It was time to cause mayhem.
They rode quietly through the outskirts; the idea was to get to Main Street undetected and their progress was rapid but cautious. Every so often, they would checked their horses as if fearful to proceed and when they realized they were still undiscovered, they almost couldn’t believe their good fortune. They kept going until eventually they reached the high ground facing Main Street. Here, the gang paused.
Weston checked his weapons. He wore two Colt .44 revolvers in his hip holsters and a Winchester in his saddle scabbard. He took one of the Colts and gripped it in his right hand; he’d be able to manage the reins with his left. The Winchester stayed in the scabbard but he knew he’d be able to draw it easily if needed.
The morning light was beginning to fill in the details of the street below. It was nearly time. The streetlights still flickered, the lamplighters not having come around to quench them yet, casting eerie shadows against the walls and windows of the saloons, general stores and other business premises that populated Main Street. The buildings were dark, the only evidence of life at that early hour were the sounds the guerrillas made as they readied themselves for battle.
Suddenly, Quantrill’s shouted command pierced the air: “Rush on to the town!” he shouted.
They charged forward, yelling like demons.
Weston spurred his horse, anxious to be near the vanguard of the charge. Each man knew his job, their duties having been assigned beforehand. Detachments scattered to every section of the town in order to overwhelm the locals in as quick a time as possible. Weston was part of the forty men in Quantrill’s group. He pushed his horse hard to keep up with his leader.
“To the hotel!” Weston ordered. The provost marshal of the Lawrence garrison resided in the Eldridge House hotel. If he could be captured, then the town would be theirs. Quantrill’s words drove Weston on. He felt as if it was fire and not blood that was flowing in his veins. He’d never felt more alive.
Gunfire erupted around them as the locals finally mustered themselves into action, but the guerrillas were ready for them. At first, Weston’s hand shook as he fired his revolver, the weight of the weapon pulling as he rode, but he quickly grew used to the action.
Damn it, they’d been halted by this sudden resistance. The men of the town poured out of their houses, guns blazing. They were going to do their best to defend their homes and families and struck back hard at the guerrillas, their gunfire toppling men from their horses.
Weston heard the bullets ring as they passed his ears and watched as the rider next to him slipped from his horse, blood blossoming on his shirtfront.
He was filled with dread excitement and then with a cold resolve. He felt a certain satisfaction as he saw a man fall dead as he was hit by the lead from his weapon. Women and children emerged from houses also as the first flames lit the morning sky; they fled down the town’s streets, their piercing cries filling the air. And as they ran they must have known that they were leaving behind husbands, sons, fathers or brothers to die, for it quickly became evident that the raiders intended killing every male found.
Weston dug his spurs into his mount’s flanks, urging it forward. They rode on, wiping out any remaining resistance as they went until they finally reached the Eldridge House hotel, a four-story wooden building that towered over its neighbors. As well as housing itinerant guests it also contained permanent residents, offices and stores.
Weston waited for the expected resistance from those inside the hotel to manifest itself. In fearful suspense, he gazed at the windows above. He felt as if he was the only person there. As if all the men about him were mere spirits, intangible shapes that had no bearing on the conflict. He felt as if he were conquering the town by himself, winning the war single-handed. This intoxication hit him harder than any cheap, raw-tasting whisky. And he liked the sensation.
Quantrill walked toward the front of the hotel. “This is Captain William Quantrill!” he shouted. “Surrender the hotel and all its guests and you will not be harmed.”
They waited. Gunfire could be heard around the town but it seemed to Weston that it was lessening as the guerrillas gradually subdued the local resistance. At last, one of the windows on the second floor opened. He trained his gun toward the opening, hammer cocked and ready to fire. He breathed out, waiting for the moment to pull the trigger. His eyes narrowed, waiting for someone to show himself at the window. Gradually, something emerged from the dark opening. He squeezed the trigger gently, waiting for the right moment to fire. His shoulders slumped suddenly, though, and he relaxed the pressure on the trigger. A sigh of relief escaped him. It wasn’t a weapon thrust out the window but a white flag.
“This is Captain Banks,” came a faltering voice from inside, “Provost Marshal of the State…” Weston knew the man was the key to the capture of the town; the armed townsfolk, at least those who were left alive, would take their cue from him. “How do I know that you will keep your word if we surrender?” Hesitantly, Banks’ head poked out from the upstairs window. He looked to be in his fifties, with a wispy, graying beard, although it was hard to be sure in the gradually brightening morning light. Weston thought about shooting him, like a man who had grown addicted to the feel of the trigger on his finger. He imagined Captain Banks, and the shocked look on his face as the bullet entered him, and then the body toppling and falling slowly onto the street below, maybe hitting the canopy over the entrance. He envisioned the lifeless shape on the dry, dusty ground and the others turning and staring admiringly at him, awed by his prowess. But that wasn’t going to happen; this man was not his to shoot. At least, not yet.
Quantrill was about to respond to Banks when a shot went off inside the hotel.
Weston ducked instinctively before he saw the opportunity this development presented. He brought his revolver up and pointed it at Banks’ head. Shock was evident on Banks’ face and he turned to look behind him to discover the source of the gunshot. Weston felt the satisfying, thrilling pressure of the trigger as he squeezed it, knowing that each minute contraction of his index finger brought Banks closer to extinction. He heard the report of his gun and felt the shudder of the weapon in his hand. But Banks didn’t fall, he didn’t plummet from the window but stood half in and half out, waving his hands theatrically. Weston had missed.
“Stop!” Banks yelled in a voice that seemed to grow more highly pitched with each syllable, “Don’t shoot. It was an accident.”
Banks’ protestations came too late, however, as a fusillade of bullets thudded into the hotel, shattering windows and ripping the wooden cladding from the front of the building.
Weston fired rapidly, quickly using all the bullets in his weapon. He reached for his other revolver. His breath came short and fast, the excitement of the moment coursing through his body, heightening his senses. In the deafening thunder of the gunshots, he couldn’t tell if those inside the hotel were returning fire or not. Suddenly, the hard sound of firing dissolved and Quantrill’s voice could be heard clearly: “Stop firing!” His voice sounded a little querulous, Weston thought.
Quantrill looked hard at Weston whose gun was raised, ready to take another pot-shot. “They’re not firing at us,” Quantrill bawled.
Weston heard the sharp accusation in his voice.
Banks continued screaming all this time, trying desperately to explain that the town clerk, not used to handling guns, had accidentally discharged his weapon into a portrait of Jeremiah Eldridge while trying to impress Ms. Oppel. The incipient attack was thus halted before the guerrillas could surge into the hotel and wreak their own brand of havoc.
The sudden and fierce outbreak of firing must have convinced those in the hotel that their situation was hopeless as they were greatly outnumbered. Terms of surrender were quickly arrived at, and the inmates of the hotel filed out onto the street, flanked by Quantrill’s men.
Weston stared hard at each man as they emerged; stripped of the power they once held. They looked dishevelled, drained of their energy and their purpose. What made them what they were had been taken from them by Quantrill and his men.
They made Weston feel powerful, vitalized. He felt in control of them. They would have to defer to him, these supposedly powerful men. These decision-makers. They hadn’t even put up a decent fight. Not even fired a shot. Unless the clerk’s destruction of the ancestral portrait could be counted. Banks was the last to emerge, bringing up the rear of the column of twenty men; the captain the last to leave his ship.
“Take them to the City Hotel,” Quantrill ordered. “It will be protected. I boarded there before and was well treated. The prisoners will be safe there.” The prisoners were as obedient to orders as any of Quantrill’s own men and gave Weston and the men that escorted them no trouble as they were herded to their house of refuge.
After the Eldridge House surrendered, and all fears of resistance were removed, Quantrill rallied what men were left with him and gave them their final orders: “Burn the place, set it alight. Anything of value that you find is yours to keep. It’s your reward for tonight. And show no mercy to any men you find.”
With Quantrill’s words ringing in his ears, Weston rode off in search of plunder. Much of the town was now on fire; he would have to move fast if he was to find anything worth appropriating. He wasn’t entirely sure where he was headed. Bodies were strewn along the sides of the streets, illuminated by the burning buildings behind them. It was obvious that the area had already been ransacked, so he decided to keep moving. He could feel the heat emanating from the flaming houses, barns and businesses. It was the sign that they were successful: that’d achieved their goal. But it was also a sign that there were few places left for him to loot.
A figure emerged from a house to his left. He instinctively trained his weapon on the shadow. He pulled back the hammer of the Colt, ready to fire. The shadow stepped onto the street, just yards from him. It was a woman carrying a small child. He looked about. There was nobody else near.
At about nine o’clock that morning Quantrill’s pickets saw a column of mounted troops approaching the town from the direction of Kansas City. The guerrillas were at once called together and they left town by the road leading south, avoiding the troops.
Upon their departure they left behind a scene of terrible devastation. Massachusetts Street was a bed of embers. On this street seventy-five buildings were destroyed. The dead lay all along the sidewalk, many of them so burned that they couldn’t be recognised. Here and there among the embers were the bones of those who perished in the buildings and been consumed.
As Weston rode away from Lawrence that morning, little did he realize the consequences that their actions would bring to bear on the rest of his life.