The manipulative sensationalism regarding any display of the Confederate battle flag continues unabated. The New York Times gets hot and bothered, or sexually aroused—or whatever it is that the New York Times becomes—whenever that banner appears over the capitol of South Carolina or on a vanity tag in Maryland, indeed anywhere. The shibboleths of liberalism are applied whenever it is possible to maintain power today by controlling the national memory of yesterday, and the day before. “Heritage Not Hate” is the motto of some who defend the right to display the disputed flag, but the problem may be that hate is precisely what our heritage is. Strangely enough, that hate was broadcast a century and a half ago by spokesmen for a gospel of love—and it still is. It has long since become the language of power in our society.
What a shame that our effort to remember our own history should itself be so contentious. But then again, the Civil War was a shame itself, and there is something perversely appropriate in having the national memory supervised by replicants of the most obnoxious personalities of that war. Sure, remembering the Civil War is one thing Americans ought to do, and for a host of reasons. The memory of heroic actions, of courage and sacrifice, have traditionally been thought to be the stuff of civic virtue, as Pericles memorably indicated. But while I do believe that there is something to be gained by cultivating the memory of great deeds, I also believe that there can be a chastening profit in remembering cowardice, cruelty, and mendacity as well. The Civil War was a degrading as well as a glorious experience. Above all, it was a bloody one.
For every image of a brave soldier charging forward, we should also remember a skulking “bummer” burning down some old lady’s house. Killing in combat is not murder, but there was plenty of murder in the C]ivil War and wanton destruction of property. “Mr. Lincoln’s Invasion” was among other things a gigantic stick-up, and the pseudo-Biblical cadences to which we have resorted ever since in order to sugarcoat the bitterness are today parroted by those kindly humanoids who promote gross infanticide as a palliative for “women’s health,” all the while intoning their concern for our children. To whose advantage, some may wonder, is all the confusion and divisiveness? But not to worry. The editors of the New York Times are feeling fine.
Perhaps a little sober reflection and even humility are in order, for just as the Stars and Stripes do not exclusively represent everything we would wish them to, the Confederate flag does not either. I do not think that the Confederate flag was flown by the raiders who sacked Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863, burning over 100 houses and shooting dead some 200 unarmed boys and men. Quantrill was a captain in the Confederate Army, but his appropriate banner would have been the one nominated by Kit Dalton in his reminiscences. Under the Black Flag. Frank James and Cole Younger declared after the war that they never saw this black flag, but to me it is the black flag, not the Confederate one, that represents everything vile in violence. There can be no justification for the atrocities at Lawrence, but the story of the border strife between Missouri and Kansas—the real beginning of the Civil War—shows that there was a background of hatred and revenge. When the war began, the Yankee Abolitionists were enfranchised and the Southern fire-eaters were too. In this chaos, as Duane Schultz has suggested, a deadly trickster like Quantrill could not fail to see the opportunity of a lifetime.
The story of the Border Wars is a story that every American should know, particularly because so few know it. The part of it that is familiar (though almost always misapprehended) deals with John Brown. Brown’s massacre at Pottowatomie Creek, complete with nightstalking, corpse mutilations, and God’s blessing, has never discredited him as a hero, though he is rather better interpreted as a madman. Since his bloody-minded insanity literally became national policy, he remains a model of rectitude, a prophet indeed. But we might ask why such a killer and schemer retains his aureole of righteousness, when Quantrill’s name conjures revulsion. If Quantrill had thumped the Bible harder and taken money from the pious divines of New England, he would have made a better career move. And he could still have murdered to his heart’s content.
But that was not his wav. William Clarke Quantrill was an aimless youth from Canal Dover, Ohio, who inscribed Abolitionist sentiments in letters to his mother. He wandered fecklessly and he taught school rather successfully, which in those d;n”s indicated a certain order of intelligence. Unable to resist the temptations of the Border Wars, he sneakily participated in the anarchy he loved. lie posed as an Abolitionist, and then sold back the slaves he had stolen; he also pretended to be a “border ruffian” and lived with the Indians. He told either side he was a spy for the other, while stealing horses, burning houses, and probably murdering some individuals. Arson, thievery. and murder had a sanction in the Border Wars. Eventually, in the raid on the Walker farm, he turned on the “idealistic Abolitionists” (Schultz’s phrase) he had conned. He arranged their betrayal and declared he was from Maryland—a Southern loyalist, indeed.
The struggles on the Kansas-Missouri border were magnified in the war. They show that our Civil War was both civil and a war in the worst senses of those words. The war justified unreason and attracted not only the flower of the nation’s youth but also its lowest elements, including not just Quantrill but such saints as the vicious Charles Jennison (of “Jennison’s Jayhawkers”), and the others of his ilk. Riding with Quantrill were men who became not soldiers but killers—men such as Bloody Bill Anderson, who draped the scalps of his victims around his horse’s neck. To ask why Quantrill fought as he did is to face a mystery, but even Bloody Bill had his reasons. When he was killed and decapitated, a cord with 53 knots was found in his pocket. He was literally keeping score with the Yankees, who were responsible for kidnapping his sister and placing her in a decrepit building in Kansas City, the collapse of which killed her, crippled another sister, and killed a cousin of Cole Younger and three other women as well. The raw memories of the Border Wars were intensified during the war as the federal authorities not only raised the black flag in various proclamations but in one of the most remarkable episodes in American history created the “Burnt District” on the Missouri border, explicitly making war on the civilian population which fed and harbored Quantrill’s men in some cases. The escalation of violence to such a dreadful scale is remembered if at all today by the names of Quantrill’s massacres at Lawrence and at Baxter Springs. But what about the Palmyra massacre of captured Southerners, ten of whom were clumsily executed in 1862, or many another depredation?
Bill Anderson was bloody all right, but Cole Younger, author of The Story of Cole Younger by Himself (1903), must be the most interesting of the men who rode with Quantrill. If an American can be an aristocrat, he was one. His paternal great-grandfather had served at Valley Forge; his paternal great-grandmother was related to “Eight-Horse Harry” Lee. The son of a prosperous planter who was no secessionist, the young Cole was threatened by Captain Irvin Walley of the 5th Missouri Federal Militia, who subsequently arranged his father’s assassination. The Yankees persecuted Cole’s mother from 1862 to 1870, enough so that at the cessation of hostilities he felt justified in continuing his lawlessness. But there are several stories which attest to Cole “lounger’s mercy in various incidents during the war. He had his opportunities to kill, and to refuse to do so. To read of all the bloodshed is a bone-chilling as well as a blood-boiling experience. Even Quantrill, who sometimes demonstrated qualities of intelligence and finer feeling, emerges as a man worth remembering, one who has something to tell us. Because the federal generals I Halleck and Ewing and others raised the black flag, they forced Quantrill and his men to do likewise, for the raiders knew that death was the only thing they could expect if taken during the war. Quantrill himself was shot in Kentucky after Appomattox, where he had gone declaring he would kill Lincoln.
Quantrill is remembered (or should be) as the man who exhorted at Lawrence, “Kill! Kill! And you will make no mistake. Lawrence is the hotbed and should be thoroughly cleansed, and the only way to cleanse is to kill!” Kill they did. But the first point to be noted about Quantrill’s speech is that he sounds a lot like John Brown. The second is that it was the Abolitionists years before who had cried, “War! War to the knife and the knife to the hilt!” The murderousness of Quantrill cannot completely cover up the violent gnosticism of the Abolitionists.
But to engage even imaginatively with such tangled and bloody material is to engage also with a second order of mythology, for the story of Quantrill and his men has long since been treated, not always obliquely, in the movies. Because the Younger, James, and Dalton brothers rode with Quantrill’s Raiders, “Quantrill” is frequently cited in Hollywood Westerns still recycling on cable. There has been no remote^ truthful treatment of Quantrill on celluloid, as far as I know, and that’s a lack that may someday be supplied. Nevertheless, on screen Quantrill is always represented as a “heavy,” though physically he was young and slender, unlike Walter Pidgeon, Brian Donleavy, Leo Gordon, or Emile Meyer, who portrayed him. His name on screen seems to mean what it should—”going too far,” “crossing the line.” Not many remember Quantrell’s [sic] Son (1914), but some may recall through a haze of association with Raisinets and popcorn Dark Command (1940), Renegade Girl (1946), Kansas Raiders (1950), Red Mountain (1951), The Woman They Almost Lynched (1952), Quantrill’s Raiders (1958), Young Jesse James (1960), Arizona Raiders (1965), and Ride a Wild Stud (1969).
Edward Leslie provides an ironic account of the premier of Dark Command in Lawrence in 1940, but then in modern America any attempt to remember the past is ironic even when naive. Yet Hollywood’s invasion of Lawrence was a notable massacre of the historical imagination and of the truth. That embarrassment of a movie is a reversal of experience, but why blame Hollywood? Americans prefer lies. “John Wayne, playing a fictional town marshal, learns of Quantrill’s planned raid at the last moment, sends the women and children to hide in the courthouse, rallies the menfolk, has barricades thrown up, and directs the slaughter of bushwhackers as they ride down the main street. The town is burned, but only one or two male residents are killed. Wayne chases down the fleeing Quantrill and kills him.” In other words, the movie about the Lawrence massacre denies that the massacre ever happened, and the bad guy is killed by the good guy with an assist from the bad guy’s mother. This happy ending suggests that America has been anxious to deny truth not for reasons of public relations, but because the truth is too terrible to contemplate, for if that truth were confronted squarely, the old conflicts and grievances might reassert themselves, and the old lies might be exposed.
But that movie was not enough. To add insult to injury, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Gene Autry, and others paraded in Lawrence at the premiere, and a reenactment of the “Burning of Lawrence” was mounted to the delight of thousands. Lawrence had in effect cooperated in effacing its own past while pretending to recreate it, in a miniature of our national obsession. Such repression and transference might have impressed even Sigmund Freud, if he had not died the year before.
Hollywood did not initiate the whitewashing—far from it. Frank James and Cole Younger, those veterans of violence, lived to become charming geezers whose byword was denial. In 1903, they got together to mount a Wild West show, beating Hollywood to the punch. And Quantrill’s men continued to have genteel reunions until 1929, by which time the Western had been institutionalized as a displaced substitution for the national memory of fratricidal strife. The name “Quantrill” still sneaks in among all the chivalrous paladins wearing silk shirts, as though to remind us that violence is violence, after all. And perhaps the brutality and vanity and even fraud of Quantrill may remind us as well that our history is replete with shame and even horror which no amount of reverential rhetoric can quite gloss over. The populist mythology that made a folk hero of Jesse James in dime novels and bad movies had its base in something real, but the little boys in the backyards of 50 years ago did not quite understand what they played with or at: “Bang bang, you’re dead.” W.R. Burnett wrote the novel on which Dark Command was based—the same Burnett who wrote Little Caesar and High Sierra, glorifying urban violence and outlawry in a strong tradition that still packs them in at the multiplex.
So Quantrill is not forgotten, nor is he going to be, thanks in part to Schultz and Leslie, and thanks as well to Quantrill himself, who succeeded in securing notoriety if not fame by violating so many prohibitions and transgressing so flagrantly upon the bounds of human decency. Schultz sees Quantrill as a sociopath; Leslie has a more ironic, even absurdist view; and both are persuasive. Schultz, by the way, makes the error of mistaking General Henry McCollough (the Confederate general who ordered Quantrill’s arrest in 1864) for his brother Benjamin (who was killed at Elkhorn Tavern in 1862). His is a censorious account. Leslie’s is expansive and pursues the story of Quantrill’s remains perhaps further than it deserves. Even so, both show the context that allowed Quantrill to rise however falsely as a partisan in a conflict of reckless ferocity. Perhaps Quantrill’s name survives simply to nominate a transgressor, and if that is so, then Quantrill succeeded in his aims. But behind his violence are the shadows of the Abolitionists and the Jayhawkers, and the Union Army and the federal government as well. In what was truly civil war, he exposed the truth we do not want to acknowledge, the truth that no memorial can hide—the truth about the bloody-minded Jacobins who insisted on violence, on war, on a blasphemous crusade which is the basis of our law, mythology, and government today. No wonder Hollywood was nervous about Quantrill, for his story, telescoping red and black and white. North and South and West, is a reproach to our nation and to our complacency—to any easy assumptions of Southern honor or Northern virtue. Going beyond good and evil is not easy to routinize as digestible entertainment. Not many customers want to be reminded in the theater of what they ignore every day, nor do many Americans want to face the implications of the antinomian, millenialist, radically egalitarian rhetoric most recently displayed in Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address. It is somehow easier to deprecate the Confederate flag and then watch somebody getting shot on television. Nevertheless, to the credit of Schultz and Leslie, individual readers will be powerfully shown some nasty truths about American history, and perhaps reminded as well of Nietzsche’s insight: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss shall also gaze into thee.”
[Quantrill’s War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill, by Duane Schultz (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 338 pp., $24.95]
[The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders, by Edward E. Leslie (New York: Random House) 534 pp., $30.00]