Sunday, August 18, 2013

Terror 3

At dawn of Friday, August 21, 1863, William Quantrill and 450 pro-Southern guerrillas, surprised and captured Lawrence, Kansas. For the next four hours, Quantrill and his men engaged in an orgy of looting, burning and killing. When the raiders finally left at 9 that morning, the second largest city in Kansas was almost totally destroyed and more than 150 men lay dead. While some of you are familiar with the general outline of what has come be known as the Lawrence Massacre, the story of the immediate aftermath is less well-known. Now, on this, the 150th anniversary of the event, I will post over the next four days the following accounts from my book, Bloody Dawn—The Story of the Lawrence Massacre.

When he wasn't helping out around town, Peter Ridenour was at the bedside of his friend. "Well, Mr. Ridenour, I am gone up," Harlow Baker had whispered when his partner rushed into the room on Friday. But though he wasn't given much hope by others and could barely breathe, Baker surprised everyone, including himself, by continuing to hang on.

And so the old friend stayed by his side, waiting for the end--fetching ice, tending the wounds, chatting. Jokingly, Ridenour admitted that the only reason he was sitting around this moment was because of a few potato plants and a garden bed he'd hugged so dearly that a leaf might have covered him. His home was gone, he added even though he had naively taken the precaution of locking the door. But the two young clerks had made it. After running so long and hard that his feet bled, the athletic New Yorker hadn't stopped until he had reached Leavenworth. There, he went straight to a family friend, Governor Tom Carney, and borrowed money enough for clothes and a one-way ticket east. But after some rest and reflection he had hesitated. The boy had come back today on the Leavenworth stage. Although admittedly he had never been so scared in his life, not even at Gettysburg, the youth discovered that indeed he had survived the battlefield and now, although his feet were very tired and sore, he had survived Black Friday as well.

Ridenour didn't mention to his partner that the business was wiped out. Five years of savings had vanished in a blink when the banks were looted. The store's huge inventory was also gone and although their insurance covered most everything, including fire, a clause excluded "invading enemies." There were also many outstanding debts and no way to meet them. Although he didn't burden his friend with business matters, Peter Ridenour had already taken the first faint look down the long road back. He was yet young and strong and energetic and his name was respected by all. And if he lived long enough, every creditor would get his due. The store's safe with the books and a modest sum of cash had somehow weathered the storm and if one put stock in such things, there was a benign omen of sorts--the salt wagons from Leavenworth had arrived and were now parked outside the gutted store.

But while he sat and waited and watched his old friend suffer, the thought uppermost on Mr. Ridenour's mind was not salt or creditors or even the store, but whether the partnership, the friendship, would continue as always or if the B would yet be stricken from R & B.

Early Sunday morning at the usual time, work was set aside while a few citizens gathered to worship. They were women and children mostly at the Reverend Cordley's church, dirty and disheveled and dressed in men's work clothes. No one said much. For some, the press of the past two days had been a sore test of faith, and a moment's respite to collect their thoughts and drift in meditation was a welcome balm. There were whispers and silent prayers and then a passage from Psalms, verse 79:

O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance. They have laid Jerusalem in heaps. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven and the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood they have shed like water round about Jerusalem, and there was none to bury them. After a moment more of silence, work was resumed.

Again, as the heat of the day approached, workers were made aware of their dilemma. The coffin building was not keeping pace with the decay of the bodies. The caskets that came from Leavenworth helped, but there simply were not enough coffins there nor in all Kansas to meet the needs. And more victims were being found. At last, in desperation, it was decided to dispense with formalities altogether and inter the more advanced cases with as much speed as possible. Into a long, deep trench gouged from the cemetery ground, forty-seven black and bloating bodies were finally lowered down. Similar burials, like that of Judge Carpenter and Edward Fitch, took place in backyards. With this, some of the terrible trauma and urgency began mercifully to wear off.

More help came from the countryside and another large wagon train of food, clothing, and supplies arrived from Leavenworth. Visitors continued to enter the city, some to aid and some simply to gawk and assess the destruction. Early estimates placed the damage in the millions of dollars, with over $250,000 stolen in currency alone. Almost every businessman and merchant was totally cleaned out. Still, there were increasing murmurs of rebuilding and renewed investments. Flagging spirits began to revive somewhat as a few took heart. Included among the strangers in town were a number of correspondents and illustrators from large Eastern newspapers who began sketching scenes and taking down eyewitness accounts. A few unabashed individuals came forward with their stories. One black man related that when the raiders had entered Lawrence on Friday morning, he had dashed over the meadows south of town and hid in a tree above the Wakarusa, outlegging his imagined pursuers and establishing some kind of record for the three-mile course. When asked about the feat, his simple reply: "The prairie just came to me." Another man, a dentist, described his escape and return to Lawrence and his utter amazement to find that, though everything else was gone, the Rebels had entirely overlooked his inventory of gold and silver plate.

Others had similar tales to tell, though not always so jocose. They told of a morning replete with hairbreadth escapes and terror, of miracles, irony, and death. But as the journalists scribbled away, always from each new tale there surfaced the same consistent theme--the steely defiance and grit of the women. Almost all their acts, although carried out under fantastic duress, were marked by an uncanny degree of calmness and courage. Instances of their heroism, their "sand," ran on. There was Lydia Stone: When the Eldridge prisoners became frightened of retaliation, the young woman, risking her own life, raced down the riverbank in the teeth of the soldiers' bullets waving a hanky for them to stop. There was Kate Riggs: By grabbing the horse's bridle and hanging on until she had been dragged around the house and over a woodpile, the tenacious woman succeeded in saving her husband Sam from the monster Skaggs. There were Elizabeth Fisher, Eliza Turner, and a score of equally doughty heroines. And never had female ingenuity been better displayed, from the "nieces" of Aunt Betsie to the woman who saved not only a featherbed to sleep on but a neighbor man as well, whom she rolled up inside and carried to safety. Another woman fooled the Rebels by burning oily rags in kettles, thereby making it appear that her home was engulfed in flames.

And even after their bravery and resourcefulness had saved many a man and home, the work of the women had but begun. When the initial shock had passed, many, like the "ministering angel," Lydia Stone, carried on, moving with quiet grace among the crowds of victims, "attending to their wants and speaking words of comfort and cheer." As Sunday wore on, the women, arms scorched, hair singed, continued their labors with an air of increasing confidence. Some optimistically saw in their great trial a hidden treasure.  Although they left little else in Lawrence, the guerrillas overlooked something very precious nonetheless, something that could not be burned with a torch or strapped on a packhorse: Courage--the only thing in life that really mattered. When all else was taken, this at least remained and gleamed more brilliantly than ever before. Then others took note and drew inspiration from a familiar sight at the river's edge. Amid the ruin and devastation the old liberty pole stood straight and tall, defiantly holding its ground. Even the tortuous hot spell was at an end. Late in the day a refreshing north wind kicked up, clearing and cooling the air. If the truth be known, for many of these women, as well as the surviving men, there was within them the dawning of that warm and golden glow that shines only in the hearts of those who have faced off with the worst in life and come away victorious. For Lawrence, the worst had come. The trial had passed. There was nothing more from life to fear.

(continued tomorrow)