Killing, But With Good Manners

There was a sesquicentennial commemoration earlier this month of Quantrill’s raid at Baxter Springs, Kansas.  Civil-War era re-enactors took part with gusto, cannons were fired, and everyone had a good time, despite the threat of showers.  A local TV station interviewed a few of the participants, and one lady in period costume was asked about the era she was helping to bring to life.

“People are nicer then.  They had better manners,” she laughed. “ You treated people a little bit friendlier.”

The lady was not a fool.  I know what she meant.  She was an actress, and was undoubtedly describing the milieu she imagined her character inhabiting.  But, considering the event being celebrated, her statement still made me smile.

William Quantrill attacked Fort Blair with no logistical purpose in mind.  He simply wanted to kill people.  His men murdered nearly a hundred men and boys, musicians, clerks and office staff, as some of them tried to surrender.  Bodies were mutilated and hung in trees.  Quantrill’s raiders had just come from Lawrence, where they had shot down 150 townspeople and then torched the town.

Historians treat the attack on Fort Blair as little more than a footnote, typical of the belligerence that erupted along the border between Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War, and would continue for years afterward.  Nearly three-quarters of a million Americans would die in a war that was fought, not as most wars are, over territory, or deep-seated sectarian differences.  These were all Americans, most of them Christians, but people who despised each other with a malevolence we can hardly imagine.  Or perhaps we can.  The North was not merely making war on the Confederacy, but on a way of life, and as the Plains Indians would soon remind everyone, a way of life does not go down without a bitter, pitched fight.

Putting aside the Civil War for a moment, it is still hard to make the case for 19th century America being a model of manners and civility.  When I was sifting through reams of old newspapers a few years ago, I started idly jotting down miscellaneous headlines that caught my eye.  Here are a few of the best:

“Rapist lynched in Hebron, Nebraska, by 15 masked men who broke down the cell door with a sledge hammer.”

“Beheaded by a maniac”

“Mangled by a mad wife”

“A fiend’s horrible act”  

“A mother’s dire act”

“Bloodthirsty negroes”

And, finally, a headline from the Burr Oak Herald containing a ray of hope:

“Tobacco habit easily cured!”

So nice to see that things were finally starting to look up.

© Dale Switzer 2023