A Desolated Country: The Union Jail Collapse, Lawrence Massacre, and General Order No. 11

Norman Caruso

Edited by: Diane Mutti Burke

On May 29, 1863, Missouri guerrilla Jim Vaughn, escorted by Federal soldiers, walked toward the gallows at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Several weeks earlier, Union soldiers had apprehended Vaughn in Wyandotte, Kansas, while trying to get a haircut. James Blunt, the military commander of Kansas, had a no-quarter policy for Missouri pro-southern guerrillas, or “Bushwhackers” as they were often derisively called. As Vaughn looked out over the rolling green hills, he spoke to a small crowd that had gathered to watch the execution. A reporter from the Kansas City Journal wrote that Vaughn “…proceeded to threaten vengeance upon the crowd, saying some of them would suffer for his death.” Fifteen minutes later, Vaughn was dead and buried within one hundred yards of the gallows.1 But his threat of vengeance did not fall on deaf ears. On June 16, Bushwhackers ambushed 150 men from the Ninth Kansas near Westport, Missouri, killing twenty of them. When Federal reinforcements arrived, they found a note that read “Remember the dying words of Jim Vaughn.”2 These events were a microcosm of the situation along the Kansas-Missouri border. In the summer of 1863, tensions between Federal forces and pro-Confederate guerrillas peaked. Union commanders took drastic measures to halt the guerrilla fighting in the area, which set off a chain of events that would forever change the Kansas-Missouri border landscape.

Since 1854, the Kansas-Missouri border had been in a state of conflict. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers flocked to Kansas to decide the fate of the peculiar institution in the state. The start of the American Civil War in 1861 poured fuel on the fire. Although Missouri remained in the Union, a sizeable portion of the population sympathized with the Confederacy. This was especially true on the border. The Union Army’s occupation of the state, along with frequent raids from Kansas “Jayhawkers” and the paramilitary “Red Legs” radicalized some Missourians to join pro-southern Bushwhackers. The people of the Missouri-Kansas region lived in constant fear. Federal troops and guerrilla bands compelled citizens to take sides, sometimes by force. During this time, ordinary men became infamous. Notable Jayhawkers included Senator James Lane, a brilliant orator who helped organize the first Black Union infantry regiment, Charles Jennison, a member of the Kansas state senate, and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who joined up with the Jayhawkers after the Union army rejected him for being too young. Notable Bushwhackers included Frank & Jesse James, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and William Quantrill. 

Quantrill’s early life is somewhat mysterious. He was born in Ohio in 1837 but spent most of his adult life in Kansas. In 1858, he was a schoolteacher in Osawatomie, Kansas, but soon moved to Lawrence and assumed the alias Charley Hart. Surprisingly, he joined up with a band of Jayhawkers. Douglas County authorities indicted him for horse stealing, burglary, and kidnapping of enslaved people. He achieved notoriety in 1860 when he organized a band of five Jayhawkers to raid a Jackson County farm. He tipped the pro-slavery property owner off about the raid, however, and three of the Jayhawkers died as a result. Although his motivations were not entirely clear, it appears that Quantrill was more interested in plunder than the Jayhawkers’ moral cause.3

In December of 1861, Quantrill formed a band of Missouri guerrillas and started raiding into Kansas. The size of the gang fluctuated depending on the circumstances, ranging anywhere from 30 men to 300. Notable members included Cole Younger and ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson. Throughout 1862, Quantrill’s gang attacked Kansas towns such as Aubry, Olathe, and Shawneetown, where they burned the village and killed seven civilians and fifteen soldiers. Leaders in the Confederate Army mostly saw the Bushwhackers as useful, as they routinely conducted raids on Union troops in Missouri. But others considered the Bushwhackers problematic. One Confederate general described Quantrill’s gang as only a “shade better than highwaymen.”4

The Union army was not well equipped to deal with the situation. Guerrilla fighters were usually mounted and armed with fast-firing revolvers. They also knew the area well and could hide in the countryside and receive support from local families. With the situation out of control, Union command had to shake things up. General Halleck, chief of all northern armies, explained that “peace cannot be restored and preserved near the border of Kansas and Missouri unless the country on both sides of the line be under the same command.”5 To address this issue, the Union army created the Department of the Missouri, which included both Kansas and Missouri. It split the area into several districts, including the District of the Border, which comprised all of Kansas and Missouri north of the 38th parallel and south of the Missouri River. On June 16, 1863, the same day the Bushwhackers ambushed the Ninth Kansas near Westport, Union commanders put 34-year-old Thomas Ewing Jr. in charge of the district.

Before the Civil War, Ewing was a leader in the Kansas Free State Party, a railroad promoter in Leavenworth, and the Kansas Supreme Court’s Chief Justice. In 1862, he resigned his judgeship and took command of the Eleventh Kansas regiment.  After serving in the Prairie Grove campaign, Union command put him in charge of the District of the Border. The Kansas City Journal, a local newspaper, praised Ewing’s selection and described him as a “man of sense and brains.”6

When Ewing arrived at his new headquarters in Kansas City, he found the situation deplorable, referring to the area as “a hornet’s nest of a district.”7 A new report came in almost every day of guerrillas attacking Union soldiers. Half the local population had left the area due to the violence. Ewing’s strategy was two-fold. First, he needed to protect the border. Ewing established eight military posts along the state line south of Kansas City. Patrols passed from post to post every hour. If patrolmen spotted Bushwhackers, they could pursue the enemy, call for reinforcements from other posts, and alert Kansas towns nearby.8 Second, Ewing had to remove support for the Bushwhackers. Ewing estimated that two-thirds of the families in Western Missouri supported the guerrillas and were “actively and heartily engaged in feeding, clothing, and sustaining them.”9 Women, in particular, were critical to the bushwhacker supply line. In July of 1863, Union officers arrested Mollie Grandstaff and several other women. They were using cloth stolen by the guerrillas to make shirts for the armed men in the bush.10 On August 3, Ewing wrote to the head of the Department of the Missouri, General Schofield, and recommended that the army should transport those aiding Bushwhackers out of the state to Arkansas. Ewing wagered that with the families gone, guerrillas would have no support and would follow them out of the state.

In the meantime, Ewing was rounding up those suspected of aiding the Bushwhackers. Army officials commandeered a three-story brick building in the McGee’s Addition neighborhood of Kansas City. The building belonged to state treasurer and painter George Caleb Bingham, who used the third floor as his art studio. The Union army converted the second and third floor into jail cells, while the first floor and basement served as offices and storage space for the guards.11 The prison held seventeen women and girls captive as they awaited military trial. But on August 13, a merchant on the first floor noticed floors sagging, cracks in the walls and ceilings, and plaster crumbling. An inspector came to assess the situation and noted structural problems. Still, no one moved the prisoners out of the building. Around two o’clock, the building collapsed. As a massive cloud of dust rose from the rubble, a small crowd gathered as Union soldiers and citizens searched for survivors. It is not clear how the building collapsed. Some say Bingham’s third-floor addition affected the structural integrity of the building. Others say Union soldiers removed a partition wall between the prison and an adjoining hotel for easier access to a brothel. The most likely reason is that Union soldiers removed brick columns in the basement or possibly a load-bearing wall for more space.12 Four women died, including Charity Kerr, a cousin of Cole Younger, and Josephine Anderson, a sister of ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson. Rumors spread that the Union army intentionally destroyed the building. The day after the jail collapse, General Schofield approved Ewing’s plan of moving guerrilla families out of state, which became General Order No. 10.

The news of the Union jail collapse gave William Quantrill the perfect reason to raid Lawrence, an abolitionist stronghold located forty miles west of Kansas’s state line. Lawrence had a population of about 3,000. During the Bleeding Kansas conflict, pro-slavery men raided the town three times in 1855 and 1856.13 When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Lawrence townsfolk feared another attack. They set up home guard companies and posted details along the roads that led into town. Lawrence was confident that within fifteen minutes, they could organize 500 fighting men and repel any attack. On July 31, 1863, a rumor swirled that Quantrill was on his way to raid Lawrence. Mayor George Collamore took the threat seriously and organized the local guard. But ultimately, it was a false alarm. Many citizens laughed at him for his “great scare.”14 Lawrence citizens felt secure, safe, and unafraid of Quantrill. On August 6, 1863, the Kansas State Journal wrote that Quantrill’s “chance of escaping punishment after trying on Lawrence just once are indeed slim – perhaps more so than in another town of the state.”15

Quantrill had been planning to raid Lawrence since May, but his supporters had doubts about the idea. They knew that Lawrence was well defended and that Federal reinforcements could arrive quickly. But the Union jail collapse sparked the fire and set the plan into motion. Quantrill had about 300 men in his unit. By August 20, he had recruited 100 Southern loyalists and 50 other Bushwhackers, bringing his force up to 450 men. That night, disguised in Federal uniforms, they crossed the state line just south of Aubrey. The local Union post spotted Quantrill and his men, but they made no effort to pursue them. Instead, they alerted the other posts and sent word to Ewing back in Kansas City. No one warned the towns in Kansas. It is possible the outpost mistook Quantrill’s gang for Union cavalry.

 Quantrill’s force moved through Kansas, killing noted Jayhawkers and burning property along the way. By the early morning of August 21, the Bushwhackers stopped at a summit southeast of Lawrence that overlooked the town. Once again, some of Quantrill’s men had doubts about the raid. Quantrill refused to turn back and replied, “You can do as you please. I am going to Lawrence.”16

At 5 in the morning, while most residents were still asleep, Quantrill and his men stampeded into Lawrence. They quickly came upon an encampment of Black and white Union recruits of the Fourteenth Kansas Regiment. The guerrillas trampled through the camp, killing seventeen men. They next rode down Massachusetts street, firing revolvers into houses and setting buildings ablaze. As men came out of their dwellings, the Bushwhackers shot them dead. Small detachments blocked the roads east and west of town, preventing any escape and standing guard if Federal reinforcements arrived. Bushwhackers looted buildings, drank whiskey, and seized the local armory. Residents hid in barns, attics, gardens, and cornfields. Some men even disguised themselves as women to escape. On his hitlist, Quantrill was looking for Kansas Governor Thomas Carney and Senator Jim Lane. However, Carney was in Leavenworth and avoided the raid. Jim Lane was quickly notified of what was happening and ran out of his house in only his nightshirt. He evaded capture by hiding in his neighbor’s cornfield. Mayor Collamore hid in the well behind his house but ultimately suffocated from the smoke as his house burned. The lack of resistance shocked Quantrill’s men, and some refused to take part in the raid on unarmed civilians. But the majority were eager to exact revenge on the “Free State Fortress.” The attack lasted four hours.

When Quantrill received word of Federal cavalry approaching from the east, the guerrillas regathered and headed south with their loot. They had burned hundreds of homes, and even more bodies lay dead in the street. The Smoky Hill and Republican Union newspaper described the scene. One witness remarked, “Well known citizens were lying in front of the spot where their stores or residences had been completely roasted. The bodies were crisped and nearly black…In handling the dead bodies pieces of roasted flesh would remain in our hands. Soon our strength failed us in this horrible and sickening work.”17 The Bushwhackers killed more than 180 men and boys and destroyed 2,000,000 dollars” worth of property while only losing one man.

 On August 25th, the guerrillas reached Cass County and split off into squads of about forty to fifty. A union detachment from Lexington, Missouri met one unit near Pleasant Hill, killing seven and recovering “a considerable amount of goods taken at Lawrence.”18 Another Union force intercepted a gang of Bushwhackers near Lafayette County, killing thirty. In total, the Bushwhackers lost between 60 and 70 men while retreating from Lawrence.  

Panic swept through Kansas as news of the raid reached nearby towns and villages. Topeka was on full alert. Many residents spent the nights out in the cornfields for safety.19 The local papers harshly criticized Ewing and blamed him for the Lawrence raid. The Leavenworth Bulletin, in particular, was harsh on Ewing. They wrote, “The ‘man of brains’ has proved himself incompetent for the position he occupies, and the suffering people of our neighboring city, whose relatives and friends now sleep their last sleep – victims of the unholy rebellion – demand his removal.”20  

Ewing decided to take quick, definitive action. On August 25, 1863, just four days after the Lawrence massacre, he issued General Order No. 11. It stipulated that any civilians living in Jackson, Cass, Bates, and the northern part of Vernon counties had fifteen days to leave the designated area, with the only exception being anyone who lived within one mile of a military outpost. If residents could establish their loyalty to the Union, they could move to a military outpost or into the State of Kansas. Anyone deemed disloyal could not move to Kansas. It also allowed the army to confiscate grain and hay on people’s property within the range of military outposts. Any grain and hay found outside the area would be destroyed.21

General Order No. 11 was much harsher than General Order No. 10 as it included all residents, not just guerrilla families. Ewing had his reasons, though. He believed the order was vital to prevent raids from Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers into Kansas and Missouri. Ewing also wanted to calm the people of Kansas. The Leavenworth Bulletin wrote that “Fire and sword shall go forth upon the Missouri border until not a single town or hamlet shall remain.”22 This rhetoric concerned Ewing, and he hoped Order No. 11 would prevent any retaliation from Kansans. Ewing also faced pressure from Kansas leaders, including Jim Lane, to implement some decisive action against the Bushwhackers.  

Many considered Order No. 11 as “inhuman” and “barbarous.” On August 28, 1863, The Morning Herald newspaper argued that the order was only necessary because of Ewing’s ineptitude. They wrote, “[Ewing’s] general Order No. 11 is an exceedingly harsh one, and might not have been required had he been a little more radical in his treatment of rebels and their friends.”23 Thousands of people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, loaded up their wagons and left the border district. Colonel Bazel Lazear, a Union commander at Lexington, witnessed the mass exodus of civilians. He wrote to his wife, “It is heartsickening to see what I have seen…A desolated country and men & women and children, some of them all most naked. Some on foot and some in old wagons.”24 Some Union soldiers and Jayhawkers looted the abandoned houses and set fire to them, which spread to the grasslands and started prairie fires. The district quickly earned the moniker of “The Burnt District.” Eventually, Ewing bowed to pressure and issued General Order No. 20, which allowed limited resettlement. But the damage was already done. Order No. 11 depopulated many areas. In Cass County alone, 55  to 60 percent of the families displaced never returned. Those that did return found their homes “stripped of nearly everything of value.”25 General Ewing’s actions horrified painter George Caleb Bingham. He immortalized the events with his painting entitled Martial Law, also known as Order No. 11. It depicts Kansas Red Legs looting and burning a Missouri farmhouse as General Ewing apathetically looks on. Despite the cruel nature of Order No. 11, it did work as intended from a military perspective. Missouri guerrillas abandoned the Border District and moved into central Missouri, never raiding into Kansas again. But the displacement of families scattered the memories of the Civil War along the border and forever changed the landscape.


  1. Albert E. Castel, William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 107.
  2. Thomas Goodrich, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 66.
  3. Albert E. Castel, Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind, Authorized ed, Modern War Studies (Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 102.
  4. Castel, 103–5.
  5. Castel, William Clarke Quantrill, 117.
  6. Castel, 117.
  7. Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2004), 235.
  8. William Elsey Connelley, History of Kansas, State and People, vol. 2 (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1928), 630–31.
  9. Castel, Civil War Kansas, 121–22.
  10. LeeAnn Whites, “Forty Shirts and a Wagonload of Wheat: Women, the Domestic Supply Line, and the Civil War on the Western Border,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 1 (March 2011): 60.
  11. “Collapse of the Union Women’s Prison in Kansas City”, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865,” accessed October 8, 2020, https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/collapse-union-women%E2%80%99s-prison-kansas-city.
  12. “Affidavit of Solomon S. Smith,” September 10, 1863, https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/islandora/object/civilwar%3A3363.
  13. Castel, Civil War Kansas.
  14. Castel, 125–26.
  15. Castel, 123.
  16. Castel, 128.
  17. “Sacking of Lawrence! Horrible Massacre,” The Smoky Hill and Republican Union, August 29, 1863.
  18. “From Kansas City,” The Palmyra Spectator, August 28, 1863.
  19. Castel, Civil War Kansas, 143.
  20. “In the Name of Liberty,” The Leavenworth Bulletin, August 28, 1863.
  21. Thomas Ewing, “General Order No. 11,” August 25, 1863.
  22. “In the Name of Liberty.”
  23. “Waking Up,” The Morning Herald, August 28, 1863.
  24. Vivian McLarty, “The Civil War Letters of Colonel Bazel Lazear,” no. 44 (July 1950): 390.
  25. Tom A. Rafiner, Caught between Three Fires: Cass County, Mo., Chaos, & Order No. 11, 1860-1865 (Xlibris Corp., 2010), 444.

Bibliographies and Further Reading

Castel, Albert E. Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind. Authorized ed. Modern War Studies. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

———. William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

O’ Bryan, Tony.  “Collapse of the Union Women’s Prison in Kansas City,” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. Accessed October 8, 2020. https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/collapse-union-women%E2%80%99s-prison-kansas-city.

Connelley, William Elsey. History of Kansas, State and People. Vol. 2. 5 vols. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1928.

Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2004.

Goodrich, Thomas. Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Rafiner, Tom A. Caught between Three Fires: Cass County, Mo., Chaos, & Order No. 11, 1860-1865. Xlibris Corp., 2010.

Whites, LeeAnn. “Forty Shirts and a Wagonload of Wheat: Women, the Domestic Supply Line, and the Civil War on the Western Border.” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 1, no. 1 (March 2011): 56–78.