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Archaeologists reveal the legacy of brutal Civil War tactics in Missouri

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A mural in Butler, Missouri, commemorates the brutal revenge exacted by Union soldiers for Quantrill's 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas. More than 140 years later, towns impacted by General Order No. 11 are still less developed than their neighbors. (Courtesy Ann Raab)

Sometime between four and five o'clock on the morning of August 21, 1863, a sandy-haired Confederate officer, William Clarke Quantrill, led 450 heavily armed men through the streets of Lawrence, Kansas, an abolitionist stronghold. Quantrill and his raiders headed straight for the center of town, with revolvers and rifles in hand. They rousted all males capable of carrying a gun and shot them in the streets. As the women wept and pleaded, Quantrill's men plundered homes, forced merchants to open safes, and set fire to Lawrence's finest houses and buildings. Four hours later, they rode out of town, their horses festooned with fine silk dresses and other loot. Some 150 men and boys lay dead.


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This metal wedge, found in the burned remains of a home, was part of an 1850s or '60s Colt-pattern revolver, the type used during the Civil War. (Courtesy Ann Raab)


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Excavators in Bates County, Missouri, uncover a stone pier that was part of a house foundation. Archaeologist Anne Raab believes the house was razed by Union troops in 1863. (Courtesy Ann Raab)

The commanding officer of Union forces in the region, General Thomas Ewing, Jr., received the news at his Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters. He immediately resolved to fight fire with fire. To deprive Quantrill's guerillas of food and shelter, Ewing--the foster brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who brought scorched-earth warfare to Georgia a year later--ordered the mass deportation of all Confederate sympathizers from the better part of four Missouri counties along the Kansas border. Then he selected a detachment of troops, many of them from Kansas, to carry it out. Burning for revenge, the men interpreted General Order No. 11 as a scorched-earth policy. They expelled under threat of death Union and Confederate supporters alike from the region, shot male resisters, and reportedly burned all houses, shops, and farm buildings to the ground. When the soldiers were finished, Bates County, the epicenter of the violence, had become, in the words of one local historian, "a tenantless wilderness...the haunt of wolves, dogs, and an occasional outlaw seeking refuge."

The story of how the Union Army reduced nearly 2,500 square miles of Missouri--a Union state--to a wasteland known simply as "the burnt district" has been largely forgotten. Few of the 20,000 people who were deported left written accounts of their experiences, but a new archaeological project in Missouri is uncovering this long-lost history. Over the past three years, a team led by Ann Raab, a PhD student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has excavated two major sites in Bates County where buildings were obliterated during the expulsion. Amassing both archaeological and historical evidence, Raab is now analyzing the detritus of war--from scorched ceramics to charred building foundations--and documenting for the first time the tragic consequences of General Order No. 11.

For the residents of Bates County, Raab's work is focusing public attention on one of the darkest chapters of their past. "When a place is completely destroyed and all the farms and towns burned, all you are left with are the stories," says Peggy Buhr of the Bates County Historical Society and Museum in Butler, Missouri. "And eventually the stories become folklore, a little like fishing stories. What Ann's project is doing is verifying our history."

Heather Pringle is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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