A William Clarke Quantrill Symposium—in Ohio?

Quantrill young
William C. Quantrill photograph courtesy of the Dover Historical Society

by Kelly Mezurek

Amid the heated debates over Confederate flags and statuary, which even affected the 154th Annual Gettysburg Civil War battle commemorations, it may seem odd that an Ohio community is holding a William Clarke Quantrill symposium. It is actually the right time to do so. Exploring the full life of Quantrill, while providing the opportunity for local citizens to participate in conversations that expand discussions about Dover, Ohio, and its role in the Civil War, will help us to better understand the complex and untidy past, and the complicated ways in which it continues to impact us today. 

William C. Quantrill is most known for his actions as the leader of Confederate guerrillas, or bushwhackers, especially at the Lawrence Massacre. On August 21, 1863, Quantrill led his men on a carefully-planned ambush of the anti-slavery Kansas town. In addition to burning many homes and businesses, the guerrillas killed an estimated 200 people, mostly men and boys, and some who were federal soldiers. His reputation, his actions, and the historical interpretations of both, have been debated in the public and academic spheres ever since. Most often, we are presented with polarized views of Quantrill as either a celebrated Confederate icon or as the “bloodiest man in American history.”[1] Today, most historians continue to study Quantrill as a Southern guerrilla whose actions supported the Confederacy, with only slight mention that he was born and raised, and spent most of his life in Ohio and then later in parts of the Midwest.

Quantrill Weird Head
Photograph courtesy of the Dover Historical Society

Yet a closer examination of William C. Quantrill’s life illuminates the rich history related to the social, political, and economic changes that occurred in the mid-nineteenth-century Midwest. The symposium is organized to begin this process. In addition to a walking tour of the town that will highlight the community Quantrill grew up in, presenters will examine the “many lives” of Quantrill: his life in Dover, Ohio, and his travels west; his role as a son and brother to a widowed mother and orphaned siblings; his time as a notorious bushwhacker; how his life and actions help us to understand nineteenth-century violence and manhood; how the Dover, Ohio, community reacted to the national attention toward their native son; and the macabre and fascinating story of the scavenging of his bones, the creation of a wax replica of his head using his skull, and his multiple reburials.

Quantrill Grave
Quantrill grave, Fourth Street Cemetery, Dover, Ohio. Image used, claiming Fair Use.

In 1972, former Dover Historical Society president and trustee, Samuel C. Ream, acknowledged that the local citizens “had always tried to ignore and hide the fact that Quantrill was born” in their town. Spurred by a 1967 article in True West magazine, he and other society members decided that it was time to stop the community amnesia, as “after more than an hundred years, we can look upon those times with unbiased perspective.”[2] They began actively collecting artifacts and secondary resources related to the Quantrill family. Yet in 1982, when writer Mark Dugan began a campaign to recognize the “dignity” of Quantrill by placing a “marker to indicate his final resting place” in the Fourth Street Cemetery, it caused a “new squabble” for the town mayor and city council.[3] Ten years later, early in the morning to avoid attention, park employees buried Quantrill’s skull under a government CSA headstone. Since then, and despite successful local activities related to Ohio Civil War 150, the opportunity to explore the complexities and tensions over local, state, and national history, commemoration, and memory as it relates to William C. Quantrill and the Dover community seemed to be buried as well.

The July 28-29, 2017, symposium is happening because local community groups, involved citizens, students, and university professors, in part supported by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities, worked to create a space for the dialogue that Samuel C. Ream proposed forty-five years ago. Together, we believe that we can make significant contributions to the local community and the understanding of the past, which in turn will hopefully help us with our current and future decisions as we contemplate who and how we commemorate our shared and complicated pasts.

Quantrill Symposium flier

[1] Albert Castel, “The Bloodiest Man in American History,” American Heritage 11, no. 6 (October 1960): 22-24, 97-99.

[2] Samuel C. Ream, “The Skull of Wm. Clarke Quantrill,” 1972, William Clarke Quantrill Collection, Dover Historical Society, Dover, Ohio, 1-3.

[3] Times Reporter (New Philadelphia, Ohio), March 2, 1982. Dugan was born in Jackson County, Missouri, and wrote several books on the Old West, including Tales Never Told Around the Campfire: True Stories of Frontier America (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1992).


3 Responses to A William Clarke Quantrill Symposium—in Ohio?

  1. It would be very interesting to me to see more of this kind of symposium. Many of us have attended gatherings of a more general nature/theme. To see individuals get some micro-attention would be a good way for symposia to garner more attendees, especially when the topic is a person of contention. So when is the Ben Butler symposium?

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