An Author Responds to his Critics

I have received many thoughtful letters, e-mails and phone calls from many wonderful people expressing their enjoyment from reading my two books on William Clarke Quantrill. Most say they knew little of Quantrill and what they had heard proved to be quite untrue. Most letters say that they discovered many surprises about Quantrill, his men and the area he operated in.

One letter writer said, “Before the start of your book I knew very little of Col. Quantrill. I have also used your work as a handy tool to convince friends and family when discussions of the Civil War should arise of the horrid acts of the Federal soldiers, namely my father for all he knew of Quantrill he learned from greatly biased and misinformed teachers.” Messages like these are exactly the reason I undertook to write these two books. These are the kinds of people I enjoy writing for.

There are many gifted writers who have done a wonderful job describing and explaining the terrible times that transpired along the Missouri-Kansas border during the Civil War. I have often been asked to recommend other books on the subject. Because of my vocation I am constantly reading and have an extensive personal library on not only Quantrill but other related topics. I can only relay what I look for when I write and do research. There have been several recent books written about Quantrill. Some continue to contain only highly sensationalized and fictionalized accounts intended to sell books for that purpose only.

Others are merely a paraphrasing of earlier works mostly the 1909 account by William Elsey Connelley Quantrill and the Border Wars. In the subsequent years we have learned that Connelley’s facts are found to be nothing more than his personal opinion and this has degraded his book for any serious historian. Connelley’s book can be criticized in the same way that John Newman Edward’s book Noted Guerrillas has been criticized for using a flamboyant Edwardian style of writing. But both works can be used for reference when associating names and dates against historical events.

Authors who self publish fall into the trap that their work has not been professionally edited or reviewed by an academic reviewer. Many recent writers are what I call “transcribers” who merely transcribe what they have culled from public files and publish them in their entirety. I was once asked to comment on what I thought about another modern book on Quantrill portrayed as a balanced and highly objective work.  I gave my honest opinion that it was indeed well written but hardly balanced or objective in that it did not contain any references to any writings or memoirs by Quantrill’s men. This is an important thing to look for when deciding what the most balanced books about Quantrill are.

The best I can do to answer questions about the best books on Quantrill is to simply say what books are available and let the reader make up their own mind.  What I am trying to do in my own writing is offer newly researched material and to show what the actual truth is about Quantrill, his men and their style of fighting.

I am often questioned about my interpretation of previously written accounts. One is that I firmly believe it was Kansas Jayhawkers who attacked Quantrill before the war along the banks of the little Cottonwood River as he made his way back into Kansas from Colorado. This is the pivotal point in Quantrill’s life. Everything changed for him after this date. Others differ with me only because Quantrill wrote his mother telling her he was attacked by Indians. Quantrill told everyone else, including his wife and all his followers that it was Jayhawkers and when he later got revenge on some of them he listed their names which were traced to early Kansas settlers by the same name.

This preponderance of evidence points to a greater veracity in Quantrill’s story about being attacked by Jayhawkers. I compared my own experience in Vietnam to that of Quantrill. Being in the infantry in Vietnam and under fire on a daily basis I would write home to my mother that I was not in combat and in a safe area in order to save her the anxiety of worrying, just as I think Quantrill was doing with his mother. If Mrs. Quantrill thought it was a random Indian attack it would not cause as much alarm as being attacked and robbed by those who were considered his Kansas neighbors. It takes much more than book knowledge to gain an understanding of Quantrill and his men.

After traveling throughout Missouri and Kansas, making numerous trips to Quantrill’s area of operations in Texas, searching through county records, church records, conducting archeological research at Quantrill’s old campsites and battlegrounds and traveling to Kentucky exhaustively searching through the scant amount of records available there and searching through old cemeteries tying the settlers who lived there with Quantrill’s soldiers, has given me insight over others who have never made these historic treks. What I find most often are those who have no credentials, no experience or military backgrounds, or education and insist they have a vast knowledge about Quantrill.

Some who claim authority have said that accounts by Quantrill’s men cannot be relied upon since some were written up to 40 years after the war but conversely these same “experts” accept Northern accounts written during the same time period. War leaves an indelible mark on a soldier’s memory, something that most of the critics have not had the privilege to experience.

Claiming to be a “long time researcher” from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy recliner means nothing when compared to someone who has researched first hand through seven states. Unfortunately these so-called experts are not experts at all.  When they cite a “factual” error in my writings it is usually because they haven’t read or researched enough to discern what the real truth is. To write books disproving earlier spurious sensationalized accounts required a cutting and pasting of quotes from early historical documents in order to prove the point that Quantrill was not the depraved psychotic killer that irresponsible writers have described and was anything but “the bloodiest man in America.”

Also, critical reviews from image collectors show a strong streak of jealousy in the photo images shown in my books that were donated by the most scrupulous collectors in the country. I was once criticized for writing a constant repetition of Jayhawker raids. As a matter of fact that was exactly what I was trying to do. Never has one book compiled all the Kansas Jayhawker raids into chronological order showing the enormity of the depredations on Missouri citizens.

There are those that do not want to give Quantrill his due in being a remarkable light cavalry leader and a superb commander of men. We must agree that readers will have different viewpoints and differences of opinions when reading about William Clarke Quantrill. Critics seem to think that people care about their opinions when in fact critics do nothing but stir up controversy which in turn is profitable to writers on the subject.

Logically speaking, someone who has taken the effort to write and get a book published is much more knowledgeable than someone who hasn’t whether that includes knowledge about copyright laws including content and structure. It takes a truly independent thinker to make up their own minds after thoroughly reading and comparing all the material about Quantrill and those who rode with him.

My most prized letter is one I received recently from a lady who lives in one of the Missouri border counties that saw so much destruction during the Civil War.  She wrote, “My great, great, great grandfather fought for the Confederacy. Your book made me realize what my ancestors went through. I respect them and honor them even more than before reading your book.”

This letter to me says it all. This is exactly why I wrote Quantrill of Missouri, Quantrill in Texas, & Quantrill at Lawrence. Paul R. Petersen "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this copyrighted essay and or image."   Here is an artist rendering of Col. Quantrill in uniform.                                       



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