Read I Was a Revolutionary Online

Authors: Andrew Malan Milward

I Was a Revolutionary


“The Burning of Lawrence” appeared in
Zoetrope All-Story
, fall 2007. It was a finalist for the 2008 National Magazine Award and included in
Best New American Voices 2010
, edited by Dani Shapiro.

“O Death” appeared in
, August 2012.

“Hard Feelings” appeared in
, winter 2014.

“Good Men a Long Time Gone” appeared in
American Short Fiction
, spring 2015.

“What Is to Be Done?” appeared in
Ninth Letter
, winter 2015.

“I Was a Revolutionary” appeared in
Virginia Quarterly Review
, spring 2015.


For Renée and Cal



It is impossible to play with history. Here the punishment follows immediately upon the crime

Literature and Revolution

Remarkable things went on, certainly, but there's been so much trouble in the world since then it's hard to find time to think about Kansas


(1) Photograph

In the photograph from 1912, taken forty-nine years after the raid, the remaining men kneel, sit, and stand in wide rows three deep. As I count it, there are nearly fifty in all. The photographer had to move the camera so far back that their expressions are only the ghosts of expressions. You can tell they are hardened, though—gaunt and weathered; these are faces upon which to break firewood. Some look as though they might be smiling, others grimacing. By virtue of their posture and the positioning of their heads, one gives off an air of pride while his neighbor communicates shame. By this time they were old men in suits with canes and prickly gray beards. Before the raid they had been farmers, had survived the bitter fighting of the Civil War, and now they found themselves in a new world, with Europe fixing to blow like a powder keg. These men survived the raid, but they weren't
of the raid. They were who was left of Quantrill's band of 450 men who rode through Lawrence, Kansas, in August of 1863 and murdered most of the men and boys in town.

So I return to the photo: How long had it been since they'd seen each other? Whose idea was it to have this strange reunion? Did they speak of the raid? What on earth did they talk about? I think of myself and wonder: Where are all the women?

(2) The Secret Bride

On the eve of the raid, Quantrill is sullen, stalking, brooding—in love. He has left his men at the camp, hidden in the covering brush and mouthlike gorges of Sni-A-Bar, and snuck away to see his young mystery bride. The men whisper about her; there are rumors, but few have ever actually seen her. She is young, just thirteen, and he wants her unsullied, protected from the glower of his men. Tonight he and Kate walk through the spinney of oak trees near her parents' home, fingers laced, and he builds a fire along the banks of the creek. Like others, she pronounces his name
after a misspelling in the newspaper, and he hasn't corrected her, thinking the sound sweet and exotic. For a time she lets his hand inch up her naked thigh, beneath the thinning brown dress she's worn all summer, and he knows he should take her right there and make love to her, but he can't. His mind's awash, thinking about tomorrow, the ride into Lawrence. He knows he very well might not return, knows the chances are quite good in fact, but this is a war after all, even if he and his men are uncommissioned, unofficered, and unacknowledged by Southern leadership. A few nights ago, prior to taking the vote, he announced his intentions by yelling, “We need to burn that gal-boy to the ground,” and his men thundered their approval, stamping their boots and rifle butts in the dirt, and then passed the vote unanimously. But as he worked to finalize the plans over the next few days, he walked through camp and heard rumblings of
suicide, impossible, tyrannical

“I'm going to Lawrence tomorrow,” he says now, and Kate smiles, taking his hand. She wants to ask why but thinks better of it, knowing well enough the answer is simply that he must go. Like every other time he's left, she fears he won't return, that she'll never see him again. She wants to seize his hand quickly
and say something—
Don't go
Put yourself on me and give me a baby
—but can't bring herself to speak, her young body fit to explode in a burst of light and heat. For some time they sit silent, watching the play of fire against shadow until she grabs his hand and says coyly, “How many men have you killed?” This is a joke they have, a game, something she asks often in jest, though in truth the thought excites her. He is, after all, famous. And Quantrill, being a gentleman and a liar, responds, “None, my dear. I've never harmed a soul.” Before leaving he leans forward and, as her father does every night, kisses her forehead.

(3) Book, Monument

Written during the Depression, the WPA guide to Kansas describes a Lawrence with three hotels, twenty-five-cent movie houses, and a population of 13,726. It tells the origin of the University of Kansas and of the other institute of higher learning: Haskell Indian Junior College, where “smartly clad Indian coeds and white-collared braves seek to adjust themselves to a new culture, replacing lacrosse and old war cries with football and ‘Rah! Rah! Haskell.'” There is mention of the town's historical importance as the center of the abolitionist movement in Kansas, noting John Brown and other Jayhawkers who fought to keep Kansas a free state after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed the citizens of the territory to decide for themselves. Northerners, many from Massachusetts, flooded into the territory, armed to the teeth, as did pro-slavery Missourians like Quantrill and his raiders, and what followed were years of atrocities on both sides. In the history section of the guide there is a brief reference to the raid: “At daybreak on August 21, 1863, Lawrence citizens were aroused by the sound of firing and the shouts of guerrilla raiders who swept down on the town from the east, led by the notorious irregular, William
Clarke Quantrill. . . . After four hours they withdrew, leaving 150 dead and the major portion of the town in ruins. So futile was the resistance offered by the surprised and terror-stricken citizens that the Quantrill band retired with the loss of only one man.”

By the time I enrolled at KU in the mid-nineties, the town's population had swelled to nearly one hundred thousand, and movie tickets were seven dollars. Haskell had grown to become one of the largest Native American universities in the country, and, needless to say, there were many more hotels. Having grown up in Lawrence, I'd learned about the raid as a young girl, probably in school, and promptly forgotten about it. However, the name
floated in my unconscious, something, like so many occupants of that dream space, at once intensely familiar and foreign. It wasn't until my sophomore year of college, when I went on a dark walk with a boy, that Quantrill returned to me permanently.

This boy and I shared a row in the huge auditorium that held our 8:00 a.m. American history survey. There, as we sat amidst the pajama'd and unwashed masses, our eyes met. A quizzical half smile was exchanged, and afterward he told me he thought the band on my T-shirt was all right. He liked music too—he played, he said, asking if I wanted to hear some songs he'd written. This was years before he'd given up on music and shipped off to fight in the wars, to die so far away. That night he led me—guitar over his shoulder, bottle of red wine in hand—to Oak Hill Cemetery. I followed, curious. I expected something dramatic, recitations of Baudelaire and running naked past gravestones, but we just drank wine while he played a few songs. I made a joke about him trying to seduce me and he laughed and then got serious, asking what I thought of his songs. I said they were beautiful, and I said they were sad.
He smiled at that. But later, when we had finished the bottle of wine, I moved closer to him, setting my hand on his knee, and he shook his leg so that my hand fell from him. And as if nothing had happened, as if I'd only just asked him a question, he told me so earnestly that he wanted his songs to be good, that he'd written them for his girlfriend. I felt embarrassed and walked away as he bent over the body of the guitar, picking at the strings.

Then, with those notes traveling in the air between us, I came upon the large granite monument and, aided by the soft light from the moon and stars, made out the engraved tribute to the victims of the raid. I had seen it once before, I realized, on a class field trip many years ago but had forgotten. In that moment, the parallax of memory upon me, time and distance disappeared and I was a young girl again, raising my hand to ask why this had happened.

(4) The Calming

Second-in-command George Todd, handsomely dressed and devilishly sharp with a pistol, makes one final stop before meeting up with Quantrill. Thinking it better to travel in smaller numbers, Quantrill had sent him to the Northland for a few days, dispatching a rider to give word of his plan to attack Lawrence. Never one to back away from a fight, Todd is excited, but he has some unfinished business to attend to before joining the others. There is a man, supposedly sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, living in S—— and for Todd his presence is unacceptable. This is Missouri after all, not Kansas. So he and his crew of twenty pay a visit to S——. When they arrive, Todd has fifteen of his men circle the house, rifles shouldered, pistols cocked, and with the others he dismounts and stalks to
the front door, calmly tapping on the smooth oak as if only a neighbor wanting to draw from the well. Todd hears footsteps inside and feels the blood course through his body. When an older woman answers the door, she doesn't notice the bulging growth below his midsection because she's admiring his blue eyes, the way he stands out—with his short, well-kept brown hair and fancy attire—from the others beside him, who are shaggy, slouched, stinking. He politely inquires whether Mr. W—— is at home. But when she says he's in Kansas City and not to return for another three days, he pushes the door open. “Where is he?” he says, all rotten teeth and sneer now, as she backs away. But she's telling the truth, she swears, and so he and the men start tearing the place apart, looking for her husband. A bit of the dandy in him, Todd opens the lid of a large wooden chest in the bedroom, thinking at least he might find some nice garments worthy of expropriation. But these people are farmers and there is nothing for him but a pair of plain brown trousers worn through at the knee. A rage fills him that sends the chest flying through the air toward the bedroom wall.

After searching the house, Todd is satisfied with her answer, but not satisfied. No, he wants to prove a point—that there will be no quarter for abolitionists in Missouri—and this woman has undermined him. His blood has cooled, settling like the thick lip on curdled milk. He looks around the room, his men's eyes expectant as puppies', waiting for the order to torch the place. But what Todd spies by the window, overlooking the stretch of poorly tended wheat fields starved with drought, is an organ.

“Why do you have this?” he says.

“My husband—”

“Shut up.”

He moves over to the bench and sits. His foot begins to pump the organ, slowly at first and then quicker as he feels
the great suck of air fill the machine. He lets a mischievous pinkie ease down a key. The sound is loud, booming. The woman startles. Now he lays both hands on the keyboard, the old lessons coming back. His foot has found the rhythm and continues to pump as his fingers move with a long-dormant familiarity, and the sound is calming. He looks at the others in the room as he plays—outside, the horses shudder and twitch to the arresting sound, his men wondering what the hell is going on in there—and what he wants to say is:
I'm trying to tell you all something. This is how I feel

(5) Song

Though its invention certainly came years before, the first documentation of a traditional ballad called a “Quantrill” can be traced back to the 1920s. In his book
Frontier Ballads
, Charles J. Finger recalls having heard it in Devils River, Texas. John and Alan Lomax came across it in their American wanderings as well. The lyrics imagine Quantrill as a hero.

Come all you bold robbers and open your ears,

Of Quantrill the lion-heart you quickly shall hear.

With his band of bold raiders in double-quick time

He came to lay Lawrence low, over the line.

Oh Quantrill's a fighter, a bold-hearted boy,

A brave man or woman he'd never annoy.

He'd take from the wealthy and give to the poor

For brave men there's never a bolt to his door.

In school I was surprised to find that the subject that most interested me was Kansas history. While the record of my home state's past had never meant much to me before, I'd taken
a class that made the history come alive, made it seem relevant to the present, and it made me abandon the regular pathways to steady future employment, much to my parents' dismay. In particular, Quantrill's Raid fascinated me. Senior year, I was working on my thesis about the raid and I had a hard time finding a recording of the song. Eventually I found one by Joan O'Bryant on an old Folkways record, but before that I took the lyrics to that friend who played guitar. We still hung out now and again. By this point he'd withdrawn from school and was tending bar downtown, trying to finish songs for his album. His girlfriend was there and said she was running out for cigarettes. We smiled at each other as I entered and she left. He was sitting on the couch, and I sat across from him in a chair, the two of us talking a while. He lit a joint and took a few drags as I told him about the raid. Born out of state, he'd never heard of it. “Before Oklahoma City it was the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in our history,” I said. “Right here in Lawrence.”

He nodded, his eyes shot bloody, and passed me the joint. “Why don't we remember this kind of shit?”

I asked him if he could put music to the lyrics, and he took the paper from my hands and looked at it a minute. He sipped his whiskey, picked up his acoustic, and strummed a couple chords, humming a little. Then he put the guitar down and said, “Is this political? I don't do political stuff.” I told him it was historical, and he dropped his pick and reached for the joint. “I write love songs, girl.”

(6) Pelathe

When Quantrill's men storm into Kansas unscathed, blowing right past a number of federal checkpoints that line the border, Union leadership in Kansas City know the raiders are heading
for Lawrence. It's the Free State citadel, Yankee Town, the center of militant abolitionist and Jayhawker activity, the home of despised Governor Charles Robinson and Senator Jim Lane. They know they must get word to the townsfolk of the hellfire headed their way. But Lawrence is fifty miles from the city yet, and who could beat Quantrill's men on their superior steeds?

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