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Quantrill rides again to Lawrence: This time on Twitter #QR1863

Call it a “tweet-enactment” — to recreate an historical event minute by minute as if it were happening now — and it may be a first for social media.

William Quantrill’s 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kan., was an act of terrorism, 1800s style. It’s being brought to life on Twitter Wednesday to mark the 150th anniversary of the Aug. 21 attack that left nearly 200 men and boys dead and much of the town burned.

One of the many paintings that depict Quantrill's 1863 brutal raid on Lawrence, Kan. (Photo courtesy of the Lawrence, Kansas Convention & Visitors Bureau)
One of the many paintings that depict Quantrill’s 1863 brutal raid on Lawrence, Kan. (Photo courtesy of the Lawrence, Kansas Convention & Visitors Bureau)

More than 30 people are “live-tweeting” with the hashtag QR1863 in a sort of “virtual theatre” reenactment of the events from the perspectives of the famous — such as Quantrill himself — and ordinary citizens like Elizabeth Fisher.

Local actors, Civil War reenactors, history buffs and ordinary citizens — some of whom are “playing” their ancestors or relatives — have adopted more than 30 different personas and researched primary sources like letters, diaries and newspaper articles to recreate a minute-by-minute account of the raid that began early on a hot Friday morning in late August.

Tuesday saw a few tweets as citizens enjoyed a band concert in the evening and commented on the night’s full moon:

In case your history’s a little rusty, William Quantrill led a band of 400 Southern-sympathizing guerrilla fighters, also known as bushwhackers, from border state Missouri, including outlaw Jesse James’s older brother, Frank, to attack the town of Lawrence, a stronghold of abolitionists. It may have been retribution for an 1861 attack on Osceola, Mo., orchestrated by Lawrence resident Sen. James Lane; some say it was revenge for the collapse of a Kansas City, Mo., building that killed five of the young women and girls imprisoned on suspicion of providing aid to the bushwhackers.

An exhibit shows two of the major players in the raid on Lawrence. (Photo courtesy of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau) An exhibit shows two of the major players in the raid on Lawrence. (Photo courtesy of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Lane was among Quantrill’s targets that day, but men and even boys — one as young as 12 years old — were shot on sight. Some managed to hide and others escaped into the tall cornfields around the town.

Women and girls were spared, except for an African American female baby who perished in the Eldridge Hotel fire, said Christine Metz Howard, communications manager for the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau.

But women watched as their husbands and sons were killed. Many of those women tried to fight back; Quantrill and his men later commented on “the feistiness” of the Lawrence women.

It’s the heroism of the women, though, that I learned about in researching this story: Ordinary wives and mothers thrust into a moment of drama and tragedy did everything possible to save their husbands and sons. I’ll share one “spoiler.” Elizabeth Fisher manages to save her husband, Hugh, a pastor and staunch abolitionist who was too sick that day to run, by dragging him out of their burning house rolled up in a carpet.

Ang Lee’s 1999 film, “Ride With the Devil,” may be one of the best depictions of the attack, but it failed to tell the individual stories that will be related through Twitter. (It does, however, show how Missourians lost their lives and their property because they sided with the South.There was no lack of brutality on either side.)

Howard said the idea for tweeting the raid on Lawrence began when she and other reporters at the Lawrence Journal-World a few years ago commented that it would have been interesting to listen to the attack on the police scanner. That evolved to playing out the events on Twitter; the 150th anniversary seemed the appropriate time for such an undertaking.

It became a community project, with aid from a number of organizations, including the Frontier National Heritage Association and the Watkins Museum of History.

Follow the events on Twitter (#QR1863) or go the 1863 Lawrence Web site’s livestream. Comments on Twitter have called watching the events unfold “eerie” and “too cool.” One person stated, “No dry, dusty history here.” But my favorite reaction:

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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